Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top 10 Racquetball Stories of 2015

This is the 349th post on The Racquetball Blog this year, which is a new record for number of posts we've made in a year. It's 35 more than last year's 314, which was the old record. We hope that you've been following along all year, and will continue to do so in 2016.

But before we get to the new year, it's time for our annual Top 10 stories of 2015. Without further ado, here they are.

The Top 10 Racquetball Stories of 2015

10) Alvaro Beltran - Beltran won his second International Racquetball Tour (IRT) event in October, further solidifying him as one of the great players of this era. Moreover, at the 2015 Pan Am Games, he won gold in the Men's Team event, including defeating Rocky Carson as part of the Men's Team final, and bronze in Men's Doubles. Those were Beltran's 7th and 8th Pan Am Games medals in his career with his first coming back in 1999, when he got bronze with Javier Moreno in Men's Doubles in Winnipeg. However, at 37 and with several young Mexican players coming up, we're uncertain whether Beltran will be in Lima, Peru in four years time for the 2019 Pan Am Games.

9) Sudsy Monchik & Cliff Swain - Sudsy Monchik and Cliff Swain are two of the greatest men's racquetball players ever, and both have now made the transition to coaching. They are arguably the first elite level players to do so (John Ellis is perhaps an exception). In other sports, coaching has been a common pathway for elite players to pursue after their playing days have ended (although Swain continues to compete), but it hasn't happened much in racquetball, in part because racquetball players have often seemed to have an "I don't need a coach" attitude, which is foolish. Everyone can use help. Fran Davis, who was a top 10 player in the early years of the women's pro tour, and Jim Winterton have been the two premier coaches for several years, but increasing the number of elite level coaches can only be a good thing. We wonder if Cheryl Gudinas could be making the transition Monchik and Swain have made, as she has coached with the US Junior Team for several years. We wonder if any men's pros would look to Gudinas as a potential coach, as in tennis Andy Murray has worked with Amélie Mauresmo.

8) 2015 Pan American Games - 2015 saw Toronto host the Pan Am Games, the largest multi-sport event outside of the Summer Olympics, so the largest multi-sport event racquetball is a part of. The hosting was excellent, which everyone who attended can attest to. Sadly, not many people made the effort to attend. The Pan Am Games are part of the multi-sport events that lead up to the Summer Olympics. In the Americas, it began with the Central American Games in 2013, then the Central American and Caribbean Games last year, Pan Ams this year, and next year the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has changed its policy for including sports in the games, such that hosting cities are able to nominate a small number of sports to include. Thus, if a racquetball nation - the United States or Mexico, say - hosted the Summer Olympics, then racquetball could be included as a potential Olympic medal sport. With Los Angeles as one of the cities bidding for the 2024 Olympics, it's possible that racquetball could be included in those games. Evidence to support that comes from the 2021 World Games, a quadrennial sporting event involving non-Olympic sports, which will be held in Birmingham, Alabama. The Birmingham hosts have stated that racquetball, which has been included in some World Games but not all, will be part of their program. These international events are important, and they influence how racquetball develops in other countries.

7) Veronica Sotomayor - Sotomayor is one of the players who has benefited from Monchik's coaching. He came on board as head coach for Team Ecuador at the Pan Am Games, and has continued to work with them since. Sotomayor earned three bronze medals at Pan Am Games, as well as a silver in Women's Singles at the Pan American Championships, and has been a semi-finalist in both the Ladies Professsional Racquetball Tour (LPRT) events she's played this season. At only 23, there's still a lot of racquetball in Sotomayor's future.

6) Rhonda Rajsich - Rajsich again showed she's a major player in women's racquetball in October, when she reached the US Open final for a women's record 11th time. In July, Rajsich earned three medals at the Pan Am Games: silver in the Women's Team event and bronze in both Women's Singles and Women's Doubles with Kim Russell-Waselencuk. A solid year for Rajsich, but as she said following the US Open final, "I'm not done."

5) Maria Jose Vargas - Vargas has become the solid #2 player on the LPRT. In five events this season, Vargas has been a finalist three times and a semi-finalist twice. Also, Vargas won a double silver medalist at the 2015 Pan Am Games, earning the medals in Women's Singles and Women's Doubles with Véronique Guillemette. At the 2015 Pan American Championships in Santo Domingo, Vargas was silver medalist in Women's Doubles with Guillemette and bronze medalist in Women's Singles. Vargas has worked with Swain to improve her game, and at only 22, has a bright future in the sport.

4) Rocky Carson - Carson could be racquetball's Captain America, as he again played for his country, winning gold in Men's Singles at the 2015 Pan Am Games, which was a successful defence of the gold medal he won four years ago in Guadalajara. He remains a solid #2 on the International Racquetball Tour (IRT), and came within a whisker of claiming the #1 position at the end of last season. This season Carson has reached the semi-finals or better in the first seven IRT events, including a win in Davison, Michigan. But he's 36, and one wonders how much longer Carson will be able to maintain this level of play. Nonetheless, 2015 was a very good year for him.

3) Kane Waselenchuk - 2015 was a bit of strange year for Waselenchuk, as for much of it he was not the #1 IRT player. Carson was. But Waselenchuk overcame injuries and managed to claim his 10th season ending #1 title, which is extended the record he already had. He also extended his US Open winning streak by winning his 11th US Open in October, and won a second straight IRT US Open doubles title with Ben Croft despite Croft having a significant shoulder injury that hindered his on court effectiveness. Is Waselenchuk the best of all time? We think so, although picking between him Sudsy Monchik and Cliff Swain is like picking between Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: tricky. But we'd go for Waselenchuk. Our only wish was that his impact was greater outside the game, and that Waselenchuk's greatness was drawing more people to racquetball.

2) Professional Racquetball - Racquetball has had money tournaments dating back to the 1970s at least, and people have pursued elite level play since that time. This has produced some great players, men and women, and helped to fuel the racquetball culture and industry. But the history of professional racquetball is spotty, because the organizations have not always been strong. Both men's and women's pro organizations have had multiple lives. Currently, the women's pro tour (LPRT) is healthy, but men's pro racquetball has fractured with the creation of the World Racquetball Tour (WRT) as a second tour along with the International Racquetball Tour (IRT). We understand there were reasons for starting a second men's pro tour, and initially, the idea may not have been to directly compete with Tier 1 IRT events. But there aren't enough players to support two tours, nor is there enough time to do so. If IRT and WRT events are held on the same weekend, then players have to choose between them. Even if the events aren't on the same weekend, if players spend time and money going to WRT events, then they may not have the resources to go to IRT events when they do happen. This is problematic, and in general, when individual sports, like racquetball, have had multiple tours things have not gone well (see boxing). Men's professional racquetball is better served by being united under one umbrella. We're not sure how the WRT and IRT could come together, but they need to do so, and the sooner they do so, the better off they will be.

1) Paola Longoria - Longoria continues to dominate women's racquetball, and is a superstar in her home country of Mexico, as evidenced by her selection to be the flag carrier for Team Mexico at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, and her inclusion in lists of the top sports figures of 2015 along with the likes of Lionel Messi, Stephan Curry and Novak Djokovic (example A, example B). She won three gold medals for Mexico in Toronto: Women's Singles, Women's Doubles, and the Women's Team event (the above photo is of Longoria in the media mixed zone at the Pan Am Games; those people are waiting to talk to her). Longoria's Twitter followers are now over 195k - 195,000! which is dwarfs any other racquetball person or organization; The Racquetball Blog (@racquetballblog) has 1,242. Furthermore, she's not just the #1 player on the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour (LPRT), but her popularity has led to LPRT events in Mexico with some of them involving Grand Slam level prize money. This is helping to develop more young women players, and raising the level of the game. That's the kind of involvement that will make racquetball bigger, and we applaud it.

In 2016, we'll be looking forward to the International Racquetball Federation (IRF) World Championships in July, as well as the Pan American Championships at Easter, the US Open in October, and all the usual suspects on the pro tours. We're looking forward to another good year for racquetball.

Follow the bouncing ball....

1 comment:

Dirk Newnam said...

Sensational article!! Many excellent points to the unification of pro tours, elite coach transitions, not so old pros still making a major impact, and the Paola effect (not unlike the Oprah effect) though currently confined to Mexico. Must be a way to harness that for racquetball overall. Great job Evan.