Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Top 10 Racquetball Stories of 2016

Many are happy to see the end of 2016, as they feel it was filled with unfortunate events. However, 2016 was a great year in sports. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in over a century, and that was only the third best championship win of the year! The first was Leicester City winning the English Premier League, when their odds of doing so at the start of the season were 5000-1, and the second was when the Cleveland Cavaliers came back from 3-1 down in their final series against the Golden State Warriors, who had the best regular season record in NBA history.

In addition, Peyton Manning retired as a Super Bowl winner with the Denver Broncos, Sidney Crosby won his second Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Brazil won Olympic gold in Men’s Soccer on home soil, Portugal wins its first ever European Football Championship, and in the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament final the Villanova Wildcats and North Carolina Tar Heels had the best finish to a championship game you will ever see.

But this is The Racquetball Blog, so here are the best racquetball stories of 2016.

10) American women. Apologies for starting on a down note, but we have highlighted the issue of women’s player development in the USA for several years now, as their top players were in the second halves of their careers, and there were no clear successors to them. Three things illustrate the situation. One, the final rankings of the 2015-16 Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour (LPRT) season had only one USA player in the top 10: Rhonda Rajsich, who was #2. Previously, the fewest US players in the top ten was three in 2013-14, but as recently as 2009-10 eight of the top ten were American. Two, at this year’s International Racquetball Federation (IRF) World Championships in Cali, Colombia, no American woman got a medal in Women’s Singles for the first time ever. But it’s worse than that, because no American woman made it past the Round of 16! Forget about reaching the podium. No US woman was in the quarterfinals! This from a country that produced 11 of the first 15 Women’s Singles World Champions. Finally, so far on the LPRT this season only two of the 32 semi-final spots have been filled by USA players. It’s stunning, and if you’re a US coach, very concerning.

9) Aimee Ruiz & Janel Tisinger. Although the US women haven’t been doing well in singles, Ruiz and Tisinger produced one of the upsets of the year at the IRF World Championships as they won gold by defeating three time defending champions Paola Longoria and Samantha Salas of Mexico. The final went breaker, as the Americans won the first and Mexicans the second. In the breaker, Ruiz and Tisinger led most of the way, but it was a nervy finish, as Longoria and Salas got to within two down at 10-8. But Ruiz and Tisinger held on to win. It was a great match that’s well worth watching again.

8) Gabriela Martinez. It was 2010 when we saw a little girl running around at the World Junior Championships in Los Angeles, jumping on any open court she saw, hitting the ball around with exuberance. “Who is this girl? Gabriela Martinez? Where is she from? Guatemala? Really? Huh.” Flash forward six years, and that girl is U16 World Junior Champion for a second year, and was silver medalist at the 2016 IRF World Championships, losing only to Paola Longoria in the final. Martinez is the type of girl the USA used to produce regularly, but hasn’t recently. Instead, Martinez will be the girl Americans have trouble with for the next 15 years.

7) Rhonda Rajsich. Rajsich was the #1 player in the world, a two time World Champion, and four time US Open Champion. But beginning in July at the World Championships, her results have dropped off. She lost in the Round of 16 at Worlds, and hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals in any of the five LPRT events she’s played this season. Then in late October came the sad news that her father, Dennis, died. He was often seen at racquetball tournaments, and was a big part of his daughter’s life. She hasn’t played an LPRT event since, although we understand Rajsich plans to play at the next LPRT event in February, and it will be great to see her back on tour. But we heard someone describe climbing Mount Everest recently, and he said when you get to the top, you’re only halfway. And on Everest people die on the way down more often than the way up. We think there’s an analogy between climbing Everest and sports careers. Coming down from being on top can be more difficult than going up to the top.

6) Jason Thoerner. USA Racquetball appointed a new Executive Director late in 2016, and reached into its own ranks in selecting Jason Thoerner for the position. Thoerner has a wide background in racquetball, including as a USA Team player and World Champion in Men’s Doubles in 2008 with Mitch Williams. He worked with Head-Penn for several years, and in recent years was on the board of USA Racquetball, where he was serving as the USA Racquetball President at the time of his appointment to the ED position. USA Racquetball is one of the leading racquetball organizations, and as the USA likely has the most racquetball players overall, USA Racquetball is arguably the most important racquetball organization in the world. Thus, it’s important that they do things well. Thoerner’s appointment is intriguing, and from our interactions with him, we think he could have a very positive impact on the organization, and the sport in general.

5) Frédérique Lambert. From near the end of the last LPRT season and on into the current one, Lambert has risen up the rankings to the 2nd spot. Since February, Lambert has been in eight LPRT finals, and won the first event of this season. She has become Paola Longoria’s biggest rival, and already has a win against Longoria back in 2015. Lambert is the highest ranked Canadian women's player, since Christie Huczek (née Van Hees) was #1 back in 2005.

4) Rocky Carson. If racquetball had an Iron Man, it would be Carson. Carson has not missed an International Racquetball Tour (IRT) Tier 1 or Grand Slam event since 2000, and he’s been in the top 10 every season since the 1999-2000 season; those 17 seasons of top 10s is second only to Cliff Swain’s 20. Moreover, Carson is not just durable, he has an incredible record of excellence, which was highlighted this year by his 5th consecutive IRF Men’s Singles World Championship. He hasn’t lost at Worlds since 2008.

3) Paola Longoria. Longoria had an undefeated year on the LPRT, and her #1 finish at end of the 2015-16 season was Longoria’s 7th season ending #1, which tied her for most career #1s with Michelle Gould. Longoria’s popularity is incredible, and evidence of it is her more than 240,000 Twitter followers. She’s used that popularity to grow the game by hosting LPRT events in Mexico each season, and this has helped to develop more players, not only in Mexico but in Central and South America.

2) Kane Waselenchuk. Waselenchuk is the #1 IRT player, and although he was hindered somewhat by medical issues in 2016, he arguably had a better year than in 2015. Waselenchuk is the most talented athlete you’ll ever see, and he’s worked to translate that talent into skill that is off the charts. Waselenchuk is in the class of Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi and LeBron James. Could his talent have made him a great in another sport? We wouldn’t have bet against it, although Waselenchuk is not tall, and height is a definite advantage in some other sports, like basketball, or even hockey, which 20 years ago favoured taller players more than it does now (we do understand that Waselenchuk’s a good hockey player). It would have been interesting to see him play baseball - middle infielder perhaps? - or soccer, but in either of those sports you generally don’t get to touch the ball much during a game. In racquetball, Waselenchuk hits over half of the balls, because his shots typically end the rally, so he can really demonstrate how great he is. And Waselenchuk is great.

1) Men’s professional racquetball. For a few seasons now, there have been two men’s professional racquetball tours: the International Racquetball Tour (IRT) and the World Racquetball Tour (WRT). The IRT is the more established tour, and has the best players, while the WRT has generally younger players, and has strong ties to one racquetball company. However, the WRT has also partnered with the International Racquetball Federation (IRF) to webcast IRF events, which has improved their tournament video streams. In a marketplace, one generally thinks that competition is good. However, sports are not a marketplace, and competition between sport organizations can be bad. We think one of the reasons for the decline of boxing was the creation of different boxing organizations, which made it unclear to fans who was the true World Champion. Thus, if a casual racquetball fan - or especially a non-racquetball person - sees someone as the #1 player on the World Racquetball Tour, he or she would naturally think “oh, that must be the best racquetball player.” But we think the evidence is clear that it’s the players on IRT who are the best, but trying to explain that to casual fans, or people outside racquetball, would confuse them, and you never want to confuse fans or potential fans.

Moreover, there are only so many places to host events, and due to the expenses and logistics of hosting events, if a site is hosting an IRT event, they aren’t likely to host a WRT event, and vice versa. In addition, there’s only so many players, so draws can be smaller, and with fewer quality players, than they might otherwise be if players choose to play on one tour or the other. Indeed, with no coordination between the tours, there are some weekends with both an IRT and a WRT event. This is clearly not ideal.

It would be best to have just one men’s racquetball tour, but it’s unclear how that’s going to happen, as the IRT and WRT do not seem to be on friendly terms.

Everyone wants to grow the sport, and the WRT specifically promotes this as a mission, but it’s unclear whether a pro tour in general, let alone the WRT in particular, can directly impact the growth of the sport, because there has to be support on the local level (shoes on the court, as it were) to get that done. Pro tours can give younger players something to aspire to, but growing the game shouldn’t be just about getting kids to play racquetball, although that’s important. You want to bring in all ages to play.

A pro tour should be a natural outcome of a groundswell of popularity and players, who are all pushing each other to be the best they can be. The question in racquetball has become do we still have that groundswell and those players? To close the circle where we started, the USA doesn’t seem to have the players on the women’s side. And it’s unclear whether there are enough men’s players for two pro tours either.

A new year is always a time for resolutions for improvement. The great hockey coach Bob Johnson was known for saying “it’s a great day for hockey.” In that spirit, let’s make 2017 a great year for racquetball.

Follow the bouncing ball….

1 comment:

Unknown said...

We saw Gabriel totally run through Veronica Sotomayor at the US Open. She's "good".