Friday, April 14, 2017

Longoria & Rajsich, Landa & Pratt win singles semi-finals at XXX Pan American Championships

The USA and Mexico will play off in both the Men’s and Women’s Singles finals at the XXX Pan American Racquetball Championships in San Jose, Costa Rica. In Women’s Singles, defending champion Paola Longoria of Mexico will face Rhonda Rajsich of the USA, and in Men’s Singles Alejandro Landa of Mexico plays Charlie Pratt of the USA.

In the women’s semi-finals, Longoria defeated Gabriella Martinez of Guatemala, 15-6, 15-11, and Rajsich came back from a game down to defeat Samantha Salas of Mexico, 14-15, 15-12, 11-2. On the men’s side, Landa beat Costa Rican Andres Acuña, 15-14, 15-10, and like Rajsich, Pratt came from a game down to overcome a Mexican opponent, as he knocked out Javier Mar, 5-15, 15-13, 11-3.

Longoria and Martinez were close early in game one. Martinez even had the early lead at 3-0, but Longoria caught her at 5-5, and then cruised on to take game one by a comfortable margin, 15-6.

She carried that momentum into game two, taking a 6-1 lead. But Martinez dug in and came back to tie the score at 6-6 and 7-7. Again Longoria went out ahead to lead 12-7, and it looked like she’d again win comfortably. But Martinez didn’t give up, and closed the gap to two points down 13-11. Longoria got the serve back with a backhand cross court serve return, and got her first match point with a drive serve ace to the left that cracked out.

Longoria didn’t convert that match point, as she skipped a forehand for an unforced error. But after another backhand return winner, Longoria didn’t make a mistake on her second match point, as a strong drive serve to the left side forced Martinez to skip her backhand return.

Longoria congratulated Martinez, who’s only 17, for a strong tournament, saying she’s “a warrior” on the court, so Longoria knows it’ll be a battle whenever they play. They had played in the group stage of this event, and that match went tie-breaker. But Longoria felt “I played better than in the [group],” so a third game wasn’t needed today.

Rajsich and Salas were close late in the first game of their match, as they tied at 10-10 and 13-13. But Rajsich got to game point first when Salas skipped a forehand serve return. But Rajsich failed to convert four game point opportunities. Eventually, Salas got a point of her own with a forehand cross court that tied the score at 14-14, and then ended the game on her first opportunity.

Nevertheless in game two, it was Rajsich who had the better start, as she led early, 3-0. However, Salas then got hot, outscoring Rajsich 12-2 to go from 3-0 down to 12-5 up. It looked like Salas would win in two straight games.

But Rajsich changed her service look a bit, taking a couple of steps before drive serving, and serving to both sides. It seemed to put Salas off balance, and three aces along with a service winner certainly help Rajsich’s cause, as she came back to take game two 15-12.

Rajsich maintained the momentum in game three, as she went up 7-1, and won 11-2. Thus, over the second half of the match, Rajsich outscored Salas 21-2.

Rajsich was “exhilerated” after the match, as she has a “ton of respect for Salas and her game.” Asked what she was thinking when she was down in game two, Rajsich said tries not to think, as “thoughts can get in the way.”

Longoria and Rajsich have played several times over the years. They last met in a Pan Am Championship final in 2013, when Longoria won, and last met in an international final at the 2014 International Racquetball Federation World Championship final, which Longoria also won.

Longoria has won more Pan American Championships than any other player: 7 in Women’s Singles and 4 in Women’s Doubles. Rajsich has won Women’s Singles twice at the Pan American Championships, and both times - in 2007 and 2011 - she played Salas in the final.

In the Men’s Singles semi-finals, Landa was generally in control of his match with Acuña, although Acuña did come back in game one from 13-6 to lead 14-13. However, he skipped a backhand that gave the serve back to Landa, who took full advantage by hitting a drive serve to the left for an ace to make it 14-14, and won the game on the next rally when Acuña skipped a backhand shot.

In game two, Acuña was up early, 4-0. Landa tied it, 5-5, and they were back and forth before Landa pulled away to lead 13-6 just as in game one. An Acuña timeout cued his comeback, but he could only get to 13-10 before giving the serve back to Landa. The call at that point was an avoidable, which seemed a bit harsh as Acuña moved away from the left side, where he thought the ball would be, but turned out to the had gone over to the right side, and Landa was there to hit it, though not really set up to do so. Calling an avoidable there wasn’t wrong, but it seemed harsh.

The real controversy, though, came when Landa was on 14-10, as Acuña then appealed the length of Landa’s racquet. Landa was unhappy about that, and probably made unhappier when his racquet was found to be too long. Under International Racquetball Federation rules, playing with a racquet that’s too long results in a technical, and it seems Landa was also given a technical for voicing his unhappiness about the appeal to the referee, as the score when from 14-10 to 12-10. But he was still serving.

Landa made it 13-10 - for the second time - with a forehand pinch shot, but Acuña got the serve back with a backhand shot. But he wasn’t able to take advantage, as Landa got an opportunity in the front court and smashed a backhand cross court to regain the serve.

Landa drove a serve left for another ace, making it 14-10. The match ended as Landa hit a forehand pinch shot that Acuña couldn’t get a racquet on. But after the end, Landa refused to shake Acuña’s hand, and when he came off the court, Landa gestured angrily to the Costa Rican coaches. Presumably, Landa was still upset about the racquet appeal.

Landa will play American Charlie Pratt in the final. Pratt came back from a game down to defeat Mexican Javier Mar, 5-15, 15-13, 11-3, in the other semi-final. Afterwards, Pratt said “it was all him” in game one, and “I was frustrated.” But his team told him to mentally stay in the match, and they were neck and neck in game two.

Mar had the lead at 10-8, but Pratt came back to tie it 10-10, and then went ahead, 11-10, with an ace drive serve to the left side - one of several aces he had in the match.

Mar did come back and tie the game again at 13-13, but down the stretch he made two surprising unforced errors, as Mar hit himself on the serve twice while trying to execute a Z serve to the left side. It happened when Mar was serving 12-13 and again at 13-13.

After Mar hit himself a second time, Pratt hit another drive serve ace to the left, putting himself on game point at 14-13. The next rally was long, with some great gets by both players, and it was Mar who ended it with a smooth backhand shot.

However, Pratt held Mar off the scoreboard with a backhand winner of his own. On his second game point opportunity, Pratt hit a drive jam serve to the left side that Mar couldn’t return.

The breaker was Pratt’s, as he put together two runs of points to go up 4-1 and then 9-2. Mar used his second timeout at that point, but it was just delaying the inevitable, as Pratt closed it out with yet another drive serve ace to the left for his 10th point, and then a forehand pinch shot ended it.

Pratt, who’s playing on Team USA for the first time since being a junior, gave credit to “being in a team atmosphere” for his ability to pull out the victory against Mar, as well as his tie-breaker win in the quarterfinals against Carlos Keller of Bolivia. “There’s no way I’d have gotten through those tie-breakers without them,” Pratt said.

Pratt’s victory extends the streak of USA men being in the Men’s Singles final at the Pan American Championship to four years. Marco Rojas lost the 2014 final. His older brother Jose Rojas won it in 2015, as did Jose Diaz in 2016, which was over fellow American Jake Bredenbeck. Last year Bredenbeck lost the final to Mexican Daniel De La Rosa.

The finals begin Saturday at 11 AM with the Women’s Singles Final followed by the Men’s Singles Final at noon.

XXX Pan American Racquetball Championships
San Jose, Costa Rica - April 8-15, 2017

Women's Singles - Semi-finals Friday

1) Paola Longoria (Mexico) d. 13) Gabriella Martinez (Guatemala), 15-7, 15-11
2) Rhonda Rajsich (USA) d. 3) Samantha Salas (Mexico), 14-15, 15-12, 11-2

Women's Singles - Final Saturday

1) Paola Longoria (Mexico) v. 2) Rhonda Rajsich (USA) - 11 AM

Men's Singles - Semi-finals Friday

4) Charlie Pratt (USA) d. 1) Javier Mar (Mexico), 5-15, 15-13, 11-3
3) Alejandro Landa (Mexico) d. 7) Andrés Acuña (Costa Rica), 15-14, 15-10

Men's Singles - Final Saturday

3) Alejandro Landa (Mexico) v. 4) Charlie Pratt (USA) - Noon

Follow the bouncing ball....

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