In The Country
One Of The Best Racquet Sport
OCTOBER 4, 2023
I had a thought. Daniel De La Rosa is the best racquetball player on the planet right now and I believe I could argue he is one of the best racquet athletes in the country. Consequently, as I watched the Mixed One Wall racquetball final from this year's 3Wall Ball, I was trying to figure out a way to properly explain how Daniel De La Rosa is a better racquetball player than Kane Waselenchuk. I mean, If I were to argue my first thought, I'd have to first believe De La Rosa is better than Waselenchuk. Hard stop. For anyone not familiar with pro racquetball, "De La Rosa is a better player than Kane Waselenchuk" is a statement that most likely nudges pro racquetball enthusiasts into a moment of incredulous pause and likely to measure to words hard. Really hard. Kane at one point in time, was the most dominant pro athlete in any sport, planet-wide. Yes, the planet. Kane's won 118 International Racquetball Tour pro stops. He has amassed 15 US Open Championships, which had a 25-year run as the gold standard of racquetball events. His win streaks are legendary and if you throw out matches that ended with DNF, he had one that lasted an incredible 134 tour match wins. His next longest win streak was 108 wins and the one before that, 83. Ridiculous. Kane without a doubt is the winningest player that ever played on the International Racquetball Tour. Yet, while watching that One Wall final, I'm comfortable saying that today, Daniel is a better racquetball player than Kane Waselenchuk.
I'll restate, I'm watching them play One Wall Racquetball. I'll mention here that WOR One Wall rules used at these events are tweaked for indoor player adoption and consistency with indoor racquetball rules. NYC rules make it necessary to play with the subtleties you have to master before you can wildly play as you can with indoor racquetball. But this isn't about the minor difference in rules. It's about how well I think Daniel is playing the format. And who he's playing against. As I watch, I see Daniel's team playing legit One Wall, with both players in front when on serve. Lining up with your partner behind the long line can only be advantageous when playing another team not well versed in One Wall play. One Wall is a game of attrition. Kane and Michelle start every serve at a significant disadvantage, two against one basically, that is until whoever isn't serving can make their way to the front position. (I think Kane's learning curve for outdoor racquetball is crazy steep, but that is a different conversation.) It's my knowledge of the one-wall game and my understanding of the sport of racquetball especially, that I'm leaning on here to make this broad, overreaching statement. And if you haven't yet understood, though I'm referencing the particular skills I'm seeing during this One Wall match, I am also making a statement about how I view the professional sport of racquetball today.
All the peripheral distractions aside, there were 3 aspects that inspired me to put these thoughts down. First, Kane was playing One Wall racquetball. Secondly was the unique comfort and mastery Daniel was showing on the court. Third, it wasn't just Outdoor racquetball, it was One Wall. In the sphere that is racquetball, with all that I've closely watched and taken the effort to photograph or ever write opinions about, this feels most fitting to drop thoughts that ultimately, I feel most comfortable standing behind.
Starting with the most controversial aspect of this statement, I'll begin with Kane. I mean, cmon. Who could possibly be a better racquetball player than that guy? I've had a bird's eye view for some of his most dominating moments and can say without reservation, that he blew my mind. Repeatedly. He was my first impression of a number-one-ranked player professional racquetball player. Traditional racquetball that it. (Hold this thought.) I studied his game as I began my first forays into photographing racquetball through the glass and learning the rules in real time. I continued to watch him as I learned about the tours and the sport as a whole. Prior to that, IRT pro sightings were rare for me. I clearly remember the banter about how indoor pros would fair Outdoors against the current crop of pros at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California when I first played 3 Wall at "Nationals". The event then moved to the courts at Marina Park in Huntington Beach and changed the name of the long-running annual event to the WOR Championships. The banter was still thick with the locals devout to their jibes, especially as more indoor pros began giving the event a go. Yet, no Kane. I then started shooting indoor racquetball, and all the names I heard became real to me. And so did Kane. His name was always mentioned most and then I knew why. I don't believe I will ever see anything like what I saw Kane do on an indoor racquetball court again. Honestly. I counted how many times I wrote about him or mentioned him in my articles during my involvement in racquetball during the last decade. That number is 51.
Kane avoided outdoor racquetball throughout his career and at the peak of his dominance, discounted outdoor racquetball as it was out of his realm of focus. This rings significant to me in a pervasive way. Covid made outdoors attractive to many pro players who before Covid, marginalized outdoor racquetball as a professional necessity. As the sport during the last two decades struggled just to maintain events, there were a handful of professional players who were running with WOR. Outdoor racquetball, though not professionally practiced, provides competitive opportunities to engage in racquetball in often unmeasurable ways. 3 Wall Ball at one point during the decade was the center of the Outdoor wall sports world. ESPN 3 set up shop with the handball guys. You had a kid named Timbo, who was a handball phenom at the time, pulling a ton of media attention with sponsors like RedBull during a time when Outdoor was on the edge of being really seen. The stands at 3 WallBall were shoulder-to-shoulder with vocal enthusiasts from all the wall-ball tribes. During this time, Kane was running through his unbelievable, record-breaking dominance. He was literally the winningest, most dominating professional athlete on the planet. Imagine had that story been heard and seen alongside all the traction Outdoor was garnering. Imagine Kane standing next to Timbo and all the bodies in the stands with an ESPN 3 camera on him. More importantly, he also missed out on building positive sentiment from the whole body of racquetball engagement, which he could seriously use now.
I write this while feeling disheartened because it wasn't just Kane who marginalized Outdoor Racquetball. A host of influentials chose not to think of the outdoor game as truly legit. Until after Covid. Listening to the broadcasters miss opportunity after opportunity to highlight player histories and relevant information made that abundantly clear to me. And while it's great (and necessary for him) that Kane is participating in the big outdoor events now, it comes at a time when his current influences and dormant values are spread thin in a shrinking body of true racquetball enthusiasts.
Daniel De La Rosa, if you're not aware, is also a legit professional pickleball player - signed and delivered. If you do know him, you also know he owns championships in every format within the overall landscape of racquetball. It is him I am referring to as possibly one of the best overall racquet athletes in the country. I think his professional athletic positioning alone speaks to that. I can tangibly see it as he plays One Wall. I'm impressed by his take on subtleties that need to be mastered in order to transition through the different athletic disciplines as seamlessly as he does. He is positioned to use his skills to find new avenues of engagement. Can Daniel ever say he's the best? Of course, as much as any other player who has reached the rank of #1 player on the International Racquetball Tour can. As far back as I can remember, Daniel has embraced outdoor racquetball. I first noticed Daniel at one of the last USA Nationals that utilized the all-glass court. I remember thinking "That's that little kid I saw diving around at (the first) 3 WallBall." Like Kane, I followed his career comprehensively, he practically grew up at the US Open. But my statement puts him in direct comparison with Kane Waselechuk. (Remember I asked you to hold that thought. Here it is.) The same Kane whom I would argue in favor of when asked while in Huntington Beach or here in NYC, opining he would rule if he ever decided to really dig in and play Outdoor Racquetball in any format. But now I see Daniel doing exactly the things I said Kane would do if he played. De La Rosa is still fully engaged in every big event that takes place in the sport, either here or abroad. He's fully sponsored and creating opportunities for racquetball to be mentioned with his success outside of the sport. All this in aggregate means to me that Daniel is the better racquetball player today.
De La Rosa is the better player because Daniel is a highly skilled racquetball player people will actually see. I do not look upon his success outside of racquetball lightly, as I watch him on the One Wall court. He utilizes lifts and slices liberally, as scrubs speed and transitions from go to slow effortlessly, providing him ample time to showcase touch. It's easy to understand why he's so good at pickleball. Daniel is not hampered by the huge difference in strike points tennis players transition from. His wrist action, developed with power, sustains touch at super high speeds... well with a pickleball... with comparatively no resistance with weight and momentum, where you trade power in confined spaces or generate pace with just your wrist, not to mention his speed... these aspects come baked in with Daniel. He's at such a high level in his One Wall game, that it's easy for me to believe he's been signed to a professional Major League Pickleball team.
But what am I really trying to say here? It can't be just to say I think Daniel is a better racquetball player than Kane, because he will never be statistically better on the IRT. And for some, that's real racquetball. At the end of the day, it's not something I feel really good about saying anyway, it's more an avenue to make points... to look at what I see that no one else cares to notice or cares about. The end of the year typically has me thinking in retrospect about racquetball, even as I've pretty much moved on from playing competitively and working in the sport. What I do know is that the sport is very fragmented, fostering too much animosity and negative discourse. There are true sparks of light for racquetball in the U.S., but those promises ring long-term and geographically rare in my view. I don't view Daniel as part of those sparks that are fundamentally different in nature, yet I do appreciate that he can extend his range of engagement to have racquetball even mentioned outside of the sport to another vastly larger base. For Kane, his ability to utilize his immense record and, maybe regrettably, that legit credibility is severely marginalized. The tour itself is running on autopilot and has moved on from any engagement or promotional work with Kane. Kane is basically starting from square one on the tour and it seems appathetic either way. It really is up to him. He has to find more ways to show up with his racquet. Anywhere he, or anyone else can imagine him holding a racquet. Leave people feeling like they're seeing his story.