In The Country
One Of The Best Racquet Sport
OCTOBER 25, 2023
As I watched I thought to myself, Daniel is the best racquetball player on the planet right now. I now believe I could argue he is one of the best racquet athletes in the country.
I was watching the Mixed One Wall racquetball final from this year's 3Wall Ball and it had me trying to figure out a way to properly explain why Daniel De La Rosa is a better racquetball player than Kane Waselenchuk. I mean If I were to argue my opinion, I'd have to first have to believe De La Rosa is better than Waselenchuk. Hard stop. For anyone not familiar with pro racquetball, "De La Rosa is better than Kane Waselenchuk" is a statement that most likely nudges pro racquetball enthusiasts into a moment of pause and will measure it hard. Really hard. Kane at one point in time, was the most dominant pro athlete in his 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 can say, without any doubt in any of my words, 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. (Let me state clearly, I think Kane's learning curve here is crazy steep but that is another conversation altogether.) It's my understanding of the one-wall game and my understanding of the sport of racquetball especially, that I'm leaning on here to make these broad, over-reaching statements. And if you haven't yet understood, that, 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 many of his most dominating moments and can without reservation say, that dude 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 watched him as I began my first forays into shooting through glass, 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 and yet, I clearly remember the banter was thick at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California during what was called "Nationals", which then name-changed to the WOR Championships after the event moved to the courts at Marina Park. When I started shooting indoor racquetball, all the names I heard became real to me. His name was always mentioned 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 comprehensive involvement in racquetball during the last decade. The number is 51.
Kane avoided outdoor racquetball pretty much the whole time and at the peak of his dominance, discounted outdoor racquetball as out of the realm of his focus. This rings significant to me in a pervasive way. I'll state this here, 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 not to just lose but to also just maintain events, there were professional players who ran with WOR since the beginning. 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 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. 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. He also missed out on building positive sentiment from the whole body that is racquetball. Which he could seriously use now.
I also write 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 certain aspects and players and history made that abundantly clear to me. And while it's great (and necessary) 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 fully understand the subtleties that need to be mastered in order to transition through the different athletic disciplines as seamlessly as he does. He's in a position 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 do all the things I said Kane would do if he played. That he is still fully engaged in every big event that takes place in the sport, either here or abroad, fully sponsored and opening up avenues to have racquetball just mentioned outside of the sport, means to me Daniel is the better racquetball player.
He's the better racquetball player because Daniel is a player people will actually see. I do not look at his success outside of racquetball lightly as I watch him on the One Wall court. He utilizes lift and slices and transitions effortlessly at speed from each. 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. And the wrist action, developed with power and to sustain touch at super high speeds... well with a pickleball... with basically no weight, where you trade power in confined spaces or generate pace with just your wrist, among so many other things, comes baked in with Daniel. He's at such a high level in his One Wall game, that it's easy for me to believe where he is right now with playing pickleball with a professional MLP 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 is, because he will never be statistically 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 because those are something fundamentally different in nature, yet I do see that he can have a huge range of engagement to have racquetball even mentioned outside of the sport. For Kane, his ability to utilize his immense record and that legit credibility is now 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 they just don't care either way. So, it really is up to him. He has to find more ways to show up with his racquet. Anywhere he or anyone else can image.
A young daniel incorporated outdoor immediately... he attended the very first 3Wall Ball in 2010... I have pics. He played his first Beach Bash in 2015... I have a second-place pro singles result to prove it. Not hampered by some of the strike point differences and bad habits tennis players initially enter pickleball with.
Imagine... at that time, the handball scene was ridiculous at 3Wall Ball... Timbo, who was sponsored by Red Bull... imagine elbow to elbow, while running one of the most dominant streaks of all professional sportdom.
Kane at the peak of his dominance discounted outdoor as out of the realm of his focus.
A young daniel incorporated outdoor immediately... he attended the very first 3Wall Ball in 2010... I have pics. He played his first Beach Bash in 2015... I have a second-place pro singles result to prove it. Not hampered by some of the strike point differences and bad habits tennis players initially enter pickleball with. And the wrist action, developed to sustain touch at super high speeds... well with a pickleball...with basically no weight, trading power in confined spaces or generating pace with just your wrist, among so many other things comes baked in. He's at such a high level in his One Wall game... it's easy for me to believe where he is right now with playing pickleball with a professional MLP team.
Never downplay his mastery over the field.
He's only had two legit losses since the time I've covered him... his stats show
one in 2019 against Alvaro Beltran, whom I would describe as a contemporary, and another to Jose Rojas in 2013. Rojas, in comparison, was a contemporary and rival of Daniel when he was the notable young phenom. (Possibly a story for another time.) Rojas retired young from the sport after having won the US Open Doubled Championship with his brother Marcos. Though Rojas scored a legit win that's hard to deny, Kane's complete dominance since
Kane avoided outdoor. There was always questions Or maybe better put, waited for it to be motivating enough to risk his dominance inside. Or his career.
Future of players... Ada Manilla... regional. And it's not like there are two or three others out there... being this hungry. I don't see any.
Juniors are rife with favoritism. Not hard to believe.
Fantastic career that seems to be ending on a "maybe he is.." with a tired IRT happy to let him age out.
Manufacturer. Business is business. And Daniel was better business.
Outdoor is fundamentally not practiced professionally... but there are numerous engagement opportunities each year, and as you will find, outdoor has provided many retired players new environments and people to direct their racquetball energy.
I'm thinking of mastery, of an environment with your skill type mastery.
There were some peripheral distractions about what I was watching during this match that I had to completely ignore to even watch. There are 3 aspects to this that grab me into making an effort to write about racquetball right now. Daniel's obvious play. Kane Waselenchuk is playing. And it's One Wall. A ton to unpack by themselves.
Kane brief history with outdoor.
That time in Outdoor.
Back to my time seeing Daniel and seeing Kane's Mastery.
Where I was at the time.
Playing One Wall.
And sitting behind the glass.
Conversations with questions about how would Kane do.
I've seen them all.
Kane would win with time.
Daniel began winning right off the bat.
The One Wall stuff.
As a note of history here... always discrepancies about rules. Bent to lean more toward indoor player adoption than to preserve the subtleties you have to master before you can wildly play as you can with indoor racquetball. But this isn't about rules. It's about how good Daniel is. And as I watch, I see him and Hollie playing legit One Wall. Lining up with one player behind the long line when you serve, well, you're blocking the very area you need to control... almost any shot separates you from that space, you're already down in the rally. One Wall is a game of attrition. Kane and Michelle start every serve at a significant disadvantage. (This is another conversation altogether.)
Kane history with one wall. His disinterest in outdoor racquetball cost him dearly. I remember all the talk distinctly. I've been writing about this group for over a decade, with Kane's name dropped in my takes indoor vs outdoor racquetball since the creation of WOR. Now, Outdoor is desperately being held on to by world-class players who have very few opportunities left to engage in events this big and organized. And from what I saw, there has been no unified effort to build on what was being transmitted through this feed. So, what's the next thing? Anything other than see you next year was crickets. (Again, another conversation all together.)
Why am I feeling a need? Well.. it feels almost like a push in me. Maybe because it's the end of the year, and in the past I've been compelled to write year end recaps to expound on issues i've spent time on in racquetball. But this isn't that. Racquetball today, with the overt disgust administrators speak of each other, is teetering on ignobility here in the U.S., ion my opinion. Except for a few places to rest hope on. Kane, the game's true phenom, is at age ? having to start all over again from the bottom of the draws just to keep his name in the game. The tour has shown no interest in his participation. The young energy with the potential isn't waiting or including him. The benefactors who are currently driving the sport have managed to ensured that it seems. Playing outdoor has provided him with a reason for people to look his way. (Switch previous))... then again, racquetball, like Kane has had to hold on with both hands. The thing with Kane is, as bad as things look for him professionally, he still has more upside than anyone else in the game right now. That's only if racquetball ever got its shit together.
Existing racquetball courts have been externally under assault by people seeking court conversions in the name of profit or fiscal survival. This is not a new problem, but one that has been chipping away at the sport for a long time. To date, those charged with sustaining the sport's presence in the US have been completely baffled by this for the last 10-15 years. As much as I try to understand the USA Racquetball mandate in this space, I arguably propose that providing "experience" trumps all foundational processes needed to recognize and act on the underlying social realities, and it is reflected in the nonprofit's performance these past years.