This year's Top Ten List comes together after connecting with our friends over at The Racquetball Blog and talking through some of this stuff. Although we agree that there have been some significant victories and developments with international play, our lists are somewhat different. So, in that vain, we acknowledge that there have been some impressive results coming from Mexico, Colombia and tons of things happening with Juniors internationally. TRB are racquetball purists and we respect that.
From our perspective...
Starting out with racquetball as a group, and how we reach and engage interest. This year, almost all of racquetball's promotional efforts have been heavily reliant on Facebook. With most engagement on other social platforms just a cut and paste or share of what was already communicated on the Facebook platform. Moves to Youtube and Livestream are great and need to continue. Outside of this, there are very few reasons to leave facebook for anything else racquetball. That's not a good thing for growth.
This first spot on the list is a prediction, more than anything else. With the drastic changes that will happen this year with Facebook, groups that are charged with growing racquetball, will have to rethink how they use facebook.
It's known that a significant number of players experience the sport of racquetball outdoors. Add to that the still growing number of indoor players that conintue to incorporating it into their play regularly. The more they show up, the more outdoor players decide tol go out of their norm and begin playing indoor. WOR continues to aggregate new states and new courts into it's network, tying people together. In terms of promotion, it hasn't reached it's presumed potential with reach and interest yet, but the outdoor segment is still growing and going strong with group story lines, singles and doubles talk, along with people continuing to make flight reservations for major events.
It's still here. It's still very relevant.
8. Pro Doubles at the UnitedHealthcare US Open
Pro Doubles play added some serious energy to that event. We think it was included to give pro racquetball a shot in the arm with interest. Whether it sparked more sponsor involvement in professional racquetball remains to be seen, but we can tell you things got seriously loud at the Target Center.
7. Daniel De La Rosa
Daniel had a big, pivotal year. He ended the year on a high note, busting through his regular semifinal appearances to win his first ever T1 and taking the #4 ranking on the International Racquetball Tour.
Daniel also made a dent on the World Outdoor Racquetball stage. He won the Men's Pro Singles first ever division at WOR's Beach Bash and won the Pro Mixed division. He made the Men's pro finals at 3 Wall Ball in Vegas, losing to Rocky Carson.
Nothing but upside for this kid.
6. Maria Jose Vargas and Rhonda Rajsich
Hard to put a value on the positive effect these two have injected into the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour this year. Though it's a strong indication of how what the LPRT looks like and will look like in the future, the future being here with Paola. And the only time there was a dent in the Paola reality, one or both of these two dynamic players where involved.
What they did:
Rhonda Rajsich finally beat Longoria and won a T1 after more than two years. And she did it coming off a big loss to Vargas at the US Open and while their was serious thought happening about her ability to hold her position on the top of the rankings. But consider this, Rajsich is still going strong after 16 consecutive years on the tour without missing a single event, including repping the US at international events, sponsor dubs, etc... not a one. (Crazy.) Rhonda proved that she remains a force even as she continues to face an increasingly talented international contingent on tour.
Maria Jose Vargas has taken the #2 spot on the LPRT rankings and finished out the year strong with her very first Tier 1 victory. She has faced Paola quite a few times and will contionue to test her on the court.
Matches between Rajsich and Vargas are becoming the matches of interest when it comes to rivalries, with Vargas currently having the edge and momentum. Maria's intensity is impressive, while Rhonda can still go lights out. This year, they will both have to face some serious international competion climbing up on the LPRT rankings.
Plus, they've been playing doubles together, and have yet to get by Paola playing with anyone. Seperately, they both may have made this list. Together, they land here because of their effect on the tour.
5. USA National Singles
Last year, it was on this list for losing the glass court. While the court is still MIA, there was no LPRT or IRT engagement this year, with each tour electing to label their own national titles at year end events. Given that the top two Americans in each tour get selected to play at the most prestigious international competitions, this is a big undercut in the credibility of their national event. It continues to be a great event for the members that USA Racquetball services, but it's back in the "local" club, event wise.
And consider this: Pro doubles made it's debut at the UnitedHealthcare US Open. The LPRT is incorporatating doubles at T1 stops more regularly. And the IRT was looking to doubles to increase interest in creating tour stops. This trend, if indeed it becomes a trend, can foster the question, "What could this mean to the USA Racquetball's National Doubles event?" In the effort to see consistancy in the selection process, will there be rationalizing or restricting of how some key players manage to represent the USA internationally?
4. Rocky Carson
This year, Rocky Carson became the most the decorated player IRF World Championship history with his fourth consecutive Men's Singles title. He won the World Outdoor Championship for the 10th time. Wrap this year up with a couple of T1 stop victories and it's a significant year that helps to solidify an eventual Hall of Fame nod.
3. Kane Waselenchuk
10. Kane is still (and solidly) the best player in the game today, playing on the International Racquetball Tour with the world's best players. Breaking... no shattering records. This is a guy who is a self taught genius on the court and managed to get the Canadian National Anthem played at the UnitedHealthcare United States Open after winning it for the 10th time. (He also won the inaugural pro doubles division with Ben Croft). The ten times he lifted that cup adds up to more victories than all other US Open champions combined. Wild thing is, he's eyeing more. Everyone else is still playing for second place when he's in the building.
The Model: Manufacturer integrated. The deep rooted partnership with Gearbox Racquetball is creating avenues of competition for young players and opportunities for event sponsors in Mexico to capitalize on the trending acknowledgement of racquetball as notable sport. The WRT streams it's own events and are very active in making event video easily accessible. They are trying to point the focus on the player's experiences. It works for growth in many ways that happen organically. For instance, their events offer sponsors opportunities to incorporate providing Paola Longoria more opportunities to play within Mexico. We note below why this is noteable.
The WRT continues to get younger players to play seriously and to try and test themselves against professional players more and more. And they are thinking creatively to do that. They also have partnered up the Reaching Your Dream Foundation, a non-profit that endeavors to raise money to directly support young players pursuing professional racquetball. Together, they are working to integrate formal opportunities to expand their experiences that transend the racquetball court, both professionally and socially. It's progressive thinking.
The WRT is pursuing more money and bigger events in Mexico, while they are still pushing their growth model in the US. They are working through the hardships involved with creating and sustaining momentum. But the WRT is finding that opportunities are out there for racquetball and going after them. You can't knock these facts one bit.
1. Paola Longoria
Her reach is bigger than all the racquetball reach on Facebook. She's the reason sponsors are increasingly saying yes to racquetball in Mexico. Variety TV shows, news shows, spanish news papers (even here in NYC,) a second consecutive year on the Forbes Most Powerfull Women in Mexico (with a higer rating), breakdowns on ESPN Deportes, and continuous mentions on sports segments, mentions in the global world of squash, her own major Grand Slam (with maybe the highest cash prize in the sport), major Mexican national awards, etc...they are even naming sporting complexes after her. Mexico's leading opinion and sports journalists consider her their foremost national athlete. Crazy.
She carving out a serious placement in the current media culture of Mexico and commanding serious top professional sponsorship. Her ability to parlay her position is offering up opportunities for the athletes of the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour (and all of racquetball,) if they can be taken advantage of them. She is also seriously beefing up international events with her presence. She is her own independent entity right now and her influence will be felt this coming year in very real ways throughout racquetball. It's almost surreal.