USA Racquetball Nationals: Culture And Pro Level Play
As this year's USA National Doubles event began, I was believing that maybe it would be better for USA Racquetball if they moved to unify their US Team selections for Doubles and Singles into one big event. My thoughts were leaning towards convincing sponsors to dig a bit deeper for an event that was bigger and grander in scope, rather than lobbying for resources to create two different events. Creating a unified selection event that makes it easier for players who want to play both formats, to plan and pay for because it would cut on travel expenses and the sometimes decision to have to choose one event because of practical financial issues.
Much of my initial opinion was influenced by Mexico's Campeonato Nacional de Raquetbol held the prior weekend, where their international representatives are chosen for both doubles and singles during one event. Yet, something I realized during a hard moment at this year's USA event, had me thinking a bit differently. That moment had me thinking of just how much of a community event the USA National events are. These events are looked forward to by pockets of die hard racquetball enthusiasts, where bringing home a national championship in an age/level division is something that solidifies a players deep engagement in racquetball. All the hours playing and enjoying the sport is given a validation that means something special along with bragging rights.
When Russ Mannino, father of IRT president Jason Mannino and is known for his commentary on the IRT Network went down during his 65+ match and never recovered, it was made clear just how deep the racquetball community can be. A tragic yet unifying happening that was made poignant by how matches continued in reverence and energy. Over the course of the weekend, my thoughts have changed, I honestly believe having separate events for doubles and singles can uniquely access the group to which USA Racquetball services.
I do however believe there should be a rethinking of the National Singles selection event. With the arrangements USA Racquetball has with both the International Racquetball Tour and the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour, US representatives are decided by tour rankings, which doesn't do anything to foster participation by elite U.S. players who aren't engaged in professional touring. Right now, the top 3 ranked players are chosen for team appointments, with 2 of them actually representing at international competitions. I see a few aspects that are on the negative side of this arrangement.
For players with professional potential that have decided to pursue careers outside of racquetball, it means being locked out of an attempt to access something as meaningful as representing their country during these world competitions. I believe that since the opportunities to play professionally are so limited in nature, players who continue to take racquetball very seriously should have the opportunity to train and compete equally with every other professional player in the U.S. fairly. This would mean that committing to practice and training in racquetball could lead to an attainable dream of top achievement, that isn't dependent on finding a sponsor to travel continuously and make enough money to live day to day. We all know there just isn't enough of that to go around. Though USA Racquetball may think the current arrangement with the pro tours as valuable, they do that in a basic neglect of a major part of their own contingency. A contingency that, facilitated properly, could mean financial gains marketing wise. The term "National Champion" is still a big deal today.
For the few players lucky enough to be playing on the tours, their rankings are still dependent on working their way through charts filled with international players. Losses to these players affect their rankings, so it never will be a "true" national rank. Ultimately, this has an affect on opportunity.
As far as the tours go, maybe it's time for true independence from this type of relationship with USA Racquetball. Whatever the financial arrangements or cooperative agreements may be, I think a true independence would be good for all the organizations involved. That doesn't necessarily mean that they mutually exclude each other, just work independently to manage their own top-level facilitation.
When I think about some of the action that took place this past weekend at National Doubles, I think that if the top doubles spot selections were dependent on touring rankings, we most likely would be deprived from having great players like Aimee Ruiz, Janel Tsinger and Kim Russell-Waselenchuk. This makes me think that say, if Tsinger, who doesn't tour on the LPRT, but trains regularly, would dedicate herself to singles for an attainable goal, she would. I think that could change what the U.S. looks like during international competition. Especially, when I think of all the pro level players in this country with vast potential and limited goals to aspire towards. Those are the players that are being missed by the USAR.
I am now a believer that separate events serve a purpose for USA Racquetball's constituency. This year's National Doubles was a strong one. Keep building on that value. It's time to take complete charge of National Singles, for all your players.
Deepest and sincerest condolences go out to Jason and the Mannino family and all those who were close to Russ Mannino. He was always encouraging and giving of his time. He will be missed.