So Far, So Summer...
This summer has been interesting with results and developments... judge for yourself. Note... you'll probably have to know a little something about the current state of the sport to recognize names and the subtle hints here. (We've been quiet for a bit... sort of taken the summer off.)
2015 Pan American Games:
Mexico takes home 4 Gold medals. Women's Singles (Paola Longoria), Women's Doubles (Paola and Samantha Salas), Women's Team Gold (Paola and Samantha) and Men's Team (Alvaro Beltran, Javier Moreno and Daniel De La Rosa).
USA takes home 2 Gold medals. Rocky Carson - Men's Singles and Jose Rojas/Jansen Allen - Men's Doubles.
Mexico seems to be continuing it's trend of finishing on top of international competition with South American countries pushing things in terms of level of play. For detailed breakdowns of how things went down, The Racquetball Blog is always a smart place to land. (You can also find a cool interview with Sudsy Monchik, who was tasked to coach this years Ecuadorian team.
When you mention Mexican racquetball, Paola Longoria, who is pretty much a true mainstream figure in that country, has to be included. Still raking up new sponsors like Powerade and adding them to her already impressive list of benefactors. As of this posting, her Twitter following has seen a bump to 181+ thousand. That about a 20k jump from when we last took a look.
The only pro tour in top action during the summer has been World Racquetball Tour and its young band of pro regulars. With a month respite in July, the WRT held a stop in San Luis, Mexico. (Not quite sure when they start and end their seasons to declare year-end champs, or even if they do, or have it in their plan? ... and if they do, maybe I missed it with their communications?)
The San Luis Open had a decent sized draw for an August with 26 in the Men's pro draw. Something of note would be that 18 of the 26 were Mexican players, many names I knew and many I didn't. That I know these names says a ton about the exposure the WRT is giving players from Mexico. Also, looking at the names I've never seen before, as I look deeper into the draw, I see these unknown names or half known names getting by names I know well. This provides me with the paper insight to know where about the level of play is for these guys. When they get by names like Francisco Tronocoso and Gilberto Mejia, these half known names suddenly get put into perspective as far as level. The WRT is doing a good job of drawing players with the idea that they can win and/or do very well with the tour's best players. And the straight up chart makes everyone work to get into the money.
David Bobby Horn took his first WRT Pro Stop at San Luis beating Jake Brendenbeck easily in the final. His off-speed approach only pointed out some adjustment issues Jake still needs to make in his game. Bobby, who often struggles with mental clarity issues managed to work through hard 3 game matches and then adjust in the final. Fitting for his first tour win. What's cool about the WRT, is that they make the matches available for viewing on Youtube. Catch this match.
There hasn't been much coming out of the International Racquetball Tour and the Ladies International Racquetball Tour as far as generating buzz and excitement. I know their top players showed at the Pan Am Games. But I'm not hearing much from the tours regarding their players and what we should watch out for this coming season.
Not much buzz by player sponsors. Nothing but the underground vibrations about contract talks and who's looking at what opportunities or disgruntled about ones that are slipping away. And for racquet makers, a smaller market means some are losing ground or pulling out all together. And as markets shrink, the stronger companies tend to grab on to a bigger piece of the shrinking pie.
The Long and the Short: I don't typically talk about what specific manufacturers do but in this case, I have to make an exception. Ektelon has been conspicuously downsizing their staff and player roster of late. Though they continue to provide support in some places, and seem to still be doing very well with the ball side of things, there is a lot of buzz on whether or not they are doing well. Introducing a new racquet size could be an indication of what state they are in. Depends on how you look at things. Their recent developments could be reactionary and desperate. Or it just could be a sign that the company has gone rogue from a standard of operation within the sport.
The new racquet ignores the fact that USA Racquetball (the governing sanctioning body for amateur racquetball) and WOR have specific rules regarding the optimal length that is legal for competition. That Ektelon moved forward shows a separatist line of thinking and a move towards doing their own thing in the sport. Or could just be the first company to make racquets for people just to play as they wish, outside of competition. And if that is the case, where is the thinking for the different types of courts like Outdoor, where the courts are bigger. Those racquets may work very well there. Some outdoor courts are huge. And some are pretty small. As an example, some racquets just aren't as good for really small One Wall court use because they feel too long. Those courts demand different skill sets and facilitate different types of actions.
Or maybe Ektelon didn't even think of the outdoor application and just thought having a longer racquet would build interest or make it seem like they are still a forward thinking company. Yet, Ektelon is obvciously not being confined in anyway to old thinking. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this is a good thing. I say this because manufacturers should feel free to shake things up and put emphasis on what they want to, not on what they feel needs to be standard operating within the sport. The sport will decide whether this works or not.
September should be very telling in terms of where the pro side of the sport is going. (Having a luke-warm year won't be good for things. A shake up is due.) There should be tons of above water info come 3 Wall Ball, which has become outdoor racquetball's most notable event. Many of the players bouncing around the underground will surface for this Vegas event.
Summer is outdoor racquetball season and states have been busy with shootouts and growing participation. There have been some notable results at major World Outdoor Racquetball events for various reasons throughout the country.
I'll start with the World Outdoor Racquetball Championships. Rocky Carson again proved that he still owns the singles game on those big 3 Wall courts at Huntington Beach. What's that now...? 10 years running as champ here? (And he's looking for number 5 at 3 Wall Ball in Vegas?)
But as far as the more popular Doubles division, it seems in Cali, as in other parts of the country, the old guard is giving way to the younger set. Joe Young (Florida - outdoor) teamed up with IRT vet Charlie Pratt and took the big pro doubles title. That they played Brian Pineda and Brandon Davis in the final is an indication that the new guard of top players are staking the top spots.
I want to mention the Pro Women side of things. It continues that the division struggles with participants in this category here. 6 singles players and 6 doubles teams. They pool played them this year with two sides. I'm thinking the tours are missing opportunities here, or the players themselves don't see the value in participating. This can be said of the men also. I tend to think that it is more a reflection on the diminishing opportunities overall for professional players. Meaning, it may not be important to A) participate for exposure and B) worth the money. Racquetball has become very segmented and localized sport.
Photo courtesy: Joe Hall/Splathead
WOR take note: Joe Young right now is in a unique position in Outdoor racquetball... something that has yet to be seen. He won the Men's Doubles title at Beach Bash - a One Wall event, and followed it up with Pro Doubles wins at WOR Championships. If he shows up and wins in Vegas at the 3 Wall Ball event, it could be an unofficial Grand Slam (Doubles) in outdoor racquetball. In a culture of "pick your partner" before the event, he's managed to pick into teams that have been able to win. What makes this really interesting is that he won a "One Wall" event at Beach Bash. The event is One Wall's biggest event and that a "non-One Wall" team took it means that Young is unique in format diversity wins. It is NOT easy to transition from format to format. WOR should start taking notes on these types of things.
As I mention One Wall, right now, it's WOR's fastest growing segment, with traction gaining as states realize they have easier options to engage in outdoor racquetball. But the mecca is still NYC and has been at its usual busy pace for summer. It has been following the trend happening in outdoor, where younger teams are claiming top spots. In NYC's biggest tournament, two young players, Ryan Lopez and Damien Garcia took the top spot. NYC has been known for long lasting top teams, and the national trend has been to gain ground on New York mixing in really high professional level play. But these two are raising the level of ability and they are getting the need to practice discipline... and I hear they have a pretty decent coach.
Personal highlight this summer: Meeting 2015 classmate Dr. Bud Muehleisen and being introduced by Mr. Cliff Swain. It's all down hill from here.
Photo courtesy Roby Partovich