Pro Racquetball. Eras. And Perspective.
Halfway through 2021, I wrote this. "Sports in general pushed hard into 2021, as pandemic recovery has leagues and sporting event directors getting creative about continuing on with competitions. Things seemed to be getting better for most sports. Going into 2020 however, racquetball, in general, was already feeling the heavy hand of inoperability that has faced club owners with racquetball courts." Besides the atrocious grammar, this statement, though very true, doesn't account for the premise, that, it might have been a good thing that the pro racquetball tours had not experienced exponential growth. It may have been much, much harder to start back up after a pandemic shutdown, as hard as it was, in fact. Events, even the big ones that happen in rarity, the ones densely filled with divisional competitions and party nights, are typically organized locally. Tour administrators just have to show up with a few bags of streaming equipment and ensure the players fly in on their own from wherever. Being light on your feet is an asset in the club environment today, especially if you're going to have to travel farther distances. And if the pro tours are shooting for progressive growth, they may well have to operate outside of the U.S. more. Anything else could just be running laps on a rapidly decaying court.
Today, I could probably count on one hand the number of racquetball hotspots in the U.S., that is, clubs with vibrant and nationally dialed in racquetball engagement. With so few of these hotspots, the sport of racquetball is pretty much on life-support as a mainstay in people's lives. The pro tours, as we know them, survive because people still enjoy having top professionals show up at their club to compete and hopefully hang around a bit. The people in the know know that the pro racquetball events you see streamed today, are reflections of what these hotspots still hope to be. They are, in a sense, a mirage of a greater time.
Or are these events representative of a bright, immediate future for some young player? I'd argue yes, but only for a particularly young athlete that lives in Mexico or Bolivia or Guatemala.
Here in the U.S., collegiate athletes in some states are now able to monetize their notoriety. Whether or not you believe college football players making millions to be a positive thing, the argument makes for a viable discussion as some colleges have gotten fat off of their athletes. The International Racquetball Tour is introducing a new Professional Division for players under 21. Now, I don't believe the IRT will get fat off of these young players. I do believe that the IRT can work to establish deeper roots in Mexico and South America. Aggressively working to create events outside of the U.S. would enabling these young players from poorer countries to earn money. Look, with the racquetball court situation here, with the Pickleball situation here, with the Padel situation here, with all the "etc." situations here, viability and growth for racquetball as a past time will remain restrained and limited, as the demographic keeps shrinking in the US. However, refocusing on a slightly younger set can be an opportunity to spawn a certain type of hunger to succeed. Having a good number of these young, college aged players gaining notoriety in their hometowns could lead to traction in these countries, which now hold racquetball in higher regard. The players whom this will attract most likely still have parents who foster their dreams monetarily. And if you have large numbers of young players interacting with each other chasing clout, you could have a kind of momentum you could build on. I also like the energy coming from Dean Baer. His mantra on this, "The only obstacle, as always, is money." True and obvious enough. Yet, when I think of what has developed within collegiate athletics, where 18 and19 year-olds can now chase pro-type money, and I consider what the IRT now endeavors to build with IRT-21, I begin to believe it may be a good time to refresh this not so new idea.
Remember the Futures Division during the John Scott days? (I do... A Magic Number.) This seemed to be the IRT's answer to the talent development aspect that was propagated by the World Racquetball Tour. I won't go into the whole IRT-WRT saga except to say, that for anyone wondering how that turned out, just step back and look at the IRT today. The WRT is hiding in plain sight.
Well, I'll go a little further to say, when I step back and condense the IRT/WRT saga in my mind, I come to the conclusion that, for all intent and purposes, the group of investors that purchased the IRT in partnership with John Scott, believed more in the practice that Pablo Fajre employed with World Racquetball Tour, who now serves as tour commissioner. I'm not at all saying this was intentional by any means, only operational. Professional racquetball events continue to manifest incidentally, through varying participation and the continued interest of a few, deep-pocketed benefactors, that find worthwhile enjoyment in the shoulder-to-shoulder commissary that happens when grateful players show up to perform. The best players indeed come from Mexico and South America. Pablo Fajre, along with Favio Soto who is entrenched as an announcer with the IRT, has established ties internationally, so, this scenario was most likely inevitable once Pablo was brought in as the streaming guy. The whole IRT-WRT saga now seems like the simple evolution of a sport that is being left behind by one culture and embraced by another. The pro tour as a brand, should be seriously looking at comprehensively building events south of the US.
Transitional. Who's Sport Is It Now?
I've personally known two previous eras in this sport. The first era for me was when racquetball was a game I tried a few times in college and that Elvis played. A uniquely American sporting endeavor where there was some sort of understanding by the general public about what it was and how it was played. My experience with this first era grew into a more nuanced initiation as I began hearing various names of lore over and over while traveling outside of New York to play One Wall and Outdoor racquetball. Names like Sudsy, Swain, and Hogan. The second era, the 2010s, I saw happen. I witnessed professional racquetball up close, mostly as a photographer and sometimes pundit as my involvement in professional racquetball became progressively more comprehensive throughout the decade. As I have stepped back some, I can see the clear separation of generations and how the culture of racquetball has shifted into its current state of being.
In my opinion, professional racquetball in the 2010s was a time accentuated by a density of high-level US players who took their cues from the players of the past in terms of attitude. Yet, they were operating in a stagnated and shrinking world in which to compete. Behaving almost as if they've just settled into things as they are, shoulder shrugging the decaying environment and still showing up cock-sure and entitled. I apologize if this seems a bit harsh. And yet, I'm not really sorry.
In my head, I sum up the difference between the current crop of professionals at the top levels of the sport today in this way. (I exclude the older guard). American professional racquetball players have generally worked and trained hard to advance in the sport, just as hard as the leading crop of Mexican and South American players. But at the end of the day, it's hard to hide attitude. Some American players were projecting the sport in a manner that communicated "It's pro racquetball and racquetball has problems and is dying anyway." At least that is the vibe I've often caught during my tenure in the 2010s. (Add to that, they always had Kane in mind...more below.)
This almost apathetic vibe isn't exclusive to some American players and isn't lost within the discussions racquetball diehards are having on Facebook, where the pro tours exist. I've written very often in the past about how dependent racquetball tours and organizations are on Facebook. Today, I can honestly say there has been a full embracement of this necessity...full on Meta. Sure they stream to Youtube as a courtesy, but in terms of engagement, the culture of racquetball is completely intertwined with Facebook, where stars are lobbied for and politics are a mainstay in conversation. In all fairness, sentiment runs more positive than negative within these groups. However, there are a good number of diehards who have established themselves within these FB groups and some are not averse to harping on the long-held political gripes aimed at those who have been involved with running the promotional and competitive sides of the sport for a long time. This is important to consider here. IRT-21 will be a draw for mostly Mexican and South American players. I'm obviously remembering the 2010's when I state, the lack of American teens that could qualify at this level is painfully obvious. That could change with the offer of big prize money, maybe. But at these levels, you'll continue to find the most talented juniors outside of the U.S... opening up yet another gripe, deserving or not, to lay at the feet of USA Racquetball.
The Kane Saga
The situation with Kane Waselenchuk is something I have to mention. You can not talk about professional racquetball today without Kane being upfront in that discussion. If not, he's the elephant in the room. It's a cultural thing now. For those not familiar with professional racquetball, all you need to know is Kane is the winningest male player ever to play professional racquetball, by very far. When he was vying for US Open title number 16 this past October, he hastily refused to play his semifinal match, after some sort of confrontation with tour administrators. Since then, things have seemed frosty and unresolved, even as Kane selectively chooses IRT stops to play.
I'm not exaggerating about it being a cultural thing. The type of decade-long dominance Kane wielded on the court monumentally affected how other players viewed their chances on the IRT. The knowledge that all others would almost assuredly be playing for second place permeated every aspect of an event. With this, communication within the tour had proven to be, at times, a bit problematic. He was what seemed to be the first focus in people's minds, even when not exactly focused on by tour administrators. Even if you didn't like the idea of one player dominating the talk, there was nothing you could do about it as discussions of any other player on tour always led to Kane, especially if there was talk about said player's future on the tour, because all roads led to Kane. When your top player not showing up affects the chances of having that event next year, well, better to make sure your communication is on point.
The recent developments with the IRT and Kane felt for a time, much like one was experiencing a Mandela Effect. The IRT, after the US Open incident, released a very briefly vague statement and continued operating with absolutely no mention of Kane. There was a time a mere mention of an IRT stop meant everything about the event was going to be affected by Kane in one way or another. Prior to the IRT's last event in New York, it seemed like some were holding their breath, waiting to see who will be the first to mention Kane on the tour. And if he still intends to remain on top. It feels like a stock has crashed or delisted somehow, and no one knows who's stock exactly. There is avoidance to acknowledge the awkwardness, not to mention the uncomfortable situation involving ProKennex... which hints of grimy. Now, when an IRT event is happening, very little is known or said about Kane's participation. Except of course in Facebook groups, where the convo is about the lack of Kane in any tour scenario. Or the vengeance he may inflict for a rare loss and the doubt people dared to utter.
The chat thread bias seems to have reversed also, with what seems like more racquetball fans that are critical of Kane. Kane, it's fair to say, believed it was the IRT's job to promote him while some disparaged his lack of commitment in the world of media-accessible sports professionals. There is a sentiment out there that holds Kane hadn't engaged social media enough to take advantage of the huge reach he could have accrued earlier in his career. Voices say he could have or should have done more, as well as having had a selfish attitude. But I think it's fairer to say, Kane is simply a product of the sport's culture. That being said, there is no wrong way to be racquetball's winningest professional.
As I look back, I learned that I myself have written articles that mention Kane fifty one times in the last ten or so years. I also closely followed the careers of a small set of young players through the 2010s in relation to Kane's reign, making some of his recent matches very interesting. What is also a development for me, and a bit surreal, is the fact that Kane is now competing in what effectively is the WRT. If you adjust for Rocky Carson and Daniel De La Rosa (who never played on the WRT,) you will find the World Racquetball Tour played a major role in the development of most of the top 10 ranked pros on the IRT. So, all those questions about how good these players would be against Kane are being answered, albeit as the vibe between the tour and Kane remain frosty. Too bad really. The things they could do together.
The Level Of Play On The Women's Side Is Ridiculous
While Kane's dominance played out more as a cultural issue on the men's side, Paola Longoria's dominance on the women's side is just as remarkable as Kane's, yet, is in sharp contrast. The sport of racquetball has produced an abundance of fruit for her. She continues on with her influential status in Mexico, where even her decision to shrug off the FMR and skip the Pan Am Games because of logistical disharmony and mismanagement was a power move. The recent rivalry she is having with Alexandra Herrera on the court is encouraging and super good for the women's tour.
Paola has ruled the number one spot on the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour for a long time. Now, there is healthy doubt brewing about outcomes and it's fun to watch. Herrera is a unique talent. I'm pleasantly surprised by her recent advancements, though not shocked in the least. I labelled Alexandra as a gate keeper and the fourth baddest female in the world in 2019. She has since emerged, post-Covid, as a major force and clearly the second best female player on the planet. Anytime Paola gets challenged means Paola gets more entrenched in her legacy even as more women claim public notoriety through racquetbol in Mexico.
These high-level finals are the nitro-fueled stories that sparks dreaming in the junior set in Mexico. For Longoria, it's a win-win. For the LPRT its a bigger win for longevity and having a healthy, interesting, consistently-high, level of play.
Beach Bashing All Over One Wall
For the first time ever, four top ranked International Racquetball Tour professionals were in a Beach Bash men's pro final. For the first time, there were four players under thirty in a Beach Bash final. There were also five players that competed in the original Beach Bash eighteen years ago and three of them were in the final that first year. Well, it wasn't "Beach Bash" at the time, it was called the 2004 WOR One Wall Nationals. The Beach Bash monicker kicked in when Vic Leibofsky founded the inaugural event in 2008.
I want to offer up a few thoughts before anyone in the racquetball world begins calling these guys the best One Wall players in the world. One Wall has specific rules. That said, adjusting rules to facilitate an event is a different thing than generically saying "they are best" in this scenario.
Imagine, for the sake of argument, inviting pro tennis players to play Pickleball. But then changing the rules to exclude the kitchen to get them to show up. Those Dink skills, that players have spent years using and in some cases, practicing for hours just became marginalized and irrelevant. One Wall requires very good up-close hand skill. When you're fighting to get to and stay in the front, with no need to clear, it becomes a necessary aspect of the game. New Yorkers have honed their skills for decades.
To players from New York traveling to the inaugural Beach Bash events in 2008 and beyond, the gradual skew towards indoor rules over the years were becoming problematic and produced very ugly and dangerous moments. Yet, as a policy, rule adjustments were needed to attract the indoor set. It made jumping straight into competition easier and somewhat recognizable for them, making it instantly fun. (Because just showing up to hit a racquetball in the sun and on the beach, actually wasn't enough incentive..."that's not racquetball"... excusatory echos in my memory.) That situation sparked the successful AF Pro Series at those same courts, providing New York City players a top tiered event with "proper" rules. Though, for the most part, New Yorkers, as competitive as they are, now had two events to go to in Hollywood Beach, Florida and continued to enjoyed the idea of a communal, all-for-all, ridiculously fun event.
In retrospect, racquetball co-opting One Wall at Beach Bash is a good thing. I run on the assumption that the original Beach Bash was the first WOR event not to take place in California, they only play 3 Wall versions of Outdoor racquetball. The spark and funding came from former Legends Tour co-founder and pro boxing manager Scott Hirsch, who I believe dropped the cash for the event to support and give a platform for his friends Marty Hogan, Cliff Swain and others. The event was facilitated by Hank Marcus and a very new West Coast located World Outdoor Racquetball, providing an opportunity to showcase outdoor racquetball on the East Coast.
The original rules for the very first Beach Bash where drastically different than any form of racquetball to date. The event used the local park rules that where designed to play Paddleball with a tennis ball. (WOR at the time, operated with the premise that local rules should be respected and honored.) One of the first things you noticed when you step on to the courts at the Historic Garfield Courts are the lines on the walls and floors. The wall features a Service Line on the wall and 3 lines on the ground. No underhand drive serves allowed. The serve must hit the wall above that line. Along with that line, there are two long lines used as boundaries. The first line is strictly for the serve. The second line in the back, serves as the out marker in the back court during rallies.
This year felt transitional and positive as these four young, top-tiered professionals battled out a Beach Bash final. Racquetball events and more specifically Outdoor events, here in the U.S., generally skew to an older demographic. The local crowd was respectfully cheering in support, as a courtesy at times, but there was genuine gratitude that these players were there. Visually, it projected very nicely and also somewhat strangely to me. I figured it out in the end. It's called change. And it was good.
As I refereed for the men's pro final, in what is the last professional event I will compete in as a player, I had two prevailing thoughts. The first, was that as the the match progressed, I noticed these players were adopted what seemed to be more of a true One Wall game, where holding position out-weighed clearing, and they began to play in closer quarters, often choosing to check power to keep the rally going in their favor, not looking for penalty hinders or stopped looking to me for them. I figured, these four guys know each other well. They were picking it up, on their own, understanding that it is more advantageous to play through than to worry about how much room you have. So, I let them play, so to speak. One Wall hits different. And when you learn it, you love it.
Second, USA Racquetball totally missed the boat here. In retrospect, I feel completely sad for some of the young U.S. professionals who venture outdoor regularly. Had the ground work been laid by USA, during what was a completely obvious time to engage Outdoor racquetball as seriously important activity, this could have been a redefining moment for the way they can work with health, sport, racket and fitness clubs...so very short-sighted.
My guess is, Beach Bash may continue on, but that now seems dependent on whether 3Wall Ball's Mike Coulter chooses to stay in the game.
Talking Racquetball To Outsiders
I sometimes find it culturally odd conversing about the history and cultural introspections of racquetball and squash. I'm a kid from the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, who grew up playing handball and paddleball. I just picked up squash again because there is a beautifully built outdoor court made of steel that I'm fortunate enough to access. Prior to that, I played for 3 years while working at colleges. And I don't ever play racquetball. I understand the cultural differences between sports but I don't know nearly enough history of both these games to adequately feel I could hold valid opinions beyond anything relating to outdoor racquetball or racquetball as it existed during this past decade. I've recently begun visiting the topic of finding a proper history of paddleball, and I'm learning more and more how there are just so many interesting personalities devoted to relatively fringe sports.
As I was on the phone with James Zug, an American author who writes for Squash Magazine, I forwarded this article on racquetball to Evan Prichard, the guy behind The Racquetball Blog. TRB is the always reliable OG of the racquetball match info world. I asked Evan to share his thoughts on Zug's piece, mentioning it quoted me from an article. (Adding this post: It may have been a quote from some other medium.) To me, James Zug and Evan Prichard are two sides of the same coin. Critically thinking about their sports the way I imagine my 11 year-old-self feeling, after trying their these sports for the first time.
Take this for an opening statement: "Racquetball is squash’s little kid sister. Like many older siblings, squash is forever annoyed with racquetball, for its seemingly undeserved popularity, for its brash personality, for its very existence. But squash also has a lot to learn from racquetball." If you're a racquetball diehard, how would you hear this? I know what I hear, but I wanted to know what Evan heard.
Evan quickly notes the connotative language that smacks of statements looking down a nose and I know we both would acknowledge that the language is inherent, and not always meaningfully dismissive or intentional. This falls in line with the type of peripheral items we are known to frequently notice to each other.
Evan: "Zug uses the cliché that racquetball is easy, which is ridiculous. People think racquetball is easy because the ball is bouncy. Basketballs are bouncy. I guess basketball is an easy sport. Racquetball is not easy, and we have done it a disservice by suggesting that it is. " I can put that in another context, Pickleball, and think, someone will be saying that about Pickleball at some point in the future, maybe.
More from Evan: "There are different demands in racquetball versus squash. Racquetball rallies are sprints. Intense but brief. The aerobic demand comes from the fact that a match requires many rallies / sprints. Squash rallies can be marathons. Long and difficult for any shot to certainly end a rally. Is a sprint better than a marathon? No. Neither is better, but people may prefer one to the other, which is fine." I believe this is a pretty fair statement. I have to add that it is one I need to adopt, because I often leaned toward squash as being harder. I may think I believed that because I find squash mechanically easier for me, and have often chalked up my ineptness on an indoor racquetball court as lack of court time.
Before anyone settles into believing my communication with Evan Prichard are always a squash bash fest, I'll state that I've noticed a ton of progressive thinking on the squash side in relation to pandemic issues and rebuilding and these same people view racquetball very respectfully. My conversation with Zug was an enjoyable one because we were sharing perspectives and found commonalities that made me feel hopeful. There are personalities advocating for partnerships, playing outdoor, Squash 57 and noticing how racquetball is being played here in the U.S. SquashMad has posted numerous articles addressing the need for the sport of squash to rethink viability while courts are being closed or converted, Padel And Pickle Boom Leaves Squash Standing Still being the latest of them. I know we've been talking court closures on our side too. Mass extinction events and all.
Would it be such a hard thing to do? Getting US Squash and USA Racquetball on the same page? Asking for a friend.