After refereeing all of the major matches on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) for the last six years, Charlie Pratt had his breakout performance at the 2014 Florida Spring Break IRT Pro-Am. After the tournament, many were inquisitive about the #9-ranked IRT pro and head referee, and not only wondering what he did to improve upon his game.
Pratt holds that years of dedication and consistency contributed to his success. “It takes time to build those things up and balance them correctly. It’s a process. Most players will spend years on Tour without having any huge success. It’s not going to happen all at once. You get out what you put in. That holds truer than anything. When you win you earn it, and when you lose you deserve it.”
Pratt reached the semifinals in Florida that year by defeating the #5 and #3 ranked players in the world at the time, Ben Croft and Alvaro Beltran before #2 Rocky Carson defeated him. “I didn’t get overly excited
because I’ve beat Alvaro and won plenty of matches before. I had a good day of racquetball, but my tournament wasn’t over. I ended that tournament the same way I end every tournament, by asking ‘What’s the next step? What do I improve upon?’ It wasn’t a big deal to me like some people may expect, but more like somewhere I believe I can and should be. I felt more like it would have been nice to get to the finals rather than ‘I am so overjoyed to have made it to the semis.”
Pratt has continued to build upon his success as a professional player and referee into this season, where he will have competed and refereed in every tier 1 tournament. It is evident that he has become a mainstay in professional racquetball and that fans of the IRT identify him as a major personality in the sport, but to understand him as only as player and referee is to perhaps miss the most important elements of Charlie Pratt. To understand what Pratt would call, “The Big Picture,” is to trace his roots back to early childhood.
The Portland, Oregon native started playing at age six and quickly found himself immersed in the dynamics of the racquetball community at his local athletic club. The hotbed of racquetball in the greater Portland metropolitan area no doubt helped to fuel his passion for the sport as he found himself constantly surrounded by a thriving racquetball culture that nurtured and encouraged participation for young players like him.
Pratt feels indebted to those that have helped him en route to the IRT, which is partly why he has always been a willing and active mentor in junior lessons and clinics over his career. He does it because, as he’ll say, “Hey it’s still practice!”
But there are deeper, more underlying reasons. When he is around a junior player who is inspired to get better and put in the hours of often-solitary practice for the sport he or she loves, Pratt too is inspired. It is a constant refresher for the veteran pro to be around the drive and imagination of youth.
Pratt has all the makings of a great junior coach: good conduct, intelligence, and an ability to communicate. Perhaps the only thing he lacks is a business mind when it comes to junior racquetball. Pratt, who will often drop in on Fran Davis’ camps and other junior clinics around the Northwest rarely accepts money. “How much money do I really need to make off these kids? I can relate to any kid that has a racquet in their hand from age six to 18 because that was me. I always want the kids to have it better than I did.”
Perhaps one of the most foreshadowing tournaments in Pratt’s life came at age 10 when he won his age division at Junior Nationals without dropping a game. He also refereed 30 matches that weekend. “I remember them paying $5 a match to ref, and being only 10 at he time, I really wanted a pair of Oakley sunglasses so I refereed 30 matches, plus the pro player exhibition.”
When asked about what makes a good referee Pratt responds that having good eyesight and an understanding of the level of play are two of the most important factors. “I am lucky and have always been blessed with very good vision. I have seen plenty of refs who know every rule in the book who still miss many calls based on vision or not understanding a player’s capabilities.”
Refereeing as well as playing adds much more to his responsibilities at every event, which can include officiating for eight hours during four quarterfinal matches. The hardest aspect isn’t the long hours, speed of the game, or getting his view blocked. Even the grief players can give him doesn’t affect him, as he understands the level of frustration a pro player can feel over a call. It’s blatant unsportsmanlike conduct and players arguing calls they know are right that perturb him the most.
Rather than souring his view of others around him, Pratt has turned this reflection inwards. “Reffing has shown me the bigger picture of being honest in the court. I know a lot of players will disagree with me because they do not care and it’s their job to play and mine to ref, but for me it’s important on and off the court to be honest.”
Pratt is also known to be an outspoken advocate on diet and nutrition. He was at one time a strict vegetarian, probably the only vegetarian ever ranked in the top 10 in the IRT’s history. Although he has opened up his diet to include some meat, he still believes passionately that what one chooses to eat is a very important decision.
This awakening came when he decided to study up on athlete’s nutrition, and found that the production and cultivation of food creates serious economic, social, moral, and health issues here in the United States. “I became a vegetarian as a boycott from the meat industry for reasons of cruelty and pollution. It turned into me not thinking just about how diet could help me as an athlete, but how I fit into the bigger picture of what I believed in as far as food goes.” Pratt admits that it is at times harder to bulk up and get stronger due to his diet, but that he enjoys an overall sense of well-being.
It is not difficult to understand why Pratt is considered one of the more heady players on Tour. His thoughtful, pensive demeanor and willingness to engage IRT fans in subjects from racquetball to farming has garnered him many supporters within the sport. Little known to most however, is Pratt’s serious yet often discrete approach to giving back. At the 2013 US Open after a disappointing Round of 16 exit, Pratt wanted to make a positive impact on the event, even if he could not do so in the draw. He donated both his prize purse and his referee payment to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
IRT President, Jason Mannino, and UnitedHealthcare US OPEN Tournament Director, Doug Ganim, immediately contacted Pratt to ensure sure he wanted to do so. It had never been done in the sport. Pratt thought little of his generosity, even years later. “I don’t need much money to survive; I know I will be all right. I am always trying to think of the big picture even if I sometimes find myself in small binds.”
When Mannino asked if he could mention the donation to the press, Pratt refused, explaining that he did not want the appearance of a publicity stunt or an attempt to improve his image. Mannino understood and respected the decision.
Pratt chuckles when he responded to the image others may have of him, “I honestly do not know what people think about me. Sometimes I think people imagine I roadtrip across the country in a Winnebago for weeks on end. Hey! I fly like 80 percent of the time!”
It is true, however, that Pratt would much rather spend his time inside of a tent than at a hotel, and that he views tournaments as a way to explore his country. The #9-ranked pro hopes to continue to climb the ladder and play for a long time, understanding what it takes to reach the next level of play after his semifinal debut last season. “It was a growing experience for me for sure, and I am ready to continue the success.”
Photos of Charlie Pratt from 2014 US Open by Ken Fife.
Photo with Fran Davis and Juniors submitted by Fran Davis
Written by Tim Prigo
Tim Prigo is a lifelong racquetball enthusiast who competed in his first tournament at ten years old in Claremont, California, where he grew up. Since then, Tim has played in many IRT events, ranking among the top 40 at his best. He earned a B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy from Franklin Pierce University in 2009, where he spent many years abroad, traveling, and studying. In addition to regularly contributing stories and match recaps for the IRT, Tim is an aspiring poet and sports journalist. He also is the club pro at Lloyd Athletic in Portland, Oregon, where he now resides.