Ask a room full of racquetball enthusiasts who the greatest player is and two names are likely float to the top of the list: Cliff Swain and Kane Waselenchuk. Although not exactly contemporaries (most of Swain’s success took place in the 90s; Waselenchuk currently reigns at the top), these two pros have a lot in common—more even than being lefties with power games that dominate the sport. While their success puts them in the same category, Swain and Waselenchuk have their unique aspects as well.
By his own admission, Swain got a later start in the game of racquetball than most top players. “I was probably thirteen-and–a-half years old when I picked up a racquet,” he says. “My dad played a lot of handball, so I’d go with him to the outdoor courts in south Boston. Most people were playing racquetball—I picked up a racquet and started hitting around with other players.” Soon after, he had beaten the winner of a regional tournament for his age group and won a men’s C3 tournament.
Swain credits his quick success in racquetball to the fact that he had played both hockey and baseball. “I think hockey is similar to racquetball in that there is explosive movement followed by rapid recovery while baseball helped develop hand-eye coordination and overall athleticism.” His parents recognized his natural talent for racquetball and encouraged him to work hard to get better. “I learned mental toughness and work ethic from my dad, so that every single time I stepped onto a court, I was prepared to play.”
Swain’s best weapon, his serve, was “blistering” according to Waselenchuk as he describes his first on-court experience playing against Swain. Playing on the show court at a tournament in Las Vegas when Swain was still the dominant player on the tour, Waselenchuk remembers thinking it was pretty cool for an up-and-coming Canadian National Team player—the Canadian National Champion, no less—to be playing against Swain.
“I was a little nervous at first,” admits Waselenchuk, nerves perhaps being only part of the reason behind the 11-1 first game drubbing—Swain’s serve more likely was the bigger reason. Although Waselenchuk pulled out the second game 11-2, Swain won the tiebreaker 11-8. Swain’s serve and hard, precise rallies gave him an edge that few other competitors could match, let alone overcome.
Swain’s longevity in a physically demanding sport is also noteworthy. He was listed among the top ten players in the world for more than 20 years over the course of his career. The general shift to cross-training and physical conditioning in the world of sports helped Swain reach “another level of fitness at the ‘old’ age of 30.” Aches and pains from the demands he put on his body convinced him to add more weight training. He started working with a strength and conditioning coach as well as with a competitive group of elite athletes. “My aches and pains went away and I got stronger and faster. Weight training probably added years to my career,” Swain says.
Other changes in the game and the equipment took place throughout Swain’s tenure. The racquet head got bigger, which increased the sweet spot making the game faster and more power-driven. Players started paying attention to string tension and composition. The players themselves were more athletic. “Equipment changes allowed for more parity,” Swain surmises. “Players who needed more power or who needed to handle their opponents’ power could rely more on their equipment to help them,” he says.
During the 1990s, the decade of Swain’s domination (he was ranked #1 or #2 eight of ten years), a change to the game rules allowed players only one serve instead of two to put the ball in play. Not that the change hurt his serving ability. “Cliff is probably the best server ever,” says Jason Mannino, a former #1 player who now serves as president of the International Racquetball Tour. “He was great at deception—he won a lot of points on aces.” Swain also had an aggressive style of play—he made you feel like he was defending his turf. “It was like he was offended by the fact you were on the court,” Mannino explains.
“I just feel that I did what I was supposed to do,” Swain says. “I took care of myself physically and practiced and paid attention to the fundamentals of the game.” Swain’s talent and work ethic brought him success that will no doubt continue to be part of racquetball history.
“My first memories are of Mom, Dad, and racquetball,” says Kane Wasenlenchuk regarding his early start in the sport. “I started playing with my dad when I was about two years old—the racquets were too heavy, so I’d hold a 2-liter Coke bottle by the nozzle and hit with that.” When he entered his first tournament, his equipment was a little more conventional—a racquet with a shaved-down handle his father had customized for his four-year-old hand. Seeing racquetball as a good father-son activity, the Waselenchuks spent several years on the junior circuit, culminating in a World Championship title for Kane at the ripe old age of nine.
Then, at about 12 years of age, Wasenlenchuk turned into a normal pre-teen boy who felt like it might not be “so cool to hang out with dad.” So he quit racquetball and got into hockey (not surprising…he is Canadian, after all). After three or four years, when he was about 16, his dad talked him back onto the courts. Success came relatively quickly as he won his first national tournament when he was 17, and he began to consider taking the sport more seriously.
Not long after that tournament, he played his first match against Cliff Swain in Las Vegas. Although Swain won in a third set tiebreaker, Waselenchuk felt the spotlight hit him right away. While still playing for Team Canada, Wasenlenchuk felt drawn to check out the pro tour. After winning the seventh pro tournament he entered as an amateur, he was approached by some sponsors and, at 20 years of age, decided to go pro. “I took advantage of the opportunity in front of me, although there was a lot of criticism from those who thought I should maybe go to college,” he says. His decision has obviously worked out well.
Wasenlenchuk loves the game, the battle that takes place during a match, but admits it gets harder to stay focused and not get complacent as the years go on. “Racquetball used to be number one for me—I could be selfish about it. My motivation was to prove I could do things, especially things people told me I couldn’t do,” referring to his reign at the top and tournament win streak. “Now I’m a dad and my kids are number one, so the motivation has changed. Now I want to provide well for my family—anyone I’m playing is trying to take money from my kids…so I don’t want to lose!”
Losing is something he hasn’t done for quite a while. Says Mannino, “In addition to having the attributes of speed, control, and power, Kane also has soft hands, so he can manipulate the ball. Kane’s ‘edge’ is the personal gratification he gets from winning—it’s internal, like another notch in his belt.”
“Kane’s game is exceptional—there’s not much he can’t do,” agrees Cliff Swain. Not only are Waselenchuk’s fundamental skills excellent, but he also has the amazing ability for keeping balls in play (or hitting winners) when it seems impossible. Shots from between his legs, behind his back, or while balancing on the tops of his feet seem to be as much a part of his arsenal as touch shots and driving power shots. “I played by myself a lot when I was younger,” he explains, “so I challenged myself to make unusual shots. I love improvising—so those kinds of shots are usually when I’m out of position or it just happens to be the best angle to hit.”
In spite of the win streak and multi-year status as #1 in the world, Waselenchuk admits that at some point it will change. “Can I be beat? Of course…all the top players are good. There’s a perception that I never have a bad game or that I’ve always played better,” he says. “That’s not necessarily true, even though I ended up with the win.”
Waselenchuk has set the bar pretty high for himself—there are still some records out there to be broken. “I’ll go as long as I can be confident that I can be #1…but who knows…I might be that guy who keeps playing long after he should have retired!” If that becomes the case, it will simply be due to his love of the game.
About the IRT: Founded in 1990, the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) features 300 players competing in over 20 Top-Tier and more than 50 Satellite tournaments in Latin America, the United States, and Canada. Pro/Am tournaments draw professional, amateur, and college entrants during the September through May competitive season. Pro/Am tournaments can draw over 700 professional, collegiate, and amateur players from juniors to master competitors. The amateur players compete in age and skill divisions ranging from beginner to open level for both singles and doubles.