The 2017 Florida IRT (men’s professional International Racquetball Tour) Pro-Am racquetball tournament on April 27-30 in gorgeous Sarasota, Fla., is setup to be a dramatic final Tier 1 event of the 2016-2017 IRT season, with perennial favorite Kane Waselenchuk expected to return after missing the last major pro stop because of the flu.
Rocky Carson won the previous Tier 1 in Ohio, defeating Daniel De La Rosa, 12-10, 11-9, 9-11, 11-8. All three — ranked 1, 2, 3, respectively, in the IRT rankings — will be in the highly competitive pro draw, along with nearly all the top 10 IRT players, as well as scores of other ranked players.
“King Kane” no doubt has his sights set on winning to help him finish the season in August as the #1-ranked IRT player for an astounding 12th consecutive year, to go along with his record 12 US Open Championships.
Carson won last year’s Florida IRT Pro-Am, with a five-game thriller over De La Rosa. Waselenchuk, who typically dominates every tournament, dropped out of that event in the Round of 16s because of an injury.
De La Rosa, a 23-year-old racquetball phenom from Mexico, has been pushing the older generation of stars — Waselenchuk, Carson and Alvaro Beltran — for the past couple of years. He has notched two IRT Tour titles, most recently at the Lewis Drug Pro-Am IRT Tier 1 this past January in Sioux Falls, S.D. In the final, he defeated Beltran, his longtime idol and close friend.
Heading to Florida, De La Rosa said his goal is to do the “best I can do” by putting an emphasis on training.
“I’m working on my game to get better, and I see some improvement when I play Kane and when I play Rocky,” he said.
He noted that he must get in a little better shape. “I have to train a little bit more — my cardio — because I have the shots and I have the strategy,” De La Rosa said. “What I struggle with the most right now is my conditioning.”
He and his coaches have devised a plan to train more, but that might be a little tricky because he and his wife, Michelle, a Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour (LPRT) pro player, welcomed a baby girl on Friday, April 14.
Since joining the IRT Tour in 2008-09, De La Rosa — who began playing racquetball when he was 3 years old — has shot up the ranks, going from #92 to #19 to #9 and now #3. “I was born with a racquet in my hand,” he said, laughing.
One of his goals is to help “grow” interest in the game because he’s seen a drop off in its popularity. It helps the sport, he added, that there are several exciting young players, including #5 Jose Rojas, #7 Markie Rojas, #8 Sebastian Franco and #9 Mario Mercado.
Although still very young, De La Rosa already sounds like a grizzled veteran. “When I was like 16, I could get all balls and never get tired,” he said. “But now I feel it when playing with those guys. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, how did he get that ball?’”
With that in mind, fans can expect to see outstanding play when the pros turn out en masse for the 2017 Florida IRT Pro-Am tournament. And to add some spice, Chad Bailey and Rob Lyons, who run the event, have added a few wrinkles — a radar gun to measure who hits the racquetball the hardest, a ping pong competition and a 50/50 raffle.
“I did the radar gun back in 2009 and people just loved it,” Bailey said. “They had fits over it. They just wanted to do it over and over again. And I did awards for men and women.”
He estimated the male winners — we’re talking amateur players — clocked in at about 150 miles per hour. The hitters stand at the front wall and shoot at the back wall, with a pitcher’s speed gun used to measure pace — it’s not the most scientific test but people take it seriously, according to Bailey.
As for the pro racquetball players, Bailey said they really help draw crowds to the tournament. “People are more excited to come,” he said. “They don’t want to miss them. When certain matches are going on, they don’t want to miss that.”
His favorite player is probably Carson, but he noted all the guys are “cool,” including Waselenchuk, De La Rosa and the Rojas brothers (Jose and Marco).
Bailey particularly likes when the pros hang out and chat with fans. “Rocky (Carson) will sit there and will talk to you about the dumbest things,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to him.”
How cool is that?
By Jim Medina
Jim Medina is an award-winning journalist who got hooked on racquetball at the former Dan Gamel’s Racquet Club in Fresno, CA. A graduate of Fresno State, he now lives in Oxnard, CA. He is an A-level player striving to raise his game with the help of a thriving racquetball community at LA Fitness in neighboring Ventura. He is a media consultant who can be reached at email@example.com.