Ben Croft is ahead of the game, the game being racquetball and life.
Croft, the International Racquetball Tour’s seventh-ranked professional, has played on the pro circuit since 2007, earning a steady income from his tourney winnings and sponsorships. In addition, for the last three years he has worked as business manager at the Racquetball Warehouse in California, the largest retail distributor for racquetball products worldwide.
“There are only a handful of jobs out there related to racquetball that don’t include playing on the tour, and I am fortunate enough to have a great one here at Racquetball Warehouse,” Croft said in a recent interview. “I love my job and can’t wait to get to work every morning.”
Not only has Croft carved out a career for himself in racquetball, he also has accomplished something many professional athletes can only dream of doing: he has created a lasting image, a brand, if you will, that is synonymous with his name.
“I guess some view me as the “Bad Boy” of racquetball, but that is just my competitiveness coming out,” Croft said. “I play with a fire.”
Croft is well known for his on-court banter with opponents and spectators, as well as his penchant for verbally sparring with referees. That fire also reveals a fearless competitor who ignores the potential for injury by diving frequently to retrieve shots. Diving is such a staple of his game that he has created a tutorial video on the best, safest method of diving, among others. Over the years he has earned the nickname “Racquetball’s Crash Test Dummy”.
“With the on-court personality I have, I’m sure everyone has their own opinion of who I am off the court as well, when they are really polar opposites. As reckless as my racquetball game is, I’ve never even gotten a ticket while driving — other than for parking — in my life.” This well-documented on-court combativeness likely is the product of having been immersed in adult racquetball leagues at an early age, according to his father, Bob Croft. “I got him playing in a park district league in Lake Forest (a suburb of Chicago) with adults when he was about 11 or 12 years old. The one thing I remember trying to impart on him early on was to not let the grownups intimidate him, to not let them take advantage of him.”
So young Ben absorbed the hard knocks and of playing local leagues and tournaments in his early teens, yet he remained resolute despite a lack of early success according to the elder Croft. “In Ben’s first tournament he competed at the C Level and lost his first match 15-0 and 15-1. I was naturally a little concerned he might get discouraged and lose interest, but he said he wanted to stay with it. He was determined.” Some time after that Ben travelled to Milwaukee to compete in junior nationals, and once again got beaten decisively, this time in the second round by the tournament’s top seed as his dad recalled. “Again, instead of getting discouraged, Ben said he wanted to improve and he got back after it.”
Eventually Ben developed into a top amateur player, holding the intercollegiate record for most championships won (seven) during his four years at Colorado State University at Pueblo. While there he won three singles and four doubles titles. As a junior amateur Ben won the World Junior Racquetball Boys 18-and-Under Division title twice, only the fourth player to ever do so. The other three – Rocky Carson, Jack Huczeck and Sudsy Monchik – all eventually went on to achieve a number one ranking during their respective professional careers.
Since joining the pro tour seven years ago Ben has been ranked in the top 10 every season, rising as high as number three in 2011. He finished last season ranked sixth despite missing three tournaments due to a shoulder injury and losing twice in the round of 16 when he admits he should not have competed. At the end of last season Ben made it to the semifinals of the ProKennex IRT Tournament of Champions before losing to number two-seed Carson in five games. In the quarterfinal round he beat third-seed Alvaro Beltran in three straight games.
Despite an early-round upset at the season opener in September 2014, Ben played into the semifinal round at the 15th Annual Ghost of Georgetown the following weekend. Later he posted to Facebook, “This old man still has a little left in him.” He was right, reaching the quarterfinals at both the US OPEN and Pete Pierce’s St. Louis Party with the Pros, finishing five pro stops in six weeks. To consistently play at such an elite level requires an uncommon level of preparation for the year-round grind of the IRT tour. Yet, Ben recently significantly reduced his conditioning and practice regimen for one important reason: wife, Sarah, and six-month old son, Hudson, are now his primary motivation.“ Now when my work day is over, I can’t wait to get home and spend time with Sarah and Hudson.”
More time spent with the family means less time spent conditioning and practicing – Ben used to practice at least two hours a day — but nowadays he would have it no other way. “I probably practice 90 percent less than I used to,” Ben said. “It is difficult (to stay in top condition). In the past I was practicing and training all the time for racquetball. Now when I get off work I can’t wait to get home and see my wife and son and spend time with them. My focus has shifted totally,” Croft said.
The change in lifestyle has made Ben adopt a new playing strategy as well. “I know I am not nearly in as good a shape as I used to be, and my strategy has changed 180 degrees,” Croft said. “In the past my goal was to put constant pressure on my opponent, to try and wear them out by using my youth and superior conditioning. I would serve quickly once I was in the service box to keep the tempo fast. I even took to wearing three T-shirts so we wouldn’t have to interrupt play to wipe sweat off the floor,” Croft said.
“Now I try to end rallies a lot sooner, kill the ball more and hit more drive serves to shorten the rallies. There is more risk in that strategy, but it has its rewards also.” The new strategy succeeded at the ProKennex Tournament of Champions, as Ben used more power serves and attempted more rally-ending kills than ever before. “For the most part it did work. In the first two games against Alvaro I was able to win 11-3 and 11-3, which helped shorten the match and conserve some energy,” Ben said. “It showed me I can win games that way.” Ben said he was a “little disappointed” that he eventually ran out of steam, losing a five-game match to Carson to end the season.
“Still, I feel I ended the season on a positive note and am looking forward to one more season,” Ben said. “I plan to rest during the summer and give my injured shoulder a rest.” During the 23rd Annual Turkey Shoot in Garden City, KS last November, Ben tore the labrum in his right shoulder diving for a ball. He said he will not have the injury surgically repaired because the projected recovery time for such an operation is about 10 months. “If I were to undergo surgery and have to take that much time off to recover at this age, I know I wouldn’t play professional racquetball again. So I plan to play through the pain one more season and see how it goes. I can play with the injury, but I know it won’t fix itself.”
Jason Mannino, president of the IRT and former tour player, praised Ben’s ability to work through pain and injury and said he has noticed Ben’s development as a pro. “You see it in a lot of pros when they get into their late 20s, they evolve. I saw it with guys like Sudsy Monchik, Rocky Carson and others. Ben’s game is evolving,” Mannino said. “In past years I am not sure he had a lot of confidence in his backhand, but he is a mature man now, has added weight and strength, and can hit the ball a lot harder now.”
Ben said that, ironically enough, it was a match against Mannino shortly after Ben went on the pro tour that provided a confidence boost and made him realize he belonged with the elite tour players. “It was a tournament in Florida and Jason had beaten me two straight games. Then I dove for a ball and gashed my chin hitting a side wall. Later I needed nine stitches to close the wound,” Ben said. Playing with his face heavily bandaged Ben came back to win the next three games, the final game after being down 10-6. “I think that match raised some eyebrows, and winning against such a great player as Jason gave me confidence I could play consistently at that level.” Mannino also recalled that match. “I think it was a testament to Ben and the type of person and player he is.”
When informed he is the highest ranked male tour professional ever to come out of the racquetball-rich Chicago area – others on the pro circuit have included the likes of Tim Sweeney, Sean Moskwa, John Amatulli, Keith Minor and Jack Newman – Ben was surprised. “Until now I never really thought about it, never realized it. To be mentioned in the same sentence as some of those great players that I looked up to is really kind of awesome.” Although he’s not ready to concede he is on the downside of his playing career at the age of 29, he says he is at peace knowing the inevitable conclusion to a noteworthy playing career drifts ever closer.
Working for The Racquetball Warehouse and devotion to his family has made it an easy transition. “If you would have told me years ago I’d be managing all business operations of the largest racquetball retailer in the world, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now that I’m here I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. I absolutely love coming to work,” Ben said.
Don Grigas is an award-winning journalist who grew up on the south side of Chicago and is now living in Bolingbrook, IL, where he first developed a passion for racquetball. In 1979 Don played his first game of racquetball at the Bolingbrook Park District Racquet and Health Club. Within two years Don rose from a Novice to an Open player, and shortly thereafter became the club professional at the Naper Olympic Fitness Center for more than 20 years until that facility closed in 2007. After winning three state championships in doubles, Don retired from active playing and now writes for the IRT web site, as well as working on other free lance projects.