The International Racquetball Tour (IRT) kicks off the 2010-11 season the second weekend in September. This season offers unprecedented opportunities for fan participation and excitement. The schedule so far has twenty Tier One and three Grand Slam events planned.
2010-11 Season Preview
In addition to these signs of vitality, the rankings themselves are of particular interest due to a few factors that might lend excitement to the race for spots four through ten. The top three spots appear somewhat locked, with no indication that Kane Waselenchuk will give up his foothold on number one, and Jack Huczek and Rocky Carson seemingly entrenched at two and three. However, three factors could offer more opportunity for upward mobility in spots four through ten than in recent years.
The high number of events, the reintroduction of the two-serve rule, and two vacancies at the top formerly held by Jason Mannino and Alvaro Beltran for the past five seasons - are all factors that could shake up rankings four through ten. The battle for position will be especially interesting to watch in the first part of the season as we see who will capitalize on the openings, and as Beltran's post injury capabilities become more apparent.
Beltran will come into the season ranked number thirty-two after missing the 2009/10 season due to a knee injury. If he regains much of the consistency that has secured his position in the top four since 2005, he has the potential to play the role of spoiler. At thirty-one, Beltran is one of the oldest players on tour. In the only event he played at last season's end in Tijuana, Mexico, Beltran hinted that he is not done, taking out Mitch Williams and Jason Mannino before reaching his typical place in the semi-finals and losing to relative newcomer Ben Croft. Beltran's first loss to Croft put the up-and-comer into his first Tier One finals and bolstered his season ending rank to six, both career firsts for Croft in his three years on tour.
Beltran and Mannino missing at the top should have little impact on Waselenchuk, Huczek, and Carson. Barring injury, the effect of the increased number of events won't have much effect on these three either, since they all emphasize conditioning a great deal. The serve rule probably won't impact their games against each other, unless Huczek and Carson can identify a thus-far unexploited weakness in Waselenchuk or each other. Huczek maintains an advantage over Carson when comparing careers over the long run, but recently the two have played evenly, neither giving away any long term advantage from game to game or in the overall statistics.
2010/11 will be Carson's twelfth season, but he's only been in the top four for the most recent four years. Huczek's ten year career started two seasons after Carson, but his climb has been more rapid and consistent, having maintained his ranking in the top four for all but the first of his nine seasons. In spite of the contrast, he and Carson play extremely close, each having narrowly beaten the other for the number one spot during Waselenchuk's two year absence in seasons 2006/07 and 2007/08. Huczek finished 2006/07 at number one and Carson took it away from him in 2007/08. The two players both have unrelenting fitness standards and tend to rely more on control than Waselenchuk, who is so far fairly unapproachable in his physicality.
Carson - who has a somewhat dynamic, non-traditional style - has experienced a number of peaks and valleys throughout his career. Number two ranked Huczek is the more consistent of the two and his ranking is once again on an upward trajectory from the first and only dip in his career, when he dropped down to number three in 08/09. In this upcoming season, having regained the number two ranking, he is trading places with Carson for the second time and forcing him down to three again. Although Carson seems well prepared for a few more seasons of peak performance, at thirty-one, along with Beltran, and Crowther, he will be one of the oldest full time players (compared to Huczek's twenty-seven). That being said, aside from Waselenchuk, Carson is currently the most troubling player on tour for Huczek. Their records against each other are nearly split. Although tour newcomer Croft has beaten Carson twice, no other players have so far been able to consistently challenge these top three players. This implies that as long as Carson maintains his advantage over Croft, it's likely the top three positions will remain the same this season.
The question of who will move into the number four ranking is a less easily answered question, having been occupied for the past five years alternately by Mannino and Beltran. Mannino has stated he will not be playing pro events, and putting aside his determination to rise, Beltran is starting the season at thirty-two after taking last year off from knee surgery. This leaves Croft (#6), Shane Vanderson (#5), and Chris Crowther (#7) positioned to break into the top four for the first time in their respective careers.
At thirty-one, #7 ranked Chris Crowther may be the least likely, having reached the semis only once so far in his four years in the top ten. However last season proved to be Crowther's best on tour, with he and Croft emerging as the only two top players previously ranked beneath Beltran to jump up two places in the rankings (Crowther from nine to seven, and Croft from eight to six).
Although Crowther is the same age as Carson and Beltran, he has only played in the top ten for the past five years (compared to Carson's eleven, and Beltran's nine). Perhaps a case of talent realized too late in his career, Crowther may not yet have played his best game. Between Ben Croft and Mitch Williams pressuring him for position in the rankings, he will need to have another stellar season to increase his ranking. For Crowther, this upcoming season will be an indicator of his ability to advance, or at least keep pace in the top eight. He is known to be a crusher, and the service rule change could favor him. So far he has shown that he can maintain the pace from a conditioning point of view.
As far as the other candidates for number four are concerned, Vanderson is currently ranked the highest. However, he has not made it to the finals since 2004, in spite of consistently making the semis several times each season. His ranking seems to have plateaued at number five for the past four seasons, in spite of some rapid moves as a rookie - launching at first from ten to seven, then to five within his first few seasons. In addition to whatever problems a returning Beltran poses to his career goals, Vanderson will also experience the increasing pressure of younger threats in Croft and Jose Rojas. When looking at the records of Crowther, Vanderson, and Croft, Croft’s recent breakthroughs in the latter rounds and his success against Carson seem to indicate a reasonable chance of moving past Crowther and Vanderson this season.
Generally speaking, after the players have had a chance to get used to it, the latter round outcomes will begin to tell the story of the effect of the two-serve rule. Big servers such as Crowther and Williams would appear to gain from it, but Waselenchuk has already been successfully using the big serve, so it's hard to say how much of an equalizing effect it will have against him.
Huczek and Carson may benefit because they have the control to move the ball around the court, especially on return of serve. The one obvious effect is that it will allow those players that have already been successful with lobs and Z’s to go for broke knowing that they have a second chance. As far as the impact of fitness, Croft and Carson are in excellent shape and put a lot of pressure on their opponents. Huczek's controlled game style promotes long rallies and he is known to be tireless on court. Vanderson - as one of the best pure shooters - tends to promote shorter rallies, but depending on his off season preparation may struggle with the conditioning demands of so many events.
Players like Andy Hawthorne, with his relentless diving, may experience higher levels of physical stress from so many events. Physical readiness could be another cause for some swings in the top ten. As far as fans of the tour are concerned, rankings four through ten could be more exciting than ever in the sport's history.
With a little analysis of player records and knowledge of the point system, the impact of matches on individual career goals and rankings can be followed on the internet live via the IRT Network (www.IRTNetwork.com).
Looking at time lines that span the short thirty-seven year history of professional racquetball, it becomes apparent that each tournament performance helps to define an entire career. Even though number one will most likely be a lock for Waselenchuk, the outcomes of most of the other matches impact especially those careers which have not yet reached maturity, but are working vigorously at establishing themselves in the record books.
Being able to understand the impact of wins and losses and follow the changes in the rankings is a new opportunity for racquetball fans. As a result of these changes, the sport is beginning to appeal to a greater number of enthusiasts.
2010/11 will be a good year for the IRT and its fans.