The men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT), the world’s fastest sport, saw the rapid advance last season of a handful of players who are now emerging as top ranked pros. Perhaps no player has risen so quickly and dynamically in the IRT rankings year as Mario Mercado, the mercurial 21-year-old Colombian who now holds down the Tour’s #10 ranking.
At the end of the 2014-2015 season Mercado, a former international junior champion, had a ranking of 117 with 42 points earned; his current #10 ranking (1,436.8 points) represents a quantum leap of more than 100 spots in the Tour’s overall rankings.
With a successful 2015-2016 IRT Season now behind him, Mercado says the confidence he gained in matches against top pros like Kane Waselenchuk – the Tour’s top-ranked player the last 10 years – #2-ranked Rocky Carson, Alvaro Beltran and Daniel De La Rosa, provides him with a clear vision of the future.
“My goal is, in five years, to be ranked in the top three players and continue to grow professionally and personally,” said Mercado, now being called “Super Mario” by friends.
Like many racquetball professionals Mercado grew up as a club gym rat.
At the age of 10 his father and mother exposed him to the sport, and he played regularly at the UPB (Universidad Privada Boliviana) Club in Cochabamba, Bolivia. “I knew the first time I touched a racquet I wanted to be a professional racquetball player,” Mercado said.
By the age of 14 he stopped playing competitive soccer in order to concentrate solely on racquetball. “My parents introduced me to racquetball, and at first just my father helped me train. Later on Juan Carlos, may he rest in peace, helped me,” Mercado said. Now coached by Juan Manuel Guiterez, Mercado is recognized as one of the Tour’s up-and-coming stars who possesses a wicked backhand splat and is a tenacious competitor on the court.
Mercado started the 2015-2016 season inconspicuously with a loss to Carson in the Round of 16s at the Novasors Ghost of Georgetown Kansas City Open in September 2015. The 11-5, 11-4, 11-9 loss to Carson was one of four losses to Carson this past season, and his other matches against Carson demonstrate his progress.
Two months later, at the St. Louis Winter Rollout, Carson laid an 11-2, 11-0, 11-4 drubbing on Mercado in the semifinals. The match came after Mercado showed a glimpse of his potential when he defeated Alvaro Beltran in the Round of 16s before besting Mauricio Zelada in the quarterfinals. It was the first time Mercado made it to the semifinals of a Tier 1 Event. In the win over Beltran, Mercado won a scintillating five-game match by scores of 5-11, 15-13, 11-5, 7-11, 11-4 before defeating Zelada in straight games, earning the right to face Carson.
He squared off two more times with Carson: an 11-5, 11-8, 11-9 loss in the quarterfinals of the Raising Some Racquet For Kids Pro Stop in early April; and a tightly-contested 11-9, 8-11, 11-9, 11-7 loss in the quarterfinals of the Coast to Coast California Open in May.
During his remarkable rise last season Mercado also lost two five-game matches to Daniel De La Rosa – currently holding the number three IRT ranking – at the Galaxy Custom Printing IRT Pro/Am and the Red Swain Shootout.
Far from being discouraged by the losses to top players, Mercado experienced enough success that he is more highly motivated now more than ever.
“I learned a lot from every player I played: the precision of Alvaro and Kane, the mentality of Rocky. I learned how to control my nervousness and maintain a positive attitude to win every game,” Mercado said. Most important, he developed one of the most important aspects of the game necessary to compete week after week—consistency.
Carson, who competed with Mercado in the season’s first tournament as well as the final one, recognized the progress he made over nine months on tour.
“Where Mario took his game in this last season was from being a great player learning to play pro ball to a top professional IRT player,” Carson said. “He was able to sustain a level of play which kept him in games and matches that were previously hard for him to stay in.”
For some players it takes years to develop the confidence necessary to know – not just think – they can compete with, and defeat, the top players. Some never attain that level. Mercado seems to have reached that level of confidence and consistency in his first full season on Tour.
“Getting to the top is not always how good you can play, but sustaining a high level of play, not just for one game or one match, but throughout a tournament,” Carson said. Mercado has risen to that level in one year, and he now appears poised to try and break through into the top five over the next few years.
Mercado said his victories last season over Beltran and his close losses to De La Rosa and Carson in his final 2015-2016 tournament has fueled the fire in his belly to continue his progress. In addition, Mercado’s skill set, drive and work ethic will serve him well as he continues to develop.
“I train every day three to four hours, Monday through Saturday,” Mercado said. “I plan to keep training like that until next season. I attribute a lot of my success to constant training, as well as persistently playing tournaments, the support of Colombia, my sponsor and the Reaching Your Dream Foundation. If not for them, as well as Mike Lippitt, my coach, and Mauricio Zelada (Formulaflow owner and #12-ranked IRT player), without them my success would not have been possible.”
During the off season Mercado said he keeps his game sharp by playing several up and coming players like Andres Acuna, Adam Manilla, Coby Iwaasa and Conrrado Moscoso. He also said he benefits from playing regularly with other Colombian players like Sebastian Franco and Alejandro Herrera. “In Colombia, the training is really great,” Mercado said.
As for the upcoming 2016-2017 IRT Season, Mercado is preparing diligently. “I plan to play the entire season,” he said.
By Don Grigas
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 as well as working on other freelance projects.