Kane Waselenchuk versus Rocky Carson at the 2013 UnitedHealthcare US Open Final by restrungmag

Pulling Rank: The First Half of the 2014-2015 IRT Season

altThe 2014-2015 International Racquetball Tour (IRT) season began well for pro racquetball players, Rocky Carson and Kane Waselenchuk, who played in the finals of both the Krowning Moment Bobcat Open and Ghost of Georgetown Novasors Kansas City IRT Open. The Bobcat Open, which had been a satellite event up until this season, allowed many players to add to their point totals simply by attending. Kane and Rocky certainly took advantage of the opportunity, but a couple of other players took maximum advantage of the opportunity.

The greatest beneficiary of the Bob Cat Open’s increased status to tier 1 was definitely Alejandro Landa, who choose an impeccable time to string together two great matches by defeating Alvaro in the 16’s and Crowther in the quarterfinals before eventually falling to Rocky in the semis. His top 4 finish would garner him 220 points and shoot him up the rankings to #13. Marco Rojas also stepped up at the event, defeating Ben Croft in a 5-game battle to earn a spot in the quarterfinals and gain some ground in the rankings. Tony Carson bested Jansen Allen to pull back ahead and into the top 8 after getting edged out the previous season.

Alvaro and Ben both regrouped for the Novasors Ghost of Georgetown Kansas City IRT ProAm, making the semifinals over Charlie Pratt and Jose Rojas respectively. The early exit was doubly bad for Rojas, as he had won this tournament the previous year after handing Kane his first contested loss in over a year, and then outlasting Rocky in the final.

On the other hand, Pratt’s victory over Tony Carson in the 16s was doubly good, as it swung the points in his favor after his early exit in the round of 32 at the event in 2013 at the hands of Mike Green. Meanwhile, Jansen Allen and Daniel De La Rosa each droppped about 60 points after exiting in the round of 16 instead of the quarterfinal finishes they had the year before. Perhaps the oddest, if not unexpected, result was Kane gaining almost 200 points by improving his finish to winning the event from a semifinal loss to Rojas in 2013.

The 2014 UnitedHealthcare US OPEN Racquetball Championships followed, and players made concerted efforts to bring their best games. Kane’s dominance overshadowed almost all other results in the tournament, as he not only swept away all competition in singles by giving away less than five points per game on his way to a record setting 10th US OPEN singles title, but also teamed up with Ben Croft to dominate the doubles, capturing the first ever Pro Doubles title at the US OPEN. Perhaps the only story not completely displaced by Kane’s performance was Alejandro Landa’s, who again chose the best possible time to bring his A-game, defeating Jose Rojas in the 16’s and Mexican compatriot Daniel De La Rosa in the quarterfinals to make his second semifinal appearance of the season. This garnered Landa another 440 points, 260 more than his round of 16 exit in 2013, and moved him up the rankings an additional spot to #12. Alvaro also made up a bit of lost ground to Rocky by defeating him in the semis to make the final, and Tony Carson regained some points by defeating Jansen Allen in the 16’s to make the quarterfinals.

Pete Pierce’s Party with the Pros in St. Louis was next on the docket, with a smaller draw than most Tier 1 events allowing fresher qualifying players to make it through for a shot at the top pros. No one could take advantage of the opportunity though, as all top 8 seeds made it through to the quarterfinals. In fact, the tournament stayed very true to seeding, with all seeds finishing exactly how their rank predicted: Rocky (#1) over Alvaro (#2) in the final, Rojas (#3) and De La Rosa (#4) being dispatched in the semis, and Croft (#5), Crowther (#6), Carson (#7), and Allen (#8) dropping out in the quarterfinals.

The notable exception here was Kane, who withdrew from the tournament citing an injury – at the time presumed to have been sustained during play at the US Open – but what we now know as a recurring inner-ear problem that has plagued him most of his career. Also not known at the time, was the fact that he would miss the remainder of events in the calendar year due to the surgery to correct this; the only exception would be the 2014 Garden City IRT Turkey Shoot, from which he withdrew due to injury after winning his first match in the Round of 16.

The weekend following the event in St. Louis saw no Tier 1 events held, but a number of satellite tournaments, which the top pros split up to attend depending on the tier level and their ranking. Alvaro, Rocky, Rojas, Crowther, and Landa all attended the Tier 2 Racquetball de IRA event in Juarez, Mexico, as well as the San Luis Open Tier 2 event the weekend after. Meanwhile Jansen Allen would take in the Atlanta Open Tier 4 and Ben Croft the Tier 5 Minot Open. The two Tier 2 titles would gain Alvaro an additional 240 points, a similar amount to a Tier 1 semi-final appearance, and closed the gap to #2 Rocky Carson, who he defeated in the final of the IRA Tier 2 and who was absent from the San Luis Open. The rest of the players would gain about 50 points each for their efforts

The Red Swain Shootout in Davison, Michigan followed the brief satellite tour, where Rocky took some momentum back from Alvaro, who had been closing the point gap all season. Rocky’s victory not only improved his point position from a semifinal exit at the hands of De La Rosa the year before, but at the same time worsened Alvaro’s – last year’s champion – and put back in place the cushion Alvaro had been chipping away at most of the season thus far. Unfortunately, it didn’t close the gap between him and Kane, as the world #1 had not attended this event the previous season.

The most interesting story of the tournament though was likely hometown favorite and former IRT #1 Cliff Swain, who nearly repeated his fantastic semifinal run from last season which saw him dispatch both Rojas brothers before falling to Beltran, the eventual champion. This year the run ended heartbreakingly early, as De La Rosa dispatched him in the quarterfinals 11-9 tiebreaker. Jose Rojas also regained some points by making the semis, improving on his loss to Swain in the round of 16 last season while De La Rosa receded due to a semifinal loss vs making the final in 2013.

The second-to-last event of the calendar year saw most pros put on their roadtrip hats, as the nearest large airport to Garden City, Kansas, is a few hours away! Nonetheless, the organizers put on a fantastic event with the 24th Annual Turkey Shootout IRT ProAm. The pros happily obliged. The obvious headline of the event was Kane’s return to competition. Unfortunately, it became clear that he was not 100% after he forfeited his quarterfinal match against Tony Carson citing a reoccurrence of his inner ear problem. For Kane, even the quarterfinal exit was an improvement over his finish in 2013, as he had skipped this event the year prior due to an injury.

Kane’s early exit opened up the draw for others, and Croft took advantage, defeating Tony in three quick games to book a spot in the final. The other side of the draw had its own share of drama though, as Jose Diaz took advantage of loose play from Charlie Pratt to make the quarterfinals, while Jansen Allen elevated his game against a struggling Jose Rojas to make his Tier 1 semifinal. Neither Diaz nor Allen had an answer for Rocky though as he cruised through to the final to meet Croft. A tight four-game victory over Ben secured Rocky’s points carried forward from last season. Ben’s improvement netted him about 80 points and decreased the gap between himself and #5 De La Rosa, while Rojas regained rightful points to more firmly establish himself at #4.

The big question going into the ROLLOUT New Jersey IRT Open, the last Tier 1 of the calendar year, was again, “Who would be able to step up and take advantage of Kane’s absence?” The answer was Daniel De La Rosa. Without an easy road to the final, the young Mexican dispatched #5 seed Jansen Allen in the quarterfinals and played some of the best racquetball of his career to overcome Rocky in the semis and Alvaro in the final to capture the first Tier 1 title of his blossoming career.

De La Rosa truly showed what the future of the IRT looks like, and it looks phenomenal. His ungodly retrieval abilities, seemingly impossible power, and ease of hitting on the move definitely point to a #1 ranking sometime in his future; the question now is when, not if… With Rojas making an early quarterfinal exit at the hands of Charlie Pratt, De La Rosa’s first win coming at the most opportune of times, and the point swing edging him past Rojas for the #4 ranking heading into the new year. 

Losing in the semis was not ideal for Rocky, but due to Kane’s absence Rocky was still able to close the point gap, now sitting at 358. Alvaro must have been kicking himself, not only because of the great opportunity he missed by not capturing his second Tier 1 title, but because a win would have gained him much-needed points to shrink the sizeable point spread Rocky built over the last several events. By the end of 2014, Rocky’s lead over Alvaro sat at 390 points.

De La Rosa (2136) and Rojas (2044) have shown they are in a dogfight for the #4 spot, with Croft (1832) only a couple hundred points behind. A strong start by Croft in the new year could see that dynamic become extremely interesting.

Meanwhile rumors spread about Chris Crowther’s retirement were seriously substantiated by his lack of attendance at the last several Tier 1 events. Nonetheless, he remains in the rankings at #7, with a very small 8-point lead over #8 Marco Rojas. “Markie,” as he is known, increased participation in Tier 1 events this season and demonstrated strong play, which allowed him to gain almost 400 points over his 2013-14 total. His ranking will continue to rise with Crowther’s absence, and we will likely see the younger Rojas take the #7 spot in the New Year. With a few upsets he could also be in the mix with Croft, De La Rosa, and his older brother, Jose, for one of the #4-6 spots.

Despite gaining almost 200 points on his total from last season, Jansen Allen has been pushed to #9 while Tony Carson dropped to #10 after missing New Jersey. Charlie Pratt put some much-needed points in the bank by making the semifinals in Jersey, but even after gaining 400 points over last season’s total, he still remains at #11. That being said, with less than 250 points separating #6 from #11, the top 8 is still very much attainable for all players in that group.

Alejandro Landa could also be in that group if he continues his strong play and attendance at the Tier 1 events. He has moved up 7 places to #12 and added almost 700 points to his ranking total – more than he garnered in last season’s entirety! This puts the largest point gap on the rankings between himself and #13 Jose Diaz, well behind with 738, with young gun Danny Lavely, IRT referee Matthew Majxner, and David Horn rounding out the top 16.

The New Year is sure to bring a lot of speculation, excitement, and great racquetball on the IRT. There has already been an abundance of all of these this season, but I for one believe the best is yet to come. With new tricks and improvements from summer training revealed, the players will use the holiday down time to rest, recuperate, and more importantly make adjustments and improvements to take their games for the second half of the season. I can’t wait to see what they bring.

Written By  Tim Landeryou

Photo by restrungmag.com