Oh, the Anticipation
For some of us, the US Open just can’t arrive soon enough once the racquetball season starts. The glitz, the glamour, and the ravenous appetite to witness the top players in the world locking horns early in the season with major points and prize money on the line make the US Open a highly anticipated event each season on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT). The impatient fans were rewarded earlier than normal as the US Open played out several weeks early in the 2011-2012 IRT season due to the Pan American games scheduled at the end of October. This presented a different challenge than normal for the pros as they only had one tier one event under their belts and only a couple weeks to make adjustments after the season’s first major tournament in Kansas City.
The Stakes are Real
With major points on the line, the US Open is the initial event that really sets the stage for the first part of the season. An early-round upset can put a top player behind the eight ball and force him to play catch-up the rest of the year, while allowing a lower-seeded player to make a quick jump in the rankings and provide favorable seeding opportunities in subsequent tournaments.
Obviously, those who made it the furthest last year have the most potential points to lose. Since Kane Waselenchuk won it last year he had the most to lose, but the odds heavily favored him to repeat as champion. Alvaro Beltran made it to the finals last year so he was next up to potentially lose the most ground if he had an early exit. Alvaro presented a major complication to all of the top pros, as his ranking is lower than one would expect due to his not playing a lot of tournaments in the prior season due to a major knee surgery. That causes him to face top seeds in early rounds, like last year when he matched up against Rocky Carson and sent him packing in the Round of 16. The fans were salivating, however, when they saw that Alvaro had the potential of facing Kane in the Round of 16. Many think that Alvaro has the best game to take Kane, and an exit in the Round of 16 for Kane would be a blow to the dynasty he has been building.
Ben Croft and Jack Huzcek were semi-finalists last year. Ben needed to
try to advance just as far this year to hold steady on overall points, while Jack retired immediately before Ektelon Nationals presented by Penn last season, creating an opening for everyone this year. Andy Hawthorne, Charlie Pratt, Mitch Williams, and Jose Rojas all made the quarterfinals last year, so they knew the mark they needed to make this year to stay current. Mitch retired last season after shoulder injuries put him on the shelf. That opened up another opportunity for a hungry up-and-comer this year.
Round of 32
In a Grand Slam event, the top seeds are placed automatically into the Round of 32, instead of the Round of 16 like a regular tier one event. While some proponents would like to see that at every tournament, the US Open confirms that upsets at that level are far and few between, almost never happening with the top eight players. All top seeds advanced with the exception of Taylor Knoth (#20) notching an impressive victory over Juan Herrara (#13) in three games. Taylor isn’t an unknown; he has made his mark as upcoming junior and collegiate player, and actually made it to the quarterfinals at the 2010-2011 Eketon Nationals presented by Penn.
Round of 16
The Round of 16 featured a lot of interesting match-ups, but the results were either all or nothing. Three matches went the five-game distance while the others finished in three. While there were no upsets according to the tournament seeding, most probably predicted that Alvaro Beltran (#9) would overtake Charlie Pratt (#8). However, Charlie showed incredible guts after losing the first two games (including an 11-0 beating in game two) to rebound and win the next three in convincing fashion. It was a strange match regarding the scores, as no losing player was able to score more than five points in a game he lost.
The quarterfinals showcased Kane Waselenchuk against Charlie Pratt, Jose Rojas against Andy Hawthorne, Ben Croft against Chris Crowther, and Shane Vanderson against Rocky Carson. Kane and Rocky, number one and two seeds respectively, continued their tournament dominance disposing of their opponents in a quick three games.
The match between Jose and Andy was anticipated to be tight and exciting. With Andy as the number four seed, Jose as number five, and the players matching up a lot over the past year, the crowd expected a battle. The players put on a show, but Jose controlled most of the first game and won 11-4. Play was tighter in game two with Jose edging out the win 11-8. It was reversed in game three with Andy notching the 11-8 win, but everything went Jose’s way in game four as he pulled it out 11-2.
The upset of the round happened between Chris Crowther (#6) and Ben Croft (#3). Chris was upset by Charlie Pratt at last year’s US Open in the round of sixteen, so he had points to avenge. Their overall head-to-head record was even, with Ben winning their prior matchup. They normally have a battle going extra innings, but Chris was hammering the ball and staying just ahead of Ben to win in an overall tight three games, 11-9, 11-(2), 11-8.
The semis featured Kane Waselenchuk vs. Jose Rojas and Rocky Carson vs. Chris Crowther. Both Kane and Rocky had won every match in three games, with Kane only giving up a total of eleven points in any match and Rocky only giving up a total of twelve points in any match. Needless to say, the odds were against Jose and Chris.
Aside from their matchup at the 2009 US Open when Jose scored twelve points in the first game and still lost, Kane has owned Jose, normally keeping him to less than five points a game. The 2011 US Open was no exception as the Kane Train motored through to the final in a quick three games, winning 11-1, 11-2, and 11-3.
While Chris has been more competitive with Rocky than Jose has been with Kane (Chris has pushed Rocky to a lot of 4 and 5 game battles), the overall record still heavily favored Rocky who had won over 95% of their prior matchups. This tournament was no exception as Rocky kept with his stellar tournament play and kept Chris at bay winning 11-1, 11-8, and 11-5.
It was Déjà vu all over again with Kane and Rocky facing off in a final, and they have been common foes in recent US Open events. Historically Rocky hadn’t beaten Kane in a tier one event since 2003 and that lone win is buried under over forty match wins by Kane. While his style works against all the other tour players, it doesn’t seem to work against Kane. With a dominant champion so fast, so powerful, so smart, and with so much confidence, there is no chance at ousting him unless you play with extreme aggression, precise execution, and a tremendous amount of luck.
Many fans were checking their watches to make sure that they were going to be on time for their flights as they waited for Kane to quickly dispose of Rocky and earn another record championship. However, Rocky came out of the gates strong, he played more aggressive than witnessed in some time, and the risk paid off. He was able to prevent Kane from taking hold, and silenced the Kane crowd by taking the first game 11-7. While some shook it off as Kane not being warmed up (he lost the first game of the finals last year to Alvaro), there was a shade of doubt in the back of their minds as Rocky looked crisp enough that something magical enough might be on the horizon.
Those flashing premonitions of an upset were quickly quashed by Kane, who found his groove as Rocky retreated from the aggressive play that bore so much fruit early in the match. Kane continued to stamp his mark on racquetball history by winning the next three games and the match 7-11, 11-2, 11-4, and 11-7.