With two top-tier men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) pro stops starting the second half of the season, there wasn’t a break after the Coast to Coast California Open as the Cactus Salon NYC ProAm immediately followed January 12-15. Last year it was Jack Huczek over Rocky Carson in a five-game final after Kane forfeited in the semi-finals due to illness. Would there be any surprises this year?
Blast from the Past in Qualifying
Possibly the most highly anticipated aspect going into the tournament was the return of formal great Sudsy Monchik. He committed to play several pro stops this season, and New York was the kickoff. He faced a tough draw getting through the qualifying rounds as he faced three consecutive tough matches on Thursday against Agustin Tristan, Vincent Gagnon, and then Javier Moreno in order to advance to the round of sixteen. Sudsy’s miracle run through the draw was stopped before it began as Agustin took advantage of Sudsy’s rust and won in three quick games, 11-7, 11-3, and 11-3.
Round of Sixteen
Several players saw their first berth of the season into the round of sixteen after advancing through the qualifying rounds: Ruben Gonzolez, Agustin Tristan, and Polo Gutierrez. Also noteworthy was that Brad Schopieray made his second appearance in the round of sixteen for the season.
Top seed Kane Wasenlenchuk disposed of Ruben in a quick three games, and Rocky Carson followed suit by taking out Brad Schopieray in three games. Chris Crowther ended Agustin Tristan’s run in three games, and Andy Hawthorne sent Anthony Herrera packing in three games. Jose Rojas gave Alejandro Landa a rude welcome with an 11-0 first game. Landa rebounded nicely in the second game but lost 12-10, and Jose finished off the third game 11-7 to advance to quarterfinals. Jose has not been upset in the opening round so far this season.
The first round of sixteen match to go beyond the minimum of three games was #12 seed Alvaro Beltran against #5 seed Charlie Pratt. Alvaro has an artificially low seeding due to a couple years of not playing much due to injuries. As he works his way back up the ladder, it creates extremely difficult opening round matches for the top eight players. This week it was Charlie Pratt who drew the short straw. A rarity to get a glimpse of the first time players face each other, this was actually the first match-up in tier one history between these two players. The first game was tight, but Charlie executed his shots with precision to show why he was a top player on tour, taking game one 11-9. Alvaro made the necessary adjustments, dialed in his game, and took the next three games to win the match in four games, 9-11, 11-6, 11-4, and 11-9.
The next round of sixteen match to go extra innings was #8 Shane Vanderson and #9 Tony Carson. Shane has had a relatively disappointing season. Aside from getting knocked out in the opening round in Kansas City, he has gotten to the quarterfinal of every other tournament but unable to advance beyond that. Shane has finished the season as high as fifth several times in his career, but last season slipped to seventh, and this year is looking worse unless he can turn it around the second half of the season.
Tony Carson is on the doorstep of getting into the top eight. He advanced through every qualifying division this season but couldn’t get past the round of sixteen. Last week in Canoga Park he upset Charlie Pratt to earn his first quarterfinal appearance. With the taste of quarterfinals still in his mouth he came out and played exceptional ball, capitalizing on Shane’s mistakes and took the first two games. Shane rebounded and won the third convincingly, and Shane squeaked out a tight fourth game to force the tie-breaker. It was a good fifth game but Shane ended up on top, winning the match 9-11, 5-11, 11-5, 12-10, and 11-7.
The final round of sixteen match that went beyond the minimum number of games showcased #3 Ben Croft against #19 Polo Gutierrez. Despite Croft establishing himself as a top player and deserving of his top four ranking, Polo was not going to be a walk in the park. Polo doesn’t play a lot of tier one events, but he is an excellent player. He has a very laidback style but still manages to be very quick, and he has a very unique grip that allows him to hit unorthodox shots with remarkable precision. The players had only faced each other a handful of times in the past and Polo won all those tier one match-ups.
Play was tight the first game. Ben was having a little trouble getting his lines dialed in and seemed frustrated most of the game, but he was able to edge it out with an 11-9 win. Game two was much of the same, but Polo raised his level of play and kept Ben frustrated, winning 11-9 to even the match. Ben fell into the vortex in the third game as Polo’s style kept Ben off balance and frustrated. Ben never quite seemed in it and lost 11-3. Down big in the fourth, Ben fought back. It looked like Polo was going to win but Ben clawed back and fought off two match points to eventually come out on top 13-11 and force a deciding fifth game. The players dueled another masterful game in the tie-breaker. The players were tied deep in the match, and tough call against Ben late opened up the door for Polo who finished it off 12-10, winning a very exciting match for the fans 9-11, 11-9, 11-3, 11-13, and 12-10.
The quarterfinals were set to showcase Kane Waselenchuk vs. Shane Vanderson, Jose Rojas vs. Alvaro Beltran, Polo Gutierrez vs. Chris Crowther, and Rocky Carson III vs. Andy Hawthorne.
Kane cruised past Shane in three quick games, 11-5, 11-5, and 11-3. Andy played great in the first game and caught Rocky flat-footed, winning 11-9. Rocky struggled to get comfortable, but played well enough to take the next three games and the match, 9-11, 11-4, 11-4, and 11-8. Crowther was in the zone and put on a power clinic and ended Polo’s run with a crushing 11-4, 11-4, and 11-4.
The last quarterfinal match featured a replay of last week with Alvaro Beltran facing Jose Rojas. Alvaro was previously undefeated against Jose, entering the match with a 4-0 head-to-head record in tier one events. Alvaro won in four games last week in Canoga Park, dominating the last two games. The question was who went to the drawing board and studied the most during the past week to prepare for this potential match-up.
Both players came out firing. Alvaro has a more laidback approach, but hit his shots nonetheless. Jose ripped his angles and played tough. He pulled out a tight first game 11-9 and repeated for a close second game 11-8. With his back against the wall Alvaro kept hanging around and chipping away to win the next two 11-8 and 11-6 to tie the match. Experience dominated the fifth game and Alvaro stayed cool and played his game to win the match 9-11, 8-11, 11-8, 11-6, and 11-6.
The first semi-final featured a familiar pairing seen this season: Kane vs. Jose. While anybody facing Kane has a seemingly impossible challenge, the situation normally appears even worse for Jose. Jose entered the match 0-9 against Kane, and aside from a 12-10 loss at the US Open in Memphis years ago, Jose can’t seem to score more than five or six points in a game against Kane. This day was no different, as Kane had an answer to every move Jose made, winning in three games 11-5, 11-0, and 11-6.
The second semi-final featured Rocky Carson and Chris Crowther. Despite Rocky winning 96% of their previous tier one match-ups (24-1), they typically have great battles. This match was no exception. Chris couldn’t get his serve going and Rocky took quick advantage, winning game one 11-3. Chris suddenly locked in and started blasting lasers, winning the next couple of games 11-5 and 11-3. Rocky started mixing up speeds again and messed up Chris’ timing, winning the fourth game 11-3. Rocky’s superior conditioning appeared to play a factor in the fifth. Chris was still hanging, but didn’t have the energy he showed during the first part of the match. Rocky built a lead and kept Chris at bay, winning the fifth game and match 11-3, 5-11, 4-11, 11-3, and 11-6.
It was Déjà vu all over again as Kane and Rocky were scheduled to duel in the Sunday final. Rocky played Kane well the prior week, so the crowd was curious as if Rocky found a chink in Kane’s armor.
Rocky jumped out to a 5-0 lead and Kane called for a timeout. His mobility was
noticeably affected. A regular timeout turned into an injury timeout. He managed to get on the board, but once Rocky built a 6-2 lead Kane had to pull out of the tournament with a back injury that prevented him from finishing the match. Rocky took the victory. Kane took to the recovery room. He has three weeks to heal and get ready for the next tier one in Salt Lake.