The 2018 Pelham Memorial: Tournament of Champions finished this past weekend in Portland, Oregon with the King, Kane Waselenchuk, winning his first Tier 1 title of the 2018-2019 International Racquetball Tour (IRT) season.
The Pelham Memorial Tournament of Champions is dedicated to John Pelham, a U.S. Army Special Forces Specialist who was killed in action on February 12, 2014. The last post from John’s Facebook account while he was overseas stated, “I can’t wait to play racquetball again.”All proceeds from the tournament are split between four charities: Live Like John Foundation, Military Racquetball Foundation, The Green Beret Foundation, and the Oregon Youth Challenge Program.
The Christmas spirit of giving must have made its way around Oregon last weekend because Tour pros like Charlie Pratt, from Portland, and Kane Waselenchuk, residing in Austin, Texas demonstrated some selfless acts.
36 players from six different countries: United States, Mexico, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica and Bolivia made it to Portland this past weekend. All of the top 18 were in attendance, making this a very competitive draw. Some familiar faces were in the building, including Tony Carson, residing in Eugene, Oregon, who made his second appearance in a row at the Tournament of Champions. A former top-6 player on the IRT, Carson had a great showing last year, taking out the #4 ranked Daniel De La Rosa in the round of 16, then losing a close one to Samuel Murray in the quarterfinal. This year, Carson would continue to prove that he has gas left in the tank. His first match was against a very tough local player, Dylan Reid. You might know Reid from his excellent Podcast, “The Racquetball Show.” Reid also won the Open division at the US Open in 2017. Carson won 15-13, 15-10, advancing him to the second round of qualifiers. This time he would face the #9 ranked player in the world, winner of the 2018 Chicago Tier 1, semifinalist at the 2018 US Open, Andree Parrilla. Carson once again showed that his eight years of IRT experience was too much for Parrilla, taking the match in two games straight, 15-7, 15-12, advancing him to the round of 16 Friday morning.
Another very notable qualifying match was #15 Felipe Camacho vs #18 Robert Collins. A competitive matchup on paper, and it did not disappoint. Contrasting styles: Righty vs Lefty. Serve and shoot vs Retrievability. Robert won the first 15-13, then had match point in the second, only to have Felipe come back to win 15-14. Robert stayed tough in the tiebreaker, winning 11-4 and advancing to the round of 16.
The round of 16 took place Friday morning and on the main court was #2 Rocky Carson taking on #18 Robert Collins. Collins has never beaten Rocky, and the first game looked like it would stay that way, with Carson winning 15-4. But Collins made some adjustments, started serving well, and just seemed to have Rocky off balance. In a surprise to of events, Collins won the second game 15-8, and we would see a tiebreaker. The tiebreaker was neck and neck until about 6-6 when Rocky pulled away to win 11-6. A great run for Robert. Very close to a major upset. Rocky would move on to the quarterfinal that evening.
On the next court was #6 Alvaro Beltran vs #11 Jose Diaz. This was a rematch of the US Open round of 16 where Diaz won in a tiebreaker, his first time ever beating Beltran. This match started a bit slow, with each player feeling out the other. Beltran took control this time and won in two games 15-9, 15-11- advancing him to the quarterfinals that night.
Right next to that match was #3 Daniel De La Rosa vs #14 Adam Manilla. Manilla played well in earlier qualifying matches, and many pros thought that Manilla might get the victory. The first game was all DLR, winning 15-5, but Manilla bounced back with tough serves to both corners and took game two 15-6. DLR stepped up his game, just like the #3 player in the world can, winning the tiebreaker 11-4, advancing to the quarterfinal, for a much-anticipated matchup with fellow countryman, Alvaro Beltran.
On the final court was #7 Samuel Murray vs #10 Jansen Allen. These two have teamed up in doubles several times with great success, but have rarely played singles. Murray grabbed the upper hand winning 15-4. The second game was more competitive, but once again it was Murray with the victory 15-12, advancing to the quarterfinal against Rocky Carson.
The second group of round of 16 matches started with our new #1 ranked player in the world, Alex Landa, taking on #16 Jake Bredenbeck on the stadium court. Landa played solid in the first game, controlling center court and hitting clean passes to win 15-6. Bredenbeck made a few adjustments and started putting the ball down more, along with a few errors from Landa. The second game was much more close, but it was Landa who closed it out 15-12, advancing him to the quarterfinal.
The match drawing most of the crowd that morning was the greatest player of all time, Kane Waselenchuk, ranked a modest #8 in this draw, taking on the #24 ranked upset king, Tony Carson. These two have played several times in years past. In fact, Carson is one of the few people who took a game off of Kane in their career. Similar game styles, both players are powerful and physical. It was a great display of racquetball. Carson fought a hard fight, but Kane was too much, as usual, winning 15-11, 15-4. A great run for Tony Carson, who proved that his game is still there when he wants it to be.
On the next court over, hometown favorite #13 Charlie Pratt was taking on #4 Sebastian Franco. Pratt jumped out to an early lead and continued to score points. Franco was having difficulty moving as he was nursing a sore ankle. Although Sebastian did his best, Pratt was too much to handle, winning 15-4. 15-7 to advance to the quarterfinals and a chance to play on the big stage in front of his home crowd.
The final round of 16 match featured #12 David Horn vs #5 Mario Mercado. These two have played a few times, going back and forth. The first game was competitive, with Bobby winning 15-12. The second game continued with dominance from Bobby, who just got better and better as the match went on. Bobby won the second game 15-4, advancing him to the quarterfinal against Pratt.
The quarterfinals kicked off Friday night at 5pm in Portland. First up was the much-anticipated match of #3 Daniel De La Rosa and #6 Alvaro Beltran. Both similar players with their smooth pinches and relaxed personalities. They have gone back and forth over the past five or so years. The match started out point for point, with no players taking full control. At the end of the first game it was Beltran who scored a string of points to win 15-8. The second game was almost identical. A slow start, but Beltran with a slight lead until he pulled away to win 15-8, advancing him to his first Tier 1 semifinal since April 7th in Cincinnati.
The second quarterfinal featured #2 Rocky Carson vs #7 Samuel Murray. Murray was a semifinalist here last year, although Rocky is undefeated against him. As good as Murray is, sometimes matchups are the most important thing. Carson clearly had the edge and continued his dominance, winning 15-4, 15-10, advancing him to his 5th Tier 1 semifinal in a row. He would face Alvaro Beltran.
The third quarterfinal was our current #1 ranked player in the world, Alex Landa, against the former #1, and greatest player of all time, Kane Waselenchuk. This was also a very highly anticipated match. It is not often that we get to see current #1 vs former #1, although with Waselenchuk only playing half the events last season, it is clear that his ranking does not accurately reflect his current position. As dominating as Kane is, Landa is no slouch. The match was back and forth, with Kane having a slight lead most of the time. While Landa cannot match up to Kane in every category, the one place his can is his power. It was a hard-hitting display for the Portland fans. What a treat to see in the quarterfinals. Waselenchuk went on to win a hard-fought match 15-9, 15-8, advancing him to the semifinal.
The final quarterfinal match of the evening featured #12 David Horn vs the hometown favorite #13 Charlie Pratt. Horn and Pratt were the #1 and #2 singles players for Team USA at the World Championships this year, plus they are both coaches for the Junior USA Team. There was a lot riding on this match for both players, but it was Pratt who had the edge of the home crowd. Both players came out firing with great rallies, dives and kill shots. It was clear they had come to play. Pratt pulled away at the end of the first game to win 15-10. Pratt continued his momentum into the second game and was up 9-1, only to have David come charging back to 6-9. Pratt was given a technical for not properly signaling a timeout to the referee. The score was now 6-8. From then on it was point for point down to the very end. They found themselves back and forth at 14-14. When Pratt got the serve back for his 3rd match point, he served a near perfect jam serve that Horn was unable to return. Pratt would advance to the semifinal, his first since this tournament last year. He would face Kane on Saturday morning.
The first semifinal featured #2 Rocky Carson vs #6 Alvaro Beltran, a matchup we have seen nearly 50 times! Their head to head is nearly identical, so we knew this day would be no different. Carson jumped out to an early lead and continued to stay one step ahead, winning the first game 15-7. The second game was close in the beginning, but this time is was Beltran who would make his move. Beltran won the second game 15-10. The tiebreaker was a battle, back and forth the first few points. Beltran pulled ahead by a few, but then he received a technical for excessive arguing with the referee. Carson scored a few more and it seemed the momentum was switching, but Beltran got his emotions under control and pulled ahead, winning the tiebreaker 11-5, advancing him to the final.
The second semifinal featured #8 Kane Waselenchuk vs #13 Charlie Pratt. Pratt was continuing his great run at the tournament, but clearly had a mountain to climb, and perhaps history to be made. As much as the crowd would have loved to see the upset, it was clear from nearly the beginning that Kane is still the most dominant player in the game. Kane was firing on all circuits. Ace serves, great touch shots in the front court, and of course the occasional between-the-legs rollout. The hometown favorite was no match for Kane, as he went on to win 15-3, 15-5. A great run for Pratt once again, but an even greater display of racquetball by King Kane.
#6 Alvaro Beltran vs #8 Kane Waselenchuk- A matchup we have seen many times. Kane has obviously dominated the matchup over the years, but many people agree that Beltran is perhaps the one player out there that gives Waselenchuk the most trouble. Although Beltran cannot match up with Kane on everything, the one thing he comes close is his hand speed. Beltran has some of the best hands of all time on tour. If he could get comfortable, this match could be close.
Before the match started, Wendall Pelham, father of our fallen hero John Pelham, stood on the court with the microphone to address the large finals crowd. It was now time for Wendall to talk about his son, John, the soldier we dedicate this tournament to. It is a speech that you would not forget if you have heard it. A father speaking about his son, who was killed while serving our country in February 2014. It is perhaps the most emotional moment of the season for the IRT, yet powerful at the same time. It helps put what we do into perspective, and how lucky we all are to be here, playing a sport we love.
Earlier in the day, John Scott was contacted by Charlie Pratt, who asked if he could say a few things before the final. When Wendall was done with his speech, Charlie grabbed the microphone in front of his home crowd. He went on to thank Wendall and all of Portland for their support.
“Last years victory really changed my life. I am a different person now. It is crazy to think that one win can change my life, but is has been a lifetime goal, and I have you all to thank. I also want to thank Wendall, John, and the entire Pelham family. This event is here because of you all, and I am, in a way, eternally grateful for what you guys have done, not just for racquetball but for your country as well, the sacrifices you have made. And although last year was one of the greatest moments of my life, I had one regret. It was that I didn’t give back to what you have given to me. So, this year, I would like to donate my tournament check to the Live Like John Foundation. I’m sorry it isn’t as much as it was last year, but none the less, it is for you and it is for John. Thank you!”
Waselenchuk and Beltran then took the court which would prove to be the highest level of racquetball we have seen, perhaps ever in Portland. Kane came out firing as usual, with blistering drive serves to each side. Beltran showed moments of brilliance, but Kane was just too much to handle the first game, winning 15-6.
The second game was off to a very unusually slow start. About 20 minutes in, it was still only 4 serving 4. We started to see a few more mistakes from Kane, a few chinks in the armor. Beltran, after all, has proven that he can hang with Kane. The pace continued to be point for point, and they were not coming easily. Perhaps most impressive was their movement and retrievability. Even Waselenchuk, who doesn’t fancy himself a diver, was hitting the deck whenever possible. At ages 37 (Kane) and 39 (Alvaro), both players were fighting for a victory. One to prove he is still the best in the game, one to pull off one of the great upsets in IRT history. It came down to the last few points, but Kane pulled ahead and had match point, only to have Alvaro back in the box. Back and forth they went again, Beltran saving a few more match points and scoring a couple on the way. Waselenchuk got the serve back, put together a good rally, and closed it out 15-12 for the championship.
Both players gave a speech at the end, both thanking the Portland fans for the great atmosphere to play in front of.