As many of the top professional men’s International Racquetball Tour (IRT) players are reaching their mid to late 30s, a new crop of young professionals are climbing the ranks. While most hail from the U.S. and Mexico, 23-year-old Sebastian Franco of Cali, Colombia, vaulted from the top 25 to reach No. 9 on the IRT this season.
Franco made four trips to Tier 1 semifinals in the 2015-2016 IRT Season – Texas, Florida, Ohio and Kansas – and one quarterfinals appearance in Illinois. He clearly has the ability to compete with the top pros, having beat Camacho three out of four meetings, knocking off Allen twice and defeating De La Rosa in Texas.
In the beginning
Franco began playing at 12 in an after-school program. He fell in love and a little more than a decade later he has become a top 10 player in the world.
“What I enjoy the most about racquetball is everything from the physical ability and concentration you need, the feeling of winning a match and the racquetball family is full of great people and great players,” Franco said. “That’s why I fell in love with racquetball.”
It didn’t take long for Franco to figure out he could thrive in the sport.
“When I first started playing it was just for fun, but I kept going every day to play and got better at [it] just to beat some of my friends,” Franco said. “But after a couple of months players with more experience gave me the guidance to become a better athlete in the sport and a few years later I was playing in a higher division.
“That was the point where I said that I could be much better than this, and with my coach, we talked about just focusing on becoming one of the top players in the world and that has been my goal ever since.”
Training and sponsorship
Most racquetball players have “go-to” shots or serves, but Franco said he doesn’t just rely on a couple of his favorite shots – the backhand splat and reverse pinch from either side. He has an open mind [on shot selection] but “does love those” shots.
“When I train, I try to work on every shot and every possible serve because during the game it is important to have them all ready for any situation,” he said. “But definitely most of the time I follow strategies that make me go with certain shots and serves that bother other players.”
Now that he has a taste of the top 10, Franco wants to continue his rise on the Tour. In five years, he said he wants to be top three and playing the sport he loves. But to achieve that goal, Franco said he knows some things must happen for pros to continue to reap the benefits of the sport.
“I think the sport is growing slowly but we will have better opportunities if more people play the sport,” he said. “We [need] more sponsors to help the sport grow. But the most important part is that the players promote all the events, post on social media, ask for sponsors and create blogs for people who like the sport basically. We need to really market the sport so more people start knowing and getting interested in it.”
Franco was first sponsored when he was 15 years old.
“It is such an amazing feeling,” he said. “I guess you feel like you are becoming important. I was really happy when I first got sponsored. It felt great being part of a company, and I’m still happy with all the support they give me.”
Franco also has advice for young players wanting to play the pro Tour.
“Train really hard, fight for your goals and enjoy playing the sport,” he said. “Enjoying when you play any match makes a huge difference.”
Relying on a close network of friends, family and coaches as a support system also makes it less stressful and more motivating for Franco.
“My family is the key for me to keep motivated and playing the sport I love,” Franco said. “Since the first day I started playing racquetball my parents have supported me 100 percent throughout my career.”
Franco has two coaches, Jeff Leon in Florida and Juan Gutierrez in Colombia. He works with Leon more now that he’s traveling on the Tour, and continues to communicate with Gutierrez via email and phone.
“With the coaches I work a lot on consistency and a lot of work under pressure, making little bets and paying my mistakes with more work or something I don’t like,” Franco said. “With both of them I have a really good relationship. We are good friends and I have learned a lot from both. One person who helps me a lot with advice and decisions when I need to make them is a really good friend of mine, David Marrero. Mentally, he helps me a lot with my game and to grow as a person.”
Marrero said it’s easy to help guide a person like Franco.
“Sebastian is someone willing to listen at all times,” Marrero said. “Not only does he listen but he takes the advice you give him and he immediately applies it to his racquetball game and to his life off the court. If he continues to do that he’ll continue to succeed.”
Although the pro Tour is made up of both U.S. and international athletes, the majority of events are held in the U.S. Despite the challenge of traveling away from home for most tournaments, Franco said he is proud to represent his homeland.
“I love my country and there is nothing like wearing the shirt of you country,” Franco said. “It is one of the most amazing experiences that any athlete can have and, of course, I have had that experience. I really like playing in the states. You see different players with different skills and you improve your game super fast. Also, there are awesome courts where you can play the sport.”
Most recently, Franco was able to represent Colombia at the World Championships in his home country. It is an experience he said he will never forget.
“The performance for the Colombian team was amazing, [winning] bronze in the men’s doubles with Alejandro Herrera is such a great [accomplishment] knowing that it is a World Cup,” Franco said. “My teammate Cristina Amaya, with fifth place in women’s singles, shows that we [Colombians] are at a high level of racquetball.
“It was an amazing experience, lots of family, friends and people who know the sport. Even people you don’t know supporting you just by having on Colombian shirts is the most amazing thing you can experience. It is motivating to play like that, plus it is my home city where the worlds were so it felt even better.”
Traveling the U.S.
Franco’s first experience playing in the U.S. occurred at the UnitedHealthcare U.S. Open, but not in the pro division.
“When I first came to the U.S. it was for a U.S. Open,” he said. “I think I had been playing for two years and I went there to play in the C division. And after watching all the pros at that point, and loving that tournament, I told myself and my parents that I always would want to play in the U.S.”
Franco said facilities in Colombia are similar to those in the U.S. but are limited to how many courts are available.
“We’ve got really good courts and clubs where we train, the level is really good in Colombia, but we don’t have many people like in the U.S. That makes a big difference.”
Franco said there is one downside to traveling the U.S. on the pro Tour.
“Food I guess is my hardest thing to deal with,” Franco joked. “I love the food from my country and it is really hard to find that kind of food in the U.S.”
By Dale Gosser
Dale Gosser is the Ektelon Regional Advisor for North Texas and racquetball coordinator for Life Time Fitness in Mansfield, Texas. He is the managing editor for the Cleburne Times-Review and Johnson County News newspapers as well as Community Life Magazine.