Almost by accident, I caught some of the US Open Racquetball Championships at the Lifetime Fitness in Target Center last week. If I hadn’t had a gym membership and regularly worked out in that club, I probably would have missed the event entirely. Mysteriously, it generates almost no local media coverage.
That’s a shame because during the tournament, I encountered one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever seen. Kane Waselenchuk, the world’s No. 1 ranked racquetballer, dominates his sport in a way few people - if any - ever have.
Even at his peak, Tiger Woods didn’t win every golf tournament. While he held all four grand slam titles at the same time, Woods didn’t win them all in a calendar year. At the height of his powers, Roger Federer lost about 10% of the time. Waselenchuk meanwhile, seems to have found an antidote for losing. He hasn’t lost in nearly two years; he never comes close.
In the US Open, competitors play games up to 11 in a best-of-five format. Waselenchuk lost just one game during the tournament, the finals opener to Rocky Carson, 11-7. The average score in Waselenchuk’s 16 games was 11-3.
I had a chance to watch two of Waselenchuk’s matches close up, his first round demolition of qualifier Mauricio Zelda and his semifinal match-up against No. 6 ranked Jose Rojas, a 21-year-old who is considered one of the sport’s up and coming stars.
With his match scheduled at 4pm Saturday on stadium court - a transparent, Lucite cube - running nearly an hour late, the 7-time champion was eager to get started. Immediately after the women’s semifinal between Rhonda Rajsich and Keri Wachtel, Waselenchuk brushed by the competitors to start his warm ups. With a relentless energy bordering on obsession, the 29-year-old had the court to himself for nearly 10 minutes before Rojas showed up.
When it was time for the player introductions - a darkened laser show that would make an NBA arena proud - Waselenchuk sat calmly, in an almost meditative state while Rojas fidgeted nervously. During the match itself, Rojas put forth a tremendous effort, diving and straining, but points rarely came his way. Waselenchuk easily defeated the upstart 11-1, 11-2, 11-3.
At times during the match, it seemed like Waselenchuk was on a different planet than his hapless opponent. He saw angles and hit shots that that inspired awe. When I asked some seasoned courtside observers if Carson, the No. 2 ranked player in the world, had a chance against Waselenchuk in the final, they both quickly said “No” and agreed that the rest of the field was “playing for second place.”
It’s hard to describe Waselenchuk’s moves, especially for a novice racquetball observer like me, who has little knowledge of the industry jargon. You don’t however need to be an expert on the sport to appreciate the quickness, athleticism, anticipation and vision that Waselenchuk displays. It’s like watching Keanu Reeves during a fight scene in “The Matrix”, hitting the fast-forward button on your DVR or playing with Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl on the old Nintendo. He moves on a different plane - the game slows down and he speeds up. Don’t blink because you’ll miss something.
Waselenchuk, a native of Edmonton and current resident of Austin, TX, leaves Minneapolis with his mind boggling 122 match winning streak intact. He’ll return next October seeking his 5th straight US Open title, will anyone have beaten him by then?
(Photo by Freddy Ramirez, restrungmag.com)