Welcome to the 54th annual USA Racquetball National Championships. National Singles has been held every year (save Covid) since 1968, from the predecessor organizations to the current iteration of USAR starting with the IRA, then AARA, then USRA. It’s actually the 55th annual National team qualifier; in 2021 there was just a US Team Qualifier held in Chicago due to facility issues that were dropped on the NGB last minute.
The event this year is in Tempe, on the campus of Arizona State University, possibly for the last time, as the university is reportedly taking out some courts that may make it too small to host national events going forward. There’s a huge draw of players in AZ this weekend: 340, great to see, and the festivities this weekend will include two hall of fame class inductions to enshrine @Jack Huczek , Jim Easterling, and Jeff Stark , all three very deserving of their recognition.
R2 Sports App link: https://www.r2sports.com/portfolio/r2-event.asp?TID=41469
All the national team qualifiers are being held this weekend for both singles and doubles, and the results will drive the selection of the US National team for the 2024-25 season, with terms starting July 1st. The winners this year therefore will be representing USA at the 2024 Worlds, which we recently announced will be held in the US, in San Antonio. This is big news; Worlds hasn’t been in the USA since 1996, and its presence in the US should mean a massive turnout.
Notable US team absences: Rocky Carson is in Arizona, but is not playing any national team qualifier events. Alejandro Landa was a last minute withdrawal that I’ll discuss later on.
Reminder: the National team qualifiers will be playing by IRF rules, which means rally scoring, best 3 out of 5 to 11, win by 2. Which, I’ll be honest, I hate. I can’t stand rally scoring in our sport, its implementation by the IRF made no sense when it was proposed, it “solved” a problem that didn’t exist, it takes the “comeback” and defensive standing your ground completely out of the game, it fundamentally changes the strategy of a sport that’s been in existence for 50+ years, and it allows matches to end without the winning team in the service box. Furthermore, It’s pointless to play by rally scoring in our own national championships, since the argument is, “you have to get them ready for int’l scoring.” Really? The next time Erika Manilla takes the court, she’s not playing rally scoring, and won’t until the end of March when she heads to PARC and has to deal with it. Get ready for a bunch of short matches: fly all the way to Phoenix to play a 15 minute national team qualifier.
Let’s preview the National Team qualifier draws, and then we’ll throw in some previews of other major draws that have some “interesting” names.
19 players entered into National singles qualifying, a big jump from the last couple of years, which is great to see. Seedings in Singles at Nationals ignore last year’s results (a change from years past, when the finalists were automatically given #1 and #2 seeds in the subsequent year), and instead go directly by the current USAR Rankings as of the eve of the event. Those rankings can be found here: https://www.r2sports.com/system/rankings/ITArankings.asp…
It means that Jake Bredenbeck is seeded #1, because he’s #1 for all USA men on the rankings right now irrespective of last year’s results or the current IRT rankings, which have #2 @DDaniel De la Rosa ahead of him. The rest of the top 8 is more or less as expected; former IRT touring pros Charlie Pratt and @Tony Carson come in ranked slightly higher than tour regulars Sam Bredenbeck and Robbie Collins , which will make for some fun quarters.
Matches to watch for in the 32s and 16s:
– 18U Junior national team member Cole Sendrey has a tough test against US veteran Collins in the 8/9 seed game.
– Last year’s Open champion Ty Hedalen gets Pratt in the opener; how much has Charlie been playing? This could be close.
– Tony Carson takes on indoor/outdoor specialist Thomas Gerhardt in an interesting test for Carson.
– I don’t see any significant upsets in the quarters, and would expect the top four seeds to move on. If Sendrey gets by Collins, he’ll give Jake a spirited match but the #1 seed should move on.
– Carter-Pratt in the 4/5; if this was 5 years ago i’d say Pratt, today I say Carter.
– @Adam Manilla likely gets Carson, another match that would be closer if it were 5 years ago, but Manilla’s too consistent now to get tripped up.
– #2 Daniel DE LA Rosa takes on big-hitting Sam Bredenbeck but should handle him to move on.
– Jake vs Carter/Pratt winner should be a straight forward win for jake.
– Adam vs DLR is like a regular IRT quarter final, and DLR shouldn’t be bothered.
Final: I’ll go Jake over DLR, if only because both know they’ll be qualified at that point and it’ll come down to who wants the titles more …and for me that’s Jake.
Women’s Singles Preview:
For the first time since the mid 1990s, @Rhonda Rajsich is not in this draw, nor is she entered into the tourney despite living in AZ. A mainstay on the US team is no longer.
The Women’s National team qualifying draw is now filled with current or recently graduated juniors, and fans can see the future of the sport. @Naomi Ros, Shane Diaz , @aAnnie Robert , and Khyathi Velpuri will push for spots in the quarter finals, but I’d expect the top four seeds to advance to the semis after all is said and done.
Look for @Yor Lexi to challenge #2 @Kelani Lawrence a bit in the 2/7 quarter, and for Michelle Key to face down a challenge in the 4/5 quarter from Roberts. Can Naomi give #3 Hollie a shock? Maybe; this might be the best quarter.
In the semis:
– #1 @Erika Manilla should move past Key into the final; she took the triple crown last year and is in good position to do the same again in 2024.
– In the 2/3 semi, two long-time doubles partners Lawrence and @hollie Scott will face off; Kelani owns career h2h 4-1 and should move on to claim the US team spot.
In the final, look for Manilla to steamroll to her 3rd straight US title.
Word began to spread earlier this week of a change in the Men’s doubles draw with the withdrawal of Landa from the event and his partner DLR picking up a new partner last minute. This was due to Landa’s suspension from the US National team for accumulated behavioral issues that came to a head at the Lewis Drug pro am a couple of weeks ago. Landa could have played, but wouldn’t be guaranteed a spot on the 2024-25 national team unless an appeal of his suspension was upheld, so instead the retired touring pro opted to back out of the event. After some hurried phone calls, De la Rosa found a pretty able partner: fellow dual-citizen Sebastian Fernandez , who’s based in SoCal and who could get to Arizona for the event. Fernandez is a pretty solid doubles player (especially in Mixed) and played with DLR as recently as the 2023 Longhorn Open, so they’re familiar with each other and form a pretty formidable team (spoiler alert; I think they’ll win).
Here’s a preview of the 7-team draw. The seeds are not quite according to USA rankings, a discretion apparently available to the seeding committee to make adjustments for competitive purposes.
In the qtrs:
– #4 Pratt/Carson versus #5 Carter/Sendrey should be fun; it’ll likely be one-way traffic to the kid on the court, as both Pratt and Carson are grizzled veterans who are no easy outs.
– #3 Manilla/Collins represents the rarely seen “all lefty doubles team,” which at least will be interesting to watch. I suppose we’ll see Manilla on the right hitting backhands, but who knows. They face the two Texans Mendoza and Jennings in the opener.
– Pratt and Carson will absolutely give #1 Jake & Sam Bredenbeck fits. This is no easy match for the #1 seeds, who (if given their druthers) may have opted for the semi match that #2 DLR & Patata have. I can’t quite see the Bredenbecks losing .. but it wouldn’t shock me.
– DLR and Fernandez should advance with relative ease past Manilla/Collins; Sebastian is just way too athletic on the court and will crush balls at whichever lefty is standing on his side, a massive advantage for their team.
Finals: DLR and Fernandez should outlast whoever advances from the other semi. DLR on the right side is too good of a player, can’t be overpowered, and has the ability to kill balls that even a doubles team opponent playing in front of the short line can’t get, while Fernandez is a former top 15 pro who can hang with the best of them on the right.
Women’s Doubles Preview:
With all due respect to the other 5 teams entered, this draw is going to come down to the two top teams of pro-level players entered. It’s great to see non pros entered, including the likes of NorCal’s Erica Williams, outdoor specialist @Katie Neil , and DC-area native @Grace Ratley entered in, but they’re unfortunately early round fodder for the two pro teams.
In the final, look for defending champs Manilla & Key to top Lawrence & Scott again for the title.
Mixed Team Qualifying Preview
Nine teams entered here. I’m not sure Landa was entered with a Mixed partner, in that I don’t see any last minute weird-looking partner switches, but we do have some new teams looking to dethrone the Manillas.
In the quarters, look for two interesting matchups that feature teams with lefty males going against conventional Righty-Righty teams; this generally means the male will be drive serving the forehand of the female along the right and vice versa. In the 4/5 quarter, this means Sam Bredenbeck’s power goes against Kelani along the left while Carter gets to blast at Lexi York along the right. Advantage Sam/Lexi here. In the 3/6 matchup, Jake matches up with Annie Roberts along the left hand side, while Collins matches up against Key on the right: this could be a big mismatch, especially with Jake able to blast power serves at Roberts. Advantage #3 seeds.
In the semis:
– #1 Manilla’s are too good for York/Sam and will move to the final.
– #2 DLR/Scott will absolutely have their hands full against Jake & Key, in another matchup with off-the-court emotions coming into play. This is a tough one to predict; I think Key’s better along the right hand side against Scott, and is a better doubles player. But I think DLR is a superior doubles player along the left, and has shown he can absolutely take over mixed doubles matches and can impose his will. I’ll go with the seeds, but I think it’ll be closer than they want.
In the final, a rematch of 2023, and I think the result will go the same. Erika can handle DLR’s pace to her side as the hardest-hitting female on tour, and Key can handle Adam’s pace on the right hand side as a long-time top mixed player in the world. Another close match, but Manillas’s repeat.
Other Singles Draws worth mentioning:
– Men’s Open Singles: a healthy 22 man draw with a big Texas feel to it. From the top I like 1 v 4 Meinerz vs Mendoza in one semi, and defending champ Hedalen vs Jennings in the other. I think its Hedalen vs Meinerz in the final with Hedalen repeating.
– Women’s Open Singles: Utah’s Cheyenne Hayes is the #1 seed in this wide open draw that features some juniors and some 60+ competitors who could make noise. I have no idea who takes it.
– Men’s 50+ is headlined by Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Stark, a favorite to win yet another national title. Texan Arturo Burruel (who I believe beat me at the US Open once), Alok Mehta, and Tom Fuhrmann linger.
– Men’s 55+ features some fun names: Minor as the #1 seed, Eugene Coyle in the draw along with former touring pro @Doug Cohen.
Other Doubles draws worth mentioning;
– Men’s Open doubles features 20-time us national team member Rocky Carson as the #1 seed in a paying gig; they likely face Stark and the son of another hall of famer Timmy Hansen in the final. Could be fun.
– The Centurian Open doubles might be the most “famous” of them all. It features teams that include @Kane Waselenchuk, Cliff Swain , Sudsy Monchik and @Rocky Carson . Gee, that’s just 28 year end Pro titles of the 52 that have ever been awarded. Quite the draw. And none of these teams are the #1 seeds and favorites; that’d be dual HOFmers Stark and Tim Hansen . What a draw. I don’t know enough about the partners of all these legends to even venture a guess as to how this draw turns out, but i’m sure it’ll be the most watched of the event.
– The Women’s Open doubles draw, like the singles, is wide open. Eight teams entered and it wouldn’t surprise me to see any of the eight win.
Look for Streaming in the regular places; you’d expect; the tourney and matches start this afternoon on 2/7/24. Follow USA Racquetball on Facebook for announcements: they’ve already posted the streaming schedule for day one.
Thanks to the Tourney Directors Jonathan Greenberg of the USAR Staff, along with executive Director Mike Grisz and his tireless wife Karen Grisz and all the rest of the USAR board for helping out. Thanks as always to @Keith Minor and Kwm Gutterman for being the title sponsor of this event. Keith’s generosity for our sport continues, and i shudder to think where we’d be nationally without his support.
Associations; USA Racquetball