by Justin Johnson
Watching Daniel De La Rosa and Rocky Carson on Saturday night was like watching a classic boxing rerun on ESPN - an epic battle with one fighter throwing a flurry of punches and the other coming back with a flurry of his own, round after round, until the judges hand down a decision.
In all likelihood, had De La Rosa and Carson been engaged in a boxing match, it could have very well ended in a draw. But it was De La Rosa who landed the last flurry of punches to tip the scales in his favor 11-9, 10-12, 8-11, 11-8, 12-10 in front of a packed house at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
After a countless number of diving gets, a pair of injury timeouts, and the ebb and flow of one of the most memorable matches in U.S. Open history, De La Rosa eventually punched a ticket to his first ever U.S. Open Finals appearance. He will attempt to dethrone the reigning king of racquetball, 10-time U.S. Open champion Kane Waselenchuk.
“I feel amazing,” Del La Rosa said afterward. “I give you my heart on the court.”
The anticipation of the match’s final points made it even more exciting and nerve-racking for fans cheering for either player. Serving at 8-10 in game number five, De La Rosa appeared to hit a winner to cut the lead to 9-10 when Carson discovered the ball was broken. What followed was an eight-shot rally that ended with Carson hitting a winner to get back into the service box at a chance to close out the match.
De La Rosa came back with a kill on the fourth shot of the next rally, waving his finger as he walked almost carefree back to the service box.
De La Rosa drove serve to Carson’s forehand and had to dive to get the return, and Carson confidently rolled out a backhand splat on the following shot. The former U.S. Open champion erupted with a fist pump and loud yell following the winner.
Carson chose to drive serve to backhand side, where De La Rosa hit a good offensive return. Carson kept the rally alive, but De La Rosa mustered up another big winner with a backhand kill.
De La Rosa busted out the finger wave again on the side out. Walking back to the service box, looking as relaxed as he did, you would have never guessed this was the biggest match of the young player’s life.
De La Rosa’s ensuing drive serve attempt came up short, and he went with a half lob to Carson’s forehand on his second. De La Rosa hit a touch shot into the right corner off of Carson’s return, drawing the number one seed into the front of the court where he was forced to dive to get to the ball. Carson’s return pushed his opponent to the back of the court, and after touching the glass back wall with his left hand to gauge his distance, De La Rosa unleashed a backhand splat winner to cut the lead to 9-10.
No finger wave this time, but the shot draw huge applause from fans in attendance as De La Rosa made a slow, calm walk back to the service box.
De La Rosa went with the half lob again to Carson’s forehand, and was waiting for the crosscourt return in perfect position to hit a backhand slice into the left corner that rolled out for a quick and easy winner to even the score at 10-10.
Another half lob to the forehand side was answered with Carson cutting it off and driving it to the opposite corner. The return came off the side wall to give De La Rosa a wraparound forehand attempt, but the shot stayed up enough to give Carson a setup off the back wall. Carson chose to attempt a backhand reverse pinch, leaving it up for De La Rosa, who answered with a backhand pinch that rolled out in the front of the court.
11-10. De La Rosa was now serving for the match.
De La Rosa went with the half lob again, and Carson answered by cutting it off and driving it to the opposite corner again. This time De La Rosa was forced to go to the ceiling, and Carson ran around his backhand to cleverly box De La Rosa against the side wall. It left Carson a forehand setup, and he hit a winner to the wide open space left on the court.
Carson let loose a few fist pumps and engaged the crowd, trying to get all the momentum he could.
He drove serve to De La Rosa’s backhand, which came off the side wall and back wall for a setup that De La Rosa shot down the line. Carson went to the ceiling to keep the rally alive, but gave De La Rosa a forehand setup in the middle of the court that he hit for a winner.
De La Rosa went back to the service box and hit another half lob. Carson answered as usual, sending it across the court with his return. De La Rosa was forced to lay out to get the ball in the front of the court, and was out of position leaving the entire right side for Carson on his backhand setup. Carson’s next shot missed its mark, and De La Rosa was able to hit a return that drove Carson backward. Carson answered with a forehand, but fell after hitting the shot. De La Rosa ripped a backhand shot down the line and dropped to the floor after seeing Carson would not be there to return it.
On to the finals.
“I’m ready – absolutely ready,” De La Rosa said. “I’m going to go back to my hotel room, relax and eat a little bit, and talk to my family.”
De La Rosa will need to be ready. Waiting in the wings is a fresh Kane Waselenchuk who has plans to defend a title he has held for what seems like an eternity.
De La Rosa doesn’t seem to be too intimidated by the daunting task in front of him. Maybe it’s his youth. Maybe it’s a newfound confidence he has gained with his increasing experience on the IRT. Whatever he is feeling, it appears he is just looking forward to the opportunity.
“I’m going to feel the same thing in the beginning,” De La Rosa said when asked how he will approach the match. “I just play my game. I’ve said before that it’s me and the ball – I don’t care who’s on the other side. So I’m going to do my best.”
De La Rosa will square off with Waselenchuk at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Sunday in a match scheduled to start at 12:00 p.m. Fans not able to attend can see the match live on the IRT Network.