Kane Waselenchuk wins 11th U.S. Open Championship with three-game victory over Daniel De La Rosa

 Kane Waselenchuk hits a backhand during the 2015 U.S. Open finals against Daniel De La Rosa. Waselenchuk won his 11th U.S. Open championship with a victory over De La Rosa. Photo courtesy of Roby Partovich.

Kane Waselenchuk hits a backhand during the 2015 U.S. Open finals against Daniel De La Rosa. Waselenchuk won his 11th U.S. Open championship with a victory over De La Rosa. Photo courtesy of Roby Partovich.

by Justin Johnson

It’s hard to overstate how special Kane Waselenchuk is to racquetball. The Canadian-born phenomenon has 10 International Racquetball Tour championships to his name, and with last weekend’s win at the 2015 U.S. Open he has 11 titles in the 20-year history of racquetball’s most prestigious event.

“It never gets old,” he said after Sunday’s 11-5, 11-8, 11-3 victory over Mexico’s Daniel De La Rosa. “I think as I get a little bit older I start appreciating it a little bit more.”

And while the racquetball world awaits an heir-apparent to challenge the undisputed king of the court, Waselenchuk continues to add to an already unforgettable record. It seems unimaginable that a man with 11 U.S. Open championships could still be in the prime of his career, but the numbers don’t lie. Waselenchuk has dropped just a single game in two major events this year. At the U.S. Open he didn’t lose any. And despite the fact that his IRT competitors are performing at increasingly higher levels of play, Waselenchuk appears to be pulling away from the field.

The sky still seems to be the limit for Waselenchuk, who looks as physically and mentally sharp as he ever has. And at 33 years of age, he is displaying an increased perspective on the game that’s made him one of the most dominant athletes in the history of professional sports. With every championship he adds to his list of accomplishments, it’s nearly impossible for fans not to talk about his legacy and what he means to racquetball.

“When I step away from the game I think that the most important thing for me would be how I treated people off the court,” Waselenchuk said. “It’s kind of easy to be a good ambassador on the court, but that’s only half the job. I hope that when I walk away from the game they say that I’m the greatest player ever to play – not only that – but that I was the nicest guy in the world off the court, too.”

His IRT peers can only hope that niceness carries over to inside the court, where they will need every edge they can to muster up a legitimate run at his position on top of the racquetball world. The likelihood of that isn’t very good, though, as Waselenchuk appears to be as focused as ever.

“Maybe to people on the other side of the fence my legacy is solidified, but to me it’s not. I’m not content with what I’ve done yet,” he said. “Trust me, I’m very proud of myself. I’ve put in a lot of hard work and sacrificed a lot of things to get where I am. But I’m still in it and I don’t plan on going anywhere for years to come.”

Challengers are stepping up to the plate like young Daniel De La Rosa, who made the most of his 2015 U.S. Open with the first semifinal and finals appearance of his career. The IRT’s number four-ranked player displayed a confidence and comfort level during a five-game win over Rocky Carson in the semifinals that carried over into the championship.

“I never feel pressure against anybody. I just play my game,” De La Rosa said. “It’s just me and the ball. Whoever is on the other side, I don’t care. I’m going to keep my same mentality. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Although he wasn’t able to get the win this time around, De La Rosa showed a lack of intimidation that could allow him to reach new heights.

“He better enjoy it,” De La Rosa said after the finals. “Because next year that cup is going to be in my hands.”

Whether De La Rosa will be able to take that giant step anytime soon is up for debate. What seems to be agreed upon by everyone, including Waselenchuk, is that he is a player to keep an eye on.

“You can see he’s got game,” Waselenchuk said. “He’s going to mature, and unlike myself he’s got time on his side right now. He’s just got to stay focused.”

With several other young players making their way through the ranks, the future of racquetball has never looked brighter. And while Waselenchuk is in the middle of the proverbial racquetball ring slugging it out with all of them, you get a sense that he has begun to look deeper into the future of the game. As is common with the greatest of the greats, he is beginning to take on more of a role as an ambassador of the game. And with a platform like none other in the world of racquetball, he is in a unique position to help take racquetball to new heights.

“I’m no longer the future of the sport. I’m here now, my time is now – and guys like De La Rosa, Jose [Rojas], and down the line, younger people – they are the future of the sport,” he said, speaking of his hopes that junior programs in the United States and Canada will continue to improve and bring more players into the game.

Waselenchuk added that growing participation can be something all players can contribute to.

“You don’t have to be a pro to promote the game and teach juniors,” Waselenchuk said. “When I’m at the club and I see a young kid in the court, I go in there and play around with him. But even B, C, and D players – you don’t have to be a professional – embrace the young kids that are on the court. They’re the future of our sport… We need to give them every opportunity to get better.”