Kane Waselenchuk: Revolutionizing Racquetball
by Justin Johnson
Nobody is unbeatable. Nobody.
People have left the competitive arena with perfect win-loss records before, but that has nothing to do with the possibility of any one person being beaten on any given night. Human nature has demonstrated time and time again that even the very best of athletes in their given sport – masters of their craft – can be less than great one night and be defeated by an otherwise average opponent who performs at his very best.
In the sport of racquetball, the subject and center of the conversation about being unbeatable is one Kane Waselenchuk – the king of the game and one of the most dominant figures in all of sports history. If the mainstream media was clued into racquetball even in the slightest bit, they would stand in awe and appreciation at how this one man managed to reach the heights of near-perfection.
In the entire history of racquetball there have been 19 US Open Championships, the biggest and most prestigious racquetball tournament in the world. Waselenchuk recently won his tenth. During an interview leading up to tournament, Waselenchuk was asked about how he would feel if he were to win his 10th title.
“Let me correct you,” Waselenchuk responded to the question matter-of-factly. “When I win my tenth US Open title.”
One racquetball fan took to the Twitter-sphere with the following:
“@KingKaneRB just guaranteed a win at the @usopenrb tournament. Beware of angering the racquetball gods. They might make you humble.”
But for anybody who is even vaguely familiar with this legendary racquetball figure, the simple fact is that each and every sign indicates Waselenchuk may very well be a racquetball god in the flesh. Unless some sort of injury or illness slows him down, everybody and anybody who is knowledgeable in the professional racquetball world approaches his matches with a nonchalant attitude about the outcome. It’s not if Waselenchuk is going to win, it’s how badly he will defeat his opponent.
During Kane’s most recent US Open championship run, no player was able to win a single game during a match – and that is an all too common occurrence for Kane’s opponents. For anybody unfamiliar with racquetball, a pro match is won when a player wins three out of five possible games to 11. No player in the 2014 US Open was able to score more than five points during a single game until the US Open Finals, when No. 3 player in the world Alvaro Beltran managed to reach six points in game one and six points in game three. Crammed in between those six-point games was an 11-1 drubbing in game number two. That’s a total of 13 points scored against the greatest racquetball player of all-time, another high for the tournament. Prior to the championship match, Kane held opponents to 11, 12, and eight points respectively.
Why can’t anybody beat Kane? There are two obvious reasons. The first and most glaring reason is that Waselenchuk has a higher skill level than anybody in the world. It’s painfully obvious, even to other top professionals. The supreme samurai of the sport has quite simply spent more hours sharpening the edges of his racquetball sword than any other player on earth. Combine that with insurmountable talent and you have the greatest racquetball player of all-time – more dominant to racquetball than Tiger Woods ever dreamed of being to golf.
Number five-ranked Ben Croft gave a description of what it feels like to play against Waselenchuk when he compared him to another all-time sports legend.
“I have mixed feelings,” Croft said. “It’s kind of like playing against Jordan. I’m sure the guys who played against him hated it because he was so good and he would win all the time, but at the same time you’re playing against somebody who’s making history every time he steps on the court. I think it’s an honor... He’s damn good... It’s frustrating playing him just because he has no weaknesses. It’s something where if you don’t come out and you’re not 100 percent, you don’t have a chance. It’s not that you’re not going to win – you don’t have a chance at winning. So it’s tough to play him.”
The second and most telling factor in Kane’s unbeatable-ness is the style of play he uses to dismantle the rest of the racquetball world. Defense isn’t something Waselenchuk wants to play or quite frankly needs to play, and he approaches each match with the most aggressive style in the world. He shoots to score nearly all the time, and when he isn’t trying to end a rally in one of the corners he is blasting 180 mph passing shots that hit the front wall about three inches high. Very rarely do you see Kane go to the ceiling during a match, which for racquetball newbies refers to the most popular defensive shot in the game. Flipping the ball to the ceiling causes it to carry deep into the back of the court, forcing the opponent to take their next shot from as far back as possible. Kane almost never resorts to defensive tactics. And even when opponents hit a seemingly flawless ceiling ball to pin him to the back of the court, Waselenchuk plays it coming off the back wall like a racquetball sniper, shooting a bullet to the front wall for a winner at incredibly high rates of success.
Nobody seems to play the same way Kane plays, which only adds fuel to the fire of his dominance. To play an incredibly aggressive style with a god-like level of shot-making combines for an effectiveness that has never before been reached until “King Kane” came along. What’s even scarier is that his crown has grown in power and reverence over time. Believe it or not, this guy is actually getting better. Winning championships has not satisfied Waselenchuk’s appetite for improvement, and it has shown over the years.
“Kane has not always been an unapproachable God of playing,” says Charlie Brumfield, the godfather of racquetball and one of the greatest champions in the history of the sport. “I think he always did all of the requisite things. What he’s learned to do in the last five or six years is he’s learned how to play all of these weapons in a symphony and it makes him not capable of being beaten unless he beats himself - and I don’t think that’s going to happen. He knows how to use all of his weapons and his ego does not interfere with him utilizing those weapons in an effective and conscientious way.”
Kane has that killer instinct that you just can’t teach. He is ferocious on the court. He doesn’t want to just win the match, he wants to beat his opponent. And he wants to beat his opponent badly. You never see Waselenchuk being disrespectful on the court to an opponent or talking trash, but you do see in his body language and intense approach to the game that he wants to humiliate you. He wants to dominate you and shut your game down. He wants to embarrass you enough to remember the humiliation so you will be afraid to come back and try to compete with him again. This is a rare trait in athletes today, but it’s one of the trademarks of Kane Waselenchuk. It highlights that mental edge which separates the greatest champions of all-time from the average title-holders that manage to make it to the top for their fifteen minutes of fame before retreating back silently into the glossed over pages of sports history.
There is a mental edge that Kane holds against opponents that is unique to him. It appears that opponents feel one way when they step into the court with Waselenchuk and another when they play anybody else. This edge over opponents even affects the style of game they play. For anybody in the know, to beat Kane means you are going to have to outshoot him and out-aggressive him. Yet time after time after time, we see opponents throttle back instead of letting it all hang out.
Perhaps the intimidation factor comes into play here. Perhaps opponents are afraid to be embarrassed. It’s one thing to go to the ceiling and see Kane splat out a shot or roll a ball out for a winner – pros are supposed to make those shots. But when opponents turn up the heat and try to out-power Kane, it becomes extra humiliating to see him answer the best you have with a monster re-kill while making it look easy. With racquetball players, that kind of pride gets in the way of playing their very best racquetball. Kane knows this and he exploits it. It’s like he’s telling opponents, “If you try to get overly aggressive with me – I’m going to embarrass you.”
Racquetball followers can see the change in Kane’s demeanor against players who try to ramp up their level of aggressiveness. For those who are intimidated and simply trying to survive, he is kind, cordial, and complimentary when they play well. To those who try to overpower and outshoot him or enter the court with a fighter’s mentality, he ramps up his level of intensity to an unmatchable point. He wants to leave a permanent impression in their minds about what it feels like to lose. That effect seems snowball with his presence on the IRT year after year, gaining momentum and leaking into the minds of his racquetball rivals that create an aura of invincibility.
Waselenchuk has been compared to Roger Banister by his own coach, Jim Winterton. And that comparison may very well be valid when you see how his play is beginning to revolutionize racquetball. Slowly but surely, the game is evolving into something that this legend of the sport has created. More and more players coming up are emulating his style and seeing with their own eyes what is possible to do on a racquetball court. In that way, the comparison to Banister makes perfect sense. Before Banister came along, it was thought to be impossible for a human being to run a four-minute mile. It was even believed you could die if you tried to achieve that time. But within one year of Banister’s historic accomplishment, more than 20,000 others managed to run the mile in under four minutes. In the same way, youngsters passionate about the game of racquetball are seeing what is possible and emulating this perfect prototype of the sport.
“It’s almost as if you had a hybrid,” Winterton said. “You took the desire of a Charlie Brumfield, the athleticism of a Marty Hogan, the determination of a Cliff Swain, the growing up with racquetball of a Sudsy Monchik, and combined that into one person.”
For those sports fans not familiar with those aforementioned racquetball names, let us make a similar analogy using more recognizable baseball figures. It’s like having a hitter who possesses the strengths of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds all wrapped up into one. It’s combining the greatest players of all eras. The comparison that Winterton makes is so spot-on that it’s scary.
“Every element that can separate him from the opposition has been mined and you’ve got a perfect predator, attacker, and defender with every single criteria he needs,” Brumfield says. “That’s the freak. That’s the one that now everyone will build their game upon or they won’t survive.”
Unavoidably, Waselenchuk has been the lead man transforming the game of racquetball into what it is today and what it is becoming through future generations of players. And along the way he is the most dominating champion in the history of the game – one of the most dominating figures in any sport, any era. Can he be beat? The simple answer is yes. The more realistic answer is no. The separation between Kane and the rest of the field is so vast that it would take a major overhaul of another top pro’s game. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.
International Racquetball Tour. (2014, September 27). Post-match interview with world No. 5 Ben Croft after his semifinal appearance at the Athletic Club of Overland Park. Retrieved from the International Racquetball Tour Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152733747201737&set=vb.24705156736&type=2&theater