The journey from Rocky Carson’s first national title to the US Open Racquetball Championships this weekend has been a long one.
Carson earned his first big title when he won a national title as a 10-year-old. By his mid-teens, he was regularly competing with pro racquetball players. Before long, he was even crushing his father, who co-owned a racquet club.
“That’s when I knew I had a chance to become one of the top players in the world,” Carson said.
But it has only been in recent years that Carson has reached the top. Now 31, Carson is the current International Racquetball Federation World Champion, World Outdoor Racquetball Champion and National Indoor Singles Champion.
Even though Carson’s career started off with a burst, he considers himself a late bloomer. After joining the pro tour in 1998, it took nearly a decade for him to finally break through as one of the world’s premier players.
He finally obtained the No. 1 ranking during the 2007-08 International Racquetball Tour season, and he won his first singles World Championship in Ireland that season, too. Carson enters the US Open this weekend in Minneapolis ranked No. 2 on the International Racquetball Tour.
Carson, whose USA Racquetball bio dubs him “the most versatile player the sport has ever had,” has maintained that excellence. He won the 2010 U.S. singles championship in May—his fifth since 2000—and just this summer he won his second IRF World Championship in Seoul where he also helped Team USA capture gold.
In Minneapolis this weekend, Carson will be seeking his second US Open title after winning his first in 2007. Carson feels like his victory in Seoul could give him a slight mental edge going into the tournament.
“It’s a little extra confidence,” Carson said. “It feels good to have that confidence. You know what it takes to do it.”
His biggest competition likely will come from Kane Waselenchuk, the two-time defending champion who has won five of the last seven tournaments. However, players from the men’s International Racquetball Tour, Women’s Professional Racquetball Organization and the Classic Pro Racquetball Tour make up the field in the professional division for the sport’s top tournament. With $48,000 in total prize money on the line, nothing will be easy.
Carson said the top tier of the tour is similar to the men’s pro tennis tour in that it’s the same guys gunning for each other week in and week out.
“When we get to the very top it’s like [tennis stars Roger] Federer and [Rafael] Nadal, and we joke that we’re all a step above the rest,” Carson said. “You know who has got game, not that somebody else can’t step up and not that you are the only ones, but you are looking to gun for the other guys and the other guys look to gun for you.”
Today, Carson is one of the biggest stars in his sport. But the Orange County native is thankful for the relative time that it took for his journey from being a 10-year-old national champion to being among the sport’s elite.
“When you go into anything, hard work, determination and perseverance, all those things come into play,” Carson said. “But when you go straight to the top you may not notice that as much. You may not notice those little things that got your there.
“I know we’ve seen in the past in sports, guys go straight to the top right from the beginning and when the going gets tough they’re not always ready to keep on going.
Carson said there were times during the middle of his pro career when he felt like he was spinning his wheels, especially with some of his former corporate sponsors. But he said he would’ve never made it through that time had it not been for longtime sponsors One Shot Sports and Racquetball Warehouse. And he certainly showed flashes of greatness during that time period, losing in the finals of the World Championships a few times in tight tie breakers.
“It can be frustrating but it drives you,” he said. “It’s one of those things you try to make little tweaks here and there; change your game to make it that much better. It definitely made it that much sweeter [when I starting winning championships].
“It didn’t come right away and I think I’ve come much better player since then.”
Carson signed a sponsorship deal with Head and switched to their racquets this past summer, only two weeks before winning the world title in Seoul.
“To win a championship on a completely new racquet I felt was a pretty big accomplishment,” he said. “It’s not easy to do that. Sometimes it gets into your head so I was very fortunate.”
After 14 years in Memphis, the US Open comes to Minneapolis for the first time. But for Carson, the record holder for most National Indoor Singles and National Doubles Championship titles, it’s just another opportunity to show why he is one of the best in the sport.
“Everyone peaks at different times,’’ Carson said. “I believe I peaked in my career, obviously later than earlier because I started playing pro at 18 or 19-years-old. But I’m still learning a lot about the pro game and also a lot about my own game over time. I’ve become a more polished player and have a better understanding of the game. I’m stronger, more athletic, more fit and tougher mentally.”
That could spell trouble for his rivals this weekend.
Editor's Note: The men's pro winner this weeekend was Kane Waselenchuk. Carson lost in the second round.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Justin A. Rice is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.