Racquetball Returns

With the XVI Pan American Games coming up this October, a unique group of teams will represent Canada in Guadalajara, Mexico. All summer long, we profile the nine sports in which Canada competes only at the Pan American Games.

Eight years since its last top international competition, racquetball is about to receive a warm welcome back.

The sport, which had been contested at the Pan American Games since 1995, was removed from the program for Rio 2007, deferring its fourth appearance. Now, with the countdown on to Guadalajara, racquetball is set to rejoin the Games in October – an opportunity that has Team Canada excited to leave their mark.

“If you have a profile with your sport, and that usually comes with success, then you can take it back to your clubs, your facilities, and your provincial associations,” said Darrell Davis, Vice-President of High Performance at Racquetball Canada. “Those (connections) feed right from championships down to a grassroots level.”

The game of Racquetball is slightly similar to another racquet sport played at the Pan Am Games. Like squash, racquetball is played within an enclosed area, where the goal is to hit the ball off of the surrounding walls in a rally to score points.

Players begin with the serve from the rectangular service box, which stretches the width of the centre of the court. The ball must be served so that it bounces first on the floor then on the front wall, and finally behind the service box before the opponent can return it. After the serve, the ball is live and players take turns hitting it, ensuring it always initially hits the front wall. If the ball bounces twice on the floor, or does not hit the front wall first on the shot, the rally is over and a point is awarded. Each match is a best-of-three, with the first two games played up to 15 points while the final ends at 11.

Where the sports differ in a significant manner is in the size of playing surface and the equipment used. Racquetball features a longer court, at 40 feet as opposed to 20, as well as a shorter racquet and a ball that bounces more frequently.

“(The ball) always comes back to you,” explained Davis. “Racquetball has turned into much more of a power sport it seems – a real ‘how hard can you hit it’ type of game. Sometimes you’ll just be digging it out of the front corners. Sometimes it spins if it hits two or three walls – it’s pretty frantic.”

The events in Mexico this fall will include singles, doubles and team tournaments, in which Canada is expected to compete. The team will be made up of three women and three men. On the women’s side will be National champion Jennifer Saunders (Winnipeg, Man.), long-time veteran Josee Grand’ maître (Longueuil, Que.), and up-and-coming star Frédérique Lambert (Montreal, Que) – who just recently won a gold medal at the Under-18 World Championship, her final junior event. For Lambert, Davis feels this is only the start of an impressive career.

“She’s capable of knocking off Jennifer Saunders, our National champion, and has beaten her on occasion,” said Davis. “We always talk about the junior players and how strong they get. On the women’s team, Frédérique is the strongest of the young players and is certainly in the next little while capable of becoming our National champion. It’s important to have athletes of that calibre.”

The men’s team is comprised of Mike Green (Burlington Ont.), a 14-time and current National champion, Canadian number-two Vincent Gagnon (Montreal, Que.), Kris Odegard (Saskatoon, Sask.) and newcomer Tim Landeryou (Saskatoon, Sask.).

In previous Pan Am Games, Canada consistently reached the podium in every event, winning several silver and bronze medals. The team compiled 13 in total over the span of three games, always remaining a contender, even without having capturing that elusive gold, which almost always went to the United States.

But according to Davis, the playing field isn’t about to get any easier.

“Now countries like Mexico and Columbia have really taken the sport up and are really battling and in fact, in some cases, in Mexico’s case, have surpassed Canada,” said Davis. “It’s getting to be a tough challenge for Canada to maintain that standard of potentially winning medals. Out sport is growing in a lot of countries but shrinking in Canada.”

Despite the challenges that lie ahead in the sport’s return to the Games, Canada feels they still have strong potential to keep up with the other nations.

“There should be some medals,” said Davis. “We don’t want to send anybody there thinking that they’re only going to get second or third. These athletes are great on the international stage and they’re certainly capable of knocking off the top players and breaking through. We can’t (completely) rule out gold.”