By Nicholas Diunte
Roberto Rodríguez-Bertrán entered the 2019 New York City AVP Gold Series Open with a community far away from home that was ready to embrace him. With generations of Boricuas gathering in New York this weekend to celebrate their Puerto Rican heritage, Rodríguez-Bertrán was proud to do his part by representing the island on the beach volleyball courts.
“It feels good to see Latinos, especially a Puerto Rican to be out there competing,” Rodríguez-Bertrán said after his second round match on center court at the Gansevoort Peninsula. “Those in the [Puerto Rican] volleyball community that know, they follow on the live [Amazon Prime] stream. It’s pretty humbling.”
For “Rafu” as he is affectionately known, just a few years ago, he was not sure would continue this journey. He moved from Puerto Rico to Temecula, California with the intent of stepping away from high-level competition.
“I wasn’t planning to try to continue my career,” he said. “I thought I was just going to play just for fun and because I liked playing. I was ready to be done with the national team stuff, start a family, and get a job. I had the opportunity to play, and I just kept playing.”
That opportunity came in the form of a partnership with tour veteran Ed Ratledge. While Rafu sat out the beginning of the 2018 AVP season, it was not long before Ratledge called. After splitting with his partner Eric Zaun, Ratledge pulled Rafu from his short-lived semi-retirement, and within a month, they were champions. The pair captured their first career AVP championship in San Francisco, defeating Chase Budinger and Sean Rosenthal in the finals.
To understand Rodríguez-Bertrán’s success, one has to look at the lineage his family created on the island. Both of his parents were immersed deeply in the sport and passed down that love to their son.
“Both my mom and my dad played for the national team in Puerto Rico,” he said. “My dad has always been a coach, so I was always around volleyball. He coached a professional indoor team in Puerto Rico.”
Growing up on in a place where baseball is the dominant sport, Rafu had his favorites on the diamond too. He cited New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams and recent Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez amongst his favorites. Despite baseball’s magnetic forces, Rodríguez-Bertrán’s stuck with his first love, volleyball.
“I started going to the beach and play some youth tournaments,” he said. “I just kept playing and playing. I started to compete in Florida, and then internationally [for Puerto Rico] in the NORCECA for eight years.”
While Rafu and Ratledge only made it to the second round in New York City, their three-set match on center court against Chase Frishman and his former partner Piotr Marciniak enthralled the crowd with a one-hour marathon. By the end, Rafu endeared New York City with his defense and skillful shot selection.
Despite coming up short in their victory quest, Rodríguez-Bertrán and Ratledge will return to California with a renewed focus to prepare for the remainder of the 2019 AVP tour.
“The competition is really tough, “he said. “All of the teams are really balanced. We just need to keep practicing, getting better, improve our game, and try to figure out teams too. There are a bunch of new teams on the tour. Now we have to get home and get back to training.”
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