Authored by Gritty
What a day of singles. The two giants of the sport lost. Tyson McGuffin got into it after the match with Christian Alshon. Gabe Joseph is playing for a gold medal like it’s 2020. There have been fake news, but maybe not so fake news, rumors floating around about Zane’s ProXR paddle. Ben Johns unsuccessfully challenged Yates Johnson’s paddle. But the biggest story has to be Anna Leigh Waters losing to Hurricane Tyra Black in the quarter-finals. It wasn’t the loss itself, though. It was the reaction following the loss from the young phenom.
Anna Leigh hit a ball well out on match point, threw her hands up in the air as one would when celebrating and apparently was saying thank you to Tyra for beating her. She tapped paddles with Black, tossed her paddle to Mama Waters and ran off the court with her hands once again up in the air in a celebratory fashion. It was one of the oddest displays you will ever see from a person who just lost a match.
It is always a balance for me in my view of ALW. She has been in this bubble pickleball world spotlight for a few years now. She is a sensation in a booming sport where she is earning 7 figures. She is a legitimate professional athlete earning more money than most people could ever dream of.
On the other hand, she is a 16-year-old teenager. She spends a lot of time with her parents and doesn’t have anything that resembles a normal childhood. Her life consists of being on the road for more than half the year with a bunch of adults playing a niche professional sport. She is a child superstar, albeit without the full-on Justin Bieber public lifestyle that comes with it. It is a weird life to say the least.
Oh, did I forget to mention that she pretty much never loses?
Anna Leigh was vying for her 7th straight triple crown this weekend at a time in the sport where most of the pickleball world is rooting against her. Not only does Anna Leigh not have to deal with losing, but she has to deal with so many people wanting her to lose.
There were a lot of sportsmanship comments after Anna Leigh lost, but I didn’t see this as some kind of sportsmanship issue. Even if Anna Leigh has come across as spoiled and bratty in the past and has not displayed the most grace in her rare losses, this loss to Black felt different to me. It was as if there was a program malfunction in her hardware. It wasn’t normal.
I am typically of the mindset that if you want to play a professional sport as a teenager, you better be ready to be treated as a professional athlete. This includes the publicity, accolades and criticism that come with being a pro athlete. There is no doubt that Anna Leigh has often received a pass for some of her behavior because of her age. Actions get chalked up to her youth. Although age is unquestionably a factor, it cannot be a forever excuse.
At the same time, what I saw on Thursday made me feel sympathy for her. This was the reaction of someone who feels the weight of the world on her shoulders despite the fact that no one in the world really cares whether she completes a record-breaking triple crown. It was some mix of anger, upset, relief, exhaustion and everything in between.
How else can you explain a reaction like the one Anna Leigh had on center court?
Regardless of the reasons behind the reaction, the reaction in itself was beyond strange. On the other side of the court, there may not be anyone else in pro pickleball to better understand what baby Waters is going through than Hurricane Tyra Black. Black’s parents changed her name at a young age to make her more marketable as a tennis player. Black has been travelling since she was 13-years-old for tennis and was gracious in her post-match interview about the reaction from ALW.
I also can see the irony in me feeling sympathy for the pressures Anna Leigh faces while also writing about those struggles and shining a brighter spotlight on the situation. I recognize that many people will disagree with how I am making sense of the situation. In my eyes, the reaction of ALW was a human reminder that you don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors and you don’t know what’s going on in someone’s head.
I have no doubt Anna Leigh will be back. She’s probably going to win two gold medals this weekend and everything will be fine. Hopefully her support system can show her that her worth isn’t defined by wins and losses because there will be more losses to come in the future. It is an inevitability of competition and sport. We have had questions in the past about how Anna Leigh would handle the losses that have to come her way and, unfortunately, this was not a good start. However, maybe this will be a lesson for her in better being able to handle the losses that come her way.
If not, it could be a tough road ahead for the young phenom.
(Update: Aug 3, 12:38 am EST: I should have noted there is a theory going around that ALW’s reaction was a response to her mom telling her to have more positive body language. My take is if that is the explanation, it still signals similar concerns initially identified in the article regarding the pressure she may be feeling)
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