Authored by Gritty
Apologies in advance for those of you tired of reading about paddles. However, after this weekend in Red Rock, it is something that we have to address, and I have a lot to say. For those of you that missed what happened, The Kitchen provided a solid recap of some of the controversy in their “Reset” video that outlines the issues on Thursday between Tyson McGuffin and Travis Rettenmaier as well as Lea Jansen and Salome Devidze.
The one aspect that the Kitchen’s Reset video did not get into was that earlier on in the women’s day, Allyce Jones was playing Salome Devidze in singles and lost quite badly. Jones, who is not someone I would expect to bring forth a grapes paddle challenge (I don’t think this was sour grapes, by the way), went ahead to challenge Salome’s paddle. Salome asked for a revenge paddle challenge as both players gave their paddles to the referee. There were no commentators because the match was streamed on Grandstand. With no deflection testing on-site, all challenges for deflection were sent for off-site testing after the tournament so the jury is still out on this one. Yes, apparently there is testing for deflection available, according to Lea Jansen in her appearance on the Dink’s podcast released Tuesday morning, even though the PPA has not released any published policy.
As many of our readers know, delamination has been a hot topic. Delamination of a paddle occurs when the surface of thermoformed carbon paddles delaminate from the core, which creates a trampoline effect and turns paddles into a relative rocket launcher of sorts – i.e. generating significantly more power for a player. It results in paddles having substantive power beyond what was initially approved as part of the USA Pickleball approval process. This issue is what led the PPA to require players using the new power series CRBN to send those paddles for off-site testing.
Update: Ben Johns wrote an article for the Dink about delamination with a more detailed explanation on the subject and testing.
The difficulty with deflection testing is that the machine used to test for deflection is very expensive. These paddles that delaminate will pass USA Pickleball initial testing because they have not delaminated until after use or modification, and there is no post-approval testing by USAP or the tours to monitor what happens to paddles after they go through the approval process. Apparently, the PPA had a deflection testing machine at the PPA Austin, and we know that MLP completed a bunch of independent data collection at the Daytona event.
As of right now, it is a virtually unregulated paddle market. We outlined this in our modified paddle controversy from the beginning of the year and further discussed in our more recent commentary on the CRBN paddle being singled out by the PPA Tour. While we wait for the tours to figure it out, some players have taken it upon themselves to fight the good fight to effect change.
As I alluded to above, the singles day started with Travis Rettenmaier taking issue with Tyson McGuffin’s paddle during the match. Tyson won the first game 14-12 and early in game 2 he switched his paddle as Travis made comments throughout game 1 and game 2 about something being wrong with the paddle. Tyson went on to win the match and Rettenmaier proceeded to take his shirtless self to Instagram to comment on the situation.
It is clear watching that match back that the paddle Tyson was playing with sounded different. The sound of a paddle being hollower and louder than what you may be used to is the giveaway for either a delaminated or modified paddle that hits harder than its off the shelf version. We had not noticed this until people started pointing this out to us until after we published our Paddletek modification article. However, when you start listening more closely on the livestream, you can tell certain players’ paddles do not sound like the versions of those paddles that are being sold to the general public – in other words, the paddles that have been approved by USA Pickleball. Listen more carefully if you haven’t noticed.
So, Travis said he plays with the same Selkirk paddle as Tyson, which may not be quite true as Tyson may have been playing with an 002A. Nevertheless, Travis was certain enough something was wrong with Tyson’s paddle that he made a video about it. Travis’ shirtless video leads to two possible outcomes: (1) Travis was wrong, or (2) Tyson was using a delaminated or modified paddle that is not approved for play. Based on the shots Tyson was hitting and the sound the paddle was making, it would seem something was fishy was going on. Despite Travis’ request for Tyson to respond, there has not been any public response from McGuffin or Selkirk, which is a paddle brand that we have never heard of having delamination issues before the weekend (update: we have been made aware Tyson responded, see here) Lea Jansen confirmed that Rettenmaier challenged McGuffin’s paddle. I won’t be waiting with baited breath for the results of the paddle testing of such a prominent player and brand to be released publicly by the PPA.
Fast forward to the women’s semi-final later in the day. Lea Jansen and Salome Devidze. Always a guarantee of some kind of fireworks. Jansen was vocal that Salome was using a delaminated paddle and you could hear it on the stream. It overtook the entire match. Game 1 was close, but Jansen had mentally checked out by the time game 2 rolled around and lost 11-1.
For a large group of people, Jansen’s comments come across as sour grapes for a player who is unable to handle the power and shot-making that Salome was bringing. For me, after I sift through the antics of the complaint, I have to take those claims seriously in the context of everything that is happening with paddles in 2023, even though I don’t agree with how Jansen handled it on the court. In the midst of all the chaos, there’s a real question of whether Devidze was using a delaminated paddle given the level of shot-making that was happening on the court. Now, it did not help Jansen’s case that Parenteau went out and dominated Devidze on Saturday, but it was also notable that Devidze was spraying the ball around in the faster, cold morning conditions.
Devidze was playing with a Vatic Pro paddle. Not too long-ago Ben Johns went on Twitter to call out a few paddle companies for delamination, Vatic Pro among those being called out. Someone forwarded to us that the owner of Vatic Pro was sharing his messages with Devidze in a Discord with respect to her explanation of the paddle. Devidze said she simply weights her paddle very heavily and that is why she’s able to hit such piercing balls.
Interestingly, Devidze was playing with a Legacy paddle as recently as APP Mesa in February, and has switched to the Vatic sometime after. The Vatic paddle she was using sounded a little bit hollower than others on the livestream but it is not as noticeable as some other paddle situations on tour, including Tyson’s from the weekend. I will note that Chris Olson said on the latest Pickleball Studio podcast that not all delaminated paddles make a sound that obviously differentiates them from a paddle that has not delaminated.
The difficulty with the deflection issue is that, without testing, you can’t definitively prove anything. I can see that Thomas Wilson or Salome Devidze are hitting absolute rockets. I may be able to hear that someone’s paddle does not sound right. However, that’s not something I can clearly show someone as evidence like a Starrett test for grit. It’s similar to performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). I can go back to photos and see someone’s body transform massively in a short period of time, or see they are moving faster than before on the court, but that’s not something I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
Throwing out accusations is a tough business. Lea Jansen has obviously decided she does not care how people perceive her with how she is going about these controversial topics. She has not been shy voicing her opinions on various controversial topics, like paddles and PEDs. During matches, she probably would be better served focusing on her play rather than the potential cheating that is going on, but there is no doubt what she is doing is bringing attention to these topics. Jansen has also learned that as much backlash as she may receive from fans, her actions are forcing the hands of the entities with control of the situation – namely, the PPA, MLP and USAP.
There is a balance with all of this. I am 100% on the side of the players complaining to the extent that something needs to be resolved. I am not necessarily on the side of how it is being addressed by pros in every situation, but there’s no question paddles are a major problem. It was noted in the Kitchen’s Reset video that there will be on-site deflection testing at the next PPA event. Do you think this happens without Jansen, Rettenmaier and Jones challenging paddles? I don’t think so. Lucy Kovalova also had a much quieter challenge of Christa Gecheva’s CRBN paddle in Red Rock.
One thing we have not addressed on this blog is what unregulated paddles mean for the sport. As hard as it may be to believe, paddles really are not something of great interest to us. We are not equipment guys. In fact, I can be too much of an old school guy and where I differ from my NML co-founder is that I think that stricter regulation for paddle technology is crucial.
People can get up in arms about stifling evolution of the sport as we saw with the Zane-saw serve, but if you allow the game of pickleball to change too much, it is going to change what it means for the professional and amateur game. With the gathering of data that is happening by the tours, their decision of where the standard is set for paddle testing could shape the future of the sport. That may come across as hyperbole, but I really don’t think it is. The entities involved in the sport have a really tough decision to make for drawing the line on paddle technology when everyone has a different opinion on what that line should be.
I am in favor of not letting the game get too fast and allowing pickleball paddle technology to run rampant. It may not be great for the business of paddles, but I think keeping the game in the realm of where it now is best for the long-term health of the sport. Get off my lawn but I don’t want a game that becomes people blasting balls from everywhere and anywhere.
Zane Navratil was commenting on Twitter over the weekend comparing a delaminated paddle to an aluminum bat in baseball, and that may not be an exaggerated comparison on the relative impact juiced paddles have on pros playing by the rules. The players have been forced to make their complaints public because nothing might have changed if they didn’t. Leveraging the forum they have to ensure all players play by the same rules is not whining.
However, I am not in favor of giving everyone an aluminum bat, even if it is a level playing field. Baseball does a lot of dumb things in its history but I think baseball has done a smart thing keeping wood bats in the pro game. I don’t like that tennis has allowed free reign on technology. I don’t like that golf technology continues to improve and make things easier for pros. The business of golf benefits massively from amateurs continually being exposed to new technology that can improve their game, but pro golf is not better for it, in my view.
The pickleball court is 20 by 44 feet and the kitchen is 7 feet from the net. If we let paddle technology go wild, we’re going to have a different game that may not be as appealing to watch or, more importantly, as appealing to play for amateurs. We need to have the amateur game grow if the professional game is going to takeoff.
The faster game that has developed over the past 5 years is undoubtedly better for the sport. Some of that is paddle technology, but some of that is simply natural evolution of the sport with new and better players figuring things out. If you put current players out there with paddle technology from 5 years ago, the game will still look a lot different than it did back then. If paddle technology stays the same for the next 5 years, the game will continue to evolve naturally. I don’t think we need to expedite that even further by allowing paddle technology to get out of control and I’m hopeful the entities in control agree with that statement.
In the meantime, we have a big time paddle problem. Players are out there blatantly cheating. Whether that is knowingly using a delaminated paddle or modifying their paddles, there are pros out there doing this. They know they can take advantage of this without penalties and some people are going to be okay with that when money is on the line. I am not okay with that.
Salome Devidze is unquestionably the biggest cheater in pickleball when it comes to line calls. She has no shame. This is not an individual I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to, no matter what the CEO of Vatic Pro says. I’m less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to her when a pro who never complains, Allyce Jones, is taking issue with Salome’s paddle. Allyce Jones also plays mixed with Spencer Smith, including at Red Rock, and Smith is a Vatic sponsored player. Whether we get results of this off-site testing for Salome Devidze’s paddle is a different question, especially since the PPA has not published any policy on deflection testing.
While I would be livid if I were in the position of Allyce Jones, Lea Jansen or Travis Rettenmaier, particularly given the unknown shelf life of pro pickleball players and the money up for grabs right now in the sport, the reality is also that change cannot happen overnight. Change seems to be coming and it may be coming faster because pros are being vocal about it, but there has to be some understanding that getting paddle standards right will take a little bit of time. Still, if Salome or Tyson lose ranking points or prize money because their paddles are found to be illegal, it provides little solace for the pros that have been impacted by it in the moment. Hopefully there is some comfort in that they are using their public platforms to effect change for the greater good of the sport.
I am confident things are going to change and it will be a million times better than than the US Open telling pros they may be suspended from next year’s US Open for an incorrect paddle challenges
It is not lost on me that all 3 pros being vocal about paddle issues this weekend are connected to Lea Jansen. At the same time, I think that Jones and Rettenmaier are strong willed individuals that aren’t taking issue with other pros simply because one of their doubles partners is making noise about it. Rettenmaier and Jones both clearly believed they were subject to playing opponents with paddles that were not legal, whether it is true or not.
The other reality is that far more pros have a problem with the cheating that is going on in the sport than we hear about, but most are not comfortable vocalizing their displeasure. These players have to see each other at every tournament and don’t want to name names typically. Is it fair that certain players like Devidze or Thomas Wilson are named while others are getting a pass? No, it isn’t completely fair. It isn’t fair that CRBN has borne the brunt of the paddle punishment when other companies are doing the same. But it is evident after this weekend that more players are going to call out what they believe to be blatant cheating if they are up against it on the court. When it is affecting their rankings, results and prize money directly, some pros are not going to sit back and take it.
With deflection testing coming on-site, I’ll be curious if we see more players get called out, including top players who may have previously been seen as untouchable in the sport. I am also making another call to the PPA to be transparent with the paddle testing process and the results that come out of it. Once there is objective, standardized testing in place, the cheating will go away, to a certain extent, because players know they cannot get away with it. We have already seen the impact of testing with the grit issue that has quickly taken a backseat to deflection.
Pros and paddle companies may find other ways to cheat or skirt around the process, but just as we have seen with the grit problem becoming far less of an issue, hopefully paddle controversy as an entire topic is no longer the norm at a pro pickleball tournament.
p.s. Lea Jansen commented on the Dink’s podcast that Salome talks to NML. To clarify, Salome Devidze does not talk to or message us. In fact, we have never had any exchange with Salome. We also did not provide any commentary on Jansen’s warm-up situation with Salome. We don’t know where that is coming from.
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