It’s been a hot minute since we have done any rankings but the people have been asking for them! After promising new rankings for a while, we are here to deliver. Over 6 months of tournaments have elapsed since our last installment of rankings and it really is fascinating to see how much has changed in that period of time, which is keeping in the spirit of the rapid evolution of pickleball. We’re splitting up our rankings into three parts just like last time- singles, mixed doubles and doubles. We have singles today, mixed doubles will be posted tomorrow and we’ll start off your Monday next week with the doubles rankings – that is what people in the business call a tease folks. So here it is, the second installment of the definitive NML PIckleball player rankings.
Top 5 Women
1. Anna Leigh Waters – The last time we did player rankings, we asked the question, why doesn’t Anna Leigh play more singles? This was after the US Open, where she had taken bronze in singles, but it was her first time playing singles this year. Since then she has competed in singles in every tournament she has played in. In her last 7 tournaments, Anna Leigh has come away with 5 gold medals and 2 silver medals, so it is safe to say she has found her stride in singles. Her rolling shots tend to keep opponents on their heels, and her great court coverage allows her to keep a lot of balls in play, forcing opponents to hit more shots than they would like to. When returning serve, I think she needs to continue to work on coming to the net consistently and forcing opponents to make difficult passing shots. #1 or not, always things to improve.
2. Lea Jansen – The last time we did the rankings, we had Lea just missing the list, despite coming off of her first big performance, a silver at the US Open, but leading into that tournament she had shown a real lack of consistency. Since then, however, she has shown a very high level of consistency, reaching the final in 6 of her last 7 tournaments, with the lone exception being the PPA Championship, a tournament she ended up having to withdraw from. The biggest question for Lea with singles heading into next year is if she can catch up to Anna Leigh, who has had her number since Lea took down Anna Leigh to win the PPA Orange County Cup.
3. Catherine Parenteau – Catherine is the third player who we regularly see on the podium at the large tournaments and she too has an Anna Leigh problem, having had the misfortune of drawing her often on her side of the draw in a number of the single elimination PPA tournaments. Catherine is also more prone to take a loss to a player outside of the top three than Lea and Anna Leigh, which is why she comes in at number three. We also question whether she has the ceiling that Lea and Anna Leigh have. We see both of those players with room to grow in their singles game where we do not see the same upside with Catherine.
4. Callie Smith – Callie is another player who has really just started playing a lot of singles this year, and her results have certainly been promising. It is obvious that she has put a fair amount of work into her singles this year. She has a pretty strong record head to head with Catherine, but has struggled to get a win against Anna Leigh or Lea, which is why she comes in at number four on this list. With this being her first year really playing singles, one would have to think that there is still another level she can reach in her singles game.
5. Jillian Braverman – After Callie, it is a significant drop off. Jillian provides the best combination of potential and results of the remaining players. Her big serve, powerful groundstrokes and length and athleticism make her a legitimate threat out there. She has yet to show that she can beat any of the players above her on this list, but also beats pretty much everyone else. She also plays far less tournaments than the other players on this list. It would be interesting to see if with more singles repetitions if she could continue to move up on this list.
Stock Up: Lauren Stratman, Lee Whitwell
Lauren Stratman has some of the better passing shots, and has shown she can get some results when she plays, especially in the smaller brackets. Lee Whitwell, showed if you need a player for four points at least, she is your girl at MLP. Whitwell is a few years away from the senior ranks, if she chooses to play some singles there, one would have to think her ground strokes will allow her to do some damage there. She won’t be playing on the pro tour in singles most likely but how is her stock not up?
Stock Down: Irina Tereschenko, Michelle Esquivel
Since her gold at the US Open this year Irina really hasn’t gotten any results in singles other than she did get a bronze at TOC. Michelle Esquivel seems to be playing less and less singles these days, and is not getting results when she does. Age is not on the side of either player.
Biggest Potential to Rise: Vivienne David, Kaitlyn Christian
As we highlighted coming out of MLP, Vivienne David is a player on the rise. Gritty cannot quit Kaitlyn Christian (I actually had to talk him out of having her in the top 5 in our initial rankings this year). I get that there is raw talent and potential there, but she currently, understandably seems very focused on tennis, and when she has played lately the results, have indicated she cannot dabble and expect to have success at the highest level.
Top 5 Men
1. Ben Johns – Ben hasn’t been quite the unbeatable force in pickleball that he was when we did our initial rankings. His singles has still been strong for the most part but Johns did not medal at TOC back in August, losing to JW Johnson and then Spencer Smith. That ended his crazy 100 plus match singles winning streak. He also went to the PPA championships and lost in straight games to Zane Navratil before withdrawing from the loser’s side. We’ve come up with a lot of potential excuses for Ben’s dip in the level of his play, but the fact is that his results haven’t been Ben-like. Even though we’re expecting a motivated Ben going into 2022, if we keep seeing more losses we’re going to have to stop with the excuses at some point.
2. Zane Navratil – Putting Zane at #2 in our initial rankings back in April seemed like it may have been a mistake for a brief period of time, but Navratil has had a rock star finish to the 2021 season. Navratil won the last 3 singles events he played in – PPA Texas, APP Hilton Head and PPA Championships. Outside of the USA PIckleball Newport Beach Championships in June, Navratil has really had Tyson McGuffin’s number. The only reason to drop Navratil from the #2 spot is betting that his serve won’t be the same weapon in 2022 with the chainsaw being banned, which is too speculative for our liking. Zane is a grinder and we expect there’s going to be continued improvement in his game as we go into a new season.
3. Tyson McGuffin – It’s quite impressive that Tyson is still playing at the level he is. McGuffin has played a lot of pickleball over the last few years and there has been massive evolution to the sport yet he still finds himself at the top of the singles game. He ended the year off strong with a silver at the PPA Masters. The reality is that Tyson’s upside is capped by his age and very limited development of a backhand groundstroke. He is as tough a competitor as they come and he probably works harder than any other pro out there. How long will hard work and grit be enough to stay at the top though?
4. Jay Devilliers – We talked about Jay’s high ceiling, low floor in our first installment of the rankings. Devilliers’ consistency was incredible across all parts of his game during the middle part of the year but the low ceiling/high floor part of his game reared its ugly head in the latter part of the year. It is notable that his fluctuating results in singles may be due in large part to playing so much pickleball in 2021 and he should be playing a bit less in 2022 as a PPA contracted player. Nevertheless, his lack of consistency leaves him in this #4 spot.
5. JW Johnson – We talk a lot about consistency and that is no different for JW: Consistency has been a bit elusive for JW in singles despite some huge wins, including taking down Ben and Tyson at TOC. That’s no small feat. There has been major improvement in his singles games and the results speak for themselves. He creates a lot of difficulty for opponents trying to score on him with some of the best volleying at the net out there. The problem is that he’ll still go tournaments where he has too many losses against guys outside the top tier. JW has done enough to vault himself into the top 5 to end 2021.
Just Missed the Cut: Gabriel Joseph
Joseph is a supremely talented player who hasn’t played nearly as much as the other guys above him on this. In his relatively limited tournament play, Joseph’s results haven’t been stellar. His last 3 tournament results included having his day ended by JW Johnson 15-4 at the PPA Masters, going 1-2 at the PPA Championships and barely missing out on bronze with a 12-10 loss to Dekel Bar at the PPA Takeya Showcase. He hasn’t medaled at any pro event since the APP So Cal Classic in June where he was able to take a gold in a field that featured JW Johnson and Jay Devilliers. The talent is there for the speedy and dynamic Kyrgios, but the results haven’t been.
Stock Up: Jack Foster, Dylan Frazier
Foster’s results have slowly been trending upwards and he even broke his 4th place curse at a recent tournament. He seems to be working on both the physical and mental side of his game. The windmill forehand is always going to be there so if he could find a passable backhand drive it would be immensely helpful to him. Frazier just got started on his singles foray mid-way through 2021. Despite zero backhand drive, Frazier still finds a way to get it done against good competition. He’s only going to get better.
Stock Down: AJ Koller, Dekel Bar, Collin Johns
As AJ’s doubles results have gotten better, his singles results have suffered. It’s not quite as exciting to have to grind singles days when you’re a legitimate doubles podium threat every weekend. Speaking of not being thrilled by the grind, have you met Dekel Bar? Our running theory is that Bar isn’t a natural grinder, which is most apparent in the lack of improvement in his fitness. The singles grind is the toughest of them all in pickleball, hence why Bar plays sparingly. His best result in Red Rock was on the heels of a day off due to a rain delay. The running theme of stock down for men’s singles is guys not wanting to grind singles, and we see no other reason for Collin Johns not playing singles other than the work it takes. Anyway, that’s a lot of use of the word grind for one paragraph.
Mental Training Update
Ryan Sherry has added timezone training in addition to the mental preparation training since we first did our rankings. He wasn’t planning to be at MLP but he joined the party last minute to literally do that, which is party. With his very intense training program, he’s our choice for the best 4-point singles player in the men’s game.
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org