It’s mid-May and we are really starting to get into the grind of the pickleball calendar. We’ve always had our concerns that there are too many events combined. In back-to-back weeks, we have seen thin fields at the PPA in North Carolina and then for the APP in Cincinnati this past weekend. The APP’s current stated purpose for the lower tier events is essentially giving the opportunity for newer talent to emerge but the fact is that there are fields with less depth. We’re getting into another month where we have events every weekend and it’ll be interesting to see what type of buzz all of these events generate as the year goes along.
A smaller tournament means fewer takeaways, but we still have some nuggets for you from the weekend.
1. Star Exceptions, or Lack Thereof (Gritty) – Hall of Fame football coach Jimmy Johnson famously said that “I can’t be writing what the rules are because my rules vary from player to player…In Dallas we had a linebacker named John Roper who got cut for falling asleep in a meeting. If Troy Aikman fell asleep in a meeting, I’d over and whisper, “Wake up, Troy.”
The APP Tour has clearly drawn a line in the sand with the way they do business compared to the PPA Tour. The APP presents itself as the every person tour. No exclusivity, senior pros get highlighted, emerging stars are born. Yada, yada, yada. At a certain point though, I think the APP is going to suffer from this treating everyone the same mantra that they seem determined to abide by. They need to take a page from Jimmy Johnson’s playbook.
The PPA undoubtedly does a really good job making their contracted players feel special. They have photoshoots for them, provide them with big sponsor rental cars from Hertz, highlight them in social media posts, listen when their players, or at least certain players, want to make changes (for better or for worse). Clearly, the PPA has prioritized the relationships with players.
The tours don’t want to make it a competition but we know it is. The PPA tried to undercut the APP, but it hasn’t happened right away. Nevertheless, there are some areas that the PPA is the leader in the clubhouse in, such as attendance at tournaments, streaming numbers, bigger sponsors. However, the APP is winning some battles too. They are setting themselves apart as the tour where new talent can emerge. But more importantly for the long term, there are PPA players who are making the choice to play more APP events.
This past weekend there was a prime example of the APP being too fair though. Lauren Stratman no longer appears to be a PPA exclusive player. We don’t know exactly what has happened but she played a random moneyball event and an APP event in the same week. For Cincinnati, apprently what happened with the small women’s doubles field is that Stratman/Andrea Koop were initially registered to play in it together. However, after one team dropped out, the draw was no longer an 8 team draw, which meant that there would not be a full payout of the prize money according to APP policy. As a result, Stratman/Koop pulled out of the draw. I don’t know the ins and outs of the policy, but it doesn’t seem like it would have been too difficult to keep the full payout in this instance for no reason other than you should be wanting to show accommodation to players like Stratman and Koop.
Example number 2. Anna Bright is the model of everything the APP hopes to provide for players. She’s the most exciting thing that has happened to pickleball in 2022 and the APP has her for a bunch of events. There is one area where Bright is almost certainly not happy about with the APP, which is their stipend program. Now, we are gleaning this from a social media post but prior to St. Louis, Anna Bright posted an APP promotion for St. Louis with her picture as the headline photo for singles day and captioned it “not a top 10 pro but I made the post [huffing emoji] LFG”.
This is a shot across the bow from Anna. The APP has a system that provides stipends to the top 10 male and female players based on points. Bright is a new player and evidently does not qualify for those stipends yet the APP is still using her to promote their tournament. Of course they are. While the APP should be doing everything they can to have Bright playing as many events as possible, they appear to be treating her the same as anyone else. You know who won’t do that to Anna Bright? The PPA. You need to keep your stars happy and the APP is not doing as much as they can in that regard.
What is insane about both the Anna Bright and now Lauren Stratman situations is that these are obvious instances of a need to make exceptions. You can’t be worrying about fairness all the time. There should be discretion built into their policies that allow them to make exceptions for these types of situations. Like Jimmy Johnson would for Troy Aikman.
With Stratman, you have a high end female pro who cannot be happy with the PPA and the first tournament she plays you don’t ensure it is worth her while to attend? It has a domino effect as Stratman ended up pulling out of singles on Sunday. Beyond that, it sends the wrong message to the higher end players who are trying to decide what events they want to play and whether the APP is a viable option. Sure, it’s great to look out for all your players and not give too much preferential treatment to star players. But you need some top players if you want to have a tour, and the APP doesn’t appear to grasp how important that concept is. In my humble opinion.
The APP has been very slow to make moves throughout this arms race between the two pickleball tours, adjusting to the landscape at what feels like a snail’s pace. If they don’t do something about that soon, I’ll bet that this will cost them in the long run.
2. Lina Padegimaite’s Big Weekend (Slim) – The former University of Texas tennis player is still a relative newcomer to pickleball, having only started playing tournaments last year. While she had flashed some potential, and did have one pro podium to her credit, a bronze in women’s doubles with Kasandra Gehrke, it is safe to say that this weekend was her official coming out party. Lina made the podium in all three events, taking silver in women’s doubles with Susannah Barr, bronze in mixed doubles with Stefan Auvergne and bronze in singles.
Her women’s doubles silver included a convincing 11-4,11-2 win over the bronze medallists, Regina Franco and Parris Todd. Her mixed bronze included wins over Julian Arnold and Laurent Stratman, and Andrei Daescu and Regina Franco. And her singles run included a loser’s bracket victory of Rachel James, after losing to her on the winners side. Those are some strong wins for Lina, and I suspect that this is just the start for her. She is showing great potential to be a high end women’s pro player. One will have to suspect that the partnership opportunities will also pour in for her pretty soon, if not already.
You can add Lina’s name to the now, relatively long list of breakout pro women’s player’s in pickleball this year, which has probably been the best story in the sport so far, considering the desperate need of more higher level female players and stars. I am not sure that they are a 100% correlated but this has also probably been the biggest positive to come out of there being relatively two separate tours, with the vast majority of the top female players signing with PPA it created a great opportunity for some new players to start making some money in the sport relatively quickly and it seems to have helped encourage some more ladies to jump into pro pickleball.
3. Zane Navratil. Not a Singles Specialist (Slim) –
Zane Navratil had a relatively slow start to the year in general, and his doubles results in particular were underwhelming, but of late his doubles results have been very strong. This weekend, we saw him take the triple crown (with a small asterisk for the men’s doubles weather default), winning men’s doubles with Andrei Daescu and mixed with Jade Kawamoto. In St. Louis last week, we saw him take a bronze in mixed with Andrea Koop and a silver in men’s doubles with DJ Young, which included an impressive two straight games win over Dekel Bar and JW Johnson.
In men’s doubles Zane seems to pair very well with long, dominant left side players, working as the set up guy. This is not exactly a new thing, as Zane has had some success in this role in the past. His results from a couple years ago with Jeff Warnick come to mind, but it is not a role we have seen him in a ton, but that seems to be changing with his recent partners. If he continues to partner with dominant left side players, I suspect we will continue to see Zane be a regular presence on the men’s doubles podium at the APP events. It should also be noted that I think Zane’s hands have continued to improve, and he has also done a good job of ‘toning’ down his doubles as he used to be a bit too all over the place.
In the mixed game, Zane’s serve, as he has figured out the one handed spin serve, is a big advantage. He is able to follow up that serve with a big drive, much as he does in singles, and then his court coverage and scrambling ability largely take over from there. I think at times Zane, in the mixed game, can cross the line from aggressive to out of control as her tries to insert himself, but he seems to be balancing that line better all of the time.
One thing I think Zane needs to continue to improve are his weapons at the net. In the doubles games, for both mixed and men’s, a lot of his offense still comes from the back of the court, but it is apparent he is continuing to work on his game, and I would expect to see improvement in that area.
Fantasy Update: Slim wins 15-13 this week, but it was buoyed by a Julian Arnold and Anna Bright withdrawal. This probably allowed Slim to get both the men’s and women’s singles gold and silver teams with a fair amount of ease. Although, he was right in preferring Devidze over Rachael James. In any event, it’s another victory and now he is up 7 up on the year.
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