Casa Grande looked like a really cool venue this past weekend. The courts are sunken in and we are curious to see how the players enjoyed it as it seemed like it created a fan friendly atmosphere right on top of the players. It’s also fun to see different partnerships with top tier players, which will be more rare to come by as the PPA works to contract with as many players as possible. We’ll enjoy the random partnerships as they come as we lead into our 5 takeaways from the most recent APP stop of 2021.
1. Thomas Wilson Time (Slim) – On the men’s side, the number one player to keep an eye on in 2022, has to be Thomas Wilson. Over the last couple of months we’ve seen him really take off after he had to take off the first two-thirds of 2021 due to a rotator cuff injury. He’s back now and all-in on pickleball (Wilson and his wife, Brittany’s, recent instagram posts should remove any doubt about that).
Wilson has been knocking on the door of the podium for a number of tournaments now, and this weekend he broke through with a pair of bronzes in men’s and mixed doubles with Vivienne David and AJ Koller. These medals came in a couple of very solid fields, so it is a good indicator that he has the potential to make Electrum’s newest sponsored player a regular podium presence.
One advantage that Thomas seems to have over many players trying to break into the upper echelons of the pro game, is the ability to get top notch partners. Players often have to spend a fair amount of time proving themselves to get top partners, but as we saw this weekend with Vivienne and AJ, Thomas is already getting high end partners. Being AJ Koller’s cousin, can’t hurt him in this regard.
It should be noted that it’s not like Wilson has come completely out of nowhere in 2021. He has tournament history, albeit at the 4.0 level, all the way back to 2018. He went 3-2 at the 2019 Texas Open playing with another talented, lesser known player, Brandon French. He has shown the necessary talent in the past but the question for a lot of guys like Wilson is whether the dedication matches the talent.
One other interesting thing to watch with Thomas, will be if continues to pursue singles. He has shown a fair amount of potential in singles, but this weekend after his pair of bronzes, he did withdrew singles. We know singles is a real grind in these pro tournaments, and it will be interesting to see if he is willing to dedicate himself to his fitness and the grind of singles, or whether he chooses to focus on the doubles game. Either way, it appears as though there will be a lot of people betting on his success.
2. More Ben Johns Contemplations (Gritty) – It was an interesting run to watch Ben play with a couple of different partners this weekend. Ben played with both Andrea Koop and Rob Nunnery at MLP with mostly good success. Ben says himself it’s not an easy task to play with him and Nunnery has also written the same in his blog. Johns takes so much court and despite his partner being played the majority of the balls, it’s hard to find a rhythm when you’re not actually getting that many touches. This theory is something I have been toying around with for a while now but I’m more convinced after Casa Grande that Ben needs to accept that he should not be taking so much court.
Ben still had a very good weekend – gold with Koop and silver with Nunnery. I’m not presenting this as some novel theory either. We have had people in our comments write about this. The reason I have come around to the Ben taking less court theory comes down, in large part, to the evolution of pickleball. The players are better now, men and women. It wasn’t that long ago it seemed Ben could speed up the ball and win hand battles at will. He has to be much more choosy now.
It’s a problem for Ben taking so much court in a number of ways. The obvious being that it’s hard to cover that much court for any player, even Ben. However, it’s a strategy that both takes a ton of energy to make work and it requires the player doing it to be fully engaged at all times. We have seen Ben sleepwalk through matches where he tries to take the whole court and it doesn’t work. It’s also clear that it is tough for partners outside of his usuals (Collin, Simone) to find their game as I mentioned earlier. Ben has said on his podcast he doesn’t plan to adjust the way he plays next year in mixed with Anna Leigh, which seems like it could be problematic. Those two may be too good individually for it to matter, but I’m not sold that Ben can keep doing this. You look how long it took for Matt Wright to figure it out with Ben.
The most important aspect in all of this to me is that the upper tier players are not only getting better but they are figuring out what to do to combat Ben’s court coverage. Before Lindsey got hurt in the gold match, we saw both Newman’s being very aggressive, including speeding up behind Ben on his backhand side. Dekel and Riley were doing this quite a bit in the men’s day as well. When Ben can’t just dictate rallies by winning speed ups whenever he wants anymore, especially against female opponents, he’s leaving a lot of court open to opponents to exploit.
I’m not saying Ben needs to drastically change his style of play, but I think a slight adjustment needs to be made. Gone are the days where Johns can take less than elite players to whatever tournament and win a gold without effort. The thing is, he’s always going to have the option of playing with top end partners so toning down his court coverage 10-ish % could be quite beneficial for him in the long run. At least, in my very humble opinion.
3. Jorja Johnson’s Big Stage Appearance (Slim) – Jorja Johnson often lives in her brother JW’s and even her mother Julie’s shadow in the pickleball world. Given that she is only 15 years old, and the successes the latter two have had on the pickleball court this season, it makes sense that this has been the case. This weekend though, Jorja got her own prime time slot as she made the women’s singles gold medal match.
Jorja showcased her potential with dominant wins over Jessie Irvine and Annica Cooper. Her 15-1 win over Cooper, who has proven to be a very reliable singles player, was particularly impressive and she also made Irina Tereschenko work in the gold medal match, taking her to three games.
At the start of this season, we thought Jorja had some potential, but that she was likely a few years away. It now looks like she may be closer than we initially thought. It’s a reminder of how malleable the younger players are (Wyatt Stone Jr. is another example of crazy growth over the past couple year). Jorja is definitely someone to keep an eye on in 2022. One of her big advantages is the fact that she has JW as a practice partner. Given her natural abilities and having the highest level of drilling partner, I would expect her quick ascent to continue next year. Jorja even alluded in interviews this weekend to how easy things seem playing singles compared to playing with JW. She may not be the smoothest player out there but we have to start getting over that for players who don’t have as much in the way of traditional racket sports training, especially the younger ones like Jorja.
In her doubles game, patience is an area that Jorja continues to need to work on, as she has great hands, but often is too quick to pull the trigger. That patience should come with time, and experience though. It will be something to watch who she partners with next year – it looks like she should have some more with Lee Whitwell.
4. New Gals on the Block (Gritty) – We have written about the changing of the senior women’s guard previously and this weekend’s APP was another example of that trend. The main west coast ladies – Dawson, MacGregor, Naamu, and Anderson – haven’t been playing too much as the seniors aren’t playing many of the PPAs and seniors don’t travel cross country as much.
At this weekend’s APP, Dawson and MacGregor were only able to secure a bronze. These ladies would be automatic in a field like this not too long ago but the women’s teams ahead of them featured both Nathalie Bagby and Beth Bellamy. Bagby won gold with APP regular Helen Wilhelm while Bellamy took silver with relative newcomer, Anna Shirley. We are slowly but surely seeing more talent come on the senior women’s side, and it’s likely we’ll see a shift with the best senior’s playing at the APPs going forward.
5. Utah’s Middle Class (Gritty) – Utah may very well be the biggest hotbed for pickleball in the country. There is a ton of talent to come out of the state. Callie Smith and Tyler Loong probably being the most notable current players. But there’s a whole lot of players in that relative middle/upper midde class that can hang at the pro level. It was more of Utah’s middle class making some noise in mixed pro over the weekend.
Chuck Taylor and Allyce Jones, two players on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of veteran status in pickleball, had another strong, even if likely forgotten, performance together. Chuck’s first tournament shows up on Pickleball Tournaments as all the way back to 2012 while Jones’ first tournament was earlier in 2021. They were able to upset Lee Whitwell/JW Johnson and Jill Braverman/Zane Navratil in the winner’s bracket before losing to another probably not enough love given to them pairing in Ansboury/Hewett 17-15.
It’s a 2-2 day that’s not anything to write home about but it’s the second time they’ve made some noise together this year. They had a nice win over Carr/Stone at another APP event in the summer. Chuck’s game has continued to improve and even though he may never be an elite guy on tour, he has chops to get some good Ws. On the flip side, Jones is trying to rise on the women’s ranks with another Utah player, Meghan Sheehan-Dizon, and it seems they are already pushing well past that middle class on the women’s side.
This final takeaway is more of an ode to the middle class of pickleball. A vital, but often forgotten, cog in the ever growing pickleball machine.
Fantasy Update: It was a beatdown, this time from Slim over Gritty, to secure the NML fantasy championship for year 1. Slim was right about the toss up teams in mixed and men’s, and there was not an upset on the women’s side that he swept. 18-8 for the week and Slim is 3 up for the year. Our final preview for the year will be for Nationals later this week.
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