Parity is one of those words thrown around in sports a lot. People like to think they want parity but sometimes it is a lack of parity that can really drive interest. Having a top player or team everyone is gunning for can be ideal as long as there is hope for those who are trying to reach the summit of the mountain. On the flip side, parity can be more fun because of the unpredicability. It’s unclear what pickleball will be like going forward in terms of parity. Parity has not been a staple at the top of the pickleball world, but with so much influx of talent we do wonder if the tides could be shifting. The APP Tour features more parity than ever partly because most of the very top players are exclusive with the PPA but also because the new talent is going there. Nevertheless, the amount of parity we are seeing could be more of a trend than pure randomness. It was a heck of a weekend for parity and that is a theme throughout our takeaways this week.
1. Dylan Frazier Doing Alright (Slim) – It was a big weekend for Dylan Frazier as he took double gold in men’s doubles and mixed doubles defeating JW Johnson twice in the process, no small feat. He also finished a very respectable 4th in a deep men’s singles field, continuing to show he is a real triple threat.
There are a number of angles you could cover with Dylan, but I think it’s important to look at the fact that he is quickly becoming one of the premiere right side mens players in pickleball. This gives him a huge advantage I think as there a so many strong left side men’s players, but there are so few strong right side players. It gave him and Andrei a huge advantage this weekend, as his ability to play the right made them a much more comfortable fit then Dekel and JW.
Another way to think about it is if you had put Dylan with any of the other three men in the final they probably would’ve been the favorite to win it all, as the fit would simply be better. There are a lot of very strong left side players in the game, but there just aren’t nearly that many elite right side mens players.
What is even more impressive with Dylan, is that he has become a very solid right side men’s player while still being able to go out and play on the left side and dominate in mixed doubles as we saw this weekend. We’ve seen a lot of the better ride side men’s doubles players struggle in mixed, but Dylan does not seem to have this same issue. He also has the ability to change things up in mixed, and play on the right side, if things are not going well, which is also an advantage over many other players.
Somehow, Frazier may sneakily be one of the most versatile players in pickleball.
2. Lauren Stratman 3 Straight (Gritty) – Lauren Stratman has had a roller coaster of an 8 months in pickleball. She had signed with the PPA tour to begin the year only to split from her doubles partner, Lea Jansen, before the year even started, which left her scrambling for partners. She has gone through a rolodex for women’s partners.
She eventually found a way to get out of her PPA contract so she could play Major League Pickleball and shifted to playing a bunch more APPs in the process. However, with so many partnerships being settled well in advance, it couldn’t have been easy to secure partners for these events early on. Up until recently, Stratman’s year has been disappointing relative to expectations even though she had some quality medals at big events, including gold in LA with Jorja Johnson, silver in New York with Parris Todd, bronze with Susannah Barr at the PPA Red Rock and a silver in mixed with Tyson McGuffin at the PPA Foot Solutions.
As we have gotten later in the year, it appears Stratman has been able to secure some true higher end partnerships in women’s doubles that has led to big time results. In her last 3 APP events, Stratman has struck gold – twice with Vivienne David and this past weekend with Andrea Koop. Her gold this past weekend with Koop has to be her most impressive after they lost their first match of the day on Saturday to the Kawamoto twins. Brutal seeding for both teams with the Kawamotos suffering from not playing tournaments. They proceeded to win 5 matches to get back to the gold and double dip Bright/Johnson on Championship Sunday.
It is unlikely to be 4 in a row this weekend in Atlanta as Stratman teams up with Regina Franco Goldberg, but the fact is that Stratman is reminding us she belongs in the discussion of the top women in pickleball. Jorja Johnson and Anna Bright are a very strong team, and she found a way to get it done with Koop.
Ideally, Stratman’s game fits best when she is paired with a right-sided monster like Vivienne David but she can get it done on either side as there was versatility with Koop this weekend in different matchups. It’s been a great run for Stratman and her biggest test coming up in the near future may be at the Columbus MLP where she will be teamed up with Susannah Barr to try to create her own Jackie Kawamoto/Anna Bright-esque dominance. Regardless of how MLP goes, Stratman is showing us that she didn’t go anywhere.
She just needed some time to sort things out.
3. Rough Office Day for Johnson’s (Slim) – It was a tough Championship Sunday for the Johnson siblings as they came out on the wrong end of all of the matches. The good news was between them they were playing in 4 of the 5 events. The bad news for them was that they ended up going 0 for 4 in those matches.
Even more remarkably, all of their matches went to the game to 15 which they lost. JW managed to force the game to 15 in both men’s singles and men’s doubles, after coming back through the loser’s bracket but then did not have the juice in the game to 15 in either losing 15-4 and 15-5 respectably.
Jorja, meanwhile, had come through the winner’s side in both mixed with JW, and in women’s doubles with Anna Bright, and she got double dipped twice. In women’s doubles, she lost 3 close games against Lauren Stratman and Andrea Koop and then lost the game to 15, 15-9. In mixed the siblings lost to Anna Bright and Dylan Frazier a team they have had no answer for to date.
While it was not a good day, the good news is you must be doing something right to make that many finals. One has to think that probably wasn’t a great consolation for the siblings, as especially for JW it was a lot of pickleball in one day, with no reward.
For now, I am putting it down as an anomaly but we will have to watch to see if they have any issues closing out matches as we move forward here.
4. Minnesota Madness (Gritty) – It is very rare in the doubles games that players come completely out of nowhere to make real noise in a tournament, but it happened this weekend in Chicago for Amrik Donkena and Aanik Lohani, a first-time partnership from Minnesota who somehow reached the semi-finals of the winners bracket in a stacked APP field. It’s one thing for us to be seeing upsets in pickleball nowadays, but multiple upsets from players who aren’t even on the pro scene is mostly unheard of. When Neil Mediratta and Brandon French beat Jay/Tyson earlier this year, it’s not as if we didn’t know who those players were. The difference in this situation is that Donkena and Lohani have not been around the block at all. Heck, they have barely even made it out of their house.
Donkena actually had a similar type of upset at the PPA Minnesota event in February as he beat Pat Smith and Ben Newell, 11-7 and 13-11, with partner Johannes Vance, who I have also never heard of. That win was forgotten by us as quickly as it happened. Besides that, the only other real notable result for either player was literally the day before for Lohani, who won 15-4 in mixed with another Minneostan, Jennifer Tavernier, over Rob Cassidy and Michelle Esquivel. That 15-4 loss looked terrible at the time for Cassidy/Esquivel but maybe it wasn’t so bad in hindsight.
The other crazy thing is that Lohani had never played a men’s pro doubles tour event before Saturday. Donkena only has tournament history going back to last August and has a couple of pro doubles days under his belt. Then the pair go out to beat Stone/Sobek, Cincola/DeHeart and DJ Young/Thomas Wilson before ultimately losing to Cincola/DeHeart on the back side, 16-14.
No real tournament history of note. No real tennis background of note. Donkena looks like he played some lower end college tennis while Lohani didn’t play any college tennis that I could see on some brief research, only up until high school age. It’s easier to explain when both players have serious tennis background and have been playing some pro tournaments together, a la Ryler DeHeart and Travis Rettenmaier in Punta Gorda. This one was nearly impossible to see coming unless you see those guys regularly. Even then, could you really have expected anything close to this?
We talk about this parity theme and if guys who have almost no pro experience combined are coming out to pro tournaments to win big against established players, what does this mean to the sport overall? This very well could be flash in the pan type stuff. As we know, the doubles game takes a lot longer to figure out than singles.
As fair as the skepticism towards this happening again anytime is, it shouldn’t take away from the fact that these two really did what no one has done on either pro tours, which is string together multiple legitimate wins without anyone really knowing who you are. It would have been pure Minnesotan madness if Donkena/Lohani could have found a way past Cincola/DeHeart a second time, but we’ll settle for simple Minnesotan madness for now.
Clearly, Donkena and Lohani are two guys to keep an eye out on in any draw going forward.
5. Lassandro and Todorovic-Shaw (Gritty) – To finish off our parity theme, we’ll go to the women’s senior pro division where the Illinois resident, Jen Lassandro, and her partner, Natalie Todorovic-Shaw secured a silver medal in a pretty damn strong senior women’s division. They lost to Bagby/Bellamy not surprisingly in the end, but that’s a legitimate silver for the pair. Lassandro is a name that has been around the senior pro brackets the past couple of years but she has only played 3 bigger APP events in 2022. Todorvic-Shaw is much newer to the scene and, frankly, I had not noticed her name in a draw before. That did not stop the pair from winning a silver medal ahead of Welsher/Wilhelm, the bronze medalists, as well as other more well known names like Julie Johnson, Anna Shirley, Leslie Bernard, Linda Thompson and Chris Karges.
As much as we are seeing a youth movement in pickleball, there are always new players across the board that we are seeing and it wasn’t very long ago that Todorovic-Shaw was playing her first 5.0, 50+ event. Now she’s on a really strong looking podium with Jen Lassandro at the APP Chicago Open. That has to feel good.
Fantasy Update: 17-10 for Slim. Gritty finally drops a fantasy game after a big run over the past few tournaments. Slim made almost all of the better choices for Chicago and it was about time because he was due. This could go away quick from Gritty if he has another bad weekend with a big PPA and big APP event coming up this weekend. Slim is now 3 up going into a potential turning point weekend for the season.
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