APP Tour Cincinnati Open – 3 Takeaways – Is Nunnery Back?

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Since the PPA started its exclusivity of players movement, there have been concerns expressed about the predictability of results in certain events. Anna Leigh Waters and Ben Johns have been dominant in mixed, Anna Leigh in singles and, for the most part, Ben Johns in singles and Ben/Collin Johns in men’s doubles. In 2023, the women’s doubles game has been dominated by Anna Leigh Waters and insert partner name. However, with the exodus of talent from the APP to the PPA this past year, the few remaining higher end talent has created some less than intriguing results at these APP events. Simone Jardim and Parris Todd have been unbeatable in women’s, Andrei Daescu has been dynamite in men’s and the Johnson twins, particularly Hunter, have been Championship Sunday staples for singles. It has taken out some of the intrigue of these APP events and given the feel of PPA finals in some respects, except with lesser talent. With new talent always coming into the game, this can change but it is interesting how things have taken a turn this way for these APP events. 

1. Is Rob Nunnery Back? (Slim) – Rob Nunnery, had the type of weekend this weekend, that he probably expected to have regularly heading into this year, on the APP Tour. He made Championship Sunday in both men’s doubles and mixed doubles, and ended up walking away with a gold in men’s doubles with Andrei Daescu and a silver in mixed doubles, with Susannah Barr. While the silver may have been a bit of a disappointment after winning the winner’s bracket final, it was still a successful weekend.

While I imagine that Rob probably had higher expectations for himself heading into the start of the year, and has basically said as much in his newsletter and podcast, I am not sure that expectations were actually fair given that Rob basically did not play last year, outside of a few MLP events, and a couple tournaments as he battled health issues. On top of not getting tournament reps last year, Nunnery was also living in Hawaii last year, where he did not have access to high level drilling partners or play. In a pro pickleball where players are dedicating themselves full time now, and playing tournaments every other weekend, it should not have been surprising at all that it would take Rob time to find his stride.

Rob may be finding his form again, as his big weekend follows up a very solid silver medal performance in men’s doubles, with Ryler Deheart at the last APP stop in Sacramento. The mixed result this weekend, is particularly big for Rob, as he has had some solid men’s results, but hasn’t had any notable mixed results this year despite having some good partnerships.

I continue to think that in men’s doubles Nunnery should concentrate on becoming a right side guy. For a lot of this year he seems to have focused on playing the left side, partnering with right side players like Eden Lica, Ryler Deheart and Greg Dow. With his preference for backhand counters, and his very elite forehand attacks off the bounce, I feel like Rob has the tools to make himself an elite right side guy, if he continued to work on it. He also seems a little more under control on the right side, where sometimes on the left side, it feels almost like he is attacking with reckless abandon.

For a guy that has had a very trying eighteen months, and been very open about it in his newsletter and podcast, it was very nice to see Nunnery have some good success of the pickleball court this weekend. It will be interesting to see if he can keep this positive momentum going.

2. Andrei Again (Gritty) – This is another APP tournament where we are making Andrei Daescu a takeaway but his results cannot be ignored. There is no question after Cincinnati that he is the class of the APP, male or female. Daescu is winning with a variety of partners. In men’s, he is basically the male version of Anna Leigh Waters for the APP right now, winning gold medals with Kyle Yates, Pesa Teoni and Rob Nunnery. In mixed, Daescu wasn’t winning at the start of the year with Simone Jardim, but he has now won gold medals with Susannah Barr and Alix Truong.

The Alix Truong win this weekend was the most impressive. Not to knock Alix Truong (which is exactly what one says when they’re about to knock someone), but she is not the elite mixed player that either Jardim or Barr is in relative APP terms.  Truong is a steadily improving pro player who is regularly finding podiums on the APP, but Daescu being the best player at every APP event is the difference making in their gold medal. Following a loss in the winners bracket final, Truong/Daescu came through the backdraw to double dip Nunnery/Barr on Sunday. 

There is something to be said for Daescu being the most consistent, big fish in a small, inconsistent pond. He’s cleaning up at the APPs and likely getting far more headlines than he would otherwise be on the PPA Tour. 

The split tour thing makes Daescu’s MLP position more difficulty to evaluate. He has played one PPA event this year with Jay Devilliers and they had a decent 5th place showing. There’s no question that Daescu is a Premier player and he’s proving that he was very good value in that late 3rd round spot for the Milwaukee Mashers despite their sub-par results as a team. In my opinion, there are some guys that clearly will go behind Daescu in the season 2 draft that previously went ahead of him like Zane Navratil and Matt Wright (if he plays), but there are a handful of other players where it will be less certain if Daescu goes ahead of them. Some of those names include Rafa Hewett, AJ Koller, Tyson McGuffin and Dekel Bar. 

Daescu brings a level of professionalism and consistency that may be underrated when considering what is needed for an MLP roster. In short games to 21, having a player that is less volatile could be a really important quality and you know Daescu is going to bring a high floor level every time he is out there. Of the final four guys I named, 3 of them are major hot and cold players while Tyson has had availability issues in every MLP he has played so far.

We’ll think about giving some other players space in these takeaways at some point. 

3. Small Margins (Gritty) – Small margins is a repeat topic brought up in the pro pickleball world. The idea of margins is typically discussed in the context of tournament wins and losses, which is true. The margin between a fantastic and bad day can sometimes be very small. An 11-9 in the third game win versus loss can literally be the difference between Championship Sunday and an 0-2 or 1-2 day. However, it is becoming clearer that the margins for players in any given match are pretty small as well. At least, the difference between a Challenger level MLP male and what I would describe as a fringe pro. 

Just look at the men’s draw this week. Andre Mick and Jason McNulty played the role of the fringe pros this weekend as they came away with bronze in a men’s doubles field filled with quite a few fringe pros. We are seeing this more and more where non-MLP players are out there pushing and beating Challenger MLP players,. Mick/McNulty beat the Johnson twins and then lost two very tight matches to Brendon Long/John Cincola, two guys who are now MLP players. 

On the male side of the game, there isn’t a huge difference in Challenger vs. non-Challenger players. Andre Mick and Jason McNulty are good players, but there are a lot of players of similar calibre out there capable of knocking off perceived higher end opponents on any given day. The level is higher in pickleball and, with qualifiers being implemented across the board, there are not nearly as many free wins to be had in a pro bracket these days. When you think about rally scoring MLP games to 21 equating to a single game to 11, it’s not a surprise that there are going to be upsets. You can throw a good chunk of these fringe pros into a Challenger level match and it is unlikely they will look completely overmatched. 

I think it is easy forget that MLP is not some magical line in the sand that differentiates a good pro from a mediocre pro player. Brendon Long is Exhibit A as someone who has gone from out of MLP to on the fringe of Premier in the span of a few months. The men at the lower end of Challenger are fairly interchangeable and we’re talking about small margins when deciding who gets to slot into the bottom half of Challenger. 

Jeff Warnick is mostly out of the pro pickleball mix nowadays yet he was on a semi-final team in Daytona. Pesa Teoni has won two gold medals with Andrei Daescu and was left undrafted in the Challenger Shuffle Draft. Jim Dobran and Eric Roddy, regular practice partners of Jack Sock, were able to beat McGuffin/Sock in 2 games at the PPA Charlotte last week but they had a fairly standard 3-2 day, barely beating Jack Foster and Josh Jenkins in their 2nd round match. 

The other difficulty facing a lot of these men for MLP is bringing value for all 3 events. In a world with a limited supply of quality mixed female partners, it is hard to show your worth as a mixed male when you aren’t able to partner with someone that will hold up at a higher level of competition. It becomes a chicken or egg type of situation – is the male player not good enough to warrant better partners or is the male player not getting results because they don’t have the higher level of partner needed? Brandon French played really well in Daytona, but he also doesn’t get very many Jillian Braverman level mixed partnerships on tour. 

It’s easy to make sweeping statements about results at MLP, but the fact is that the margins are always going to be razor thin at MLP so long as they continue with this scoring system. Keep that in mind when San Clemente comes around in a month. 

Fantasy Update: Gritty wins this week 17-11. This is an asterisk week for Gritty as Parris Todd pulled out of the singles event and Austin Gridley needed a replacement for Mario Barrientos. Gritty is back to 1 up on the year after we took 28 out of a 30 total available points, missing Amanda Hendry’s bronze in women’s singles and Mick/McNulty’s bronze in men’s.

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