The grind is so real for a lot of these players as we conclude the calendar year. We’ll stop talking about it at some point, but there are still very few players that are choosing to have a true off-season. We noticed Alix Truong posted on Instagram that she will be taking a few months off from tournaments, which is probably a very good decision for a teenager and is a choice more pros should strongly consider. The calendar year ending for pickleball is mostly significant from the standpoint of mentally resetting for the new year rather than there being true physical break in tournaments. There were two heavily played pro tour events this past weekend in Houston and Washington D.C. as we head right into another bigger APP this coming week. Although there will be only one more APP event after Hilton Head this weekend for 2022, the PPA having a couple of months off in the summer means that we still have 3 more PPA tournaments left in 2022 as well. That’s a long year for quite a few players, some of whom will have played a tournament every weekend of October. On the other hand, more tournaments means more for us to discuss and we have an APP heavy takeaways columb from the weekend for you.
1. Comparing and Combining this Weekend’s Women (Slim) – It was a shame that we could not have combined the women’s doubles fields this weekend, as I think it would have created one of the more intriguing and deeper women’s doubles fields that we have seen to date. I have to admit that I did not have a lot of interest in watching the women’s doubles final of the PPA, despite the fact that Lucy Kovolova and Callie Smith were able to flip the script, and actually beat the Waters for the first time in a while. It just felt too much like the same old, same old.
Over in the APP, we had Anna Bright and Parris Todd, the newcomers, coming off a silver medal performance at the last PPA, getting taken down by the new partnership of Jorja Johnson and Vivienne David in the gold medal match after also beating them in 3 games on Saturday.
I found the APP’s final much more compelling and interesting, but it would have been fascinating to see these new teams taking on the established teams of the Waters and Lucy/Callie. We had just seen an epic three game match between Lucy/Callie and Anna/Parris a few weeks ago, so it brings up the question of where Jorja and Vivienne fit in amongst all this talent. It feels weird to call those two the experienced pair in the APP final, but it’s true. Johnson/David appeared to handle the wind better than their less experienced opponents, but the fact is that they beat a team twice that beat Lucy/Callie and pushed the Waters hard for 4 games only 2 weeks ago.
Also, you add in the veteran duo of Simone Jardim and Andrea Koop, along with some of the PPA stalwarts in Jessie Irvine, Irina Tereschenko, Catherine Parenteau and Lea Jansen, and we could have had a few rounds of highly entertaining women’s doubles matches, not just semi-finals and finals. The quality and quantity in that field would have been a real treat for pickleball fans, and it’s a bright spot for pickleball going forward as the depth of the female talent grows by each passing day.
2. “Not So Fast” say Megan Fudge and Hunter Johnson (Gritty) – 2022 has been a year of breakouts in the singles game and we have quickly become enamored with all the new talent that has arrived on the scene. Names like Federico Staksrud, James Ignatowich, Parris Todd and Anna Bright have been the more marquee talent that has garnered a lot of the attention. While the attention has been warranted, the takeaway for me from this weekend is that rapid improvement is not the only improvement.
It is always easy for us to identify certain players early that burst onto the scene as the next “stars” of the game. If a player does not get big results right away though, it is not necessarily an indicator that their ceiling is limited. There are a multitude of reasons that go into this, but the snap judgement on a player can lead to a longer-term false impression due to the initial evaluation. While Megan Fudge and Hunter Johnson are not super experienced players by any means, their improvement in the game of pickleball has been more gradual than some of their pro colleagues and has put them in a position where the spotlight has not shined as brightly on them.
Ignatowich beat (and retired?) Thomas Wilson in his first pro singles tournament. He followed that up with a win over Zane Navratil in his second pro tournament. Parris Todd had that massive breakout win over Anna Leigh Waters at the Orange County Cup. Contrast that with Fudge and Johnson, who didn’t have the same type of big early wins at upper echelon tournaments. Megan Fudge had a silver in Punta Gorda, including a win over Jorja Johnson, back in February but was overshadowed by the Anna Bright show there. Hunter Johnson’s breakout came later at the So Cal Classic in June with a silver medal that was somewhat overshadowed by a Federico Staksrud gold medal.
None of this is to say that Fudge and Johnson haven’t improved fairly quickly as they have only been playing pro tournaments since the beginning of the year. However, the immediate announcement upon their arrival to pro pickleball has not been there in the same way as some other players.
Megan Fudge is a grinder and is clearly improving her game quietly as others get more headlines. She used that grind it out quality to wear down Parris Todd in the crazy winds of Houston, implementing a just keep the ball in strategy that allowed her to outlast Todd over the course of the two matches she played against her. Noting that Parris Todd was playing only her 2nd singles event since returning from injury, Todd is the rising darling of the women’s singles world and Fudge beat her twice. The Parris double dip has to feel that much sweeter as it was only two weeks ago that Megan Fudge lost to Ewa Radzikowska in Alabama – amazingly, Fudge forfeited her first match in that event to finish watching her husband, Ryler DeHeart, play his men’s singles match.
Where Hunter Johnson fits in the men’s singles landscape is a very interesting thought exercise after Houston. Staksrud’s consistency has been unmatched for the past 6 months, but he lost to Johnson twice in Houston. Ignatowich’s upside has been apparent, but the consistency along with fitness questions make his stock more difficult to assess at this moment. Hunter has all the shots and he might pound that cross-court forehand as hard as anyone out there. Is he a top 5 guy now?
Regardless of their place in the singles landscape, Fudge and Johnson are prime examples that players don’t always make noise on the same schedule. In a previous world, the rise of Fudge and Johnson would have been deemed rapid, but the definition of rapid has a new meaning for pro pickleball in 2022. The not quite as rapid ascension of these two players has not left them out of the mix by any stretch of the imagination.
3. Vivienne David Back at it Again (Slim) – Vivienne David is always smiling, but she had extra reasons to smile this weekend after she captured double gold, in women’s doubles and mixed doubles in Houston.
Going into the weekend, I don’t think anyone would have favored Vivienne and her partners in either field. Nonetheless, Vivienne and Jorja Johnson took gold, in a women’s doubles field that featured Anna Bright and Parris Todd coming off of their PPA silver medal performance and Simone Jardim and Andrea Koop who had won every APP tournament they had played together this year.
In mixed Vivienne and Thomas Wilson, partnered and had to work through a deep mixed field, including defeating JW Johnson and Parris Todd twice, to take the gold.
It was a good reminder that Vivienne is one of the strongest right side female players in the game. Her defence and ability to reset the ball, is about as good as anyone’s in the game. In mixed doubles, she also has the ability to keep the guy honest with her inside out shots, which we saw her use against JW Johnson in the gold medal match among others. In women’s doubles she is also able to provide some offence from the right side which is extremely beneficial, and we saw her setup Jorja for a number of putaways this weekend, by using that offence.
We have talked about it before, but a lot of Vivienne’s partnership choices this year have been perplexing, particularly in women’s doubles. It’s notable that Jorja Johnson appears to have taken another step up in her women’s doubles game as she has now gone gold in Alabama with Bobbi Oshiro, 2nd in MLP with Cierra Gaytan-Leach as her women’s partner in Columbus, and now gold with David over the last 3 weekends. The win with Jorja makes it very clear at this point, that Vivienne is an elite right side player and that when she partners with a strong left-side player with offence, results will almost surely follow. Vivienne and Jorja were such a natural fit this weekend, as Vivienne was able to be the uber consistent right side presence while Jorja was able to supply the offence and power on the left side.
She is back with Corrine Carr next weekend jn Hilton Head but, hopefully, we will see Vivienne partnering with more strong left side players in 2023 because when does, it creates a top women’s doubles team, and Vivienne is always easy to root for.
4. The Johns Brothers Win This Round (Gritty) – It was about as stale as it gets for a PPA this past weekend. We’re giving only one takeaway because there really wasn’t much that piqued our interest in a field very light on non-PPA contracted players. Yes, I know Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith won a gold medal for the first time in what has felt like forever, but I didn’t even care to watch more than a handful of points.
The one matchup that kept my attention was from the men’s doubles rivalry. I was curious to see what adjustment Ben and Collin would make in the cooler fall conditions that were present in their home state of Maryland. While Newman and Wright doubled down on their ultra-aggressive mentality at the PPA Championships, Ben and Collin doubled down in the other direction with their relatively patient approach. I’ll be very curious to see the stats on this one from Jim Ramsay because it was clear Ben and Collin were making an even more concerted effort to grind out dinking rallies. In the bigger moments with mildly attackable balls and dead dinks, they were extra picky to wait for their opportunity and try to force their opponents into an ill-advised trigger pull.
This one could have gone either way in the 2nd and 3rd games that were won 14-12 and 11-9 for the sibling duo. Those scores speak to how close this matchup is between the two teams. Most notably, Ben is slowly getting better at countering that weak spot on his high backhand shoulder, using 2-hands more and more frequently.
This doubles rivalry could get boring at some point. However, for the time being, I am going to keep tuning in to see how these matches play out. ￼
5. Senior Pro Draw Disparity (Gritty) – The above photo shows the draw disparity between the men’s senior divisions at the APP (left) and the PPA (right) this past weekend. Notably, almost all of the best seniors were in Houston, female and male. Dave Weinbach, who has a stake in the PPA, was the only top male who made the trek to D.C.
The ongoing debate with respect to the place of senior pros in the evolving landscape of pickleball is a tricky one. One thing that I see that gets lost in those discussions is that the senior pros are paying just about the same entry fee as the pros. Although I think it is a little bit misleading to have the advertised prize pool include pro and senior pro payouts, the slice of the pie for senior pros is substantially smaller when you consider they are contributing to the overall prize pool.
The PPA has made a conscious decision to say they only care about the pros. The senior pros have changed their schedules accordingly and we’ll have to see how long amateurs continue going to PPA events as negative reviews continue to come out from that side of things. The other aspect that may get lost in the senior pro discussion is that the non-pro players who attend your tournaments will likely be your most dedicated customers going forward. By telling them you either care or don’t care about them, it could be something that impacts a tours business long-term as tournaments require those players to be profitable. I’m not necessarily sold on this theory, but it is something to consider.
I’ll be curious how much longer the PPA will continue to even bother with senior “pro” divisions.
6. 2022 Rafa Hewett (Gritty) – I had a pretty lengthy takeaway for Rafa Hewett after his silver medal Championship Sunday loss to Federico Staksrud at the Atlanta Open back in May. In that takeaway, I still expressed some skepticism as to where Rafa’s game would go in 2022 despite getting to Sunday at a PPA event. Although there have been some typical Rafa Hewett ups and downs since that time, on the whole, he has been a pretty damn steady version of himself.
In Houston, Rafa came away with a bronze in singles, bronze in men’s doubles with Kyle Yates and 4th place with Lacy Schneemann in mixed. It’s safe to say neither of us saw 2022 Rafa Hewett coming and that has proven to be unwise as neither of us picked him in any capacity for our fantasy draft going into Houston, once again. The miss on Yates and Hewett as a potential medal team was particularly egregious considering the field out there.
Success and the resulting confidence that comes from success can be crucial for the development of a player. Hewett has always had a ton of talent, but putting it together has been another story. From our vantage point, his Championship Sunday in Atlanta followed up by success in MLP this year was exactly the boost he needed to show himself that he belonged in pro pickleball as not just another guy who showed up to tournaments hoping to spoil someone’s day.
It really seems like the success has brought out a completely different mentality from Rafa Hewett. Fresh off another MLP championship in Columbus, Rafa Hewett lost early in singles and men’s, but grinded out two long back draws en route to his bronze medals. That’s what was most impressive about his podium finishes this weekend. Of course, an 18-16 win over Derek Shearer and Austin Tchikatilov could have gone the other way, but those are the types of matches you would not have been surprised to see Hewett lose in the past.
Rafa Hewett might just be the most surprising player for me in 2022.
Fantasy Update: Slim is still up 6 for the year and that will be curtains for Gritty after tying both the PPA (15-15) and APP (14-14) fantasy drafts. It looked like it could be a 2-0 sweep for Gritty after the singles day, but everything went Slim’s way after that pretty much. Gritty only needed one match to go his way at the APP Sunday, but there was no double dip to be had anywhere for him (only Zane and JW, who were on Slim’s team), which provided Slim with the tie.
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