Pickleball is back in 2022 and we are here for it. It was a unique, not so unique Championship Sunday for the APP Tour in their first go around with this kind of format. A lot of matches across 4 full days of pickleball. This may be one of the more intriguing fields we get as it continues to be unclear whether PPA players will be sprinkled in throughout 2022. If the information around who has signed the new strict exclusivity contracts doesn’t become public knowledge, we’ll likely be able to get some idea based on which PPA players actually play in APP events during the year, if any. But let’s try to focus on the present with a bunch of different partnerships this weekend that led to varying results.
1. Bet On Yourself? (Gritty) – It’s not hard to understand why professional pickleball players are signing with the PPA. In a world where little is guaranteed, being able to lock up any guaranteed money in a sport that doesn’t offer much of it is very tantalizing. While prize money increases in pickleball, so does the competition. That means when a pro tour offers you something in the way of actual guarantees, you can see why players are snapping it up faster than Usain Bolt runs a 100-metre dash. It’s hard to think big picture when money is put in front of you.
However, there are a handful of players who are choosing a different path. I can’t say that I know all the factors that have gone into decisions for the players who choose for or against a contract with the PPA but choosing to stay away from the exclusivity of the PPA can be interpreted as a bet on yourself type decision. Three of the most prominent players from this weekend, who have seemingly bet on themselves for 2022 and possibly beyond, are Dekel Bar, Vivienne David and Zane Navratil. Although all three players have somewhat different paths, the facts are the same for all three of them. That being, if they want to win prize money in 2022, they have to win matches.
It’s one thing to say that a player like Dekel Bar will dominate on the APP Tour, especially if there are a lot of PPA athletes locked into fully exclusive deals. The problem with that sentiment is that we sometimes forget in sports how hard it is to not only win but win consistently. After catching the singles flu again this weekend, Bar only podiumed in one event – mixed doubles with Vivienne David. It’s a prime example of how why it’s not an easy thing to bet on yourself. Zane Navratil blew a big lead in game 3 of the gold medal match of singles, which is his best event. He went on to lose to Cincola in the tiebreaker. Zane did not podium in mixed and got a bronze in men’s. Vivienne David is the best non-signed female player out there right now and she proved it this weekend with a gold in women’s and that silver in mixed with Dekel.
You always hear about the bet on yourself stories that end in success because those are the only ones around that lived to tell their tale. It’s a long year on the APP Tour with more than 30 tournaments to go and the story for these players is just being written. One fact is for certain though. Betting on yourself ain’t easy.
2. Championship Medal Match Sunday Weirdness (Slim) – The APP decided to roll out their own version of ‘Championship Sunday’, with its Sunday Medal Match Day. While, I am a fan of having a Sunday showcase event, and think it makes a lot of sense from creating a good viewing product for fans, both live and televised, I have to say I did not love the format of this medal match Sunday. I think the Sunday showcase event, should be gold medal matches only.
There are two reasons for this. One, is that having the bronze medal matches on Sunday creates a competitive advantage problem, when you could potentially have someone playing in both the bronze medal and gold medal match up to three times in a day, so six matches, who could be playing someone who is playing their only match of the day in that final sixth match of the day. Another issue with having both the bronze medal and gold medal matches on the same day is I think it makes for too long of day if you are trying to create a positive fan experience. Five championship matches on a day is plenty, ten matches is just too long for many fans to sit through.
My final issue with the format was having the games to 15. If the team from the loser’s bracket wins the best two out of three, it makes scheduling very difficult, and part of having a championship Sunday type format, should be that it is viewer and fan friendly, which means fans know when certain matches will be starting. Having potential games to 15 makes predicting starting times almost impossible. I think the PPA best three of five games for the gold medal matches, is a much better option. It makes scheduling easier, while also keeping things fair for the players.
To summarize, we are for the concept, but think that a whole lot needs to be done with the format and execution to make it a true success. No need to try to reinvent the wheel here.
3. Cincola Surprise (Slim) – John has been a consistent presences in singles for a while now. If you look at his results he has basically no, what one might consider to be “bad losses”, which outside of the top couple of guys, not many guys in singles can say. He even found his way onto the podium a couple times last year, with a couple of bronze medals at APP tournaments. With that said he seemed pretty set as a second or third tier singles player, depending on how you want to do your tiers. We did not even include him in our set second set of singles rankings, which in hindsight, he did deserve a mention, but it gives some idea of where he sat.
Then this weekend he popped, with his gold medal performance, and it was an impressive performance. To earn his gold medal, John had to beat Jay Devilliers, JW Johnson (twice) and Zane Navatril (split with Zane, plus the game to 15). Those three guys are clearly three of the top five singles players out there right now in the game, so this win wasn’t simply the result of some good draw luck etc, he had to earn it and he did.
His one hand spin serve is probably the best in the pro ranks right now, outside of Morgan Evans, who does not seem to be playing tournaments right now, so it will be interesting to see if John can use that advantage to string together some results this year, in the APP stops.
Finally, you just have to give props to John for being able to get it done at his age. Singles is generally a young person’s game, but turning 42 this year, John is still teaching the young bucks some lessons. And this weekend, Cinocla proved he is not just the best forty plus singles player, he is a legitimate contender, who needs to be taken seriously.
4. Gridley as Gold (Gritty) – We had a couple of big first-time pro tour gold medalists this weekend, the less surprising of the two being Austin Gridley. Gridley had his first big time partnership in pro pickleball in Mesa over the weekend in JW Johnson and he made it count. Gridley and JW didn’t end up having to face the clear #1 team, Bar/Stone, but you only get to play the teams in front of you and that is what they did. Gridley and JW dropped one game the entire tournament en route to the gold medal.
We are already well aware of what JW Johnson can do and Gridley seemed like a good fit for JW going into the tournament. It created a pairing that is very difficult to attack and Gridley has about as much funk to his game as anyone out on the tour, which makes him quite difficult to read on the other side of the court. Despite some cleaning up to do with his game, particularly his forehand dinking, and Gridley still not appearing to be totally comfortable as a pure beta in a partnership, Gridley was more than steadily aggressive enough for this team to do their thing.
Austin Gridley was Slim’s pick for breakthrough player in our 2022 Big Questions Preview and there is no better start he could have to the year. These are the types of wins that can really push a player forward in a partner-centric world like pickleball. Better players are going to come knocking on his door pretty soon just like we saw with AJ Koller in 2021. He is undoubtedly one to watch as the year goes along.
5. Sizeable Senior Pro Draws (Slim) – All of the Senior Pro draws, at this weekends stop were quite large, including 28 teams in mixed doubles. This is something that we would expect to see continue with all the APP stops, as they have larger payouts for Senior Pros and we know the Senior Pro Players Council, which was formed last year has endorsed them as their official tour. As the Senior Pro game continues to grow and develop, I would expect to see the draws at the larger tournaments continue to grow. It will also be interesting to watch the PPA senior pro draw sizes, as one would expect them to continue to decline, with only about 10% of the prize being dedicated to senior pros.
Fantasy Update: Slim carried his 2021 momentum into the first tournament of 2022 smoking Gritty in embarrassing fashion 20-9. Everything went Slim’s way this weekend from Navratil being unable to close multiple medal matches to Dekel/Adam’s lack of a podium to Stratman/Jansen’s withdrawal. The whispers are becoming louder on whether Gritty is toast when it comes to the 2-person world of fantasy draft pickleball previews.
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