Players are generally quite excited to play at the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre in New York City, and it seemed like the APP did a better job of bringing bleachers into a center court setting this year compared to last. The fact right now, though, appears to be that there aren’t as many fans as interested in the pro pickleball scene with the APP. You also add on the fact that the tennis venue in New York is likely quite large and you don’t get as many amateur players spectating because of what it takes to find the main center court. The APP is looking to do better with the product they are presenting but the 2nd center court was a sad state of affairs from a viewing perspective on Saturday. It also looks like the APP is continuing to make a shift in their model by rebranding to the Association of Pickleball Players. It will be interesting to see where things stand a year from now.
1. Singles Reigns Supreme (Slim) – The men’s singles final on Sunday was one of the more exciting singles matches there has probably ever been. After winning the first two games 11-8, 11-3 to force a game to 15, William Sobek quickly fell behind 14-6 to newcomer Vuk Vulvekekivic in the final game to 15 and it seemed like his comeback was going to fall short, but William managed to fight off 7 match points, until he earned one of his own, and completed the comeback 16-14. Sobek was understandably emotional afterwards, it was his first APP Pro gold medal, and to do it in that fashion, having been in the pickleball game for so long, despite being so young, made for quite the day.
Vulvekekivic went on an epic run on Thursday. He had to win three matches in the qualifier just to make the main bracket, and just squeaked out his third match in the qualifier, 23-21 over Jim Jacobs, a reminder of how slim the margins can be between a great day and a disappointing in these brackets. He then beat Jason Lui 11-6, 12-10 in the first round, then in the second round he beat Eduardo Irizzary 6-11,11-8,12-10, once again slim margins. Then in the winner’s bracket semi-final he beat Hunter Johnson 10-12,11-3,11-7, which was impressive as Hunter has been the dominant singles player on the APP Tour this year, and only his brother has really given him any problem this year. Then in the winner’s bracket semi-final he easily handled singles stalwart John Cincola 11-5, 11-6. Finally, in the winner’s bracket final he beat Sobek in three games 7-11,11-6,11-9. While there may have been a lot of close calls in this run, this number of impressive wins from Vulvekekivic, makes me think we will be hearing more from him, particularly given that this was only his second pro pickleball tournament ever.
It is not often that singles results are really the talk of the tournament, but we had some of the more intriguing results at the PPA last week with the suddenly emotion-filled JW Johnson last week, and the epic battle between Sobek and the Wolf man this week.
William Sobek, is just 19 years old this year, but he has tournaments on pickleballtournaments.com dating back to 2015, when he was just 11 years old, so he has been at this pickleball thing for a long time now. Because he has been around for so long, it was almost easy to forget that he has just been a kid who is still growing and developing physically, and think of him as more of a finished product. That is certainly something that we were probably guilty of here at NML, and it was clearly a mistake because William has really come into his own physically this year, and the results have started to come with that, and the gold medal this week was really a coronation.
It is interesting because now that William seems to be catching up to his peers physically, he has a big advantage over almost all of them in that he has been playing the game of pickleball for a lot longer than almost all of them. It will be very fascinating to see where Sobek’s game goes from here. I also would be remiss to mention that Sobek secured the gold medal with that Adi power!
2. Double Dip Madness (Gritty) – As discussions continue on the PPA side of things to do away with the backdraw completely, the APP has maintained the traditional, double elimination format that has been a staple of pickleball for as long as it has been around. When we get stuck in tradition, it can stunt evolution of the game, but there is something to the double elimination format that is unmatched from a drama perspective.
There were two draws that ended in a crazy double dip win for teams that were eliminated from the winners side of the draw. William Sobek lost in the winners bracket final only to battle back to win bthe bronze match, the first 2 out of 3 in the gold, and get Championship clinching game, 16-14, even after going down 14-6. Rob Nunnery and Susannah Barr lost handily in the winners bracket final to Stefan Auvergne/Simone Jardim and also found a way to double dip on Sunday, winning by an identical 16-14 score in the game to 15.
I can surmise that the PPA probably did away with the backdraw because Ben Johns didn’t like it. There is something to the idea that you should only have a main draw as it makes for higher stakes and allows for more consistent scheduling of the matches for the pros. However, with the current issues with seeding and playing only 2 games out of 3 in the main draw, it leads to quite a bit of unfairness, particularly when draws may be hand picked to a certain degree.
The double elimination format can sometimes be redundant as it can be elementary for the loser of the winners bracket final to have to play another match to get another shot at gold. But the idea that teams can come all the way back through the loser’s bracket to find a podium and, even possibly a gold medal, is something that we don’t see typically in mainstream sports. It creates an added layer of drama and different storylines where backdraw matches are no longer meaningless. More storylines should be a good thing. Imagine if JW Johnson/Dylan Frazier and Riley Newman/Matt Wright got to battle each other for the right to play on Sunday this year.
I think it is unfortunate the backdraw has been diminished by the PPA. My feeling is more pros should be fighting to keep it around, but it might be too late on the PPA. It means more eyeballs on more players and fans do seem to enjoy having it around. Sure, it can punish losers of the semi-final matches who have to go down immediately to play a loser’s bracket match following what can be heartbreakers, but that’s part of the fun of the double elimination format. It wasn’t a gold medal, but Riley Bohnert/Emily Ackerman were able to grind the backdraw on Saturday to secure a bronze medal following a really tough draw that saw them play Jardim/Todd early in the winners draw.
The fun results from the APP weekend have demonstrated the benefits of the backdraw. You keep those main draws smaller and you can solve your problem of the longer days that can happen because of the backdraw. Even though William Sobek’s double dip was a big win for the weekend, I don’t think the backdraw is ideal for singles because losing that winners bracket final can be a huge punishment for what are grueling singles days. Sobek was able to overcome that this weekend, but Judit Castillo was hurt by it. We don’t need to be making these singles players grind through a main draw and then play a losers bracket bronze 2 out of 3 10 minutes after losing their winners bracket final match.
I really think we are losing something if we don’t keep the true double elimination format. It is said all the time but pickleball doesn’t have to be tennis. There should be a desire to keep some of those unique qualities that make pickleball different. The double elimination tournament bracket is one of the more distinctive features in all of professional sports. Maybe we don’t have to get rid of it.
3. APP Predictability (Slim) – Part of what made the APP fun last year was that there was some unpredictability to the results. The tour may not have had all of the big names, but what often made it more entertaining for the hardcore pickleball fan was that we got to see different match ups and different faces, rather than a lot of the same old faces, and match ups that we saw over and over on the PPA.
This year though, the APP has noticeably less talent, but a few high level players have remained and what that has meant is that there is a lot of predictability to their championship Sundays, which is unfortunate. Parris Todd and Simone Jardim have teamed up to win every single women’s doubles title this year, and they have seldom even been pushed. They have also faced Megan Fudge in every single women’s doubles final, so even the opponents have not varied much. Andrei Daescu seems to win the men’s doubles with whoever he plays with and since teaming up with ‘right side” Rob Nunnery the last couple of tournaments, they have been dominant.
We did get a new champion in mixed this week, in Rob Nunnery and Susannah Barr, which ended Daescu’s dominance in mixed doubles, but neither Barr nor Nunnery are exactly stranges to the podium on the APP Tour. Salome Devidze also has been pretty much a lock in the women’s singles, especially with Parris Todd not playing singles.
The men’s singles final this weekend was super exciting, and obviously the large majority of that has to do with the epic comeback we saw with William Sobek against Vuk Vulvekekivic , but the other aspect that made the match exciting was seeing a kid that we have seen play pickleball for a long time finally get his big breakthrough, against a boisterous guy none of us new before Thursday. It was just all new and fresh.
The APP is in an odd spot, where it is not a developmental tour, but it also lacks for the most part true stars. Given that they have TV deals, the APP probably feels like they need Jardim, Todd, Daescu, Hunter Johnson etc, which they can showcase on these channels, but from a more hardcore fan perspective it makes their tour more boring, especially the Championship Sundays, as they are basically setting up for a few Premier level players, to dominate some challenger level players.
Fantasy Update: Gritty wins the week 15-13 somehow. Sunday went exactly his way as William Sobek double dipped the Wolf man and Susannah Barr/Rob Nunnery double dipped Jardim/Auvergne. Everything needed to go right this week and it did for that 15-13 win. 28 out of a possible 30 fantasy points selected this week, with the 2 points missing from the qualifying Wolf man. Gritty is once again up 1 on the year
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