The APP is looking like the tour where the new talent comes to make a name for themselves. That is apparently the mandate of the APP for these non-tier 1 tournaments. The higher tier pros are still coming out to compete because, well, money. But it’s intended to be an opportunity for newer talent to emerge. It’s clearly good for new talent. How effective that will be from a business standpoint is a different question. Even though the new talent that was out in full force in South Carolina, there was lots of other action of note from the tournament. Time to get to the takeaways.
Since Slim has been off galivanting out of town this entire Easter weekend, it will be entirely a Gritty takeaways column this holiday Monday.
1. Different Faces, Same Placement – Another takeaways column that we’re leading with JW Johnson? You know it. We can’t help it if the man is going to keep winning. This specific takeaway is about more than simply another ho hum triple crown for JW. It’s about the fact that JW is doing what great players in pickleball are able to do, which is win with different partners. Not only does JW medal with a rotating cast of partners He wins gold medals. When the constant in all these gold medal partnerships is JW, it tells you all that you need to know about how good the young man is.
After getting gold with Zane Navratil in men’s doubles this weekend, JW has now reached the top of the podium in 2022 with Dylan Frazier, Austin Gridley and Zane. He also has found gold medals with Simone Jardim in mixed as well as a bunch of silver medals with Lee Whitwell and a bronze with his sister Jorja. Although JW hasn’t reached a podium on the PPA Tour in mixed, he has been able to find multiple podiums in men’s doubles with Dylan Frazier. I don’t think many people are trying to make an APP vs. PPA argument with JW but, if that’s what your angle is, think again.
When he was playing, Steve Deakin was a guy who was able to get a lot of medals with a lengthy list of different partners. They weren’t generally gold medals though. Consistency week in and week out is becoming more difficult in the deeper pickleball world so to keep reaching the top of the mountain with guys who don’t get golds with other players is a testament to JW’s constantly rising level. Lica/Daescu, who were knocked off twice by JW/Zane, are a very strong team. However, it was evident JW was simply the best player out there and that was the difference in being able to pull out the tight games that they had in those matches. From the outside, there still seems to be some things JW could add to his arsenal to make him a more dangerous player, which is scary to think about.
For now, best be sure he’s going to keep hitting podiums. No matter who he is partnered with.
2. More Singles Talent – It was only a few short weeks ago after Delray where I highlighted what appeared to be a trend of singles fluctuation, especially on the men’s side. This weekend was yet another example of this in South Carolina. We actually noted James Ignatowich’s wins over Thomas Wilson and AJ Koller in our Delray takeaways, but his performance on Sunday was even more striking. Ignatowich took down Zane Navratil, who was fresh off his first gold medal of the year two weeks ago, and later was able to give JW a really good fight in the winner’s bracket final. It looked like the current Vanderbilt tennis player ran out of steam in the bronze match against Staksrud, but it was still quite the run from him. Staksrud did come out with another silver medal too if we needed a reminder that he is not yesterday’s news.
Slim mentioned last weekend that slowly, but surely, more women’s talent seems to be entering the game and, lo and behold, we got a literally out of nowhere silver medal performance from another complete newcomer, Rachael James. James had literally never played a pro tournament before Carolina and she only had one tournament under her belt going into this weekend. After a tough first round loss to Jorja Johnson, James worked her way through the backdraw to get wins over Amanda Hendry, Arielle Butler (barely), Milan Rane and finally over a tired Jorja Johnson to get a shot at the pickleball’s hottest commodity, Anna Bright. James fell short of gold but she did push Bright to 3 games.
The thing about these performances is that nothing looked unsustainable from either Ignatowich or James. Ignatowich features elite level groundstrokes from both wings. James also has strong groundstrokes from both sides, albeit not the prettiest out there. The biggest thing for James is that her mobility is elite for the women’s game. It’s not often new women are comfortable getting to the net but James was getting up there as consistently as anybody excluding the very top females in the game. Her mobility allows her to avoid getting passed in the way that most other women are unable to prevent. It was fascinating to see that James looked far more comfortable at the net yesterday than Anna Bright did a couple of months ago. She is way ahead of the curve in that aspect, which I still think is the biggest edge out there in women’s singles.
It’s becoming clear that these kind of results are going to keep happening in singles and that’s how it goes for a brand new professional sprot.
3. Angela Simon Double Gold – It was a smaller tournament from a participation perspective across both the pro and senior pro divisions in South Carolina. That still should not take too much away from Angela Simon who had a double gold performance in mixed and women’s senior pro. This was only Simon’s 8th tournament overall, but it is her first year on the senior pro circuit with that golden age 50 year for pickleballers. Based in Atlanta, Simon only started travelling for any tournaments outside of Georgia since she hit the senior pro circuit in 2022.
Simon has a few podiums in 2022, including a gold with Dan Granot at the APP Masters in January. She did it again this weekend in mixed with Dan Granot, beating the steady Morariu/Julie Johnson in 3 games. Playing with another very talented, relative newcomer, Anna Shirley, in women’s doubles, Simon and Shirley cruised to a gold medal without dropping a game.
Simon was the #2 ranked college player in the US at the University of Georgia as well as the NCAA singles and team champion in 1994. She was able to get a WTA ranking inside the top 150 in singles and top 20 in doubles. Those credentials are right up there with anyone in pickleball from a tennis background perspective. She will definitely be one to keep an eye on in the senior pro circuit as the year moves along.
4. Adam Stone’s Down Year – It feels like Adam Stone has been around the game of pickleball forever. When the two of us first started getting into pro pickleball, Stone was one of those guys that was usually the bridesmaid but not the bride. He had a predictable, steady game that got him deep into tournaments, but not deep enough to breakthrough with consistent medals. A lot of the new pickleball fans probably don’t know Adam Stone and Jeff Warnick used to be a regular thing. They were quite the watch, especially when I really didn’t know anything about pro pickleball. As Ben Johns has talked about on his (former?) podcast, the story goes that Stone asked Johns what he needed to do, and Ben basically told him he needed to add more offence to his game. So offence, Stone did add.
He also found a regular partner that fit ideally for his right-side role in Dekel Bar and Stone worked his way into being one of the elite beta players in all of pickleball – that’s a big time compliment. Adam’s stock has felt like it has slowly been on the rise, or at least holding steady, for the past couple of years. He capped off a solid 2021 with a PPA Championship gold medal with Dekel Bar, getting wins against both Matt Wright/Ben Johns and Tyson/Riley.
Unfortunately for Adam, 2022 has been a different story. Always more of a men’s doubles specialist, Stone’s results with and outside of Dekel Bar on the APP Tour have left much to be desired. Stone is one of the handful of higher end pros that did not sign with the PPA for 2022, but it hasn’t worked out for him as well as others. Although Bar/Stone have a gold and a couple of silvers to their name, they have lost quite handily to JW/Dylan in both tournaments they came up short with silver. On top of that, Stone/Bar started out the year in Mesa by going 1-2 together. He also had a 1-2 day with DJ Young in Punta Gorda and then whimper of a 3-2 day with Austin Gridley this past weekend, which included an 11-3, 11-7 loss to Anderson Scarpa/Greg Dow.
The troubling trend seems to be that Stone is not getting results where others are, namely Kyle Yates. When we highlighted Yates in our takeaways after Delray, the Stone vs. Yates comparison was impossible to ignore. Yates played with Bar in Punta Gorda and then played with DJ Young in Delray. Yates was able to win with Dekel Bar quite handily over JW/Frazier in Punta Gorda and almost get by Dekel/Adam for a bronze in Delray. Prior to MLP last November, we would have thought it was nuts to take Yates over Stone, but now it seems like to go the other way would be nuts. Remember, Austin Gridley got a bronze with Joey Farias in Punta Gorda.
After 4 months of 2022, the down year of Adam Stone cannot be ignored any longer.
5. Oshiro On Notice – Bobbi Oshiro has been around the pickleball scene for about a year and a half, and sort of in the pro scene for about the past year. It probably feels like Oshiro came out of nowhere to a lot of pickleball fans after she got her first pro gold medal with Anna Bright in South Carolina. Oshiro hasn’t had much in the way of doubles results at the pro level but, when you go through her tournament history with partner history, you can easily see why. I’ve done too much referencing old posts of ours in today’s column, but her only pro podium prior to this was a bronze at Beer City last year. Oshiro has always stood out as a super smooth player. Smoother than just about anyone out there.
On Saturday, Oshiro finally got her opportunity with a higher end partnership in Anna Bright. Both Slim and I had this team as the #1 women’s doubles team going in and they did not disappoint. After a hiccup in the winners bracket final where Bright/Oshiro did not make the needed adjustment of mostly attacking Regina Franco, they were able to dominate their way to a gold medal in the bronze and gold medal matches.
Oshiro was an ideal foil for the always on the offensive Bright. Oshiro’s game is very under control with pretty resets and deceptively, off-speed, speed-ups. A former Boise State Bronco tennis player and current full-time tennis coach, Oshiro doesn’t have the working flexibility that other players have to play a bunch of tournaments. It has likely kept her as an under the radar player far longer than she should have been. Although her small stature and lack of big counter punching ability is somewhat limiting, Oshiro has the ceiling of a top 10 player in our view.
Bobbi Oshiro put the entire pickleball world on notice that she should be taken seriously as a talent and should not be ignored when it comes to partnerships. Easily underestimated, there’s not a lot of players who can do what she does out there. Like the Kawamoto’s, you may not see Oshiro out there as much because of other commitments, but hopefully when we do, the higher end players in pickleball have finally realized they should lock her up before someone else does.
Fantasy Update: Slim gets this one 16-10. There were a couple of podium surprises in Rachael James and James Ignatowich, but Slim swept the mixed as well as getting some key things correct like Bright/Oshiro, Rane/Johnson finding a bronze and Federico Staksrud back with a silver. Slim is back to 6 up on the year as the fantasy results have gone back and forth the past few weeks.