Beer City was a confusing trip for fans. The tournament wasn’t affiliated with the PPA Tour but streaming on the YouTube page for the PPA. It included some PPA Tour players, but seeing James Ignatowich make Altaf Merchant stand off on the side of the court, or having Andrei Daescu/Rob Nunnery play DJ Young/Callan Dawson, was not typical by any strech. It was kind of like a time warp back to simpler times where we didn’t have tours fighting over players. We’ll try to digest some of the biggest talking points that we saw come from the weekend.
1. Garnett’s Big Weekend (Slim) – Connor Garnett had a big weekend as he took gold in men’s singles and silver in men’s doubles with Rafa Hewett. The men’s doubles performance was particularly impressive as he and Rafa beat Jay Devilliers and Zane Navatril 11-6, 11-9 in the quarter-finals and then beat Federico Staksrud and Pablo Tellez 11-6, 11-8 in the semi-finals. His route to the singles gold, included a semi-final win over Dylan Frazier and his gold medal win over, Jaume Martinez Vich.
When looking at players on the rise or who could take a big leap, in season two of MLP, Garnett has to pretty much be at the top of the list of players, especially among men. He profiles as a player that has the potential to excel in all three events. The men’s doubles result has to be particularly promising, as we know it is usually men’s doubles that take the tennis players, turned singles players the longest to adjust to, and it seems that Garnett is starting to really put his men’s doubles game together.
Garnett is a left side player, and he is heading into a great situation as a fourth round pick, where he will still be able to play the left side in men’s doubles in MLP, as he will partner there with Rafa Hewett on the Bay Area Breakers. Garnett’s shot making and court coverage gives him the tools to be a dynamic force on the court and be a high impact player in the Major League Pickleball format.
It was also a solid day for Connor’s men’s partner, Rafa Hewett, as he picked up fourth place with Jackie Kawamoto, which has to be a good sign for their MLP team, the Bay Area Breakers. It will be interesting to see who Bay area chooses to partner with Etta Wright, and who with Lea Jansen in mixed.
2. Refreshing Change of Pace (Gritty) – The Beer City Open gave us exactly what we needed this past weekend. It wasn’t a weekend filled with a ton of crazy upsets, but we got to see a number of unique matchups and it didn’t feel like a huge loss to have a backdraw that only allowed teams to get back for a chance at bronze – they went 2 out of 3 in doubles for the bronze and games to 15 in singles.
At this point, it is apparent that players understand securing a bronze medal is a nice thing to be able to share on social media. It means that the potential for the podium is enough motivation for players to get quality matches in the losers bracket rather than what we were seeing with the short-lived 5th place bracket. It is also less punishing for teams that are under-seeded or happen to find their way into a bad draw for some other unfortunate reason.
If players don’t want the full comeback around to gold, the Beer City Open demonstrated that tours don’t need to have a full comeback around to gold. The ability to work all the way back to a bronze medal is a huge plus and makes for a far more interesting day from a pickleball fan perspective. You get to see a team like Judit Castillo/Ewa Radzikowska make a nice run in the backdraw to a 4th place finish after a tough early main draw match against a potential gold medal team. After a rough early loss for Rafa Hewett/Jackie Kawamoto following a bit of a travel adventure for Rafa, they were able to make a run through the backdraw to come away with 4th place in a great match against Koop/Daescu.
People care about bronze medal matches. By finishing singles all in one day, it afforded the ability for this tournament to start Championship Sunday with the gender doubles bronze medal matches. It is a major shame that people care about podiums, but the PPA doesn’t stream the high-quality bronze medal matches that are often more interesting than the usual Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Sunday routs.
Overall, Beer City had a really good feel to it as they essentially experimented with a format that attempted to address the feedback fans give to the tours. The other underrated part of Beer City is that the production quality of the live stream was top notch. Boxcar Productions continues to up their game, but the fact that a non-tour affiliated tournament was bringing the highest level of production in pro pickelball to its live stream and challenge system was not a good look for either the PPA or APP. Cost discussions aside, it was refreshing and weird to see this tournament feel as much, if not more, like a pro tournament than anything else out there.
3. Andrei Daescu On Par (Slim) – Heading into the weekend one of our biggest questions was how some of the players that we see primarily on the APP Tour would fare against some of the PPA competition. The player that topped that list was probably Andrei Daescu. Andrei came away with double bronze medals this weekend, which is probably about what I would have expected, with a strong men’s doubles performance against PPA rising stars Tellez/Staksrud. Andrei also did have some bad draw luck though as well, as he ended up on the same side of the draw as JW Johnson in both men’s doubles and mixed, and only lost to JW this weekend. It could have been more than two bronze medals.
It seems pretty clear at this point that Andrei is a second tier guy in doubles. He is an intense competitor, who brings a very consistent level in his play, and has great length which allows him to cover a lot of court, but he seems to lack a elite power and hand speed to move into the top tier of men’s doubles players. When it comes to his hand speed, I still wonder if Andrei might be able to improve his hands a bit by shortening his stroke in hands battles, as he has one of the longer strokes in the game.
Notably, Andrei partnered with other APP stalwart, Rob Nunnery, who also played very well and showed he can compete with the top guys on the right in men’s. Tellez/Staksrud have been showing out in men’s so to take them down for a bronze medal is no small feat.
Beer City, provided a nice opportunity this weekend to get to see how Andrei stood up against some of the PPA stalwarts, and it seems clear that after the Ben Johns, Riley Newman and JW Johnson tier, Andrei is pretty much on par or better with any other guy out there.
4. Singles Beer Necessities (Gritty) – One of the more under the radar enjoyable developments in pro pickleball over the past year or so has been the singles development of non-singles players. With the importance of not being completely incompetent at singles for MLP purposes, the players who have avoided singles have had to round out their games to ensure they are not singles liabilities. Beer City featured the latest example of this development coming from an unlikely source, Jessie Irvine. It was odd to see Irvine in the Beer City singles field and I had wondered whether she was going to withdraw as many players do when push comes to shove. However, Irvine not only played the singles bracket, but she also thrived in it, taking 4th place on Thursday.
When I had seen that Jessie Irvine took a game off Judit Castillo early on THursday, I thought that had to be a fluke. Irvine got smoked by Castillo in game 2 but was then able to win game 3. A wild upset to say the least as Irvine took game 3, 11-2. Irvine proceeded to make Hurricane Tyra Black work in the semi-finals, pushing her to an 11-8 loss in the third game. Irvine didn’t stop there and withdraw from playing the losers bracket. She went into the backdraw and took down Rianna Valdes, 15-10, and played the bronze against Irina Tereschenko, bowing out with a 15-6 loss.
Jessie Irvine has had a down year overall. She has not performed perform well at MLP and has struggled to find podiums on the PPA Tour. While there was a time last year when Irvine was in consideration for the 2nd best female mixed player in the world, she has gotten next to no results primarily with AJ Koller and Jay Devilliers in 2023. The women’s stuff hasn’t been great either. The most surprising thing about Irvine’s singles result is that she hasn’t looked to be moving in top form this year. It is no secret that Irvine is not the best mover on court at the best of times as her knees are shot from her tennis days, but she had appeared to take a step or two back in 2023.
Upon further reflection, maybe she hasn’t taken a step back. In the limited singles I had seen from Jessie prior to this weekend, she looked like the Sarah Ansboury of the Premier division. She was the reason the Florida Smash struggled so much in Dreambreakers as she was getting decimated by opponents. I have to think Irvine has been putting in work behind the scenes to make herself a semi-competent singles player.
She is not the first to get to work harder on her singles game and she certainly won’t be the last. Meghan Dizon got exposed in the first MLP event of 2023 and looked significantly improved in Dreambreakers after the Mesa event in season 1. Susannah Barr looked completely out of place in Dreambreakers in 2022, but 2023 has been a completely different story, highlighted by her winning the majority of points against Vivian Glozman in the Challenger Super Final.
So long as the rest of a player’s MLP team is relatively competent at singles, players like Irvine, Barr and Dizon don’t need to be great singles players. They need to be passable. There are mixed feelings as to whether Dreambreakers deciding matches is good for MLP, but I am 100% in favor of them. It brings a completely different dynamic to events where we are not simply looking to find out who the best players are. Players have quickly realized their place in MLP can be seriously harmed by being a poor Dreambreaker player.
Jessie Irvine’s Chicago Slice team with Ben Johns, Erik Lange and Lacy Schneemann has already been dubbed the worst Dreambreaker team in the Premier division for season 2. With a passable at singles Irvine, the Slice may be able to surprise teams who go in with the mentality that they can’t lose to such a sub-par Dreambreaker squad. I would remiss not to mention one of the commenters on our blog point out that this singles foray for Jessie may have been directed by Ben Johns, who also happened to be on the same team as Meghan Dizon.
Regardless of how things go for the Slice and Irvine, I think it’s fun to see someone like Irvine, with a very skilled racquet sport background, develop some singles prowess at this stage in her pickleball career.
5. No Re-Seeding? (Slim) – When Jessie Irvine reportedly suffered a concussion and had to pull out of women’s doubles, it created a major imbalance in the women’s draw. The two highest ranked teams at that point in the draw ended up on the same side, with the Kawamoto sisters and Jorja Johnson and Lauren Stratman facing off in the semi-finals, while on the other side of the bracket Lacy Schneeman and Tyra Black got to play in the semi-finals against a Lee Whitwell / Allison Harris team, who really hadn’t played anybody all day. It does not make sense why, with games not having yet begun, that they would not have reseeded the bracket to create a more fair bracket, and make for more exciting matches.
I get that the draw was already out and they don’t want to change it, but it feels like you have to restructure the draw if it gets shaken up by a top team dropping out before play begins.
It should also be mentioned that Lacy Schneeman and Tyra Black, showed that they more than belonged in the women’s gold medal match as, the Kawamoto’s squeaked by them 8-11, 13-11, 11-9. Is there a women’s player that is on the rise more right now, than Lacy Schneeman? Lacy has just gone full time pickleball, and it looks like again, Ben Johns may have known who to go with in the draft.
Fantasy Update: It is a 16-14 week for Slim and we are now all tied up on the year. The big swing was the women’s doubles match where the Kawamotos squeaked it out over Schneemann/Black as that secured the win for Slim. This is the first time in a long time that we have combined to get 30 out of 30 points, which is a lot easier when you have such a discrepancy in level in the competitors.
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