This weekend had the feel of a little something extra on the line. Guess that’s why it is the PPA Championships! It seemed like the players were extra pumped with wins from this tournament and, well, they should have been. This is a big deal for pros that there are larger tournaments outside of the majors now. Although, fun fact, Zane Navratil made more winning gold in singles at the APP Hilton Head than he did winning gold in singles at the “$150,000” PPA Championships because that $150K advertised prize pool includes all the appearance fees that are paid to contracted players. Nevertheless, there’s more money and more prestige on the line than ever before, and the Championship Sunday format does create a higher level of excitement. It’s a weird world for us that NFL football is background noise to pickleball.
1. Chemistry Matters (Slim) – In the Championship Sunday gold medal matches, we had the mixed final featuring Jay Devilliers and Jessie Irvine, a relatively new team that is planning to partner together next year, versus the Newman’s, a sibling team with years of playing together. In the women’s doubles final we had Jessie Irvine and Catherine Parenteau, a team which is still relatively new and is planning to play together next year versus, the mother-daughter team of the Waters. In the men’s doubles final we had Adam Stone and Dekel Bar, a couple of friends who have played a lot of tournaments together and are planning to play a some tournaments together next year versus Tyson McGuffin and Riley Newman, a partnership that is coming to end this year, but I would argue has always been more business like, anyways.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that, other than Tyson and Riley, the teams in the finals on Sunday are either planning to partner next year, and in most cases relatively new partnerships, or are family. It has been a long pro season (by far the most pro tournaments pretty much any of these players have ever played before) and I think tensions between players in partnerships are running high, think the married couple having to spend a little too much time together. Add in a lot of drama around next season’s partnerships, with partners being dropped and picked up, and I think a lot of players may just about be over this season. I think it would be extremely difficult, to play with a partner who I knew had dropped me, or even if I was the one who dropped the partner I think it would be very tough to keep playing with that person, as obviously on some level I have checked out on that partnership.
Going forward I will definitely be paying closer attention to which partnerships are ending and which partnerships may just be taking off, as we head into the latter part of the season, because I think it has big effect on the on court results, and it was probably something I did not pay close enough attention to this year. Some examples of these concluding partnerships that did not have the same level success towards the end of this year were are Jay/Pat, Jeff Warnick/Jessie Irvine Simone/Ben and, yes, Tyson/Riley.
Another thought, is while, I think there are obvious advantages to be had by having a consistent partner all year, from a chemistry and strategy on the court perspective, I do wonder if there are some advantages to having a couple partners for the year. The advantages of having a couple partners, is that I think it helps keeps thing fresh and helps prevent burnout with anyone partner. I think Adam and Dekel may be an example of how this can work.
2. Ben’s Slump (Gritty) – It’s no longer just an aberration. This is an extended stretch for Ben Johns without winning gold medals. It was inevitable this would happen at some point but a few months ago it would have been close to unfathomable that it would happen this quickly. That’s not to say that Ben won’t go back to just winning all the time. However, we can’t continue chalking his losses up to reasons that we can only guess about. We have come up with a lot of excuses…err reasons for his losing – bored, back in school, injured, mentally checked out of partnerships and probably others I can’t think of right now. Johns doesn’t like to talk about his losses on his podcast but he has alluded to there being reasons for some of his losses beyond simply not being good enough or other players simply being better.
At the PPA championships this past weekend, Ben Johns only came away with a bronze medal in men’s doubles with Matt Wright. They missed out on Championship Sunday after being up 11-1, 7-2 on Stone and Bar. Outside of men’s doubles, he lost in singles to Zane Navratil on Thursday then withdrew without playing any matches in the back draw. Johns avoided being labelled as King of the back draw withdrawal after not completely zombie-ing his way through the losers side with Simone on Friday – still no podium though. Simone probably hasn’t been healthy for quite sometime as she pulled out the following day mid-match against the Waters in the semis with an injury, which has to be a contributing factor.
Since TOC, Ben has played 15 events in 6 tournaments and he has “only” won 10 medals across those events, including 7 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze. He has missed podiums 3 times in mixed and twice in singles, and his silver at PPA Vegas included losses to Gridley/Barrientos and Koller/Newman. That’s really good for most people, but not for Ben Johns. Watching his match against Stone/Bar, it was just kind of weird. Ben gave a handful of ATPs away to Dekel, let Dekel Erne him cross-court and most surprisingly he was losing a fair share of hand battles. These days he doesn’t seem to be able to just speed players up like he used to and he appears somewhat gettable standpoint when players attack him relative to what we’re used to seeing.
We have to question whether the level of the competition is getting higher and it wasn’t sustainable for Ben to be the best by such a wide margin in the sport. His worst days have come in mixed where he has to be most engaged mentally and he has admitted that he hasn’t brought the energy every time out. You combine that with partnership that will be no more in 2022 and a not fully healthy Simone, it’s another excuse you can make other than not being quite as good.
The other question to ask though is whether Ben’s level has diminished for no specific reason.
Still, if I was a betting man, which apparently is something that I can’t be, yet, in pickleball despite previous announcements made, I would be betting on a bounce back for a rejuvenated Ben in 2022. He’ll be back with Collin and have a new partnership with Anna Leigh in mixed. You add on the motivation as to whether he is the same dominant player, and I think betting against him would be foolish.
3. Wear and Tear (Slim) – As discussed above and previously in this space, it has been a long season, with most pro players, playing more events than ever before. Not only is there a mental toll to playing that number of events, but there is also a physical toll.
For a while now, we have been seeing Simone Jardim post about having to receive injections, as she has battled through a myriad of injuries. Unfortunately this weekend, it seems like she finally pushed it too far, as she sustained a leg injury her women’s doubles semi-final against the Waters and was forced to withdraw from the competition. Earlier this season we also saw Steve Deakin trying to play through a wrist injury he suffered at the US Open, but eventually he was forced to withdraw from competition in both TOC and the Orlando Cup, and has since then taken time off to get surgery and heal.
With there being more pro tournaments than ever, next season a player could literally play 52 pro tournaments if they wanted, it will be fascinating to watch the different steps that players take to look after their body, and to try and prevent injury and burnout. There are large financial pressures on these players to play and play at a high level, to win prize money, earn appearance fees and meet sponsor obligations. There is also the added pressure of not wanting to let down partners, and protect future partnerships. This must all be balanced, with need to be healthy in order to protect one’s longevity and also just to be able maintain a high level of play.
I will be curious to see if some players try to give themselves a proper off-season say 6-8 weeks off, or if players will just try space out their events fairly evenly over the course of the year. Obviously, a lot of this is also out of the players hands as the pro tour schedules, appearance and sponsor obligations will determine a lot of a players schedule.
I will also be interested to see what kind of fitness and rehab regimes players undertake. Some players over the last couple years have obviously really stepped up their game in this area, but it is still an area where it is obvious that a lot of players, could dedicate more of their focus too (ex. Dekel Bar), and with professional pickleball becoming much more demanding I think they will have to.
I thought it was interesting on one of his recent podcasts, that Tyson McGuffin mentioned that he didn’t think that Jay Devilliers, who he will be partnering next year, took very good care of his body, and certainly was not doing what Tyson does to look after his body. I couldn’t help but feel like this was a subtweet from Tyson to Jay, hoping to inspire Jay to pick up his game in this area to ensure that Jay will be good for another long season next year, after probably putting more miles on his body this year than any other player.
4. Double D Dominance (Gritty) – We have talked about the dominance of Dave Weinbach and Dayne Gingrich before, but we’re going to go a bit more in-depth for a second week in a row on men’s senior pro results. Weinbach/Gingrich won the PPA Championships over the weekend without dropping a game yet again. Their dominance at the senior pro level is somewhat mind boggling. Neither player is an auto-gold without the other, but you put them together they do not lose. Literally. In 2021, they have lost one game in 7 tournaments and that one loss game came at the PPA Mesa in February. Since that time, not only have they not dropped a game, they have only given up 9 points in a game once. That means they have not faced a game point when partnered with each other since February 2021!!!
I know they are good. I know they are good together. However, it doesn’t make sense that they should be able to be this dominant together when neither is dominant on their own. There’s a ton of depth in the senior men’s field, but no one has been able to give them a run for their money. The one team that we talked about last week, John Sperling and Mircea Morariu, have been dominant playing outside of PPA events. I would expect we should see them together more given their success but not necessarily on the PPA because of how little money is paid out for senior pros at PPA tourneys compared to the APP. There’s always new senior pros coming into the game as they hit that magic 50 age that only pickleball players get happy about so who knows how long this can last for Gingrich and Weinbach. Regardless, this has been a supreme level of dominance from Dayne and Dave with no indication it is stopping in the near future.
5. Championship Sundays in the Fall (Slim) – I think it is very fair to say that overall Championship Sunday, has been a success. It creates a real showcase for the gold medal matches, in a viewer friendly format, with starts times etc. The best out of 5 format also lends itself to more entertainment for the fans. The players also for the most part seem to enjoy the showcase, that it creates.
I do still wonder, if Championship Sunday in the fall makes sense, competing with football. Sure, I have become a pickleball fanatic, to the point that the NFL is just background noise on Sunday, but I still have questions about whether trying to compete against that the giant that is the NFL makes sense, when you are trying to make it your showcase. My suggestion would be no championship Sunday during the NFL season.
Fantasy Update: It’s a 16-13 win for Gritty as Slim’s lead is cut down to 3 for the season. Ben getting zero points in singles and mixed was the killer for Slim along with Simone/Lucy being shut out of the podium with Simone’s withdrawal for injury.
Slim is 3 up on the year as we head into the final stretch.
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