What a weekend of pickleball. We had controversy, upsets and top-level action. It wasn’t only the PPA where fun stuff was happening either as the APP had its share of interesting storylines. There is a ton to get to and we couldn’t leave it to only 5 takeaways this weekend. No need for a lengthy introduction this weekend. It is your Monday takeaways!
1. A Real Men’s Doubles Rivalry (Gritty) – Riley Newman and Matt Wright were not what you would call best buds before 2022, but they put their egos aside to form what they hoped would be a partnership that could rival Ben Johns and Collin Johns. The year did not start out as they had hoped. Prior to the Atlanta Open, Matt and Riley had 2 golds, 4 silvers and 1 bronze medal, but the only 2 gold medals came at events where they did not have to knock off the Johns brothers. However, since they blew a huge lead in game 4 of the Atlanta Open but held on to win game 5, they have won 3 of their last 4 matches against the Johns brothers, including a 5-game barn burner Sunday at the PPA Championships in Las Vegas.
It looked like the rout was on after 2 games on Sunday. As has become the norm for Riley and Matt, they came out firing away against Ben and Collin. Their adjustment since losing at the Peachtree Classic was dink less and attack more from anywhere and everywhere. Neither Johns brother had an answer to punish what would typically be seen as silly decision-making for most teams but is the optimal strategy for Newman and Wright. It was 11-2 and 11-2 after two games in an onslaught.
It was a combination of factors that led to the match turning around. As is often natural when teams are up big, Riley and Matt got a little bit conservative. I found myself texting Slim during the middle of game 3 “why have they stopped attacking?” Their lull gave the listless Johns brothers a chance to finally settle in and find their timing. When Riley and Matt began attacking again, the Johns’ were punishing them a lot more. Ben was no longer quite as vulnerable on that high left shoulder, which teams have figured out is his weak point to attack. It all meant that Matt/Riley had to sit in extended middle dink rallies, waiting for the right ball to go on.
Ultimately, Matt and Riley were able to pull it out in 5 games, with the last 3 all being very tight. It was too late for the Johns to have figured their games out and make Riley/Matt pay for some of the spots they were initiating from.
What this match really demonstrated for the fans is that we have a real rivalry on our hands.
While these PPA matchups can get a bit stale, there is still a lot of intrigue when the result is not heavily weighted towards one partnership. On the other hand, it is unclear how long this rivalry will stand for in the ever changing landscape of pro pickleball. There are other teams coming up that are challenging both of these teams. Dylan Frazier and Zane Navratil were THIS close to beating the Johns brothers in the quarter-finals, losing 12-10 in the third, which is Dylan’s second time losing 12-10 recently to these top teams (FYI the match is on the Bad Pickleball YouTube page for the junkies).
It seems pretty evident that JW Johnson and Dekel Bar are not going to be the kind of super team Riley and Matt have formed. They were rolled by the gold medal team in the quarter-finals, which is a stark contrast to the last time Dylan and JW played Matt and Riley. Frazier is embracing an elite right-side role as he played the right with Zane on Saturday while Dekel is simply not as effective in that spot. You can make an argument that swapping Frazier and Dekel in those two partnerships could give two additional teams that would rival the gold and silver medal teams from Vegas.
Alas, no one has shown they can beat the top two PPA big dogs with any regularity, as close as both teams have come to losses earlier this year – remember that Austin Gridley and Todd Fought almost beat the Johns’ at TOC too.
That means, for the time being, we have a real rivalry in pickleball for the first time in a long time. That’s not a bad thing for pickleball at all.
2. Anna Leigh in a Class of Her Own, Again (Slim) – This weekend, left no doubt that there is still a significant gap between Anna Leigh and the other women’s players. She won another triple crown and made it look pretty easy. The gap between her and whoever you want to call the second-best woman is probably bigger than the gap between whoever that second best player is and the tenth best woman. She it truly in a tier of her own. It is evident that with the new money coming into the sport, that there is only going to be more talent entering the game (see: Noah Rubin), and also that talent is going to be working harder than ever to figure out pickleball and master it. With that in mind, it will be fascinating to see how long Anna Leigh can keep on top of the sport, because Anna Leigh herself seems to possess high level athleticism. If she keeps working on her game, the advantage she has over everyone who starts playing now, is years of pickleball and professional pickleball experience. Unlike many other current pickleball players, she also has time on her side, as theoretically she should still be improving as an athlete at her age.
I generally tend to think that most current professional pickleball players, will get passed by, by new players sooner than we expect if pickleball continues on this new rocket ship trajectory it is on. As Adam Stone likes to say, if you can get paid to play a game, people will work very hard to get good at it. So if you had a gun to my head and asked me if Anna Leigh will be the best female player in the world in two years, I think I would say no, just based on this principle that the talent coming in is going to be so great. With Anna Leigh, though, I would not feel great about making that kind of prediction. She seems to have that high end athleticism I referred to earlier, which we see with her ability to cover the court better than any other woman, combined with the fact she should still have plenty of room to grow in her game and as an athlete.
The biggest thing for Anna Leigh, will probably be staying hungry and motivated to keep working on her craft while she is on top of the game, here. Keeping the hunger is probably something easier said than for anyone, but particularly when we are talking about a teenager. However, Anna Leigh does not have to look far, to see that challengers are coming. Her opponents in the women’s doubles final on Sunday in Anna Bright and Parris Todd, are just the tip of the talent iceberg that is coming. We have already seen Parris take down Anna Leigh once in single this year.
Also, while it is fun to speculate about Anna Leigh playing with new partners in women’s doubles, she seems to enjoy playing with her mom despite some familial disagreement that arises, and frankly, it probably makes it way more entertaining. I couldn’t help but feel like when watching the final on Sunday that if Anna Leigh were to partner with either of the players on the other side next year, but particularly with Anna, that it would be a very boring year, as they would simply dominate the women’s fields.
3. Ewa Radzikowska Headlines Breakouts at APP (Gritty) – Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the PPA’s madness this weekend was some really fun pickleball at the APP Alabama Classic. We had Julian Arnold getting a gold in singles and men’s doubles with Rafa Hewett. Hewett added a gold himself in mixed with Lauren Stratman. Jorja Johnson and Bobbi Oshiro upset Lauren Stratman and Maggie Remynse twice en route to their first gold medal in their first pro partnership together. However, it was the 42-year-old former tennis professional from Poland, Ewa Radzikowska, who stole the show in Opelika, Alabama.
Radzikowska had only played a couple of pro brackets entering the weekend, with her first recorded tournament coming back in April. After their first-round win over Hendry/Sobek on Friday, Ewa and mixed partner, Marshall Brown, had an upset win over Alix Truong/Julian Arnold in 3 tight matches. What stood out in that match beyond the tension on the side of Arnold and Truong was how Radzikowska held up head-to-head with Arnold. I had never heard of Ewa before and it was surprising to see her hold up so well in a very difficult matchup. Radzikowska/Brown ended up losing to eventual gold medal winners Stratman/Hewett before being ousted in the loser’s bracket by Jorja Johnson/Gabe Tardio. Nevertheless, it was a strong day for Ewa as well as Marshall Brown, who might also be one watch after the weekend with a strong men’s day in his hometown.
Ewa did not play women’s doubles, but she showed up on the singles day in a big way. She got the benefit of a weird first round forfeit from Megan Fudge before rolling along to an undefeated day with wins over Alix Truong, Bobbi Oshiro and Megan Fudge, who all have pro singles podiums to their name. In fact, Ewa did not give up a single game all day. The singles gold capped off a banner weekend for Radzikowska, who will surely be getting some messages from higher-end players looking for partners.
She still has work to do, obviously, but the hands holding up is probably the number one thing I look for with new players. Talented players can figure out the other stuff, but if you don’t have the natural hands your ceiling is going to be capped as a pro player. Ewa seems to have the raw hands to hold up. It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds with her as she put some people on notice.
P.S. it continues to be a crime that Bobbi Oshiro is not on an MLP team. She got her second pro gold medal this year beating two current MLP players twice, and a bronze in singles, which included a win over Jorja Johnson. As Lauren McLaughlin said this weekend, people do not put the respect on her she deserves.
4. JW and Sundays (Slim) – Championship Sundays, be it the PPA version or the APP version features the best players, so it is going to be tougher to win. However, I think it is time we can at least start asking if maybe JW Johnson, by all accounts a bit of a slow starter, may struggle with the championship Sunday format. Going up at against Ben Johns twice on Sunday, JW certainly had his work cut out for him. However, the results were particularly disappointing for JW, as Ben took both the mixed and men’s singles titles in three straight games and was never really challenged despite a close final game in the mixed match.
The mixed was always going to be a tall task for JW as Ben and Anna Leigh are a wagon, and Catherine Parenteau may not quite have the hands and firepower to pressure Ben and Anna Leigh. Although, Catherine has shown she can get it done playing with Riley Newman, and I thought she played well in the Sunday final. The first mixed game, in particular, was disappointing from JW as he did not seem fully engaged and made a number of uncharacteristic unforced errors. Of course, it is hard to tell if JW is fully engaged because of his typical demeanor, but something looked off from him in game 1 as it did when he played Matt and Riley with Dylan at the Peachtree Classic.
JW and Catherine did play better the next two games, with those game going 11-9 and 14-12 to Ben and Anna Leigh, but against a team of that calibre you can’t afford to spot them a game, if you want any chance to win. The men’s singles had to be particularly disappointing for JW as based on both player’s recent singles results, it seemed like it should be a very tight match, but Ben was dominant and in control the whole match.
JW has shown he can win on Sundays, as he did beat Julian Arnold in the last PPA Championship Sunday at the Peachtree Classic, but he has also had plenty of struggles on those days. At the APP’s Chicago Open, we saw JW go 0-3 on Sunday. No results, though, point towards a potential Championship Sunday issue than his scores against Federico Staksrud. JW had something like a 13-match winning streak against Fed heading into the Chicago Open, where Fed took him 7-11,11-5,11-6 and 15-4. Then they met again the APP Atlanta Open and on the Championship Sunday, Fed took him 11-4,6-11,11-9. It seemed like things were swinging in Fed’s favor but then they face off on Thursday’s at the last two PPA’s and JW has won with scores of 11-1, 11-4 and 11-5, 11-4. Frankly, JW made it look easy in those matches.
Obviously, this is all still a small sample size, but it is fair to start asking if JW maybe has an issue with the Championship Sunday format, be it not being ready to come out fully engaged as is probably required when playing the top players, which I tend to lean to. It could also be other issues as well though, such as fatigue or pressure? It is well documented that JW is playing a scary amount of pickleball and there were times he seemed to look tired against Ben in their singles final.
While it is definitely too early to draw any hard conclusions, this is something we will be monitoring.
5. Tennis Channel Commentating (Gritty) – It was an interesting weekend from a broadcasting perspective as the PPA continued their partnership with Tennis Channel, including having the YouTube stream simulcast with the TV broadcast. I have said this before but keeping the YouTube stream on with the TV broadcast is a very good thing. In my mind, the Tennis Channel being willing to do this makes their partnership more important than any other TV partnership in pickleball. Not only do you have a channel where viewers are more likely to be interested when tuning in to a sport they have never played while, but they are also allowing pickleball to build that YouTube audience that goes beyond the United States. As much as I don’t like that moving side angle Tennis Channel uses, the broadcast partnership appears to be a strong one overall.
However, we would be remiss not to discuss the commentating situation as it was a fairly hot topic on the pickleball spheres of Facebook. All weekend doing play-by-play was Steve Weissman along with Tennis channel analyst and former pro tennis player, Jan-Michael Gambill. I wasn’t listening very carefully to the broadcast on Saturday, but I had a closer listen Sunday, and some of the stuff being said was problematic. It’s not fair to Gambill and Weissman to rail on them as they are doing the best they can with Gambill’s childhood pickleball court being the most experience either of the two announcers appeared to have.
I actually thought the commentating itself was pretty solid. Both guys are professionals in the good way, not in the Drew Felios or Rusty Howes kind of way. They also were no holds barred on non-pickleball specific type things that came up, including a discussion about the number of timeouts and, of course, lob-gate with Leigh Waters. I would surmise that a PPA friendly broadcast would not have been all that critical of what I would say were indefensible actions from Leigh Waters in complaining about Yana Grechkina and Regina Franco lobbing balls into the sun that she was whiffing on. So, it was incredibly refreshing to get some unfiltered perspective on a situation where any broadcaster, PPA hired or not, may be apprehensive about saying anything.
It’s on Tennis Channel to ensure that they are giving the best broadcast possible, and they put their commentators in a tough position to talk about pickleball without any real idea of what was going on – case in point, talking about an un-engaged JW Johnson in his quarter-final men’s match without knowing that’s pretty much how JW looks all the time.
However, the problem with Weismann and Gambill is that they really needed a pickleball person in the booth with them. At a certain point, the amusement of their outsider’s perspective of pickleball wears thin. Dayne Gingrich had a Facebook post of chastising the PPA Tour and the Tennis Channel for their choice of announcers. I’m not insulted the way Dayne was, as I think pickleball, in general, should lighten up when it comes to other’s perspectives about the sport. Nonetheless, his point is still taken about the lack of knowledge in the broadcast booth. Interestingly, this looks to be a Tennis Channel decision as PPA Commissioner, Connor Pardoe, commented on Gingrich’s post in agreement:
Pardoe’s comment has since been deleted, but there must be a push and pull with the PPA and Tennis Channel on broadcasting choices. For me, it’s somewhat because the PPA’s choices can be questionable for how they structure their announcing booth, especially with the rotating cast of unknowns and pro players at random times throughout the weekend. The PPA’s commentating choices leave something to be desired at times, but there is no doubt that having someone like Morgan Evans in the booth would have been very beneficial for the Tennis Channel. It’s on Tennis Channel to ensure that they are giving the best broadcast possible, and they put their commentators in a tough position to talk about pickleball without any real idea of what was going on.
I am not usually a fan of the three-person booths but having one colour person from the tennis world and pickleball world each could work out to be a great dynamic for the fans. We need some people in the booth who doesn’t always have the players or the tours agenda in the back of their mind, but the broadcast also requires someone who can give real insight into the play happening on the court.
It’s still early days for the more mainstream broadcast partners. Let’s hope Tennis Channel can find the right balance for its announcers moving forward. And oh, please stop with the moving side angle while you’re at it!
Further Comment: I wanted to add that I thought the broadcast following Leigh and Anna Leigh through the timeout during the lob fiasco was top notch. That was raw, unfiltered emotion that could easily have been missed, but they knew not to go to commercial in that timeout. Very underrated directing by their production crew.
6. More Talent Equals More Fun (Slim) – We have liked the Championship Sunday format, but last year the issue seemed to be that too often they featured the same match-ups, with the same predictable outcomes. More top end talent, and some new partnerships have created for much more interesting and intriguing Sundays, at least some weeks, when more of the top end non-contract players are playing. In men’s doubles, as we discussed above, the Johns brothers versus Matt and Riley is the best rivalry in pickleball and appointment viewing now. In the women’s doubles, we got to see the newcomer’s Anna Bright and Parris Todd, take on the Waters, and after initially looking like the newcomers just had too much firepower for Mama Waters, we saw the Waters figure out the puzzle and win three fairly tight games in a row over the newcomers.
Even though the men’s singles and mixed matches may have been a little disappointing in terms of their entertainment value, they were at least intriguing heading in as they offered match ups we had not seen recently or ever before. Only the women’s singles offered a somewhat tired and predictable matchup of Anna Leigh versus Catherine, which went easily to Anna Leigh as their last few match ups have, but at least heading into the tournament, there was the intrigue of a possible Anna Leigh versus Parris rematch, unfortunately Parris could not get there.
If only we could also avoid the PPA center court streams of their top teams against very borderline pro teams, we might be golden.
7. Senior Pro Roundup (Gritty) – Although not terribly deep, we had a couple of fairly large senior pro brackets at both the APP and PPA events this weekend so we thought it would be good to highlight some interesting results. A guy I had not noticed in a bracket before, Johan Svensson, had a gold medal with Mircea Morariu and silver medal with Stephanie Lane in Alabama. They had to beat a good team, Paul Olin and Dan Granot for gold, and in mixed Morariu/Johnson didn’t even find the podium. Svensson has only played two tournaments in 2022 so those are some nice results for him.
The PPA took away its double elimination format with a comeback to gold for all participants, not only pros, to the surprise of many this weekend. Witsken/Crandall had another strong win, 4 and 2, over Thongvanh and Weinbach in the gold. Chris Karges sometimes finds her way to these gold medals here and there as she got won in a pretty good mixed bracket with Dave Weinbach, edging out Anna Shirley and Thongvanh – Bagby/Crandall got bronze while Bellamy/Witsken did not medal so the mixed field was a strong one.
8. Lob-Gate and Leigh Waters (Gritty) – In case you missed it, I had some thoughts on the Lob-gate controversy posted late Saturday evening that you can read here. Selkirk apparently has a blog, and they had some additional details about what Leigh Waters said when she lost it against Yana and Regina. According to the Selkirk blog, Leigh Waters said something along the lines of “Are you going to play us straight up?” and later also yelled that lobbing into the sun wasn’t a legitimate strategy.
The final thing I have to say on this topic is I continue to be surprised (I shouldn’t be) that when things come up like this how many differing perspectives that are out there. The number of people who don’t believe that lobbing into the sun is a legitimate strategy is baffling to me when we are talking about professional pickleball. One person referred to my opinion on the Jillian Braverman situation as a comparable situation as one where the player is technically within the rules, but not in the right. I’m not going to get into that here, but I can’t help you if you think the two situations are similar in any way shape or form.
So I have not changed my opinion on Lob-Gate. Although, I’m still blown away that it happened.
Fantasy Update: Slim won the PPA week 16-11 and the APP week, 13-12. The difference at the Alabama tournament was Jack Foster getting that singles silver on the final day over Pablo Tellez, who did not have a very good weekend overall. The PPA week went Slim’s way with Parris/Anna getting to Sunday and the JW vs. Ben rematch coming to fruition. Slim is back to 6 up on the year and time is almost out on Gritty having any chance of making a comeback.
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