It was the first tournament in a little while where we did not have to deal with a rain delay, which must have been nice for the PPA. One thing we have been thinking about for but have not mentioned yet is both tours needing to be better at giving updates on rain delays and upcoming medal matches. Pickleball tournaments are played throughout the weekend and people have things to do. Most people, even crazy pickle enthusiasts like ourselves, are not (always) sitting around on the live stream watching matches all day or waiting out a rain delay. It would seem to be an easy fix for both tours to use their social media channels to give people a heads up as to what is going on with rain delays and let us know when big matches are coming up.
Without further ado, we have 3 takeaways from this doubles only PPA from Vegas.
1. Koller Time (Gritty) – Wasn’t AJ Koller a takeaway for us last week? Well yes, yes he was. However, Koller was undoubtedly the star of this weekend’s tournament, in his hometown of Las Vegas to boot. With Tyson McGuffin having a new baby boy in the picture, AJ Koller got the call up to the big leagues to partner with Riley Newman. I would consider this his first truly high end men’s partnership. With a surprising early exit by the Johns on the winners side of the bracket, Koller/Newman were able to easily handle Loong/Smith in two games and then they brought down Rob Nunnery (filling in for Steve Deakin) and Dekel Bar in a hard fought 3 games. Finally, they were able to beat the Johns brothers in the gold match in a straight two games.
Koller was very Chevy-esque all day, like a rock, outside of maybe a few too many lobs, playing that right side with Riley Newman. Koller has turned himself into an all-around kind of player. He’s able to play both the alpha and beta role in partnerships. It’s clear that players respect his hands immensely. When Ben Johns feels he can go at someone with speed ups, he will go and Ben was not able to do that with Koller despite seeing more balls than he typically does in matches. Riley’s top spin dinks off his backhand also contribute to an inability to attack for Ben. Ben hasn’t been playing as well recently but it is interesting Tyson/Riley haven’t really come close against the Johns brothers, and in steps Koller for a 2 game gold medal win.
The fact that Koller was able to double up on the gold performance on Sunday with Jessie Irvine in mixed was extra impressive. Subbing in last minute for DJ Young, Koller didn’t look fearful at all of inserting himself in a first time partnership with the powerful Irvine. Surprisingly, Koller/Irvine did not have to face the Newman’s en route to gold, but you only get to beat the teams you face, and they went undefeated on the day.
What may be the most impressive thing about Koller’s rise is his lack of elite racket sports background. Koller played high school tennis, but he was primarily a hockey player doing that all the way through college. There are very few players in pickleball who are at the top of the game without at least some kind of college tennis or other high level racket sports history. Dylan Frazier and Susannah Barr are two other players hitting podiums now that don’t have that background, and I am sure there are at least a couple of others that I am not thinking of. The statement still stands that there are not many at the highest level in pro pickleball doing it without the high level racket sports background.
Partnerships are formed early in pickleball and I’m curious if any of the upper tier pros saw this coming from Koller where they have already partnered with him for 2022 before his recent surge. He has to be quite sought after now as the AJ Koller bandwagon is getting more crowded by the day.
2. Not as Lonely at the Top (Slim) – For the first half of the season, the PPA seemed to have a problem which was really no fault of their own but the top of their podiums often seemed almost inevitable. Ben Johns and Simone Jardim in particular, seemed almost destined for gold. This weekend, was another reminder that is no longer the case, as Simone squeaked out a gold in a four team round robin in the women’s draw but dropped a match in the round robin and Ben and Collin Johns lost the gold medal match in men’s doubles to Riley Newman and AJ Koller but also lost in what has to be the upset of the year, to Austin Gridley and Mario Barrientos on the winner’s bracket side of the draw. Then Ben and Simone withdrew from the mixed field on Sunday, I presume due to Simone’s health issues but have no confirmation of this. With no singles at this event, I believe Vegas marked the first time there has been a PPA event and Ben Johns hasn’t picked up at least one gold medal.
Having new blood like AJ Koller topping the podium is great for the sport, and so is the uncertainty heading into the weekends. You need star players but you don’t want inevitable results because, well, sports are not supposed to be scripted. Furthermore, one of my favorite things in sports, is seeing great champions battle back from defeats or adversity, so it will be great getting to watch how a couple of great competitors like Ben and Simone responds to these recent losses. I also think a bit of an air of invincibility that may have surrounded them is gone, and players feel like they are there for the taking (one of our readers, Denise, noted this in the comments of our post recently).
As a side note, I know it’s not an enjoyable thing to discuss, but I really wish Ben would talk more about his losses (he can also talk more about his victories as well) on the Freestyle Boys podcast. Something I really appreciate with The McGuffin Show podcast, is Tyson’s willingness to talk about his matches and give his analysis of what he thinks went on his matches, even when it was not a positive outcome. It’s very interesting to hear the insights that come out of these discussions, and appreciate Tyson’s candor when discussing his own play. When you are a top player with a podcast, it feels like the expectation is to discuss your results. I think a lot of fans would really appreciate if Ben would be as open in discussing his matches, as when he does provide his thoughts and analysis, it is always very insightful, but he has seemed very reluctant to address his losses on recent episodes.
3. Senior Pro Parity (Gritty) – It may be different players but the senior tour has some obvious parallels with the pro tour in pickleball. This weekend’s results were another example of how the old guard cannot rest on its laurels with the new influx of talent. This isn’t exactly a new thought we have had about the senior tour. However, this is also more than simply new players coming in that are younger, even if that is part of the equation. Neither the mixed or men’s senior pro fields were particularly deep in Vegas, but the most surprising result had to be Mills (Chris) Miller and Lisa Naamu not even medalling in the mixed pro bracket. They lost to Mary Sigmen and Devin Shoquist in the winners bracket and then to Lila Rawlings and Curt Carlson on the losers side. Rawlings and Carlson steamrolled veteran Christine Barksdale and relative newcomer Scott Crandall in their first match too.
Crandall came away with gold in his partnership with Miller on the men’s side. After losing to Pacific Northwest forever veterans, Tony Tollenaar and Jay Rippel, they were able to beat other senior veterans, local Steve Cole and Steve Dawson in the gold. Crandall also secured a silver in mixed, but could not get past Beth Bellamy, aeguably the top new senior female, and Tao Thongvanh. There are still limited senior women, as demonstrated by no senior women’s bracket in Vegas. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, there is more quality to the point where players like Lisa Naamu aren’t walking through these brackets with ease when they are paired with a higher end player like legendary Mills (who has been playing as long as anyone out there).
Teaser – MLP Mock Draft! – The Major League Pickleball (MLP) draft is going to be taking place this Friday, October 1st. There was a bunch of stuff that was released last weekend in terms of press releases and an MLP launch event at the host site, Dreamland, in Austin, Texas. We are going to be following in the footsteps of the Freestyle Boys and do our own mock draft. The player pool is now confirmed and can be viewed on the MLP website here. Nunnery and Johns did their mock draft over their podcast on August 1st , and it’s clear that there is already quite a bit that has changed in the pro pickleball landscape in only 2 months. We are going to be doing our draft Tuesday evening, and we’ll have the mock draft results along with a write-up by Thursday morning (hopefully Wednesday). This looks like it’s going to be a really fun event and everyone loves a good mock draft! So be on the lookout for that.