PPA Orange County – 5 Takeaways – Phenom-enal

It was our first PPA in about a month so it had been quite some time since we had seen a lot of the players that competed over the weekend. There weren’t any truly shocking results over the weekend with the top players in action but, of course, there was still lots to talk about. We had the live blog going all weekend. Now, here’s our 5 takeaways from the PPA Orange County.

(1) Phenom-enal (Slim) – I think it’s time to start asking the question, of when, not if Anna Leigh Waters, will become the best female player in the game. We are not the only one’s thinking this obviously, as Dave Weinbach and Scott Golden were talking about it on the broadcast this weekend. The talent is just undeniable, and it seems like she is just now coming into her own.

While she may not have had the defining gold medal performance this weekend, I thought she showed off her tremendous talent, competitiveness and potential in all three events. Her silver in the singles, an event she has just started playing more regularly, showed her raw potential there and she is is obviously just figuring out that game. Her fourth place run with Kyle Yates in mixed was very impressive as she was often the dominant player in their matches, and the ability of her hands to not okly hold up against but cause problems again for Riley Newman, widely considered to have some of the best hands in the game, is beyond impressive. Then in women’s doubles we saw her taking more court than ever as she and her mom grabbed silver. It has also been pretty cool to see the roles of the Waters switch this year with Anna Leigh becoming the dominant left side player, the role her mom used to hold.

The weekends performance made it pretty easy to see many potential future triple crowns in Anna Leigh’s future. With perhaps the only question there being, do she and Ben Johns team up? A question we have asked before, or does she find another top male, and perhaps attempt to be the first real threat Ben’s reign has faced?

Anna Leigh is still young, and obviously it sounds like there is a potential soccer passion that could slow down her pickleball career. However, if she keeps playing pickleball competitively, I think it is very clear that she is on track to quickly become the dominant women’s player in the game. She is definitely the games first true phenom.

(2) Net Love (Gritty) – No, not the kind of net love we are used to. The getting to the net kind of love that is not nearly as consistent in the women’s singles game as it probably needs to be. Lea Jansen had a gutty come from behind win against Anna Leigh Waters in singles on Sunday. I said this on the live blog after the match but I think the difference in this match came down to Jansen’s greater consistency over Anna Leigh simply in getting to the net.

The bigger takeaway for me from this match beyond Lea Jansen solidifying herself in the top tier of female singles players is the potential ongoing evolution of female singles. Anna Leigh is still maturing as an athlete and it looks like she covers more court than she ever has. She got so many balls back against Jansen in the first two games. While games 3, 4 and 5 were all very close as well, it appeared to me that Anna Leigh’s level dipped just enough for Jansen to get back in the match. It’s very difficult from a physical standpoint to sustain the style of play from the baseline when your opponent is able to effectively come to the net in singles.

The game of pickleball has changed substantially over the past few years and undoubtedly will continue to evolve. Getting to the net is paramount in the men’s game where it’s quite rare to see the men try to sit back and hit groundstrokes with any regularity. It is the optimal strategy by far. The women have a little bit more trouble getting up there as quickly as they need to and covering as much ground ar the net once they are there. However, I have to think it’s only a matter of time where we see the women’s game look very similar to the men’s game in singles. As more athletes like Jansen and Anna Leigh enter the sport, the more we’re going to have women who have the physical capability and the skills to put the pressure on at the net like you want to in singles.

(3) Same Old Getting Old (Slim) – A quick look at the results from the weekend shows a lot of the same old, same old on the podium. On Saturday night we had Ben and Simone taking down Matt and Lucy for what felt like the 100th time. I think there is no match up that I am more over watching then the Johns/Jardim vs. Wright/Kovolova match up. It is just so predictable. It’s no fault of the players, they consistently put themselves there, it’s just we have seen the same result over and over. Then on Sunday, we had Ben taking the singles title with the only variation being that Jay made it to the final, Simone and Lucy over the Waters and the Johns Brothers over Tyson and Riley, all results we have seen before.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that in my mind the most exciting final on Sunday ended up being in women’s singles where we got to see new faces in Anna Leigh and Lea battling it out. The unknowns of the matchup for both the players and the fans made for an exciting and entertaining match to watch.

It is undeniable that every sport needs superstars, but generally for those superstars to create maximum interest and viewership in the sport, they need rivals and we currently do not have that in pickleball. Just because two teams are always playing each other in the finals, does not mean they are rivals.

I also think there is some interesting potential with the Championship Sunday format of the best three out of five matches, but when you already have matches where the outcome feels inevitable, the best three out of five format creates a bit of staleness in the matches.

I do think there is some interesting potential for some new rivalries and matchups in the women’s game, which has been hurt in part by the seeding and format of the last couple of tournaments. In the men’s game, Ben may currently be too good, but as we have seen in other sports, challengers to the throne can come out of nowhere. I think there would be nothing better for the sport right now in terms of viewership than if a true rival to Ben Johns emerged.

(4) Women’s Pro Seeding (Slim) – The last two women’s PPA draws have looked like this:

The Atlanta first round match up of Parenteau/Smith vs the Waters, remains one of the most egregious seeding things I have seen in a tournament. I also have to admit that at that time I did not realize that the PPA would have required Parenteau/Smith to forfeit their next match ensuring that two of the top three teams would not be playing in the gold medal match. Then this weekend in the OC, I think there were clearly the top three teams of Simone/Lucy, the Waters, Catherine/Callie and the fourth team was very clearly Jessie/Irina. That is how the teams finished as well, but somehow the Waters, Catherine/Callie and Jessie/Irina ended up on the same side of the draw. If you are going to have these kind of seeding errors, I think you need a true double elimination format to keep it fair for all the teams. I also think if you are going to force teams to forfeit matches because they can’t play in your final, it would be much more fair to all teams involved to play a double elimination and play it out, where the only forfeit would be either the bronze medal match (or if the team that had to forfeit won the winner’s side, the bronze medal would become the gold medal match).

We also saw in mixed the Newmans (clearly the second or third best team) ending up on Ben and Simone’s side of the draw, ensuring another Matt/Lucy vs Ben/Simone final. The Newmans’ seed would be because Lindsey has not been playing all of the PPA events.

I also do wonder why if the PPA were going to run one of the finals on Saturday, why they would not have run the women’s doubles on Saturday night allowing Callie and Catherine to play it out. It would have given the fans a chance to watch what surely would have been a very entertaining Waters versus Catherine and Callie match up and then if Catherine and Callie had managed to avenge their Atlanta loss to the Waters, it would have given viewers a chance to watch a US Open rematch of Catherine and Callie versus Simone and Lucy, a match up fans have not been able to see since Catherine and Callie knocked off Simone and Lucy at the US Open, which is actually a real shame.

(5) Senior Women to Watch (Gritty) – We have discussed previously in this blog how deep the senior men’s fields are getting and this continues to be a trend as we saw (singles monster) Mattias Johansson take bronze with his partner Jamil Atcha over Mills Miller and Mircea Morariu over the weekend. On the other side of the coin, this past weekend has highlighted what will hopefully be continued growth in the senior women’s fields. In a 6 team senior women’s field in Orange County, neither partnership of Jennifer Dawson/Cammy MacGregor nor Kris Anderson/Alex Hamner reached the podium. Beth Bellamy and Nathalie Bagby took gold over Celesta Pafford and Natalie Hill. Even though neither gold medal player has been in the pickle game that long, Bagby was ranked as high as 42nd on the WTA back in 1986 while Bellamy played on the tour for 11 years and was ranked as high as 31st.

Celeste Pafford herself has had some quality results over the past year too. Another medalist over the weekend, Julie Johnson, is proving she can reach the podium in tournaments when the usual senior women podium suspects are playing. We mentioned last week that Lee Whitwell is the only woman nearing 50 on the pro circuit that is still competing at a fairly high level at her age. It’s nice to see some fresh faces making us think twice about automatic medals from the stable Jennifer Dawson, Cammy MacGregor, Kris Anderson and Lisa Naumu.

Fantasy Update – Another tie. This is two weeks in a row with a tie. Slim went hard after the men’s singles field and swept that category. The Callie Smith singles win over Parenteau in the bronze allowed Slim to get the tie. There was not a missed podium this week in our draft and you can chalk that up to these PPA fields generally being less prone to upsets with the top players around. A very helpful thing for Gritty was the seeding of the Newman’s being on the same side of the brackets as Simone/Ben.

15-15 for the week. It’s still all even for the year.

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at nmlpickleball@gmail.com.

6 thoughts on “PPA Orange County – 5 Takeaways – Phenom-enal

  • June 28, 2021 at 1:16 pm

    Should it be discussed that AL is ready for a diff womens partner? Maybe moot as her mom is and shoukd protect her but mighn’t she be able to unseat Simone/Lucy if she played with Irina or Jessie or Lee Whitwell 😁.

    Also – commentators pointed out that Lea fared better when she brought AL to the net as the passing shots of AL were much too much to deal with.

    Idk. I just read, watch, listen and am fascinated by it all. 👏 👏

    • June 28, 2021 at 2:24 pm

      Thanks for your comments Laurie. AL playing with different partners, is something we have talked a bit between ourselves. I think practically speaking it is something we probably won’t see for a while, as obviously getting to play with mother is pretty cool and they seem to enjoy playing together, and as we saw this weekend, they are still very competitive.
      If speculating about other partners for AL to try and take down Simone and Lucy. My first two would be Callie and Catherine. AL and Callie together would be the fastest hands in the women’s game and I think they could put a ton of pressure on teams. Catherine would give AL that super steady Simone clone of a partner. – Slim

  • June 28, 2021 at 9:43 pm

    A big missed opportunity by the PPA in not moving the women’s finals to Saturday. Also disappointing we weren’t shown the bronze metal match or the other final round matches in women’s doubles. Based on the scores it seems we missed out on some great play.

  • June 30, 2021 at 10:05 pm

    Agree that AL is a absolute beast and keeps improving every tournament. Thanks for all the analysis!


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