We only have one more PPA event to go in 2022, which is their National Championship in Orlando the weekend following Thanksgiving. Anna Leigh Waters missing the Takeya event meant there was more parity and a different viewing experience for the 3 brackets that AL is typically a part of. The end result was a non-favorite winning in all 3 of those brackets, which made for some great pickleball. We even got a Matt Wright and Riley Newman upset win. There is lots to talk about so let’s get into our takeaways from the weekend.
1. The Etta Wright Stuff (Slim) – Etta Wright hasn’t exactly been an unknown. She recently signed with the PPA, got picked up during the MLP season and had won a few pro bronze medals this year. However, I think it would be fair to call this weekend her breakout performance, as she made her first Championship Sunday. Etta and Irina Tereschenko had quite a run to make the women’s doubles finals beating Lea Jansen / Jillian Braverman 12-10, 11-0, Lucy Kovolova / Callie Smith 11-8, 11-5 and Anna Bright / Parris Todd 11-5, 11-0. They fell short in the gold in four close games to Andrea Koop and Vivienne David, but that three match run to finals is extremely impressive, and for most of it they were simply dominant.
Etta just started playing tournaments, in February of this year, and says she has been playing pickleball for about a year. So her progression has been very fast. It is also interesting that, by my calculation, this was only her 11th pro tournament. So unlike some other newer pro players, she has not been playing tournaments every single weekend. In other words, she is still relatively raw, which would suggest that there is lots of room to grow in her game. She probably benefits coming from the pickleball hot bed of Utah, so she likely gets a good deal of high end practice and play, which is critical for players trying to break into the pro ranks.
One thing that makes Etta particularly enticing as a player is that she seems to have the potential to be a strong left side player. When you look at the top female players, that true left side skill set is a rarity. Her overall athleticism, length, and strong one-hand backhand roll, also a rarity amongst women, make her an excellent left side player.
One of the oddities on Sunday, was that Irina and Etta actually started with Irina on the left side and switched back and forth throughout the match, when they had had so much success playing Anna Bright and Parris Todd, on Saturday with Etta on the left side. I guess they thought that Irina on the left was their best alignment in the matchup on Sunday, but I thought they were much more effective with Etta on the left side, despite a tight game 1, mainly because Etta has a much stronger backhand than Irina. If I was a high end right side female player, I would certainly be looking at partnering with Etta, because there are only a couple of truly elite left side female players. I am not saying Etta is elite, yet, but she is certainly on that track and with the lack of options for most women out there, I think Etta is a very intriguing option.
2. Sleepy Ben (Gritty) – On the heels of his 3rd consecutive weekend of tournaments, Ben Johns had an okay weekend from a results standpoint. He finished the weekend with one gold medal in singles and a silver medal in men’s doubles with Collin Johns. While he seemed to bring the energy throughout the men’s day and into Championship Sunday with his brother Collin, there is a vibe about Ben these days that is off. It feels like he’s taken on the persona of his own mish-mash of characters from Snow White – sleepy, grumpy, pouty and mopey (yes, I know not the last two are made up).
If there is one thing that Ben does not appear to be on the court, it is happy. In a still generally individual sport of pickleball, it can be lonely at the top. Adam Stone talked candidly on a recent podcast episode about the joy of the journey getting to the top versus the anxiety and stress that accompanies trying to maintain your status once you reach the pinnacle. It’s a different level for Ben when you have been the undisputed number 1 player for a few years. Everyone is gunning for you at all times and you somehow have to maintain your level at every, single, damn tournament.
Ben is not an emotional player to begin with. He is generally stoic, which can be mistaken for indifference under the best of circumstances. However, one of the questions that ran through my mind watching Ben play singles on Thursday and mixed on Friday is whether he is having fun playing pickleball these days. Something looks different than his usual blasé self. He does not look like he is enjoying himself.
On singles Thursday in Newport, he looked like he was walking this weird tightrope of playing hard while still sleepwalking to another Championship Sunday, almost as if he has been kidnapped and forced to play these newcomers that are throwing haymakers at him. On Friday, playing mixed with Catherine Parenteau, Ben did not look like he wanted to be out on the court either. Whether that was due to their poor showing against Riley Newman and Anna Leigh Waters at Nationals, having to take the court the weekend after Parenteau’s controversy or generally not being excited about the prospect of potentially losing, he looked like Benny Backdraw even before the back draw. He and Parenteau got slammed by Mary Brascia and Julian Arnold in 2 straight games. The contrast in emotions between the apathetic Ben versus the euphoric Brascia and passionate Arnold was as stark as it gets.
Of course, we got classic Benny Backdraw zombie sleepwalking his way through the mixed consolation bracket. They won three matches before bowing out to Bright and Frazier, but he did not look like a man who was happy to be on the court all day.
It has been evident for a while that losing bothers Ben more than others, but not in that fiery competitive way it bothers people like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Ben just gets sad and mopey. I have written on the blog previously that I was interested to see how Ben handles more losing that comes his way. To his credit, Ben has handled his men’s doubles losses better than I would have expected. It still begs the question whether Ben is finding any joy in this journey of maintaining his top dog status.
Is it getting to him that he’s not the clear-cut best player out there anymore? That people are calling for Riley Newman as the #1 men’s player in the world? That THE Ben Johns is being carried by a 15-year-old girl? That he is being referred to as Collin’s brother on podcasts and in the comments of the YouTube live stream chats?
This takeaway is not so much a takeaway. Rather, it’s a compilation of a number of thoughts that have been running through my mind recently about Ben who, in theory, should be having the time of his life. I could be reading too much into things as an unlicensed body language doctor, but it sure as hell does not look like Ben’s having all that much fun out on the court.
3. Singles Controversies (Slim) – Singles day provided us with a couple of controversies to keep things interesting. The first one was one of the more hilarious sequences of the year, between the on court actions and the announcing. Doubles partners Tyson McGuffin and Jay Devilliers were facing off, and it appeared that after losing the first game to Tyson, Jay became frustrated with Tyson’s serving, likely viewing it as illegal – Tyson has been flirting with the limits of keeping his contact point below his waist all year. In protest, Jay began serving overhand, practically hitting his serve as an overhead. To add to this comedy, the announcers were completely confused by the whole sequence, and were debating whether the clearly intentionally illegal serve was illegal or not. You can watch and listen to the whole thing HERE.
This situation also pointed out the absurdity of the PPA’s rules, that an illegal serve is just a re-serve because, in reality, Jay could have just repeatedly served illegally infinitely. It should be noted the ref allowed a clearly illegal serve or two go uncalled, probably because they didn’t want to keep calling the awkward re-serve. Jay, unfortunately, was on full tilt, and he did not have many serve opportunities in the second game here, but it would have been fascinating to see this play out over a longer match. It is also a reminder, that given current rules, perhaps all PPA players should be pushing the limits with their serves more, because there is no actual penalty for an illegal serve.
The final, thing that needs to be mentioned here is that Jay clearly has an issue with Tyson’s serve, but does not seem to have an issue with it when Tyson is playing men’s doubles with him. Always funny how that works.
The other controversy, took place in one of the women’s singles, when at 10-10 in the second game, Lea Jansen went back to hit an overhead and a fan from the stands yelled “it’s going out”, Jansen then proceeded to miss the overhead into the net. Lea then yelled, at the fan “don’t talk during the point” and asked the ref for a distraction call. The ref said they couldn’t make that ruling but that Jansen could call for a hinder and that it would be a replay, which is what happened. Salome Devidze then called for the head referee and it appeared at the time that the call was being upheld.
Sam Querrey and Dave Benz rightfully ripped the call and disagreed adamantly, asking in what other sport would that be a replay. I very much agreed with their take on the situation (Gritty somewhat disagreed to my surprise), and thought the call set a horrible precedent where there would be no bounds to what could be a hindrance. However, we got further confirmation later when PPA Head Referee, Don Stanley released this video, clarifying that the call had not actually been challenged, because he essentially talked Salome out of challenging the call, and that it was an incorrect call, and the fan yelling should not have been a hindrance and a replay of the point.
I am very glad to hear that it was the incorrect call, because it would have set an awful precedent with really no end in sight for possible hindrances, but I am still confused why when called to the court the head referee would talk a player out of challenging a call, so no clarification is actually received? I would love for someone to explain that rationale to me.
4. Is Andrea Koop the 2nd best Woman in the World? (Gritty) – We called it questionable, but defensible, when Adam Stone slotted Andrea Koop as his #2 women’s doubles player in pro pickleball. The question we needed answered by Koop was getting out there against the best in the business. Koop came with a lot of answers this weekend, finding her way to a double gold medal Sunday performance in women’s doubles with Vivienne David and mixed with AJ Koller. As one of the two full-time attorneys on tour who moonlights as a top pickleball pro, Koop has chosen a path that only provides her with a small handful of opportunities against the very best pro pickleball has to offer.
In spite of her limited opportunities, Koop showed that she has to be in anyone’s top female outside of Anna Leigh Waters conversation. It should be noted that it was an easier road for Koop on the women’s side than is typical for a gold medal at the PPA. She and David did not have to face any of the top seeds, but they had to beat a formidable Tereschenko/Wright combination that knocked off the other top teams in the field handily. In mixed, Koop and Koller outlasted the Newman’s and took care of business in 4 games against Kovalova/Matt Wright. It was a Sunday to remember for Koop as she picked up her first two PPA gold medals.
One of the more interesting storylines that comes out of this weekend is where Koop will slot in on the female side of the MLP draft. Andrea Koop was the #1 pick for 2022 MLP without the PPA players in the mix, and she is firmly in the discussion for the #2 female slot for the 2023 season after this PPA performance. Her ability to be an alpha, left-sided female in women’s doubles is rare and she’s just as much of a threat in mixed doubles. In contrast, a number of women that will be drafted in the top 10, such as Jessie Irvine and Lucy Kovalova, are better suited for a right-side role.
One of the things we have learned from two MLP drafts is picking a right-sided male or female with a high pick is not optimal for team building. The problem is that those top female spots after Anna Leigh are going to be so hard to discern. With the lack of depth at the end of the top 48, I expect the worst draft position for teams to find themselves in will be having the female #2 through #8-ish spot. Koop did not have a successful 3-event MLP run in 2022, but that should not be held against her. The poor drafting choice of the middle slot men on her team combined with the difficulty of being a top women in the MLP snake draft style format puts the top women in the toughest spot, at least in my opinion.
It is a cluster when trying to rank the top women in pickleball, but there is no question after this weekend that Andrea Koop is right in the mix of the best women in all of pickleball.
5. Legacy Staying Power (Gritty) – This weekend in Newport featured a number of players demonstrating their staying power in this quickly evolving sport. Matt Wright, Lucy Kovalova, Irina Tereschenko, Tyler Loong and Callan Dawson all deserve some praise. Matt and Lucy are the most well known of this group of 5 considering they are most often in the podium mix. Their partnership resulted in a silver medal in mixed, and Matt Wright took away another gold medal in men’s doubles. We have talked about their staying power before, but it is still worth mentioning as they have been doing it together for the past 6 years.
However, the other three individuals mentioned above generate far fewer headlines than Matt/Lucy. Irina Tereschenko, who has been playing tournaments since 2015, has kept her name relevant with her status as the current MLP Goat, 3 out of 4 MLP titles. Her tournament prowess has been less GOAT-like over the past couple of years, but she demonstrated this weekend she is still relevant. It would probably be better for Irina if she fully embraced a right-side roll as she did with Etta Wright on Saturday playing against Parris Todd/Anna Bright, but the silver medal in a Waters-less women’s doubles field was a great result for her.
When it comes to Loong and Dawson, neither of them are terribly flashy (other than Loong’s Erne’s) and they may not get talked about as much, but the pair came away with another bronze medal. In their last 5 tournaments together, they have 4 bronze medals. That may be the most under the radar run we have in 2022 for results. It’s also Tyler’s 6th total bronze medal in men’s doubles for 2022. It’s also quietly one of the more impressive partnerships of 2022 in terms of consistency.
Loong and Dawson do not have the high-end upside that puts them in a position to beat the best teams out there. Hence, all the bronze medals. Nevertheless, they are two of the more consistent players on tours who are not going to give you anything for free with their quick hands and willingness to grind. Without much fanfare, they are often overlooked as a podium team, but 4 out of their last 5, and 5 of 9 bronze medals in total, is no joke with the depth of some of these men’s doubles fields.
So here I am, tipping my cap to Wright, Kovalova, Tereschenko, Loong and Dawson. 5 players who have been around the block, and then some, yet continue to get high end results in pro pickleball.
Fantasy Update: Close week goes to Slim 14-13. A weird week where the difference was leaving Koop/Koller undrafted. Slim may have also gotten the benefit of a Hunter Johnson ankle injury as Ben is down to the back draw if Hunter closes the match points with Ben in game 2 or finds a way to win game 3. The final wild card for the weekend was Wright/Tereschenko shaking up the women’s draw. Slim is now 6 up on the year again heading into the final tournaments of 2022.
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