One more tournament down in 2023, a whack load more to go. We got some new matchups this weekend, which is all we really want from time to time. As fans, we can’t expect or ask for different gold medal matchups week in and week out, but avoiding never ending triple crowns is a must. Gritty was on vacation this weekend so Slim picked up the slack and his giving all 5 takeaways after the PPA’s Arizona Grand Slam.
1. Hierarchy Established For Now (Slim) – Heading into the year, it seemed pretty obvious that the top three men’s teams were going to be the Johns Brothers, Matt Wright and Riley Newman, and JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier, and that has proven to be the case, with those being the only teams to make the podium in men’s doubles on the PPA tour this year, at the first three stops. What was not as obvious, to us at least, heading into the year, was that there would be a clear hierarchy within those top three teams. The Johns Brothers have taken three straight golds to start the year, with Matt and Riley taking three silvers, and Dylan and JW have taken bronze each time the bronze medal match has been played.
Over the second half of the 2022 season, the Johns Brothers and Matt/Riley seemed to seesaw back and forth, pretty much splitting the Championship Sunday matches over the second half of the year. Matt and Riley moved to playing an ultra aggressive attacking style that seemed to show some vulnerabilities that the Johns brothers had not previously shown. The attacking style showed that Ben’s backhand high shoulder was extremely vulnerable to being attacked, and it appeared that the role that Johns brothers had created for Collin, where he essentially resets and dinks, was too limiting. The Johns brothers, to their credit, have been able to adapt their games, and have now essentially neutralized the Wright/Newman attacks enough, to regain their status as the clear top dogs.
It is notable that AJ Koller and Dekel Bar pushed the Johns’ brothers to the brink in the semi-finals on Saturday, but we may have also had a case of Bored Ben on the weekend, who was not performing up to his usual standards for the most part.
Dylan and JW are clearly ahead of the rest of the field after these two teams, but after playing Matt and Riley extremely close last year, and pushing the Johns brothers in their first match up this year, the pair has still failed to make a Championship Sunday. Part of what makes the young pairing of JW and Dylan, so consistent against other teams, may be a problem against these top teams. JW and Dylan basically never seem to change their strategy or composure in matches, and I think when they are clearly the better team, it helps them stay consistent, and come out on top.
However, against the Johns brothers, who are always closely studying their opponents, and against the alpha duo of Riley and Matt, who like to asset themselves in a match, I am not sure it is enough. In particular, I think Dylan and JW need to find ways to be more aggressive against the Johns brothers, and initiate more, and I would argue that they also actually need to do the same thing against Matt and Riley, and perhaps, they should be trying to be more aggressive throughout other match ups, to gain a comfort in playing that style.
We will definitely be watching to see if we get any sort of a shakeup among these teams, as the year progresses, or if any other team is able to break into the top three, which will not be an easy task for the other teams.
2. Staksrud On Top (Slim) – Federico Staksrud burst onto the singles scene last year, and one of the most impressive things about his singles game was that he almost instantly became a consistent singles performer. After he took silver in a deep Delray field last spring, to make his first pro singles podium, he seemed to hit pretty much every podium after that, and he was playing a lot of tournaments.
Often we see tennis players start to have some success in singles, but their results are somewhat erratic as they figure out the game. They might get a few big wins and a podium one weekend, but the next they might go 1-2. Federico, did not really have this issue. However, last fall, he started to have some less successful showings, and we wondered if perhaps his game was plateauing and maybe some other players were catching him.
It seems as though, that may have been more the result of fatigue or something else, as Federico has started 2023 on fire, taking two silvers and then a gold this weekend to start the year in some strong PPA singles draws. His only losses this year have come to Ben Johns, who he narrowly defeated this weekend with the scores of 12-10, 4-11, 12-10. Outside of Ben though, Federico has clearly announced himself as the number two singles guy on the PPA tour, and is knocking on the door for that number one spot.
3. Why the Backdraws? (Slim) – The PPA has made it pretty clear that they are only concerned with the main draw in its tournaments, which leads me to the question, what are we doing here?
When what could probably be called middling pro’s don’t see it as worth their time to play singles back draws, and teams and player’s don’t see the incentive to play even bronze medal matches, it raises the question of what is the point of having a back draw? If the PPA is going to put so much focus on the main draw, perhaps they should limit the number of teams that make it to the main draw and then make the whole main draw single elimination best three out of five games.
The other side of this is perhaps don’t try and make pickleball tennis. Traditionally, part of what has made pickleball tournaments different, has been the true double elimination style, where a team can grind their way through the back draw to still win the whole thing. This was already somewhat diminished in the PPA’s when they capped the back draw at the bronze medal match due to what appeared to have been lobbying by its top players. Now, with fifth place being the best you can do if you lose before the semi finals, it truly kills that double elimination aspect.
I know there are concerns about the grind on players, and those are very legitimate with the number of tournaments these players are obligated to play. But, I have to admit, I am still partial to the true double elimination format, particularly when seeding is still far from perfect.
Also, it is sad that we may have truly seen the end of “Backdraw Benny”, because there was something truly amusing about watching Ben Johns mope his way through his backdraw matches.
I understand why Ben and a few of the other top players don’t play their backdraw matches, as there is basically no financial incentive to play those matches and the risk of injury outweighs the reward. With that being said, there is a problem with the system if a player doesn’t see it worth their while to play one more match to try and win the bronze medal, which is what happened after Ben lost his semi-final men’s singles match, unless he was just scared of James.
If this was a format that Ben and a couple other of top pros wanted, they should at least be obligated to play their medal matches.
4. Top 2 Solidified? (Slim) – Anna Bright went double gold this weekend, winning women’s doubles with Anna Leigh Waters and mixed doubles with Riley and Newman, and I think it is fair to say we have a top two clear cut men’s and women’s doubles players. Riley Newman and Ben Johns on the men’s side and now Anna Leigh Waters and Anna Bright on the women’s side. There is still distance between Anna Leigh at number one and Anna Bright at number two, but it still sets up for a particularly intriguing mixed showdown this year between Ben and Anna Leigh and Riley and Anna – with Newman and Bright presumably wanting to take the thrown from the pickleball royalty that is Ben Johns and Anna Leigh.
We are still waiting to actually get to watch the showdown of these teams in a mixed final, as Anna and Riley dropped a match their first time out to Matt Wright and Lucy Kovalova, and this weekend Ben and Anna Leigh, fell to the Johnson siblings. It seems inevitable that we will end up seeing this match up this year, and I for one, am very excited and intrigued to see how it will play out.
The combined hand speed of Newman and Bright could present some real trouble for Ben in particular, but one thing that Ben keeps demonstrating, as we noted above in men’s doubles, is the ability to figure out matchups, and how to exploit his opponents weaknesses, while hiding his own. Bright also is still adjusting to playing mixed at the highest level, and may still need some more seasoning, as her aggressive nature doesn’t translate as well to the mixed game.
As a side note, it seems like the PPA’s focus is to make Championship Sundays an exhibition featuring the same teams every weekend, and I truly do not understand the desire for that. Having the first few events of the year, not provide us with the showdown between these two teams, has only in my mind at least, increased the anticipation of seeing it.
5. Johnson Upside (Slim) – I discussed that there appears to be two top mixed teams, but there is another team that can beat literally anyone on the right day, as they proved this weekend. The Johnson’s played a super entertaining match in the quarterfinals, defeating Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters. The Johnsons combined hand speed gives them a chance against literally any team, on any day, which was showcased by Jorja repeatedly lighting up Ben Johns in their match this week. It is arguable that the Johnsons, as a pair, have the best combination of hand speed and power of any team in mixed doubles. If they aren’t at the top, they are right there.
The Johnsons still have work to do to move from a team that can beat anyone on any given week, to a team that is repeatedly beating everyone, every week. Jorja still has a ways to go with her consistency, as we see her come in and out and with some periods of unforced errors. She is still just not as comfortable as many of the other top women in the cross court forehand dink exchange, which is problematic in mixed. She may not need to become the most consistent forehand dinker in the world, as her hand speed and power, provide her with the opportunity to mix in more attacks, than most women, but increasing her comfort in those long cross court exchanges will certainly help.
Also, realizing that we sound like a bit of a broken record at this point, JW really needs to find more ways to attack, particularly off the bounce, and in mixed needs to find more ways to insert himself in general. His hands are absolutely absurd. If he could add some more variety to his game, especially on his forehand, he would be a very scary match up, as his hand speed and power is so elite. I would also be curious if there would be an actual benefit to JW playing in an athletic ready stance. Like, who can play that way and be so good?
It will be interesting over the course of the year to see if the Johnsons can continue to improve, and start making Championship Sundays a regular thing. The talent is certainly there.
Fantasy Update. It’s a tie. 14-14 as no one taking the Johnson’s in mixed could have been the difference. Draw based choices can be dangerous. Gritty is still 2 up for 2023.
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