PPA Tour Atlanta Open – 5 Takeaways – ALW’s Dominance

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The Amazon Prime debut seemed to be a success for the PPA. Surely there were some complaints but, with the number of subscribers to the platform, it sounds like a good chunk of people were able to watch without issue. Who knows what the PPA’s deal with Amazon is and whether they are paying to be on their platform. However, being able to do something like this without compromising the established fan base is a definite plus. It really just felt like a standard broadcast all around and that’s what it should be. 

1. Anna Leigh’s Dominance (Slim) – Anna Leigh Waters has been absolutely dominant this year when she has played. She has yet to lose in women’s doubles playing with Catherine Parenteau and Anna Bright. She has one loss in women’s singles to Catherine Parenteau and she dropped one mixed match, with Ben Johns, to the Johnson siblings. She even won mixed in North Carolina playing with Jack Sock, in his first tournament ever, which is probably the most impressive thing she has done in 2023. While I am sky high on Jack’s talent, to be able to carry him to the championship by covering so many of his current holes, it showed just how much an edge Anna Leigh has over many of her current opponents. Josh Gartman highlighted Anna Leigh’s 2023 dominance on Twitter over the weekend:

Her dominance over the field is mind blowing and there are few signs the field is catching up to her. It is actually notable in any of the events when she drops a single game, let alone a match, which speaks to her dominance. This weekend she did not drop a single game in singles, she and Anna Bright dropped one game in women’s doubles to Lauren Stratman and Meghan Dizon, but otherwise their games weren’t close, and she and Ben Johns dropped the first game of the mixed doubles final to Riley Newman and Parris Todd, but other than that, most of their scores also were not competitive.

In ML.P it seems to have been proven that the dominant man, is more of an advantage than the dominant woman, as the guy is able to take more court. With that said. the gap between Anna Leigh and the next female is just so much further than Ben Johns, over the next couple of guys. Also, part of the problem with taking Anna Leigh first overall is that the women’s field isn’t as deep, so the 24th guy is just comparatively better than the 24th woman, so I can take Ben Johns, and pair him with the 24th guy theoretically and think I have a chance in most matches, where as Anna Leigh with the 24th woman just isn’t the same situation.

With that said, I do still think a championship calibre MLP team can be built around Anna Leigh, she is just such an advantage, a team just has to be a little more strategic about how they build a team around her. Moreover, the current may be shifting in the sea of pro pickleball for women as that 24th woman may not be so different from the 24th guy by the time the season 2 draft rolls around in July.

There are more high level athletes entering women’s pro pickleball these days, but Anna Leigh is holding up athletically against these new entrants. With her head start in the game, it is a real question of how long it will take for someone to catch up to her. Finding ways to stay motivated may be one of her biggest potential pitfalls right now.

2. Closing the Gap (Gritty) – One of the more interesting developments in 2023 has been the closing talent gap in men’s and women’s pro pickleball. I already wrote about the men’s gap between Challenger and undrafted players after the APP Cincinnati, but this weekend highlighted the overall closing gap in pro pickleball. Andrea Koop, Rob Nunnery and Adam Stone discussed this topic on the latest ‘It Feels Right’ podcast and, particularly on the women’s side, it is a somewhat unexpected progression to be happening so soon.

We saw a huge run on women in the middle of the MLP draft because of the perceived scarcity of talent on the women’s side at the end of the draft. However, this year we have seen a host of different women playing for a gold medal on Sunday as more women are showing to be able to hang at that top level. It almost happened again this weekend as the Brascia sisters had match points against Jorja Johnson/Vivienne David but were unable to close out the match that ended in a 14-12 loss. 

The women are coming in pro pickleball and it’s better for the sport. We may not see the same heavy run on women in season 2 of MLP because there is upside to be had at the end of the draft. There are a handful upside players in Challenger that could easily make the jump to Premier in season 2 – Jillian Braverman, Hurricane Tyra Black, Vivian Glozman, Ewa Radzikowska and Rianna Valdes are names that come to mind. There are also the more established players that could provide a certain degree of reliability like Susannah Barr, Bobbi Oshiro or Megan Fudge. Add in the potential return of Parris Todd, who saw her first Championship Sunday on the PPA this year over the weekend, and this women’s Premier field is suddenly very competitive at the bottom.  

The same goes for the men in pro pickleball. Yes, there are 3 established men’s doubles teams but outside of those guys, there’s nothing predictable. We highlighted in a tweet on Saturday all the close matches from the day for the men that could have gone either way. Premier owners in season 2 are going to have some dilemmas to ponder with ranking the men outside the top 3 or 4 players.  Tyler Loong, Callan Dawson, AJ Koller, Dekel Bar, Tyson McGuffin, James Ignatowich, Julian Arnold, Thomas Wilson and Jay Devilliers have all shown to be very beatable in men’s doubles when we might not have expected that for some of them at the start of the year. There’s a large middle class in men’s pickleball compared to 6 months and it is possible we could see more fear in the talent disparity between the middle class of Premier and the fringe Premier players. 

Brendon Long is a guy who had a fantastic 2-month run but he’s been much more human recently. Federico Staksrud, Pablo Tellez, Travis Rettenmaier, Zane Navratil and Rafa Hewett are all players who have shown they can beat any other man on the right day in doubles. There may be more of a drop in reliability once you get to those 18 to 24 men in Premier than what it appeared to be previously. 

There are a lot of good players out there, but it is interesting how the tiers in the genders have played out in 2023. There’s far more competitiveness outside of Anna Leigh Waters and the top 3 men’s teams in each respective gender divisions. It creates some unpredictable results and fascinating early round matchups, which is good for the growth of pro pickleball. 

3. The Emotive JW (Slim) – We have not seen a ton of JW Johnson on the singles court recently and when he has played, the results, by his standards at least have not been great this year, outside of a silver at the PPA Indoor National Championships. This weekend though, after having taken the last couple of tournaments off in singles, JW came out and took gold. What was particularly notable about JW’s performance this weekend was how much energy and emotion he showed compared to what we are used to from him on the court, while playing singles. Part of this may be that JW does seem to be breaking out of his shell a bit in general and is showing more personality, but I think it is also quite notable that JW had a full coaching box all weekend. Senior pro Mircea Morariu was on JW’s bench all weekend, and JW also had one of his ‘amigos’ Gabe Tardio and sister Jorja Johnson, there at times.

Singles pickleball can be a solitary grind and I think the week in week out grind of it, takes a toll of most of the players who play it regularly. Having someone there to provide support, along with a second set of eyes to help with strategy can be a huge advantage.

Something we are already seeing that we will continue to see more of is coaches on the sidelines for players. It certainly be useful in doubles, and I think we will see more of it, as pickleball develops, but I think that in doubles, it is primarily about strategy and adjustments. In singles though, I think coaching is more beneficial for a player to have someone to talk to in timeouts, someone to turn to after an ill-advised shot, and someone that is simply there for you in a lonely event. The strategic perspective is important but, from the mental side of things. it can help muster up that little bit of extra energy during a grueling day.  It is sometimes easier to find that last bit of gas in the tank when you’ve got someone there motivating you, or someone to talk you off the ledge after a few frustrating errors.

While the vast majority of players obviously are a long ways from being able to afford to have a coach travel with them, I do think we are going to see more and more players have someone on their bench, particularly in singles, be that a senior pro, like Mircea or Mattias Johansson who seemed to be helping the Brascia sisters this week, or even a fellow pro who is not playing singles. At this point, I think it is going to be a big disadvantage moving forward if you don’t have someone you can discuss strategy, get their perspective and be a sounding board, if nothing else.

Apart from the coaching aspect, it is also notable that JW’s victory came after he had taken some time off of singles. Whoever runs JW’s Instagram account noted in the caption that he hasn’t been playing singles because he wanted to get back to it 100% committed and enjoying the fight, which checks out with how he did not appear to be having fun playing singles earlier in the year. It sure looked like we had a refreshed JW in singles on the weekend, coming from a kid who has played as much or more pickleball than any other pro over the last 18 months. You can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t some burnout, particularly in singles which can be both mentally and physically exhausting.

More pumped up JW content please!

4. Brascia Breakout (Gritty) – It was not a true breakout for the Brascia sisters, who have proven themselves to be a formidable women’s team over the past year in pro pickleball. However, they have more recently begun having success as a pair in this much deeper 2023 women’s pool. This past weekend, there were some very strong results all around, especially for the elder Mary Brascia.  

The Brascia’s had their best women’s doubles run in Atlanta. They rolled through Castillo/Grechkina before taking down Jansen/Irvine in straight games. Sure, Lea Jansen had just come off a disappointing lost to Mary Brascia in singles that morning, but Brascia went through the same physical grind in her victory over Lea. That’s a great doubles win for the sisters and they almost followed that up with a Championship Sunday appearance, but couldn’t finish the job against Johnson/David, losing 14-12 in the third. The Brascia’s lost 12-10, 11-2 in the bronze to Todd/Parenteau but that shouldn’t take away a quality 4th place finish, after a North Carolina event where they got 5th place.

Mary Brascia is the toughest of the two players to figure out right now. Maggie is clearly a Premier level doubles player. She’s just good even if she doesn’t look like she should be as good as she is. The question for me right now is how much of Maggie’s doubles game masks the deficiencies in Mary’s game? Mary was not in an optimal MLP situation with Lindsey Newman and AJ Koller. Unlike her sister Maggie, Lindsey Newman does not complement Mary’s game and AJ Koller has simply been sub-par this year, if I’m being kind. 

Mary Brascia is also getting strong results with Federico Staksrud in mixed, including this past weekend. The thing is, Federico might be the most underrated mixed male player in pickleball. He gets a lot of wins with quite a few different partners. How much of the mixed success of Mary can be attributed to Federico? 

It is very possible I’m not giving enough credit to Mary. She plays the role of the steady, right-sider, who keeps the ball in play and that person often doesn’t get their proper credit. On the other hand, I’ve watched a lot of Mary Brasica play pickleball this year and I haven’t been all that impressed. She hasn’t looked like a Premier level player but her recent results are saying something different. 

Is she finding her groove with better partners or is her game just finding its stride in 2023? Is it a combination of column A and column B? Confidence can be a major factor that is overlooked in pro pickleball, and Mary is probably beaming with confidence after this weekend. It takes two to tango in any doubles partnership and Mary is holding up her end of the bargain right now. 

Mary also bounces between some bad losses in women’s singles with some heavy hitting wins, being the only female outside of the top 4 to beat Salome Devidze, Catherine Parenteau and Lea Jansen this year. She has the ability to beat anyone outside of Anna Leigh Waters, but she doesn’t bring near the level of consistency of the top players. Still, it is no small feat to beat all those top players and getting a silver medal in Atlanta was a high end feather in her cap.

There are women on the cusp of losing their spot of Premier that have found a higher level in recent weeks. Mary Brascia and Yana Grechkina have both been showing out on a bigger stage as has Lauren Stratman, who likely isn’t right on the cusp but who knows what teams will do as we have seen some weird things with the Challenger owners so far. 

The Brascia’s continue to improve as a partnership, and they are both having success in other events without each other. Was this weekend the start of a run for the two of them? 

5. The Mumbai Monster (Gritty) – We have done provided significantly less senior pro content in 2023 as the senior pro world has taken a backseat with pro pickleball getting bigger and the senior pro draws being thinner, especially at APP events. Altaf Merchant was expected to be a game changer at the 50 plus level in his first year on the scene. While Merchant has been about as dominant as it gets in senior pro, this weekend demonstrate Altaf is not done being competitive at the pro level quite yet either. 

Merchant played with Austin Gridley in men’s pro doubles on Saturday and had some quality wins. They beat Cincola/Long in the first round, 13-11 and 11-7, before losing to the John’s brothers in round 2. The unique pair went on to have a 3-match win in the backdraw, getting past Scarpa/Dow (16-14), Brown/Farias (15-8) and probably an unmotivated Rettenmaier/Arnold (15-6). 

To go 4-2 on the day, after their loss to Deveilliers/Daescu, is somewhat inspiring. Altaf doesn’t do anything eye-popping. He stands 5 to 7 feet off the line consistently to cross court dink, grunts heavily during hand battles but the man doesn’t miss much. Despite being such a heavy grunter, Merchant is still someone you can’t help but root for. He tucks in his collared shirt as if he’s going to hit a bucket of balls at the driving range before a Friday afternoon networking 4-some. His pure joy and comical celebrations are second to none. 

Merchant won the men’s senior pro in a pretty soft PPA field in Atlanta. He and Jaime Oncins got the best of Dave Weinbach/JohnSperling in 3 games. Sprinkling in a legit men’s senior pro gold medal match win with 4 main draw victories at a major PPA event is not something I expected to see from Altaf. I don’t know how much more Altaf has in him at the pro level, but he deserves the kudos after Atlanta. 

Fantasy Update: It’s a 14-10 win for Slim as he got the JW Johnson singles win and got the big silver medal from Parris Todd/Riley Newman to secure the win. That is 24 out of a possible 29 points this week as the women’s singles bronze medal match was not played. We missed out on drafting Connor Garnett and Jake Kusmider in men’s singles along with Mary Brascia’s silver in women’s singles. It is all square again on the year for us.

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at nmlpickleball@gmail.com. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook too!

17 thoughts on “PPA Tour Atlanta Open – 5 Takeaways – ALW’s Dominance

  • May 23, 2023 at 6:14 am

    Altaf is a national treasure who we must protect at all cost!

    The game has improved so much that we must change our thoughts that only podiums are good results. Posting winning records and winning 5th place is an accomplishment.

    • May 23, 2023 at 9:55 am

      Huge accomplishment for Altaf! We had to highlight him.

  • May 23, 2023 at 8:23 am

    Speaking of tiers of men and women for MLP purposes…NML should tier players or do a comprehensive mock draft before the next MLP season draft!!

    • May 23, 2023 at 9:56 am

      We’ll try to do something more and further in advance than we have been. Time prohibitive as always!

      • May 23, 2023 at 2:51 pm

        One thing I think will be interesting in the draft, and it’s something that Anna Bright has mentioned a few times on her podcast, is what teams will do in the back half of the draft. Will they look for someone who better compliments their early pick(s) or will they just try to take the best player available? Like for the women especially, you may be looking at someone to fill a right side/defensive role for your women’s and #2 mixed team. Do you take a player you think is talented but typically plays on the left in women’s doubles, or do you pass on them for a “worse” player who has more experience on the right?

        This draft is going to be really interesting, and I think we are going to see some surprises, especially given that I’m still not convinced that every team knows what they’re doing, as we’ve seen in the first draft and subsequent shuffle drafts.

        • May 23, 2023 at 10:38 pm

          The lessons potentially learned will be fascinating. For the women, it may end up being a bet on future potential and upside, but the men there may be a prototype – we mentioned a strong mixed player with singles ability. The right sided men who can’t play mixed that well could be in trouble

        • May 24, 2023 at 4:32 pm

          Totally agree that not every team knows what it’s doing, that’s clear!

  • May 23, 2023 at 2:07 pm

    Thank you for your time and posting. I think JW learned that playing every singles tournament was too much. But he is fairly new to the sport when you think about it. My prediction, if Vivian Glozman decides to continue and really train in pickleball, she will beat ALW later this year but most likely next year. You heard it first here. 🙂

    A mock MLP draft w/ 24 teams (Premier/Challenger) equalling 96 players (if MLP stays the same), including all other applicants. Interesting idea. But what would we really get out of it for all your invested time? It would be analyzed until your next post. I’d rather you spend your limited time putting out great content like this. JMO.

    • May 23, 2023 at 10:37 pm

      JW has learned it’s too much of a grind probably. Not sure if Glozman will beat her this year but she may have that potential next year

      Thanks, David! We love doing mock drafts but they take the most time to do rankings, which we may do some time as well

  • May 23, 2023 at 6:52 pm

    In my opinion drafting AL first is a mistake, your points are all completely valid but you’re ignoring Ben Johns’ value as the best GM and best coach in the game. Last year ALs team made a pretty big blunder in my opinion drafting Hayden over Pablo Tellez which I think costed them at least two titles, and if you draft Ben you will never make a big mistake later in the draft like that. That doesn’t even factor in the fact that he can give you 80% of the singles points vs anyone, dominate mixed with anyone, and get correct lineup decisions and strategic decisions together for his team every time.

    • May 23, 2023 at 10:39 pm

      We don’t think AL should be picked first. We’d like to think we were actually first or close to first on the Ben Johns should be the first overall pick train. You can read our draft grades from December. We feel much stronger about that now but that doesn’t mean the gap between ALW and the 2nd best female isn’t much larger.

      • May 25, 2023 at 3:28 am

        I had her as #1, but I changed my mind on where to draft her. But it would be #2 definitely. Number 3 gets tough Anna, JW, CP, or Riley. I would not go with Riley because I want a complete player at 3.

        • May 25, 2023 at 7:20 am

          Riley is nobody’s idea of a singles competitor anymore, but I’m not sure it matters.

          Bottom line, your team needs to win gender doubles and MXD. If you do that, you never need to play any singles. Therefore singles is not as important (although we don’t want to ignore singles, we saw the large number of tiebreakers).

          However, there are very few players good enough to regularly prevent their teams from having to play singles.

          Ben is certainly atop that short list, and in fact the list might be so short that the only other name on that list is Riley. Riley can make it to the finals with a wide variety of women because his court coverage is so good. And we know he’s also #2 or #3 in MD as well.

          Jdub is on his way up the ladder, but until his court coverage improves in MXD, Riley will be the more valuable player, again, because you have to play MXD, and not necessarily singles. If I were drafting for an entire year, I might draft Jdub over Riley at this point, but for another mini-season Riley will probably still be the clear #2.**

          And let’s face it — for 4 lousy points, Riley’s knee is good enough for singles. He’s probably a top 10 male for 4 points. I seem to remember him beating ALW in a singles dreambreaker.

          ** Another modification I’d make if I were drafting for an entire year — Anna Bright. I don’t know if she was joking or what, but on her podcast (or maybe as a guest on Iggy’s podcast), but she mentioned that “getting knocked up” might prevent her from playing in the future. If they’re trying to start a family, I don’t take AB until 3rd or 4th round, because she’ll miss the 2nd half of the season at best, and retire from pickleball at worst. I’d certainly want clarification from her before considering her as a 1st or 2nd round draft pick in the premier league.
          If she was joking, then she’s probably the #3 female pick.

          • May 25, 2023 at 9:40 am

            Agree on Riley here. He is still a game changer in doubles and can hang in singles. Anna Bright seemed to be joking but the pregnancy thing will be a legitimately interesting question in the future for long-term deals potentially. We haven’t had to deal with that in sports where men and women are in the same sport because there is gender separation typically.

        • May 25, 2023 at 9:35 am

          This is a disagree. Riley is good enough in singles to be able to hang in Dreambreakers and his Dreambreaker showing in Daytona should be evidence of that. The only question with Riley on our end is probably how he is as a teammate and what that can mean for a team. One of those intangible things.

        • May 25, 2023 at 9:38 am

          Singles is overrated in my opinion and not a good reason to pass up a dominant doubles player like Riley. The fact is not every match will go to a Dreambreaker, and even if it does, the results can be somewhat random or influenced by matchmaking (see Riley’s Hard 8s beating the 5’s, one of the strongest Dreambreaker lineups on paper at MLP Daytona), and you can also look to makeup for his weakness in singles with your second male pick if you are really concerned about that.


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