PPA Tour Atlanta Open – 5 Takeaways – Riley the Tasmanian Devil

📸 PPA Tour

It was a Grand Slam major event for the PPA that didn’t quite feel like it on day one with all the absent players, but by the time Sunday rolled around it was easy to forget we were missing all of the best singles players in the field earlier in the week. 3 out of the 5 Championship Sunday matches went to 5 games with an almost epic comeback from the Johns brothers, a Riley Newman double gold and Lucy/Callie getting back on top.

Collin Johns made an announcement of a “summer break” of sorts for the Johns on Instagram yesterday but all that really amounts to is one tournament off for Ben as the PPA has only one tournament over the next couple of months – Collin will play with AJ Koller at the June event. So the APP and MLP will get the spotlight over the summer as the APP has about 10 more total stops than the PPA, and then the PPA gets back at it with two of their biggest events in August with the Takeya Showcase in Newport and Tournament of Champions in Brigham City, Utah. For now, plenty to discuss from the weekend that was.

1. Riley Newman the Tasmanian Devil (Gritty) – We have previously described Riley Newman’s playing style as Tasmanian Devil-ish. He is a whirling dervish of controlled chaos. It also seems like he is finding ways to up his game as Newman pulled off the double gold in mixed and men’s doubles in two packed fields in Atlanta. Newman has always been a fascinating player. He’s the earliest well-known adopter of the two-handed backhand dinking style, which he somehow figured out on his own. Newman did not used to be someone who worked hard at his game. Rather, he was an ultra-talented athlete who dominated at pickleball from almost literally the moment he stepped onto the court with his sister, Lindsey.

Times have changed for Riley though. It appears he is now putting the work and having a professional mentality to his full-time job. While he hasn’t added anything in particular that is easy to spot to his game, he’s improving the aspects that he naturally does so well, including that pancake forehand counter. 

2022 started off as a difficult year relative to expectations for Riley. If you were doing a heat check at the quarter mark, Riley was cold. He wasn’t winning in mixed and he was falling short in men’s doubles every time. However, at the end of March in Austin, Catherine and Riley started finding their stride in mixed. Still, watching Parenteau/Newman handle Anna Leigh/Ben in two straight on Friday was still surprising. Parenteau was the one dictating the cross-court dinking pattern with Anna Leigh, which allowed Riley to be his monstrous self in making offence happen. They were the better team and deserved the win. Riley is going to start playing with Lindsey again soon, but it’s clear the Parenteau partnership gives him more upside, even if there is more volatility. They were the first ones to knock off Anna Leigh/Ben this year. We caught a small amount of flack for ranking Riley as the #1 male mixed player in our 2.0 rankings at the end of 2021, but he sure looked like the best player on the court on Friday.

On the men’s side, Riley said in his post-match interview that Matt Wright and he are finally starting to click. We will see if this turns into more of a rivalry with the Johns, but it looked like Wright/Newman made a point to be more aggressive throughout the match. This relentless pattern of aggression was noted on the broadcast but they can only do it because of how talented Riley Newman is in creating offence. Newman so scary as a crasher of the net on third shot drops that most of the returns are sent Riley’s way. The partnership has settled on a stack with Riley’s pancake forehand sitting on the middle and Wright on the other side speeding up with his forehand. 

The biggest thing that separates the top players from the pack is consistency and it will be interesting to see how long Riley rides this top of the mountain wave that he is currently on. It is pretty clear that Riley thinks he’s the best player out on the court whenever he steps out there. Will he ever be able to make that a reality?  

2. Anna Leigh Singles Dominance (Slim) – Anna Leigh is on the biggest winning streak in the sport right now. Since losing to Catherine Parenteau at the PPA Championships in Vegas last year, she has won 9 straight singles gold. Generally, the only question when Anna Leigh has played singles this year is if she is going to lose any games along the way. Anna Bright did take a game off Anna Leigh this weekend, and in doing so became the first woman not named Catherine Parenteau to take a game off Anna Leigh this year. Although, Parris Todd did go 13-11, 12-10 with Anna Leigh in Red Rock. 

Catherine Parenteau, has seemed to be the only woman that can challenge Anna Leigh in singles over the last year, but Anna Leigh appears to be widening the gap over Catherine this year. After Catherine pushed Anna Leigh to five games in the first championship Sunday at Carvana this year, Catherine has not really been competitive against Anna Leigh. I am also not convinced that Catherine’s baseline style gives her any real or consistent shot against the version of Anna Leigh we see now.

We have seen an explosive growth in the talent level of women’s singles this year with players like Anna Bright, Parris Todd, Jorja Johnson, Salome Devidze and Rachel James among others entering the scene, which has been great to see. We have seen both Todd and Bright push Anna Leigh at times this year, but Anna Leigh still very much appears to be in a class of her own. There will be more women who arrive on the scene to challenge those at the top just as Federico Staksrud and James Ignatowich have on the men’s side. 

I will be very curious how long it is until there is someone that can actually beat Anna Leigh on any sort of consistent basis. While these reigns of dominance never tend to last as long as we suspect they will, especially in a sport as a new as pickleball, the flip side for Anna Leigh is that her game is continuing to grow and improve as well.  What makes Anna Leigh so tough in singles is her movement and court coverage is probably as good as any woman in the game and she combines it with shot making. Her rolls in particular, which are as good or better than anyone’s in the game, man or woman (except maybe Ryan Sherry), which makes her extremely difficult to beat.

3. Women’s Competitive Balance (Slim) – Last year, I found the women’s doubles field very predictable and not overly entertaining. That has changed this year as we have three teams, who have each won multiple major tournaments this year.

Lucy Kovolova and Callie Smith started the year looking like the dominant women’s team, winning the first three events of the year. Then it seemed like teams had figured them out a bit as they failed to take gold in their next four events, but they got back on top this weekend, winning a close 5 game match against the Waters. Prior to going on a 6-week hiatus, the Waters had won three straight tournaments, and looked like they were again the dominant team in women’s pickleball, and their close 5 game loss in the gold medal match this week, shows that they are still right there.

When the Waters took their break, the newly formed partnership of Catherine Parenteau and Lea Jansen, stepped in and won two straight tournaments with the US Open and North Carolina PPA. This weekend, however, Parenteau and Jansen failed to even make the podium this weekend as they lost in three games to Kovalova and Smith on the winner’s side and then were knocked out on the loser’s side by the bronze medallists Jessie Irvine and Anna Bright.

Irvine and Bright are a team we could possibly be seeing more of this year, and they have the talent to compete with these top three women’s teams, adding another potential title contender to the mix. Even though the women’s group is still quite top heavy, having competitive balance at the top will make it an interesting watch for the rest of the year, as we see which of these teams can gain supremacy.

It should also be noted there are also other players such as Andrea Koop, Lauren Stratman, Irina Tereshenko and Simone Jardim who when they partner together in different combinations have proven that they are capable of reaching the podium in these PPA events.

4. Rafa Hewett From Left Field (Gritty) â€“ A lot of casual pickleball fans likely aren’t super familiar with Rafa Hewett. He’s been a staple of the pro singles scene since the beginning of the two pro tours we have right now. A former NAIA college tennis star at Point University, kind of similarly to DJ Young, Hewett is one of those players you describe as a talent guy. All the physical tools are there but for various reasons the talent doesn’t click to make a consistent performer. Rafa is a player you don’t want to see early in the draw but you could also count on him to have his fair share of “bad” losses. 

While I am not quite sure that has changed, Rafa Hewett rode that talent to a silver medal at a PPA Grand Slam event after the draw opened up with Ben Johns, JW Johnson, Tyson McGuffin and Jay Devilliers all out of the mix. Rafa made his first Championship Sunday after a strong performance on Thursday and almost came all the way back against Staksrud in the gold after going down 2 games to none. Rafa has always gotten big wins but this is the first time in his career he has done throughout an entire day.  

It’s unclear how seriously Rafa has ever treated his pickleball playing career. After starting out in Lewiston, Idaho and getting sporadic play with McGuffin’s group, he briefly moved to Coeur D’Alene, Idaho to live on Tyson McGuffin’s property before taking a job as a head pro at a club in Alabama. I don’t know how much high-level play Hewett currently gets in that area but he is still out there playing a bunch of pro tour events consistently. Fitness has always been a question for Rafa too, which Tyson has brought up on his podcast, and it looked like Rafa had run out of gas after losing game 2 to Cincola in the semi-finals. However, Rafa was able to muster up enough energy to push through in game 3 against Cincola, line call controversy and all, and almost come all the way back against Staksrud in a 5-game barn burner when it looked like he may have been done at the end of game 4. 

For those who may have been curious to our thoughts on the Cincola line call post from Facebook after the controversy with Rafa Hewett, my opinion is not really changed from when we talked about this after Salome Devidze’s brutal line call weekend recently. Here is the link to that post. I will say that as frustrating as that must have been for Cincola in the match, for where we are at in pickleball you do have to find a way to let that go during the match. I can’t say I would do the same myself but do as I say, not as I do. Something does need to be done about these line calls in pro matches at some point though. For what it’s worth, Cincola and Hewett do have some history regarding line calls – see this match here if you are interested.

Frankly, I didn’t think it was ever going to happen in singles for the talented lefty. His results started falling off in 2021 and he had a rough start to 2022. However, starting at the APP Legacy Open, his results have been better. He took JW Johnson to 3 games there and followed that up with wins over Eden Lica, Jack Foster, Ryan Sherry and John Cincola at the US Open. In St. Louis, he got another win against John Cincola. Then, of course, he had the PPA this past weekend. 

I don’t know what this means for Hewett. This was his first pro tour podium in singles. He’s now known by a lot more casual fans because of this run at such a prominent tournament. I won’t be surprised to see Rafa on a pro podium in the near future, but I also won’t be shocked if he doesn’t find another pro podium. You really never know with Rafa. 

5. Matt and Lucy Still King and Queen (Slim) – By their standards, Lucy/Matt have had a very disappointing start to the season. In mixed, they failed to make a championship Sunday in the first four stops of the PPA season, and it wasn’t until the fourth stop of the season, Riverland, that they even made a podium. By their standards, this was a significant podium drought, and it was enough to start asking whether, with the increased competition and depth in the sport, they might be getting passed by.  But they seem to have found their form now. They have made three straight championship Sundays, though yet to get a championship yet this season. 

Despite falling short to Riley Newman and Catherine Parenteau in the mixed final, it was still a great weekend for the veteran pair as they also both took gold in gender doubles. The win had to have been particularly sweet for Matt, as he and Riley had been unable to solve the Johns brothers puzzle until this weekend. Same goes for Lucy who had cooled off the last couple of months in women’s with Callie. 

Matt Wright’s ability to stay near the top of the sport, despite his age and the fact that he is one of the only top male players with a full-time job outside of pickleball, is one of the more impressive things in the sport and really speaks to his great natural abilities. You have to wonder what he could do in the sport if he was 15 years younger and put all his energy into competing. 

Not to mention how difficult it must be to play with your partner as many of the spouses out there reading must surely be aware of. It’s a lot easier to play when you’re winning so to continue their run at the top of the game together through all the roller coasters may be more be the most impressive thing of all.

Fantasy Update: It was a 21-6 to beat down by Gritty this week. Slim had Jay Devilliers in both doubles events and Tyson in singles, which partly explains the major gap. However, Slim going with Simone/JW over both Championship Sunday teams also helped. It’s a 6 up difference once again.

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

6 thoughts on “PPA Tour Atlanta Open – 5 Takeaways – Riley the Tasmanian Devil

  • May 23, 2022 at 7:36 pm

    It sounds like the next time we get to see a rematch between Johns and Newman/Wright will be August. The San Clemente PPA looks like a smaller one (a 500).

    Plenty of excitement coming up though with NYC and MLP.

    So Gritty went with Riley and came out big. Maybe we’ll see Slim always going with JW and Gritty always going with Riley.

    Great take-aways.

    • May 24, 2022 at 9:43 am

      Long wait but that will be exciting when it comes. Great to have storylines. And thanks, Jan!

      • May 24, 2022 at 6:09 pm

        Another great Championship Sunday for the PPA. Having best of five finals gives the day a special feel.

        It’s a format that is clearly superior and APP needs to copy it asap.

        • May 24, 2022 at 11:13 pm

          I tend to think an available option for big tourneys is to do all matches best of 5 like they do at majors in tennis. Harder to schedule and have to limit draws

  • May 24, 2022 at 1:09 pm

    Men’s Doubles and Women’s Doubles on Championship Sunday was fantastic. Entertaining matches that were an excellent display of the sport. Riley vs Ben is looking like more of a rivalry and that’s good for the sport. Very good job by PPA for making sure Morgan Evans was in the booth. And, for once, no camera switching mistakes like missing a key point because they were showing a replay of a previous point. Refreshing that PPA had its act together with a good show and good broadcast. Let’s continue down the path we saw in Atlanta in future events.

    On a more negative note – PPA needs to step in and find a better solution to fix the questionable line calls. As I’ve said, players making their own line calls when $$$ is on the line is a total disaster waiting to happen. I’d rather have refs/line judges make bad calls than have players do it. Look at the crap that Rafa Hewitt pulled. We are lucky more players are not taking advantage of it….especially in singles which has a lot of close calls. Kudos to Ben Johns, JW, Tyson, Zane, and other great singles players for not being known for questionable calls. Needs to be a severe penalty if you have more than one overturned call in a game. I’m not willing to invest the time in watching a match that a could come down to a hook job by a player. I can live with a bad call by a ref….that’s sports. Needs to be fixed asap. Get on it PPA and lead. You led on the stupid “spin serve” that makes the sport look silly and now engage on this.

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