The weather has not been super kind to pickleball in 2023. There have been some pretty cold temperatures and windy days in typically warmer areas, which are the only areas pickleball tournaments are scheduled for the first quarter of the year. With this Austin event in the books, we are officially one quarter of the year finished for pro tournaments. MLP is next weekend in Daytona, Florida, but this will be the last pro tournament of the month. Has everything gone as expected for the first quarter? Obviously not, despite the number of triple crowns Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters have won, including one more each this weekend. As always, that is the beauty of sports. Slim was galivanting on his own pickleball stuff this past weekend so it is Gritty’s turn for an exclusive takeaways week.
1. Windy Days (Gritty) – It may be somewhat odd that we are leading off the takeaways with a weather storyline. However, it isn’t just the fact that it was windy in Austin. We have seen plenty of wind in pickeball. Duh. It’s about how important the wind was in terms of impacting results this weekend. On Friday and Saturday, the results of many doubles events were dictated by the coin flip for side before the match even started. There were a ton of 3-game finishes because teams were splitting the first two games and, often, the team finishing on the “good side” was winning the match.
I’m not gong to take you all through the details of the matches that were impacted, but it was clearly problematic to have the results of so many important matches essentially being dictated by a coin toss. What is this? The NFL?
On a recent episode of the Pickle Pod, Zane Navratil was the first person I had heard to bring the concept forward to the public about switching sides more frequently in the final game of the match to mitigate the importance of the coin toss. The timing of Zane’s idea was pretty good considering how things played out in Austin. The wind situation led a suddenly active on the Twitter machine, Ben Johns, to bring his own commentary forward on the possibility of changing the format of the final game in a match:
Form what I can see, there isn’t much downside to changing the format of the final game. Even though there won’t be that many days where the weather will have as big an impact on results as they did in Austin, it’s an easy change to make the weather less of a factor. In tennis, players switch sides on odd numbered games and in tiebreakers they switch every 6 points. The wind isn’t nearly the factor in tennis that it is in pickleball either.
At the pro doubles level, teams typically want to be on the side that is hitting into the wind. The drops die in the kitchen when working up to the net and more balls stay in because they are hitting into the wind. As a result, teams will start on the side with the wind to ensure they finish game 3 into the wind. This is different in singles where a player may want to finish with the wind.
The current end switch in the final game happens when the first team reaches 6 points. This rule make sense in theory but, at higher levels, the wind matters so much when the level of competition is relatively close. Ben Johns’ tweet seeks feedback on the number of points that should trigger an end change. The answer is not clear, but the simple fact is that it should change in some capacity. It may be more straightforward to figure out the right number for MLP with rally scoring ensuring a more equal number of rallies are played.
The only downside I can see to this is how end changes can disrupt the flow of a match. If more side switches are added, we don’t have to treat every switch as a timeout. So long as the pro entities can ensure that additional side switches do not result in hurting the flow of the game, I am all for this change.
2. Female Parity (Gritty) – Another weekend and another different Championship Sunday silver medalist team in women’s doubles. Anna Leigh Waters is still the cheat code in women’s doubles, but the number of players who have tasted a Championship Sunday in 2023 for women’s doubles has to be the most unpredictable storyline of the year. It was Meghan Sheehan-Dizon and Vivienne David’s turn this weekend as they got past Lucy Kovalova/Callie Smith and Irina Tereschenko/Etta Wright to reach their first Sunday together.
So far this year we have seen Lacy Schneemann, Jade Kawamoto, Lucy Kovalova, Callie Smith, Lea Jansen, Allyce Jones, Jackie Kawamoto, Jessie Irvine, Catherine Parenteau, Anna Bright and Anna Leigh Waters all make it to a Championship Sunday in women’s doubles.
We talked about the increased depth of the women’s field last week, but it cannot be ignored when we have a new Championship Sunday duo again this weekend. Other than the Kawamoto twins and Lucy Schneemann, the women on this list of Sunday contenders were either PPA players or played a good chunk of PPA events last year. The women’s game is getting more competitive but the added parity isn’t only due to more players being added to the mix in PPA draws. The reality is that players are getting better and it is making it harder for literally every player other than Anna Leigh Waters and her partner to make a final.
In time, there will be new players making noise. Etta Wright is one of those newer players that has not found a Sunday, but that one should be a matter of time. In addition, there have been a handful of new women who were in the available Challenger Shufle draft player pool a couple of weeks ago who were not part of the initial draft player pool. Only a few of those players got drafted, including the surprising selection of Hurricane Tyra Black for the Brooklyn Aces as a player who had never played in a pro pickleball event prior to being drafted. Black’s selection speaks to what will continue to be deeper and more competitive draws.
The pro women’s doubles draws are now much bigger than they were even one year ago. However, they pale in comparison to the number of men’s pro doubles registrants. The qualifying brackets for the men are sometimes bigger than the women’s pro doubles brackets. It is early times in the sport and the scarcity of high-level women relative to men continues to be a talking point.
This will change eventually, though. It is simply going to take some time.
3. Brighter Days Ahead? (Gritty) – Maybe I should quit doubting James Ignatowich? It has been somewhat of a running theme since he burst onto the scene last year. We doubted how he would hold up at the Newport MLP last year. Even though we felt we were high on him, we questioned how high he was taken at MLP. We were unsure of the decision to partner full-time with his girlfriend, Anna Bright, and we raised our eyebrows at his comment that he is currently a top 5 mixed player.
Of course, in their second tournament after making a full-time switch to being mixed partners, Anna Bright and James Ignatowich reached Championship Sunday and took a game off of Waters/Johns in the gold medal match, which is no small feat. This was a strong performance from the pair and has to be incredibly encouraging going forward. For those counting, that is Jimmy’s second mixed silver medal in d in the last 3 PPA tournaments. It is probably even more encouraging that both Bright and Ignatowich appear to have room to grow as mixed players – Bright with the nuances of mixed and Ignatowich being more consistent over the course of an entire match.
You could say the draw broke the way of Bright/Ignatowich. After getting a win in 3 games over Matt/Lucy, they looked super comfortable playing against their frequent practice partners, the Johnson siblings, winning 6 and 4. The Johnson’s have become a formidable mixed duo this year on the PPA and they squeezed out a win, 12-10 in the third, against a tough Newman sibling team. The fact that Bright/Ignatowich made that Johnson matchup look like child’s play has to be scary for the rest of the field. It is notable that Anna Bright essentially said her podcast she preferred the Johnson sibling matchup going into the weekend.
As has been the case in women’s doubles, that silver medal is fully up for grabs every weekend in mixed doubles with how many high-level teams are out there every week. We saw Frazier/Jansen find their way to a 4th place finish this weekend, ousting last week’s silver medalists, Tyson/Catherine, in the main draw. There is nothing free as we noted at the PPA Daytona, Arnold/Stratman went 0-2 after their silver medal in Minnesota.
The important thing for Bright/Ignatowich is they look to be having a ton of fun out on the court. Bright said on her most recent podcast with Dylan Frazier that she and Ignatowich even had fun in their loss at Daytona to Catherine/Tyson. An important first test for the relationship and partnership. This is where giving takes from an outsider’s perspective on a personal decision and relationship can be tricky.
I believe Anna Bright when she says the decision to go with ignatowich was about how hard it was to lose to each other when competing. Reading between the lines, I think both players believe in their heart that their romantic relationship is one for the long haul and maintaining that relationship is priority number one.
Personally, I think the test for how this goes for the two of them is not these first few tournaments. This is the honeymoon period for mixed partnerships. The test will be playing with each other week in and week out on that pickleball grind, with the inevitable highs and lows that accompany that.. It is not impossible to make it work. It just won’t be easy.
The early returns are promising for Bright and Ignatowich for their long-term pickleball partnership as two players on the rise. Navigating the world of pro pickleball doubles is uncharted territory for most relationships and these two are opting to see what they can accomplish at the highest level together.
You know what they say. Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have played mixed pro doubles together at all.
4. Long and Cincola (Gritty) – Despite the top 3 in men’s doubles being locked up to start the first quarter of the year, the field outside of the top 3 is far more competitive overall. Interestingly, it was two non-PPA contracted players making noise in men’s doubles this weekend as John Cincola and Brendon Long teamed up to come away with another one of those unexpected 4th place finishes on the PPA this year.
Brendon Long is a guy that has often flown under the radar, getting solid results but nothing spectacular. He has finally put together some more big-time results to start 2023, which lead to him being the first male picked up in the first Challenger Shuffle Draft of 2023. A guy who could maybe even be confused for Brendon Long, John Cincola is another solid, not spectacular, player that has been flying under the radar. In my view, Cincola was overdrafted at MLP last year, but the script has flipped as he has not been picked up to a Challenger team at all in 2023.
Cincola/Long had wins this weekend that some teams could only dream of having. They played a barn burner of a 3-gamer against Tyler Loong and Callan Dawson, winning 13-11 in the third. That’s a strong win against one of the most consistent duos on tour. However, the bigger surprise came when they beat Dekel Bar/AJ Koller in 3 games, 11-4 in the third. AJ Koller has had one of the more disappointing years on tour in 2023 but Koller/Bar as a duo are still an elite men’s doubles team that Cincola/Long should have had no business beating. But there they were, matching and besting what Koller/Bar could throw at them.
Cincola/Long fell to the Johns brothers and then Johnson/Frazier in the bronze, but it was still another massive semi-final run from an unexpected team in this deeper and more competitive pro pickleball world.
5. Will There Be Paddle Fallout? (Gritty) – To say that I was dumbfounded when we heard about what was happening with the CRBN paddle situation and the PPA last week might be an understatement. We were both very critical of the approach that was taken by the PPA as it felt like déjà vu in terms of this double standard that CRBN has unfairly been subjected to. If you are unaware, information came to light, not through any public statement by the PPA, that the PPA was requiring any pro players using a CRBN paddle to send their paddles for further deflection testing after the Austin tournament with the risk of ranking points and prize money for a failed paddle test.
It appeared that most, if not all, the CRBN sponsored players kept playing with a CRBN paddle so those paddles should be subject to additional testing. We called for more transparency from the PPA with respect to the type of testing done, the results of said testing and why other paddles are not being tested. If all of that information was made public in some capacity with this additional CRBN testing, it would go a long way for all of these paddle fear mongering to stop amongst fans and probably even pros.
The question after this weekend for me is whether any players lose ranking points or prize money because the CRBN paddles they used fail deflection testing. I have to expect the CRBN players like Thomas Wilson, Vivienne David and DJ Young took extra precautions to use paddles that would pass testing. With that being said, my bet is we hear nothing about this topic from the PPA for some time as all these companies with delaminated paddle issues are saying the right things about fixing the problem. Even if a paddle fails, I’ll still bet against the PPA putting out anything publicly, at least on their own.
PPA Commissioner, Connor Pardoe, was on the Dink’s podcast episode released today talking about paddle issues. He had a couple of interesting things to say. I am paraphrasing but he basically said that the PPA will only take action if USA Pickleball identifies there is an issue. By doing so, Pardoe is passing the buck off to USA Pickleball and justifies the decision to only clamp down on CRBN paddles based on this one, single CRBN paddle that USAP tested as over the limit. In relation to this one paddle that tested over the limit, Pardoe said “we can’t have knowledge of something and not do something about it.” The use of the word “knowledge” is fascinating to me because Pardoe’s words are meant to insinuate he has no awareness of any other paddles that are illegal when he is really using the word “knowledge” to mean definitive proof from USA Pickleball.
I can’t get into Pardoe’s brain but I can say with quite close to near certainty that Pardoe has knowledge of illegal things and has actively chosen not to do something about it. If I were to take Connor Pardoe’s logic and apply it to the original CRBN-gate situation, last year the PPA should have implemented the exact same post-tournament testing standards for JOOLA that they did this past week for CRBN. There was a video where the person in charge of testing paddles for USA Pickleball says a JOOLA paddle is illegal. It was not an official test, but if that is not knowledge of something, I don’t know what is. Pardoe knows there is lots of other stuff going on with paddles not only related to delamination and deflection, but he is using USA Pickleball as a shield to absolve the PPA of turning a blind eye.
The other question I have going into MLP is what transparency there will be on the data collection side that is supposed to start in Daytona? We mentioned that the PPA’s action regarding the CRBN paddle was odd given the announcement of this paddle testing standards partnership. I believe it is quite possible the PPA went rogue on the CRBN issue and that MLP and USAP were not necessarily in agreement on that course of action. That’s only educated speculation, of course.
Hopefully with MLP leading the charge on this issue in Daytona we can move forward with better standards and more transparency for paddle testing in the future.
Fantasy Update: A 17-12 win for Slim this week. Slim swept the women’s doubles field and then was smart in mixed taking Bright/Ignatowich with Parenteau/McGuffin on the board. Gritty is back to a 1 up lead on the year.
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