PPA Tour Desert Ridge Open – 5 Takeaways – Just Breathe

It was a fine weekend of pickleball in Phoenix at the PPA Desert Ridge. We had some fun upsets, good matches and another set of triple crowns for Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters. There were big crowds on hand at the PPA as well as some sizeable live stream numbers – around 6,000 at times on Sunday, which is as high as we have ever seen it before. With the big jump in MLP live stream numbers last weekend compared to 2022, it would appear that there are some strides being made when it comes to interest in the sport at the pro level. As we continue to say, this is not going to be a quick process. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Yada, yada, yada. Nevertheless, growth is good. 

1. Just Breathe (Gritty) – The world that we live in right now is more immediate than it has ever been. With everything at our fingertips, our attention span as a human civilization has to be at an all-time low. Instant gratification almost has an entirely new meaning in 2023 and pickleball partnerships are not exempt from that desire for speedy results. 

This weekend was a double dip for Anna Bright of what felt like disappointing results. Although Bright walked away with bronze medals in both women’s and mixed doubles, her first-time partnerships with Vivienne David and Riley Newman had the potential to yield more as she was unable to thwart the triple crown efforts from Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters.

The Riley Newman partnership is currently set to be a year-long partnership. Despite the success Newman has had with his sister, Lindsey, and Catherine Parenteau, he opted for the upside of Anna Bright in 2023, presumably in the hopes of providing stiffer competition for Anna Leigh/Ben. Obviously, a tight semi-finals loss to the old guard duo of Kovalova/Wright, 11-9 in the third, cannot be what either Bright or Newman were looking for going into the weekend. In spite of the loss, this is what we tweeted out shortly after that loss on Friday:

Bright followed up her mixed day with a disappointing doubles day, getting handled relatively easily by Parenteau/Anna Leigh Waters in the semi-finals with Vivienne David. Bright and David are a natural fit of a pairing and Vivienne has been playing really well of late, so it has to sting that they could not give the gold medal pairing a tougher game. That may be even more so the case after seeing how Jansen/Jones pushed Waters/Parenteau on Sunday. 

While Bright had an easy gold medal walkthrough in her first-time partnership with Anna Leigh Waters at the PPA Masters earlier this year, it’s generally not easy to walk out on the court with a new partner for the first time and win like you and everyone else wants you to. Riley Newman and Matt Wright are a prime example of that. The first part of 2022 it looked like the Newman/Wright partnership was not getting the desired results. Then, bang. They started to get some wins together. 

It is easy for fans to forget how new to the pro game Anna Bright is. Her first pro tournament was the end of February 2022. It can take time for the most veteran of players to mesh with different partners, but it is going to be more difficult for a less experienced player who is also trying to figure out the game itself at the highest level. The mixed game is far more nuanced for the women and Bright has not spent all that much time playing on the traditional, right side of the court. She’s going to need more reps in in high level, tight games to decide when to pull the trigger when a player of Matt Wright’s calibre is standing across the net from her.  

Bright has the most room to grow in mixed. She doesn’t appear to have a ton of variety to her cross-court dinking or her speed-ups, including the decision-making on when to pull the trigger. She’s very reliant on speeding up exclusively off the bounce. Speaking of speed-ups, I also haven’t seen Bright pull out this new one-hand backhand flick that she said she has been working on. 

There were a couple of slightly higher balls late in game 3 against Lucy/Matt that Bright made errors on her attacks where she was going for a little bit too much. It felt like she was pressing more than she would have at an earlier, less tense moment of the match. Those will happen less frequently in big moments as she gets more comfortable in mixed.

This let it breathe mantra is not just applicable to Anna Bright. It’s applicable to all new partnerships. With the pro game constantly getting better, we can’t expect two very good players to team up and have it all figured out before they ever play together. That’s not realistic. Riley Newman isn’t firing Anna Bright as one poster quipped on Facebook because of one bronze medal performance in their first event together. Riley understands as much as anyone that it’s a long year.

Let’s take a chill pill for the time being and just breathe.

PS. As a complete aside, another new partnership we saw this weekend was Brooke Buckner/Etta Wright. Buckner had solid weekend across the board in singles, mixed and doubles, and these two are teaming up again in a couple of weeks time. I’m unsure how I feel about Buckner’s long-term potential.  However, her high-end racquet sport background is starting to translate to better results on the court.  

2. Oshiro/Ansboury’s Big Surprise (Slim) – You basically never see the top seeds go down early in the PPA’s, so it was definitely of note when Bobbi Oshiro and Sarah Ansboury, the seventeenth seeded team in the bracket, beat the number one overall seed Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith in their second round match. It has to be one of, if not the biggest upset that the PPA has seen women’s doubles. Oshiro and Ansboury were not finished there though, as they then went on to beat Jorja Johnson and Andrea Koop in another massive upset, in the quarterfinals. They then took the first game off Lea Jansen and Allyce Jones, in the semi-final, putting them one game away from the most surprising Championship Sunday appearance to date, but there wasn’t enough magic left as Jansen and Jones won the next two games decisively.

Sarah Ansboury’s game has. for a number of years in our eyes, been pretty stagnant. A very solid, fundamental game that just didn’t offer enough offense for the modern game. The biggest hole we saw in Ansboury game was her inability to do basically anything but slice the ball on her backhand which, when she favors playing on the left side is very problematic, as that backhand is exposed.

So we were somewhat surprised to see in the semis that Sarah has added a one-handed backhand roll/flick to her game that is actually pretty effective, though she may be using it a little too much. It may also be currently catching players, who have played Sarah in the past, off guard right now, as it is certainly a new wrinkle. Also Ansboury somewhat adding a one handed backhand roll/flick to her game, has just left us further perplexed that Callie Smith has basically been unable to figure out anything on that side.

Oshiro continues to show that she is an extremely solid women’s doubles player who can get results when given the opportunity. She is in our eyes, quite clearly a second tier woman. When you put her with a player that has some power in their game, she tends to get results in the women’s doubles game, which we didn’t expect Sarah Ansboury could be.

Oshiro’s game is super smooth, and she has some sneaky attacks on her forehand. Her biggest weaknesses are that she seems to lack so power in hand exchanges, and she needs to play with someone who can cover some court, as her lack of length means some holes can be created in the middle when you push her wide. We would still like to see her get a few more opportunities to player with higher end mixed partners, to see how she fares, as that mixed is still the biggest question mark with regards to where she should slot in with MLP.

Regardless of where Ansboury and Oshiro slot in with MLP, it was fun to see some change to a PPA draw with a team that no one could have expected to be sitting there in the semi-finals considering the draw they had.

3. Senior Pros Playing Pro (Gritty) – There is much respect to be had for Dayne Gingrich to put himself out there and play the pro brackets with all his senior pro success. The PPA senior pro brackets are really a mixed bag in terms of competition but Dayne/Altaf Merchant won together this weekend. The score of their gold medal match would indicate they had to work harder than I would have expected against two veterans of the game, Devin Shoquist and David Furman, as they won 11-9 and 11-9. 

Merchant has just turned 50 this year and I’ll expect that he and Gingrich will win everything they play together in the senior divisions. However, for the 2nd tournament in a row, Gingrich/Merchant joined the pro ranks together – it has been said that Altaf Merchant is the only player with a silver touring PPA card. Merchant/Gingrich did not get out of the qualifier, losing 11-2 and 11-7 to Joe Prince and Ryan Finley in their second qualifier match. They didn’t play the PPA points draw for reasons unknown to us. 

Gingrich/Merchant are strong together. It’s a team no pro opponents want to face as it is a no win situation. However, the fact that they couldn’t get out of the men’s pro qualifier is another testament to the increasing depth of the game. That qualifier for men’s doubles in Desert Ridge was no joke this weekend. There were a lot of quality teams and these two senior guys losing handily to a partnership that went 0-2 in the main draw says everything you need to know about how difficult things are getting. 

Credit to Dayne and Altaf for testing their limits as senior pro players in this evolving sport. It just ain’t getting any easier for these older guys. 

4. Lucy Kovalova and Matt Wright Staying Power (Slim) – We talk all the time about how quickly the game of pickleball is evolving, so it is notable that Matt Wright and Lucy Kovalova played in their first US Open, seven years ago, in 2016, and this weekend, in 2023, appeared in yet another Championship Sunday. If you put on footage of what the top of the pickleball game, looked like in 2016 it would hardly seem recognizable, compared to today’s pro game, yet somehow Wright and Kovalova have stayed at or near the top of the game, basically since they entered the sport in 2016, as other players have come and gone.

It is not the first time we have talked about Lucy/Matt in the past few months, but it’s borderline mind blowing that 2 people can stay together that long in a partnership in pickleball. With the deepest mixed fields we have ever seen this year in these PPA tournaments, it seemed fair to question if we might have seen the end of Matt and Lucy in mixed finals. We had particular concerns regarding Wright. While Matt is still dangerous in men’s doubles, where he and Riley Newman clearly form the number two men’s team, we had questions whether he still had the movement and court coverage to get it done in mixed. At least for this weekend, they proved that they are still a team to contend with. Lucy was her steady self on the right, and Matt proved, particularly in their semi-final win against Riley Newman and Anna Bright, that he can still make himself large, and insert himself on points when he needs to.

An advantage that Lucy and Matt have over these other mixed teams is experience and self -belief. They have been in more battles than pretty much anyone else, and that experience showed again this weekend, against the relative newcomer Anna Bright, who showed some cracks in her mixed game, especially late in the third and deciding game. She just didn’t have the experience playing those long, grinding points, that Matt and Lucy have, and showed as she attacked Matt too early on a number of the late points.

To give you an idea of the increased depth in mixed, Matt and Lucy didn’t even get picked in our fantasy draft. Obviously their not getting picked was a mistake, but it really speaks to how much deeper and competitive these brackets are, when leaving them undrafted was even an option. The influx of talent means making Championship Sundays a routine is far more difficult than it used to be, but Matt and Lucy have proved that they will at least be in the mix for yet another year.

I would be remiss not to mention what makes Matt and Lucy’s longevity all the more impressive, is that they are also partners off the court. Anyone that has ever played with a significant other knows that can be fraught with challenges. We also know that in general pickleball partnerships are fragile and do not tend to last. So it is quite remarkable that they have been able to have this run.

5. Paddle Tease (Gritty) – Since we wrote our article about paddle modificaitons at the beginning of the year, it has become apparent to us that there is far more going on out there than we ever realized. We are learning more every week and the main takeaway for now is that things are out of control. The Pickleball Studio podcast reacted to our article a few weeks ago, talked about it with James Ignatowich on his podcast and had a discussion with Zane Navratil on their most recent podcast episode. Tyson McGuffin got into some paddle stuff in a recent podcast as well.

There is nothing specific we are going to dive into at this time. In general, we can pretty much guarantee that there will be more to come in the near future in one form or another. The fact is that the paddle landscape is clearly creating a substantially unequal playing field for pro players. Paddles matter a lot more than they should in the pro game with all the weird stuff that is going on. The pros begrudgingly deal with it while the general public remains blissfully unaware for the most part. It’s quite clear that a proper paddle testing system and enforcement has to be brought to professional pickleball, and without it players are currently operating on far from a level playing field.

There is more digging and research that is needed from our end before naming specific names and paddles publicly, but we’re also cautiously optimistic that work behind the scenes could potentially eliminate the issue once and for all.

Fantasy Update: New year, new Gritty? It’s 2023 and Gritty is 1 up on the season after getting a 15-12 win thanks to the Championship Sunday appearance from Lea Jansen/Allyce Jones. Can this newfound frontrunner status last more than a single week for Gritty?

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

9 thoughts on “PPA Tour Desert Ridge Open – 5 Takeaways – Just Breathe

  • February 6, 2023 at 10:38 pm

    Thank you very much for your time. People forget… Most people forget that you cannot compare a player who’s only played for one year (Anna Bright, Parris Todd, Devidze, heck, JW Johnson) to players that have been playing for four years or more (AL Waters, Lucy, Ben Johns [eight years], etc.). Think about how good Anna Bright and others will be in four years. Will the ‘older’ players improve as much in the next few years? There are a lot of tennis players coming over, how fast will they move up? Many people when making comments don’t think. Thanks again. 🙂

    • February 7, 2023 at 8:10 am

      Yeah this is right. We put all these people on the same playing field and, while they are competing in the same arena, their level of experience is not the same. The experience still matters.

      • February 7, 2023 at 8:24 am

        Just think if you gave Anna Bright and Parris Todd 5 years of experience. Would they be better than AL Waters or Ben Johns? I think so. They have the same natural ability right now.

        • February 8, 2023 at 7:17 am

          I question whether Anna Bright would be as good as ALW if they had been playing for the same length of time. Although Anna has elite hands, a noticeable gap in athleticism/mobility exists between them and that no amount of experience will lessen it.

          • February 8, 2023 at 6:39 pm

            That is a fair question for sure.

    • February 7, 2023 at 4:47 pm

      JW has been playing pickleball for at least 4 years.

  • February 7, 2023 at 3:14 am

    #1: Well said.

    #4: Lucy and Matt are playing with a new paddle too. With such slim margins in these matches, that could be giving them just enough of a boost to win a match.

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