First PPA for 2022 is in the books. There’s a lot of excitement for the start of the year and that was undoubtedly the case for this tournament with all the new matchups and partnerships. There was also the celebrity exhibition with Michael Phelps and Larry Fitzgerald. While we don’t personally have much interest in these exhibitions, they clearly get people pretty excited, and it cannot hurt with getting more eyeballs on the sport. Crowds were packed for the event. In terms of the pickleball itself, it’s a real possibility these PPA matchups start to get stale at some point but that’s a future pickleball problem. It’s time for takeaways.
1. Taylor Made (Gritty) – There are only a handful of players who have been playing pickleball for an extended period of time with any sort of relevance at the high-end pro level. Most of those who are, we already know their names or they are on the senior pro circuit. When it comes to new names finding better results these days, it is usually players who haven’t been around very long – Stefan Auvergne, Brandon Nsekpong, Julian Arnold, Mario Barrientos etc. Chuck Taylor is bucking that trend. A guy who has been in pickleball for quite sometime and finding his stride in his age 39 year, Taylor is doing something that we did not see coming. That is, getting big time results at big time tournaments.
Chuck Taylor took 4th place in men’s with Rob Cassidy and mixed with fellow Utah native, Allyce Jones, over the weekend that featured some very impressive wins. This comes on the heels of a number of notable mixed performances with Allyce Jones in recent months. Chuck has always had a somewhat unique style with longer strokes than you normally see, including a cheeky inside out forehand. But this weekend he played at a different level than we have seen on this kind of stage. It was less than two months ago where one of my takeaways after Casa Grande lumped Chuck Taylor into “Utah’s Middle Class”. Obviously, that was unfair to Mr. Taylor. Taylor has made it evident that you can still make major leaps later in your pickleball career without the high-level racket sports background many have.
Chuck benefits from a massive Utah crew that includes regular play with top-end talent such as Callie Smith, Shelton Baptiste-Webster, Spencer Smith and, of course, Allyce Jones, to name only a few (sorry to whoever I missed). One of the biggest things for being able to make substantial strides in pickleball is having consistent, high-level play around you and the state of Utah has that in spades. There’s no doubt Taylor has benefitted from that quality play along with what I’m sure is a bunch of hard work behind the scenes. It’s a reminder that much like in life, type casting pickleball players to a preordained destiny can be foolhardy as well.
So have a weekend why don’t you, Chuck!
2. PPA Positives (Slim) – We have probably been seen (at least by some) as being hard on the PPA of late, but they definitely are doing some positive things to keep the game moving forward. The PPA did a new thing this weekend with the early release of draws and seedings, which is definitely a good thing. Obviously there were some issues with the draws, in particular with the men’s singles draw, which you can read more about here from our live blog. Even if the PPA hasn’t publicly clarified how their seedings are operating, the early release of the draw allowed the issues to be more or less resolved and we hope that the early release of the draw continues, it is good for both the players and fans.
We also really, liked that they had play-in tournaments, something that we have been advocating for, for a while, and we really liked that after the singles day the losers of the men’s doubles play in games, got put into a mini-tournament where they could earn PPA points. We think this would be a great format to stick with going forward, as it creates incentive for teams to keep registering and playing more PPA’s.
Also, while the Celebrity-Pro Ams are not really our thing, they do, bring more attention and eye balls to the sport, which is always a good thing, and Michael Phelps an Larry Fitzgerald are legitimate stars. Also, the great thing about pickeball is that it as a sport that lends itself to these type of events, as the early learning curve is very quick.
There were still things to work on, the high production “standards” that have been promised by Dundon were not there this weekend on the stream, and was noticed by many fans, but we will see if that comes in time.
We have had a lot of strong takes about the PPA’s operations but this weekend featured some clear positives that cannot be ignored.
3. Nothing Comes Easy (Gritty) – It can probably get a little bit annoying how much we talk about the depth of pickleball improving. It’s not a new topic and it’s one that gets discussed by the small number of people who have any sort of public forum in the world of pickleball. What continues to be apparent is that the top teams/players cannot waltz into these tournaments and expect to breeze through the early rounds like they used to. This isn’t specific to the PPA as we have seen this at the APP events to start the year as well – Dekel/Adam didn’t podium at the Mesa APP.
This past weekend, we saw a bunch of underdogs winning tough matches. Chuck Taylor/Allyce Jones beat a number of “better” teams, including Matt Wright/Lucy Kovlova. Jay Devilliers/Tyson McGuffin lost to Chuck/Rob Cassidy. Most notably, after getting a bye, Ben Johns lost his first matchup of the day to Dylan Frazier in singles (side note: if the PPA does intend to give preferential treatment to its players with seeding, which I wouldn’t expect after the outcry upon their initial seemingly preferential attempt of the men’s singles bracket, this is the downside as it can really hurt their top players to have tougher than required early round matchups).
It used to be that we could expect the better teams to just roll through to a semi-final or even a winner’s bracket final. Without a backdoor way to gold, it means a slow starter like Ben Johns can’t stumble on the winner’s side of the draw. Sure, we ended up having a number of expected teams winning gold this weekend and playing in gold medal matches. However, there were also a lot of higher end teams that didn’t make it as far as we would expect or close matches that could have gone the other way for the so-called favored teams. Jay Devilliers, who didn’t podium, barely beat Mario Barrientos in 3 games, Julian Arnold took a game of Tyson McGuffin, Anna Leigh/Ben were literally on the ropes against AJ/Callie, Spencer Smith/DJ Young almost lost to Wes Burrows/Arnold, who ended up beating Nunnery/Pat Smith on the loser’s side. The list goes on and on.
It seems pretty unlikely most of the top 10 players, male and female, will be top 10 players in one or two-years time. There’s too much talent out there. Some of them will still be there but 2022 is showing us what we already knew. And that is staying at the top of the mountain in pickleball is only going to keep getting harder.
4. Scott Crandall’s Ascent (Slim) – Scott Crandall, seems to have ascended to the very top tier of the senior men’s pro ranks. This weekend he and Dayne Gingrich, defeated Dave Weinbach and Rick Witsken to take gold, and a couple of weekends ago at the APP Mesa he and Rick Witsken had an impressive gold win over, John Sperling and Mircea Morariu, in a deep field.
Last year, Crandall seemed to find his way on to the podium more often than not, but the top spot on the podium usually alluded him. He is clearly getting top notch partners now, which as we know is key for success at this level, but Crandall also seems to be one of the rare senior pros, whose game is also still improving. How much of it is partnerships and how much of it is improvements to his game is hard to say, but it is clear that Crandall is in that top echelon of senior men.
5. JW the Free Agent (Slim) – JW Johnson took gold yesterday in men’s singles, and also took a bronze in men’s doubles, with Dylan Frazier. It was a good reminder, not that we needed one, that JW is one of the premier players in the game, and only getting better. What makes JW even more interesting, is that he is a total free agent. Not only is he not a PPA signed player, he is also not signed with any paddle company, so he is as free as they come in the pickleball world. He seems to have bet on himself and that seems to be paying off in a big way, with his stock increasing every week.
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out for JW. One would have to imagine at some point he will sign with a paddle company and should demand a pretty good sized contract (by pickleball standards), as the top unsigned player out there. Then there is the PPA aspect, to keep an eye on. The PPA has made it clear that they are trying to sign all of the top men and women, in the game, and while they have signed many of them, they have not signed them all, and JW is quickly becoming the biggest holdout – Dekel Bar may beg to differ. And early indications are that the PPA may be bothered by JW remaining a free agent, Commissioner Connor Pardoe made a point to congratulate the “PPA touring pros” on winning their first championships of the year, specifically excluding JW, something that did not go unnoticed among fans in the various pickleball groups, as they were quick to jump in and congratulate JW on his victory. Then there was also the singles seeding issue, that while corrected, it is hard to believe that it was a coincidence that JW in the initial bracket, somehow fell to the 9th seed, despite being entitled to a top 4 seed. It will be fascinating to see if the PPA keeps finding ways to slight JW. The great thing about JW is, though, you know regardless of what happens, he is just going to keep quietly going about his business.
The comments on the various pickleball forums, make it clear that a lot of people are rooting for JW, and it is easy to see why. He is the soft spoken, gunslinger, who I don’t think pickleball fans have to worry about ‘going Hollywood’ anytime soon.
Fantasy Update: Slim wins again! It’s a 16-15 victory in fantasy as Slim overcomes a Ben Johns/Anna Leigh Waters bronze to eek out another win. It came down to the very last match of Tyson vs. JW, and JW prevailing in the gold was the decider this week. The fantasy debts continue to pile up for Gritty as even some devoted readers sound like they are losing faith in him. Maybe a little break from tournaments will be what the doctor ordered.
Silm is now 3 up on the year.
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