Is every month going to be madness? It is March and it was madness at the PPA Florida Open this past weekend. We were skeptical that the weird results were going to become the norm, but another tournament later, it’s the same kinds of stories. As always, we try to put together the most important storylines coming out of the weekend’s results.
1. Catherine Parenteau #2? (Gritty) – It is hard to comprehend what is happening with Catherine Parenteau. Her absolute tear to start 2023 has been unlike anything we have seen in pro pickleball. Parenteau seemed to be on the downward trend at the end of 2022. It was apparent her singles results were tailing off and she was getting overpowered in doubles, especially in mixed where her hands didn’t seem to hold up against the better men out there. She was a reset queen without the power to match.
However, here we are in 2023. Parenteau is coming off another wildly impressive weekend in Daytona. She and Anna Leigh were completely dominant in women’s doubles, which was the least surprising result. In singles, she took down Anna Leigh Waters in 2 straight games and made the 16-year-old look about as frustrated as we have seen over the past year. She then made it look easy against Lea Jansen, getting to balls and making shots at a level that we really haven’t seen from Catherine in the past. In mixed doubles, she and Tyson McGuffin ran through their half of the draw to make Championship Sunday and come away with a silver medal after a loss to AL/Ben in the finals.
Catherine has been the most surprising story of 2023. After her Partner-Gate debacle with Allyce Jones and the Paddle-Gate controversy we reported on, things were not looking good for Parenteau. We had questions about whether the game was passing her by as someone who has been around playing tournaments since 2016. We thought she was over-drafted for MLP considering she profiles as more of a right-side female without the pop in her game to give the value of a true #1 female.
One explanation that has been provided for Parenteau’s jump in game has been the paddle switch to Selkirk form Paddletek. There’s no question that the paddle switch has provided some assistance to Catherine in her game. Power is what she lacked in the past and we have seen the impact paddles can have on a player’s game in 2023. The thing about Parenteau’s new level is that we don’t see this type of jump from players who have been around for years. These types of jumps in results are usually reserved for newer players in the sport who have untapped potential. Catherine is different. She is not doing anything all that differently from what I can see. Her consistency and soft touch are still there, but she is no longer getting overpowered by opponents.
Parenteau has also been working more on her fitness. She has a trainer, as do more and more pros recently. The movement is evident in her singles game. We noted on the live blog that there are a number of things in a pro player’s life that can affect performance that we are unaware of. Things like injuries, head space, personal life etc. can all impact a player’s game.
It’s unclear if any of those factors were impacting Parenteau’s play last year but she literally, out of nowhere, looks like a totally different singles player. The balls she is getting to is like we are seeing a different player on the court and she didn’t look like overmatched in any way against either Waters or Jansen. Parenteau had not beaten Anna Leigh Waters since October 2021.
Pro players are doing more than ever these days to push their game up a level. It’s evident Catherine is doing something right to have pushed her game to a whole new level. It was only a few short weeks ago that Slim noted Anna Bright appeared to be the clear #2 female in the game of pickleball, but Parenteau is suddenly in that conversation despite being on the fringe of the top 10 only a few months ago, at least in my view. It’s been a heck of a makeover for Parenteau’s game and, if she keeps playing like this, we might be seeing her running out there for more triple crown attempts in the near future.
2. Depth and Adapting (Slim) – The pro draws in the PPA tour are just getting deeper all of the time. We have talked about this before and it will continue to be a theme with pro pickleball as the sport of pickleball continues to grow. What is interesting this year, is that the fields aren’t just deeper overall, the second tier of players who are capable of making podiums, even if they aren’t always on there, seems to be growing in particular.
We have actually noticed that in our fantasy drafts. Last year, it was very rare for points to be left on the board in our PPA, and by that I mean seldom did a team or player who wasn’t one of our combined six draft picks for the event make the podium. This year, that has been a pretty regular occurrence, as there are just a lot more teams and players capable of competing at the highest level.
Another sign of the increased depth in pro pickleball, is the fact that two teams who appeared in Championship Sunday, in Minnesota a couple of weeks a go, went winless this weekend on their way out of the tournament. Lauren Stratman and Julian Arnold, in mixed, and Federico Staksrud and Pablo Tellez in men’s doubles, both fresh off of their Championship Sunday appearances in Minnesota, went two and out in their brackets this weekend.
There are just no free wins in these pro pickleball brackets these days. Not only did we have those teams going winless, we had the story of the tournament Collin Shick making a Championship Sunday appearance, all the way from the Qualifiers in Men’s Singles. In Women’s Doubles, we had the first time partnership of Jade Kawamoto and Lacy Schneemann making a run to Championship Sunday.
This increased competition and talent, make Ben Johns’ staying power at the top of the game, all the more impressive. We have all of these new names, and faces on the podium, and many veterans of the sport are having to work harder than ever to find a podium, and Ben is just out there putting together another ho-hum triple crown this weekend.
Ben seems to have been able to continually adapt his game to stay ahead of his competition, more than any other player in pickleball, and it is probably one of the biggest reasons he has been able to have this run he has put together at the top of the sport. It seemed last year with the influx of young talented guys with elite passing shots, that we might be seeing the end of Ben’s run in men’s singles, but here he is still the premier men’s singles player.
His ability to fight off these newcomers, comes in large part due to him adding that two-hand backhand drive to his singles game, making him more of a threat from both sides. In doubles last year we saw him get exposed a bit as teams figured out that he was very vulnerable to being attacked on his backhand. In the short term, he was able to adapt by just resetting more balls when being attacked on his backhand last year, and now this year we see he has added an ever improving two-hand counter when getting attacked on his backhand.
Beyond his ability to adapt his game, Ben just seems to be able to adapt to his opponents quicker than most players, it was hardly surprising to see him able to adjust on Championship Sunday after dropping the first game to Shick, to win the second and third games, going away. Time and time again, Ben just seems to be able to figure out his opponents, before they can figure him out. When will the increased depth in the sport finally change that?
3. Shick-ing Result (Gritty) – Slim jokingly texted me after Collin Shick’s 3-game loss on Championship Sunday that we might have had to call for the entirety of professional pickleball to retire if Shick was able to beat Ben Johns. Shick is a medical student at University of North Carolina and a former D1 tennis player. There’s nothing particularly special about his background compared to some of the other players on tour or working their way up to being established pros. He’s a talented tennis player, who has brought those talents to pickleball. Yet there he was, giving Ben Johns a run for his money at a major tournament. It would have been the greatest upset in pickleball history. Seriously.
Although Shick couldn’t complete the upset, his silver medal was something to behold. In this new era of qualifiers, Shick made it through the qualifiers and the main draw, winning seven matches on Thursday, including over Dylan Frazier and Julian Arnold, to get his shot in the spotlight. Shick benefitted from Tyson McGuffin pulling out of singles, which opened things up for two qualifiers to be slotted into his portion of the bracket. Instead of a Tyson McGuffin first round, Shick had Wyatt Stone. It doesn’t take anything away from what Shick accomplished, but it definitely made his life a little bit easier.
Shick’s shot making was ridiculous on Thursday as well as in game 1 against Ben Johns. Shick goes for a lot and he was making an obscene percentage of what should have been difficult shots. It took Ben a game to figure things out before he was able to cool off the unknown contender.
Shick is the latest example, and an extreme one at that, of how wide open these men’s singles brackets really are. We saw Max Mathou, who has been playing pickleball for a lot longer than Shick, make a deep bronze medal run at the Daytona APP a few weeks ago. This Shick run was something different given the level of competition he was taking down. Moreover, as a full-time student in one of the more difficult areas of life, Shick’s fitness was good enough that he could sustain a really high level of play for 7 matches in the Florida heat. Manthou did something similar in Daytona from a fitness standpoint. You can say what you want about Ben, but he’s out there just about every weekend in these singles draws finding ways to win against everyone.
Luckily for the rest of pro pickleball, because Ben was able to figure Shick out, they do not have to collectively retire. Who knows when we’ll see Collin Shick again. It will be interesting to see if he can replicate these results at an upcoming tournament. For now, we enjoy another surprising run from another unknown talent. Until the next one.
4. Jade and Lacy (Gritty) – If we want to come up with a theme for the year, it is the unpredictability of results in 2023. Outside of the Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters situations, it has been more of a free for all than anyone has expected. With the PPA taking on most of the best players, the depth of the fields has increased and even the women’s doubles fields have become less predictable, which has been much needed.
This weekend, it was Jade Kawamoto and Lacy Schneemann’s turn to pull off some upsets. Following a 3-game win over Milan Rane and Regina Franco Goldberg in their second match of the day, Lacy/Jade pulled off a stunning upset of Parris Todd/Ana Bright and blew through Lea Jansen/Allyce Jones to earn both of their first trips to Championship Sunday.
There was no reason to see this coming. Jade/Lacy were a first-time partnership that fit well enough on paper, but it didn’t seem like enough to make any noise in these deeper women’s fields. Jade Kawamoto hasn’t had any big results as of late and Schneemann’s best showings have come through MLP rather than in tournaments – likely due to her inexperience, higher variance game and the inconsistencies that come with that.
Neither Kawamoto nor Schneemann are full-time touring pros. Although they are both PPA signed players, they have full-time jobs. In spite of that, it appears they are both making strides with their games. Jade is playing more aggressively than we have seen in the past, choosing to be the aggressor more often. Schneemann, not one whose game style looks traditional, has added a two-handed backhand off the bounce at the kitchen. In the modern pickleball game, both players are taking steps to elevate their play and it paid off in Daytona.
The fields are just so much stronger now. Another big upset we saw was Sheehan-Dizon/Etta Wright getting by Jessie Irvine/Jorja Johnson in 3 games. Even if Jorja is not having the best go of things in women’s doubles to start the year, that’s a strong win from the Utah ladies. We’re seeing more competitive matchups in women’s doubles with the free wins becoming less and less in the later rounds. Not to mention that this field was missing Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith.
With the silver medal, Jade and Jackie Kawamoto have both made a PPA Championship Sunday in women’s doubles without each other as partners. Last year, we had put it out there that the Kawamotos may need different partners with more power in their skill set to maximize their own games. We have not seen the Kawamotos enough together against the best competition to know for sure whether that take is correct, but I can’t ignore their Sunday appearances have come separately.
Either way, this is about Jade Kawamoto and Lacy Schneemann doing something that is becoming more frequent in the women’s game. That is, taking names and getting to Championship Sunday.
5. PPA Seeding (Slim) – This weekend, Riley Newman played with Tim Parks, an owner of the Hard Eight’s MLP team which he plays on. According to the Pickleball Tournaments, this was the first tournament that Parks has ever played. Not only did Riley partner with a player who had never played a tournament before, they were still seeded as the second team in the men’s doubles draw. That is right, a player who had never played a tournament, let alone a pro tournament, got the second seed in the draw. This is because Riley had more PPA points than any of the other teams combined in the draw. However, it felt quite problematic that the PPA didn’t bother using their discretion to not only allow a player who literally has never played a tournament to enter the main pro draw, but also give that team the second seed.
The result of Riley’s team still receiving the second seed was Dylan Frazier and JW Johnson ending up on the same side of the draw as the Johns brothers, when they were pretty clearly the second seed, and if Riley’s team was disqualified, would have been the second seed based on points.
The team the majority of people would have called the third best team in the men’s field, Dekel Bar and AJ Koller, was also on the same side of the draw as the Johns brothers, so it created a very uneven bracket, which when these teams are playing for money, and points, which affect future seeding, is something the PPA should have chosen to address proactively.
This is a perfect opportunity for the PPA has to develop rules around these things. Brand new players probably shouldn’t be entering pro brackets and be receiving the second seed, regardless of who they are playing with it. Heck, Sam Querrey shouldn’t have gotten a free entry to the main draw of singles in his first pro tournament ever at the Masters to start the year. Not that all that many people are watching now but it’s not an ideal look for the sport. When you are trying to bring in new fans, sponsors and gambling, you need these sort of things regulated.
It should be noted that this is not the first time that Riley has done something like this either. He played the PPA Championship in Las Vegas a couple years with Randal Emmett, after Tyson McGuffin had to pull out. Considering how tough these main draws are now, it was not surprising that Newman and Parks went 0-2 on the day. I have to wonder what was said during that Johnny Goldberg backdraw match.
Fantasy Update: It’s a Gritty win again in 2023. If you want to talk about upsets, who had in their 2023 pickleball scorecards that Gritty would be 2 up in the middle of March? It’s amazing what the difference between 2022 and 2023 has been. Last year, we rarely left any fantasy points on the board but this year it is becoming a regular occurrence. Points that we missed out on this week: Collin Shick, Pablo Tellez, Schneemann/Jade Kawamoto and, the Bronze Stallion himself, Jay Devilliers/Jessie Irvine.
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