Cold temperatures, late withdrawals, no Ben or AL, and crazy results. This was February pickleball in a non-warm weather state. Indoors, of course. There were also issues with the vision for players from one side of the court and there’s no way to really know if that had a hand in any of the weirdness we witnessed over the weekend. In any event, there was lots to talk about this weekend and we’re going to get after it here in the takeaways.
1. February Madness (Gritty) – When the two best players in the world don’t show up, it leaves the door open for others to make some noise, but it was far more than that at this weekend’s PPA Indoor Championships. There is often complaining that there is too much predictability at the PPAs yet this weekend we got what had to be the most unpredictable PPA event of all-time. The only thing that went relatively straightforward was the women’s singles, and even there Catherine Parenteau had a minor upset over Lea Jansen after being down 5-0 in game 3.
We will get into more detail on some of the unpredictable results in the takeaways but here is a synopsis of some of the more notable upsets from the weekend:
– Callie Smith/Lucy Kovalova taking down Anna Bright/Andrea Koop on their way to a gold medal, which also included getting a marathon 2 hour plus match win on Sunday against Allyce Jones/Lea Jansen.
– Pablo Tellez/Federico Staksrud getting by AJ Koller/Dekel Bar for their first PPA silver medals.
– Catherine Parenteau/James Ignatowich beating the Johnson siblings and Anna Bright/Riley Newman en route to a gold medal.
– James Ignatowich smoking a sleepy JW Johnson after being a very late entry to the singles draw.
– Julian Arnold/Rob Nunnery breezing past Collin Johns/James Ignatowich in a low key, big-time grudge match.
– Jessie Irvine/Jackie Kawamoto losing in 3 games to Yana Grechkina/Etta Wright.
– JW Johnson/Dylan Frazier getting their first PPA gold, which included a win over Matt Wright/Riley Newman in the semis.
– Despite the fact they had issues hitting the podium at APPs last year, Julian Arnold/Lauren Stratman getting a PPA Championship Sunday appearance with a dominating win over Irvine/Devilliers, tight win over David/Wilson and convincing victory over Frazier/Smith.
Upsets are fun. It’s why we play the games. Sports are not supposed to follow a script. However, this weekend was a quarter of a year’s worth of unexpected results piled into 4 days. It all comes with the caveat that Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters were not around, but there still looked to be a clear group of top teams going into the weekend. Not that it really means anything, but this is the first time in our fantasy draft preview history where we got a combined 0 points from our mixed teams. Neither of us picked any of the 3 teams that ended up on the podium for mixed!
With the NCAA’s March Madness on the horizon, there is also an aspect to needing a balance with Cinderella stories. As much as people hate seeing the best teams win all the time, there is a need to have a King and/or Queen of the Hill to be thwarted. Dynasties and generational players are ultimately the best thing for driving interest and viewership for pro sports. Not that many people will want to see Novak Djokovic beat up on Stefano Tsitisipas, but they will watch Federer play Nadal for the 48th time at a major. The New York Yankees, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, the New England Patriots. These are all brands that bring the viewers in droves to their respective sports.
When it comes to March Madness itself, we love it for the upsets, but the later rounds can become less exciting if they are too many upsets in the early rounds. We usually want to see some of the best and most well-known players/teams at the end of the day. JW Johnson/Dylan Frazier came out focused and ready to stomp on any gold dreams that Federico Staksrud/Pablo Tellez may have had. Even though they were not a favorite going into the event to win gold, Parenteau/Ignatowich were a significantly better team on paper that Stratman/Arnold. The upsets to get to those gold medal matches were undoubtedly great to see, but the Championship days are served better with competitive results.
It’s all about balance. It wouldn’t be good for pickleball to have the kind of parity we saw in Minnesota at every PPA event. Sports need identifiable stars that entice casual fans to tune in along with the hardcore regulars You want to be able to draw in the casual viewers like tennis and golf do with the 4 majors, or the big team sports do with the playoffs. At some point in pickleball, you hope there are bigger events that mean something, which can bring in the few times a year watchers who want to see Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters, or whoever the next version of those top players are. Ideally, casual viewers will tune in because there is a real possibility the top players/teams may lose – see the above reference to Djokovic def. Tsitsipas at the Australian Open.
Upsets are fun. February Madness was in full force. More good players on the PPA Tour means that there are more players that can podium on any given weekend but I’m still not reading too much into the results this. This weekend probably wasn’t some indication of major parity across the pro pickleball landscape at PPA events going forward, but hopefully it is a trend towards some kind of parity
2. Big Pappa Jimmy (Slim) – James Ignatowich has had a fair amount of hype surrounding him in his short pickleball career, and it has appeared that there is talent and work ethic behind that hype to back it up. We were starting to wonder if the results were going to start coming or if he was starting to stagnate a bit as player, at a level below where we thought he was going to be. That changed this weekend, as he took advantage of there being no Ben Johns, and a few other players, to take not just his first but also his second PPA Gold Medal. He also certainly wasn’t lacking for swagger in his sideline interviews afterwards, including a number of references to some tweets of Christian Alshon:
He made the last minute to decision to enter the singles draw this week, probably due to it ending up being a smaller field with the blizzard, and it proved to be a great decision, as he cruised to the gold medal. He ran through the singles field without dropping a game, and his matches frankly were not that close. He beat Christian Alshon 11-6, 11-8 in the quarter-finals, Jay Devilliers 11-5, 11-9 in the semi-finals and JW 11-1, 11-8 on Championship Sunday.
In mixed doubles, James partnered with Catherine Parenteau and they had an impressive run to gold, which included beating Jorja and JW Johnson in three games in the quarter-finals, Riley Newman and Anna Bright in a thrilling three game match in the semi-finals and then Lauren Stratman and Julian Arnold on Championship Sunday. The win over Riley and Anna, was particularly impressive and notable, it was very clear that James and Catherine knew where to attack Anna, as they repeatedly were able to jam her up when she was sliding to counter. You can’t help but also wonder if that little extra celebration after the winning point in that match, may have him sleeping one eye open this week, as Anna did not seem to appreciate it, although she was out there today recruiting followers for James on Twitter.
It should also be noted, that James was cramping quite a bit by the end of the mixed day on Friday, and probably was far from fully healthy on Saturday, though he did appear to be in good shape on Sunday, so it makes doing a fair evaluation of both his and Collin John men’s doubles games tough, which is really too bad.
As we know for men it is usually the men’s doubles games that takes the longest to master so it would have been nice to see where exactly he was at, playing with Collin. For Collin, it was a rare opportunity to showcase himself outside of Ben’s shadow, and losing in the first round with the weekend’s double gold medallist, didn’t exactly boost his stock. As I said, I am not certain James was a 100% so I will give a pass, but I continue to believe the role that Ben and Collin have designed for Collin, and which he is very effective at, limits his overall game far more than it should be, he has talent, and it is, in my opinion at least, far from maximized.
James also seemed to have pretty undeniable chemistry on the court with Catherine Parenteau and you can’t help but wonder if he may not have Wally Pipped his men’s doubles Tyson McGuffin, as you have to think this weekend was eye opening for Catherine, in terms of the potential a partnership with James could have, and we have well documented Catherine’s loyalty, or lack thereof, towards her partners. This will be something to watch. Notably, Ignatowich’s mixed results have been on the rise in 2023 with his earlier partnerships with Lindsey Newman.
It will be interesting to see if James, can carry the success of this weekend over into the next events, when all the big names are present. He has the talent, seems to have the worth ethic and pickleball obsession, but beyond that he also seems to have the swagger and belief in himself which is key, if a player is to reach the highest levels of the sport.
3. Sunday with Bae Bae (Gritty) – Pickleball partnerships with significant others. It’s a tale as old as time. They sound great to start and come very naturally, but they do not always end well as initial success often turns into struggle. It’s the circle of life. Pickleball partnership life, that is.
Lauren Stratman and Julian Arnold are finding a way to make it work after having trouble finding podiums together in 2022, including APP podiums. Their results were fine, but not spectacular, to start the 2023 season in the 2 events they played together. Out of nowhere, though, they got a silver medal in Minnesota in very impressive fashion. With wins over Irvine/Devilliers, David/Wilson and Smith/Frazier, they booked their first Championship Sunday as a pickleball pair and actually found their first pro podium since the APP Los Angeles Open in June of last year.
Who knows how things will turn out for these two going forward, but it had to be a massive weight off the shoulders to see a breakthrough result for the two of them. Some might say a monkey off their back. While Julian has flourished in 2023, Stratman has not had the same kind of success. It has put some questions in my mind as to whether she is what she is at this point as a professional player. Then this weekend comes, and it has me re-thinking that notion for the time being.
Stratman is one of the more powerful players on tour and her partnership with an ascending Julian Arnold previously felt like it should have the potential to do what they accomplished this past weekend. I think it’s also fair that neither of us considered them to be any type of podium contender going into the weekend considering their history of results the past 8 months or so. Their results combined with them being partners in life has not inspired much recent confidence.
We asked a question in the live blog following Julian Arnold’s second disappointing singles performance in a row whether he was coming back down to earth. That may have been some premature speculation as well. Arnold has been proving in 2023 that his theoretical mixed prowess has translated into actually mixed prowess and he has become one of the more dangerous players on tour, with the ability to get high end results in different partnerships
I have no idea what it’s like for Arnold and Stratman to play together. Social media is a fun house mirror of positive feedback, and we generally only see the struggles people face after they have been through the fire. Regardless, a silver medal at a PPA event with these very strong mixed fields have to be a boost for morale, whether it be temporary or permanent. It’s also a feather in the cap for Lauren Stratman and we’ll have to see if this can be a boost for her confidence that brings her play up a level as the year goes along.
4. Lucy and Callie Back Again (Slim) – It has been much tougher of late for Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith to get results. Prior to this weekend, the pair had played seven tournaments, since they last took gold in the at the PPA’s DC Open in October last year, and in those seven tournaments they had one silver, one bronze, and five missed podiums. At this time last year, as they were coming off of a third straight gold to start 2022, at this very same Minnesota PPA tournament, it would have seemed unthinkable that the team of Lucy and Callie would only find two podiums in the seven events.
Part of this comes down to the fact that there is just a lot more talent and depth in pickleball, especially in the women’s game. Another factor that has to be acknowledged here is that Lucy and Callie have not been a good backdraw team, and a lot of that probably comes down to the fact that as proven players they do not feel the need to prove themselves and have more trouble getting energized to play a backdraw with there being no chance of gold (now not even a bronze for the most part).
However, they also had what can only qualify as a disappointing showing at the first MLP event this year, where they went 1-3 as a team in the women’s doubles matches, despite being expected to be one of the stronger women’s teams heading into the event.
It seemed as though Lucy and Callie as players, and as a team, had stalled out, as other teams passed them. Teams have sort of figured out that you can grind Callie’s backhand as she just is not going to hurt you with it and she also tends to make more mistakes than other top players and Lucy is right side player who is just looking to dink and then counter, with that two handed backhand when attacked. Lucy has not really added much in the way of offense to her game, and hasn’t been able to find a way to insert herself into to points, which was a similar problem in her Simone partnership, when teams were starting to pick on Simone.
I was starting to wonder if the pair might start look to change things up. They have at least experimented a bit with changing things up on the court, trying Lucy a bit on the left on and Callie on the right, though they did win gold this weekend, with Callie primarily playing on the left.
You also have to give them some credit for sticking things out and trying to work their way through these struggles, in a time when many in the pickleball world are looking to exit partnerships at the first sign of struggles, and with both players still possessing elite hands for the women’s game you would have think they would have some options.
For this weekend though they were able to grind their way to a gold medal, as they were able to take down Anna Bright and Andrea Koop in the semi-final, after dropping the first game. Then in the gold medal match against a very grind team of Jansen and Jones, they won after dropping the first game 3-11 and were able to grind out three straight games, 11-8, 13-11, 12-10. It was a two hour and two minute match, so there was nothing easy about it, but it had to feel sweet for the veteran team.
It will be interesting to see if the pair can find some momentum from this victory to carry them to some more success. It will also be interesting to see if they are able to raise their games both as individual players and as a team. I think there is still another level this team could reach, and it will be fun to see if all of the increased competition inspires them to get there.
5. Pablo and Federico On the Rise (Gritty) – Like so many players do, Pablo Tellez and Federico Staksrud made their names in pickleball as singles players. Staksrud has had more overall success and is the obviously better singles player today, but Tellez is no slouch as he hit some APP podiums in 2022. As we know, the doubles game takes time but these two singles boys are figuring things out.
Admittedly, we were a bit skeptical on Tellez going into 2023. I don’t think that was the wrong take. There were simply too many bad losses amongst the good wins to be sure he had sorted out the consistency issues that some players resolve and others do not. I thought his MLP Austin performance bolstered what was an otherwise spotty resume even though the talent was there. In 2023, Tellez has come with a lot more consistency and the partnership with Staksrud, a very mature doubles player considering his experience, has been beneficial.
Staksrud profiles as more of a right-side male as his doubles game is more steady than flashy. That fits with the lefty Tellez who is able to create more offence along with Staksrud’s improving offensive game. Their results hadn’t been anything to write home about in 2023, but they were doing well against good teams, playing Ignatowich/McGuffin to 3 games, losing to Newman/Wright 8 and 8 and narrowly losing to Dawson/Long 11-9 in the third.
They finally got their big win this weekend with a 3 game win over Koller/Bar and followed that up with a 5 and 9 win against Devilliers/Young, causing the infamous DJ Young paddle smash. The Koller/Bar win is very impressive as those are two guys that form what should be the #4 men’s team in pro pickleball, on paper. Tellez/Staksrud lost in 3 straight games in the finals to JW Johnson/Dylan Frazier as to be expected, but it doesn’t take the shine away from a massive weekend that proved they are capable of getting real wins together.
Tellez has a very good shot to be drafted Premier for MLP in season 2. The talent was supposed to be deeper with most of the best players in one place on the PPA Tour. That is proving to be true as Staksrud/Tellez are yet another example of a team capable of finding a podium on the right day.
Fantasy Update: Slim gets his second win of 2023, winning a low scoring weekend 12-9. We didn’t go back to check but this could be our lowest scoring weekend of all-time. As noted in the post, we didn’t get a single podium team for the mixed bracket, and we also missed on Lauren Stratman/Julian Arnold and Yana Grechkina/Etta Wright. The James Ignatowich miss does not count as he was not in the draw when we completed the draft. Gritty is now 1 up on the year.
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