Two tournaments in one weekend makes for a lot of pickleball over the course of a few days. We’re going to do a combined takeaways section for the two tours as we’re seeing the beginning of what will be numerous overlapping tournaments. As much as the tours want to avoid the competition discussion, the head to head weekend mirrors the ongoing slow burn battle that continues between the PPA and APP. There’s surely more news to come as the year moves along but this weekend was another reminder of how quickly things can change from a player landscape standpoint as new talent enters that sport. Anna Bright was that reminder. Let’s get to the takeaways.
1. Shine Bright Like A Diamond (Slim) – Pickleball has really needed a new female star and her name is Anna Bright.
Bright is an absolute electric factory on and off the court. Her consistent intensity on the court, while still having a sense of humor and self awareness makes her impossible not to root for, although we’re sure there will be some out there who find a way. She already provides better sound bites than basically every pro in the post match interviews and she seems to have a knack for that social media thing. You should give her new pickleball Instagram account a follow…
Going into the tournament I was very high on Anna’s potential, and thought the raw tools were there, but figured it would take her a little bit of time to figure it out. That seemed like it would make sense since she it looks like last week was her four month pickleversary and she played her first tournament in December in Delray. I had her rated as the second best female singles player for our draft, and had her and Jorja ranked as the 4th best womens doubles team on my board. I thought this was being bullish, but it turns out I was severely underestimating her.
Her weekend started with a solid fifth place showing in mixed with Gabe Tardio, which showed her potential but also suggested there was still some work to do. Then sometime on Saturday, in the women’s doubles back draw, she found “god mode” (her words) and it was curtains for the competition. I did not get to watch enough of her early women’s match to say exactly what happened but I suspect at some point Bright, realized that she could just relentlessly attack the women in the field without being punished and once she figured that out it was over.
In the bronze and gold medal matches Bright (and Jorja Johnson who played very well herself) relentlessly attacked Vivienne, Lee, Simone and Corrine and they had no answer. Unlike Lee and Vivienne, I was very surprised that Simone and Corrine never really attempted to make an effort to adjust and to stop playing the ball to Bright, in particular her backhand which teams really could not seem to read when she attacked with it. The momentum from doubles day carried over for Bright into singles on Sunday, as she rolled through the field not dropping a game and only really was pushed once in the second game of the gold medal match, by Megan Fudge. Her shot making, and court coverage was just too much for this field.
Anna Leigh Waters has looked poised to have a dominant run as the top female player in the game. Anna Bright is the first women to come a long in a while who I think is a legitimate threat to that status. My maybe hot take is I think Anna Bright is going to be a top 5 female pro by the end of the year, and I think she might be in the top half of that top 5.
There is still a lot of work for Bright to do to reach the very top of the female game, but the raw tools are all there, her hands already have to rank among the top female players, and the consistency of her shot making is remarkable for a player that is so new to the game – assuming it is sustainable beyond this tournament. In the women’s game, she is going to need to figure out how to insert herself into more points, as teams are going to work to isolate her partners, but part of what makes Bright so intriguing is that she has the physical tools, movement and length to be able to cover some extra court. In time she should be able to figure out how to slide over to finish balls, and to help herself set up points.
In singles, aside from the last game of the gold medal match, we did not see her pushed, but she has a long ways to go to learn the nuisances of the singles game. She will be playing a PPA event in Florida coming up and she will need to become more comfortable coming to the net regularly (in my opinion, on every return) if she wants to be able to beat the top female single players. She also showed the ability to hit some of the roll shots that Anna Leigh hits in singles that makes AL so deadly in singles. If Bright can keep developing those shots, she is going to be a big problem in singles. In mixed, while her overall consistency is remarkable for a player that has been playing for as short as time as her, she still needs to work on becoming more comfortable in those long cross court dink rallies that are a staple of mixed (for now, I would just try to get her in front of the women and let her go after it).
Bright’s performance was the most impressive thing we have seen in our relatively short time watching pro pickleball consistently. She will be the next big thing in pickleball if she wants it. You can count on that.
2. Blood is Thicker (Gritty) – Speaking of breakthroughs this weekend, the cousin duo of Koller and Wilson had their own massive result at the PPA event in Minnesota. After going up 6-3 in the third and dropping 7 straight points to Matt Wright/Riley Newman, the pair were able to find their way back to stave off a match point after a ridiculous get off a Wright overhead. They didn’t look back from there and rattled off 6 straight points on their serve to make it to their first Championship Sunday together.
Having a bond that goes beyond pickleball is one of those intangible things we like to think makes a real difference. While spouses outside of Wright/Kovalova usually can’t keep playing together indefinitely, we have seen it most prominently with the Newman’s and Johns how beneficial a family connection can be. It creates a partnership that isn’t only rooted in pickleball and it was evident in AJ Koller’s Facebook post on Saturday after their big win. We see partnerships created solely from pickleball for the vast majority of players but it has to help a partnership work through the ups and downs that pro pickleball has to offer with that blood connection.
AJ and Thomas are not playing exclusively together, but they are primary partners. They are a talented pair that have the advantage of something bigger than pickleball. As they say, blood is thicker than water.
3. Newcomer Week (Gritty) – Travis Rettenmaier and Ryler DeHeart continued the theme of breakout performances on men’s day as they took down Adam Stone/DJ Young and almost won a game off of Yates/Bar (they were up 10-5). Two former pro tennis players, Rettenmaier’s first tourney was December 2020 while DeHeart’s was September 2021.
Although Rettenmaier has been playing longer, it appears he has only began taking the game more seriously recently. We have been waiting for an opportunity to share this footage of Rettenmaier essentially trying to play singles in a open doubles bracket at his first tourney (it’s the wildest watch ever FYI!). Rettenmaier and DeHeart look to be making the leap into high level pickleball together as a pair, similary to Jay Devilliers and Pat Smith’s rise through the ranks.
The pair of Rettenmaier and DeHeart are already adept at grinding out long points and they have the hand speed to ensure opponents are wary of pulling the trigger on them. It’s a winning formula for these two former pro tennis players. These types of players are the scariest for veteran teams as you have to fend off two guys together who are improving at a rapid pace as they learn the game. All the tools are there and they seem like they are going to put in the work. This is a pairing that will undoubtedly be one to watch as we go along in 2022.
As an aside, Gabe Tardio deserves a shoutout for his play with a 5th place finish in mixed and then a bronze in singles in a deep singles field. Tardio has a ton of talent and it was on full display this weekend. Another newcomer onto the scene.
4. PPA vs APP (Slim) – This was the first time this year that the PPA and APP went head to head as we noted in the lead. It is pretty clear that the PPA with its contracted players, will have have larger audiences and viewership, as the casual fan will still be drawn to the Johns, Waters and McGuffin names. That was demonstrated in the stream numbers throughout this weekend. The fields though were much larger and deeper in the APP, which could be in part due to one tournament being in Florida and one being one in Minnesota in February, but it is a trend I suspect to continue as the top heavy PPA fields don’t incentivize players to play unless they are being paid to play. On the other hand, the APP fields offer a lot more options to a lot of players.
These are both trends that I suspect we will see continue this year. The PPA is going to have the glam and glitz and as a result the eyeballs of a lot of casual fans, but the APP will have a lot of more interesting draws. Something I thought that was interesting was that the APP seemed to have larger womens draws and have some new females with high upside potential, which is something that has been desperately needed in pro pickleball and is something I think the small extremely top heavy draws have discouraged.
Another question is will the APP be able to keep these new women playing their events? I think it is critical to their long term success that they find ways to incentive these women to keep playing their tournaments as we know the PPA is going to continue to try to lock up top talent.
A final thought on this is I do think the APP has do more to promote its players and the quality of its competition. They had the better mens singles field this weekend with Ben not playing in Minnesota and they had the deeper mens doubles field as well. They need to make the casual fan more aware of the quality their players and help promote the players.
5. Paul Olin Climbs Mount Johansson (Gritty)– Paul Olin has been a staple at the top of the men’s senior pro singles world ever since he turned 50 in 2019 when he won TOC and a National championship in singles. Mircea Morariu made Olin work for it in 2020 but Olin was often the favorite before newcomer Mattias Johansson arrived on the scene midway through 2021. Since 2021 TOC, Johansson has had Olin’s number when they have faced off except for one win on Olin’s part. That is, until this weekend. Olin had Johansson’s number in Punta Gotda as he beat Johansson twice on his way to a gold. Two hard fought 3 games matches in these larger APP senior pro fields. It’s a serious grind after a long weekend so kudos to Olin for finding a way to beat Johansson.
Fantasy Update: Slim continues to run almost as hot as Anna Bright. He won both the APP (17-13) and the PPA (17-16) fantasy drafts this week to go 5 up on the year. Are the fantasy draft outcomes becoming as predictable as the PPA results? Only time will tell.
Final thing is a tease for the week. Keep an eye out for what is coming in the pickleball podcast world this week. That’s all we’ll say for now.
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