We had two tournaments going on this weekend and with the singles at the US Open being completed last weekend, it was an all doubles festival in Naples and Newport. The PPA had some wild and whacky results as the US Open stayed mostly on brand for the podiums. Of course, we also had more paddle controversy yet again. We can’t possibly get into everything but we’re covering what piqued our interest more over the past few days.
1. The Ever Changing Landscape of Pro Pickleball (Slim) – We started this blog two years ago on the US Open week, including our first takeaways post, and it is very symbolic of how much things have changed in the pro pickleball landscape over those two years that the 2-23 US Open was clearly the second tier pro event of the week. When we were deciding on a launch date for the blog, we partly started it right before US Open week because it was one of the two biggest pickleball events of the year. While the US Open may still be a big deal on the amateur level, it clearly is not that relevant on the pro level, with the PPA pros electing not to play this year.
It also makes one wonder, where pro pickleball and pickleball in general may be in another two years. It actually seems like the next couple of years will be pretty critical. Coming out of Covid, where many people seem to have discovered pickleball, pickleball has been on an absolute rocket ship trajectory these last couple of years. We have gone from there being no pro pickleball tours, three years ago, to there being two pro pickleball tours, and a pro pickleball league filled with celebrity owners.
While it seems important that there are gains in the actual economic viability of these league over the next couple of years, I would argue the bigger deal is keeping the momentum going on the amateur / recreational side. If pickleball can keep it’s momentum towards becoming the most played sport in North America, then anything is possible. If that momentum starts to fade, and it starts becoming just a fad, then nothing else really matters.
I must ask the standard question: where do you see pickleball and pro pickleball in two years?
2. Historic Paddle Testing Failure (Gritty) – On Saturday, we posted an article about Sarah Ansboury’s historic paddle test failure after it was announced by Dave Fleming on the PPA broadcast. She and partner, Jillian Braverman, were defaulted from the main draw after Ansboury’s Gamma Obsidian paddle failed on-site testing after it was challenged by their quarter-final opponents.*
The information that came out following our initial article is Sarah Ansboury and Jillian Braverman along with Gamma advising the public that Ansboury’s failed paddle was tested and passed on-site testing prior to their quarter-final match. Apparently, all quarter-finalists had their paddles tested.
At first glance, the statement from Ansboury and co. that her paddle tested and de-bonded or delaminated over the course of the match to the point where it was illegal seems very problematic. How is a player supposed to monitor a paddle that was deemed legal literally right before the match? How can a player be defaulted when their paddle had been told it was good to go before a match? From a review of the public’s comments, there is a lot of sympathy towards Ansboury’s circumstances.
However, Ansboury and Braverman’s public responses to the situation omitted a very key detail. Although we do not often get quality transparency from the PPA, it appears that when the players try to control a narrative that ends up making the PPA look bad, they’ll happily make a statemen on the situation
Carl Schmits, USA Pickleball Managing Director of Pickleball Standards, was on-site administering the paddle testing in Newport and was quoted in the PPA’s article as saying that Ansboury received an official warning that her paddle had a “high likelihood of crossing the legal threshold during the next match and that it would be in her best interests to retire the paddle. We can only recommend best practices, however – the final decision is in the hands of the player.”
We had received similar information from non-PPA affiliated sources prior to the PPA releasing their full article on the matter. That is, that Ansboury was advised to use a different paddle and she chose not to. Based on the separate information we have received, I have little doubt that this additional piece of information about warning Ansboury is accurate.
The new information changes the circumstances entirely. Ansboury and Braverman’s social media posts both refer to other players having paddles tested that were played with in earlier rounds, failing and not being defaulted because they were not challenged by their opponents. While Ansboury and Braverman’s gripe is probably fair if what they’re saying did happen, to play innocent and intentionally omit a vital piece of information from this situation is downright deceptive. It is notable that the PPA’s statement says that the paddles failed “were retired before being played with.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were players that played with paddles that either were out of specification or deemed illegal after playing, but players were not defaulted because no challenge was made. It continues to be problematic that players are responsible for enforcing the rules but having a system in place right now is better than no system at all. Players have to play by those rules, as Lucy Kovalova said. Sarah Ansboury took a gamble that her paddle would stay legal and that gamble backfired. There shouldn’t be any sympathy to be had for her in this situation.
The PPA’s article on the paddle situation is the first instance where they have outlined in some capacity what they are doing for deflection testing right now. All of this testing information should have been transparent in the first place and the PPA continues to be the worst when it comes to this aspect of their tour. Maybe this is a lesson learned for them as it can make it easier for outside sources to control the narrative in what actually seems to be a generally fair process currently.
Ansboury is correct that the PPA needs to release the results of its testing for all players and paddles. Even if they do it anonymously like MLP did with the PPL report, that would be better than nothing. My view is that part of the PPA’s lack of transparency comes from how quickly they are making it up as they go along, but another part of it is because they want to keep a lot of information behind closed doors. It would also help to release more specific results when there are still questions about the reliability of testing, even if their press release states the “testing shows without ambiguity whether a paddle is legal or not.”
Salome Devidze released her own statement over the weekend that her Vatic paddle passed off-site testing, but this has not been confirmed by the PPA nor do we have any information about how close Salome’s paddle was to being illegal. Was her situation similar to Sarah Ansboury’s? If Salome’s paddle passed testing, what about Tyson McGuffin’s paddle from Red Rock? If Tyson does not come out with a public statement that his paddle passed, what can we make of that? You’d think Tyson would want to dispel the notion he spent a good portion of a match using an illegal paddle. However, if he was using an illegal paddle, is the PPA really going to default him, taking away his singles gold medal, prize money and rankings points?
Another thing that has been pointed out is the convenience of a failed test happening for a less popular player and paddle brand. This is probably fair. It may be part of the reason why the PPA chooses not to release the results of any testing as it could expose players and paddle brands that they would prefer not to be exposed. We’ll never know what may have happened because this is the first instance of a paddle failing on-site testing as a result of a opponent challenge.
Again, I’m not saying that Ansboury has cheated, but she made a risky decision in hopes her paddle would maintain its legal state throughout the course of a match. Clearly the current PPA’s un-documented, verbal paddle testing policy has its issues but I don’t have sympathy for a player who was aware that this was a possibility going into a match, especially when she intentionally omitted this information.
Ultimately, this Ansboury-Gamma paddle test failure was not nearly as cut and dry as it was made to be from either the PPA, Sarah Ansboury or Jillian Braverman. We always want to make snap judgments from the limited information available and I think this is one of those situations where a lot of people will re-assess their support of Ansboury.
The biggest conclusion that I’ll takeaway from this is similar to what we published in our initial article on the matter, which is that the free lunch on illegal paddles is over. All the complaining and public outcry for testing is forcing players and manufacturers to be more careful. Whether Ansboury is the justified or unjustified sacrificial lamb in this paddle mess, I think we are one big step closer to finally getting a handle on the pro pickleball’s paddle controversies.
3. J-Duble Gold (Slim) – JW Johnson had himself a weekend in Newport, as he went double gold. The elder Johnson sibling won gold in mixed with his sister, Jorja Johnson, and in men’s doubles with his best buddy, Dylan Frazier. It was a statement from the stoic JW that he is one of the best players out there, and the scary part for the other players is that he still has plenty of room to grow.
Watching JW’s hands in the men’s doubles final showed how dominant he can be, while also teasing how much room to grow their still is for him. No player in pickleball has JW’s combination of speed and power in their hands. There could be a player with quicker hands, and there are a few players with heavier hands, but no player in pickleball combines JW’s hand speed and short area power. Those hands were on full display in the men’s final, and it is why, despite JW and Dylan only now being 2 for 7 against Matt Wright and Riley Newman, they are a better match up for them then the Johns brothers. Matt and Riley are less about point construction and more about initiating offense, which plays right into JW and Dylan’s strength, their hands.
I suspect moving forward that JW and Dylan, will present a real problem for the Matt/Riley partnership. What JW has started to add, but still has a long way to go, is his ability to create more offense, especially on his forehand. Outside of his backhand flick, JW’s offense creation is fairly limited. If he can create and disguise different attacks with his forehand, most importantly off the bounce, it is going to be a problem for opponents. This is because, once JW is in a hands battle, he pretty much has the advantage over everyone. He also could use adding a speed up off the bounce with his backhand.
In mixed, JW probably does not take enough court and, again, still needs to be able to create more offense. However, in his partnership with Jorja, he benefits from her ability to initiate attacks and often it is Jorja that creates opportunities for JW to finish points. While Jorja’s offense is very helpful and creates a unique look for them, long-term if they are going to reach their full potential, JW still needs to find more ways to create offense and just generally get involved.
It is also very easy to root for JW. It is clear that the Johnson siblings love playing together, and the joy that Jorja emits when they win, is about as wholesome as it gets. And while JW and Dylan are never exactly going to be Mr. Personalities, there is something endearing about those two staying loyal to each other and being rewarded. Their dry sense of humor is pretty hilarious when they win too – just ask JW’s “Mexican amigos”.
4. Parris Todd Triple Crown (Gritty) – Amidst all the wildness of the PPA results and paddle controversy, there was good pickleball happening at the US Open. It may not be the legitimate major that it used to be, but Parris Todd was able to come away with a triple crown in Naples, Florida.
What was interesting to me about Parris’ gold medals is not so much that she won 3 of them, but how much it seemed to mean to her that she was able to win them. Parris was very emotional in her victories. More emotional than I have seen her in any of her other wins. Even though I still have lots of questions about the work she is putting into being a professional athlete, the fact that she cares is notable in my eyes.
The triple crown was not anything to write home about. She barely beat relative newcomer, Judit Castillo Gargallo, 15-13 in the third game where both players had multiple opportunities to close the match. Her win with Simone Jardim over Fudge/Oshiro was in 3 fairly close games. The mixed crown with Hunter Johnson against Kyle Yates and Simone Jardim was probably the most impressive, including overcoming a bad foot fault call from the referee in game 3. However, Yates/Jardim are not the mixed duo they were in 2019. This was not a triple crown at the highest level, and none of the gold medal wins were in dominating fashion.
Despite all of that, I think it matters how much Parris seemed to care about the win. The reason we spend quite a bit of this blog space writing about Parris is because of her talent. She’s not just another player. She is arguably the most talented player to come into pro pickleball in the past year and a half. When someone isn’t taking every advantage of that opportunity when they have potential to be the best in the world, that is interesting news.
Maybe Parris’ ceiling isn’t as high as what we once may have thought. She appears focused on being a right-side female, which could put her in a coveted spot as a right-side female with major pop. What will continue to be intriguing to monitor about Parris is whether she keeps getting better and what she decides to do with her career. There’s nothing that says Todd has to spend all of her energy being the best pro pickleball player she can be, but when it is pro pickleball that has suddenly provided her with an abundance of opportunities, it is puzzling to think she might not be doing everything in her power to keep improving as a player.
Either way, we’ll have to see if this US Open triple crown lights a fire in Parris to keep pushing for more. To be one of the best in pro pickleball. She has the talent. Does she have the desire?
5. PPA on the Big CBS Again (Gritty) – It has to be a good thing for the sport to be on real national TV. Whether it is worth the price of admission to the network for the PPA is a different question. However, whenever anything is on regular cable, my completely uninterested in pro pickleball Dad always lets me know and it is usually because someone else he plays pickleball with has told him about it. Most pickleball players are not seeking out YouTube streams so it cannot hurt to get pickleball out to a much larger demographic.
That being said, I have one gripe about the broadcast and, really, about pickleball in general that I need to get off my chest. I think it is overkill that we as the pickleball community are constantly telling people why pickleball is so great, why they should love it and why they should play it.
At times, the broadcast felt part-gold medal match, part infomercial for pro pickleball. This isn’t uncommon on broadcasts, but it feels next level whenever anything gets on national TV. The commentators cited the astronomically large numbers for people that are playing pickleball without the context that 30 or 40 million plus players refers to those who have played once. It’s a misleading number that, in my opinion, is a disservice to cite without more context. We don’t constantly feel the need to justify the growth of the sport and tell people why it is so great.
It is approximately 8.5 million people that played pickleball at least 8 times in 2022. That’s still a huge number and represents significant growth. People don’t like being told how things are or what they should do. Let’s be realistic about what the sport is and where the growth of it is at. The public can decide for themselves whether they are interested in playing and watching the sport.
I have no idea if it makes any difference, but I feel unintentionally using the broadcast as an infomercial for pickleball could be having the opposite effect on its viewers. Either way, I think it’s overkill. I’d prefer if we tempered the how amazing pickleball is movement on future national broadcasts and let the product speak for itself a little bit more.
6. Mixed Variety at the PPA (Slim) – The PPA’s mixed doubles finals have often been an anti-climatic event as it would feature the same couple of teams, and usually Ben Johns would come out on top, first when he partnered with Simone, and then last year Ben and Anna Leigh Waters were simply dominant. Ben and Anna Leigh are certainly still the top team, but this year it just feels like there are more teams that compete for the top spot, which makes it a much more entertaining event.
There have been 8 PPA events this year, and Ben and Anna Leigh have won 4 of them, but four other teams have won the other events: Anna Bright / Riley Newman won the Arizona Grand Slam, James Ignatowitch / Catherine Parenteau took the title in Minnesota, Anna Bright / James Ignatowich won in Red Rock and then Jorja Johnson / JW Johnson won this weekend Newport Beach. Ben and Anna Leigh have won 4 of the 5 times they have actually partnered this year, so there is little doubt that they are still the dominant team, but it just seems like there are more teams that are going to be able to push them as the year goes along. The only team to beat them so far are the Johnson siblings.
What has probably changed the most is that there are more women that can compete at the highest level, in particular with Jorja Johnson and Anna Bright there are a couple more women that have hands that can hold up at the highest level of mixed, and they both have the ability to create offense for their teams. The elite hands and the ability to initiate offense creates a new dynamic that presents challenges for the elite male players like Ben, who try to cover a lot of the court in mixed. I think this is one of the reasons that we have seen Riley struggle to have the same level of success this year in mixed, especially when not partnering with Anna Bright. It is tough for a guy to just dominate the mixed game if the other team has a woman who has fast and powerful hands, it just leaves the guy too exposed, if he tries to do too much.
James Ignatowich has also been making a name for himself in mixed, where his high energy and aggressive style seems to translate well. Ignatowich has picked up two gold medals this year, one with Anna Bright, and one with Catherine Parenteau. We discussed whether James might be too high on himself, considering himself a top five male in mixed, who would be top three in a few months, but he seems to be doing his best to prove us wrong.
It is going to be interesting to see if both the Bright/Ignatowitch and Johnson duo, can really push Ben and Anna Leigh as the year progresses. One could argue that both of those teams, may have a hands/power advantage over Ben and Anna Leigh, which could lead to a very interesting dynamic.
7. Down Go the Johns Bros (Gritty) – We may have to stop using the phrase “most shocking result of the year” because it is so overused already in 2023. We are guilty of that ourselves, calling Parris Todd/Beth Bellamy’s mixed split pro age loss at the US Open to Mari Humberg/Sheri Courter the most shocking result of the year. I stand by our statement there but, for those uninterested in the mixed pro split age, the Johns brothers losing to Phil Locklear and Ben Newell had to be the most shocking.
The match was streamed by Phil Locklear’s girlfriend on Facebook. There’s not too much to say. The Johns brothers lost a close first game, which they are known to do. However, the second game got out of hand quickly. Locklear/Newell got a bunch of points really fast and, before they knew it, the match was over. It’s really amazing this does not happen more often to them. I don’t think this loss means anything. It was just one of those weird things that is almost inevitable.
One more thing I want to bring up is how odd this backdraw stuff is. As much as the PPA has diminished the backdraws, I’m surprised the PPA doesn’t require their players to play the doubles backdraws. Although no one cares about the loser’s draw, I bet the fans at the venue would love to see their favorite players as much as possible in what may be their only chance to do so. It is not a huge grind to play a 5th place draw and the best part of a backdraw may be giving fans one more opportunity to see partnerships like the Johns play on court.
I know the backdraw withdrawals are accepted nowadays and I get why the players do it. I can understand all of that and still think it is odd that the Johns feel the need to withdraw on a weekend without singles and where neither of them had a Championship Sunday match to worry about. Give the people what they want, which is Benny Backdraw zombie walking his way through a game to 15.
Fantasy Update: Slim wins 9-5. We’re calling this one an asterisk win with Jessie Irvine/Etta Wright forfeiting due to illness on Etta Wright’s end. They were in Smith/Kovalova’s side of the draw and it is too bad we didn’t get to see Irvine/Wright go to battle for the first time. Asterisk or not, the win puts Slim back to even for the year.
*This article has been amended to correct that Ansboury and Braverman were defaulted from the main draw only, not the tournament.
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