The halfway point of the PPA season is officially complete as there is about a month off until the next PPA in Denver. The players will go straight into the San Clemente MLP season 1 finale before getting their mini summer break. The APP will be continuing business as usual, of course, as well. With MLP right around the corner, we still have to recap the weekend that was with our takeaways from one of the more desired PPA spots on the calendar.
(1) Halfway There (Gritty) – Have you heard that it is the halfway point of the PPA season? If you haven’t, you may know that Anna Leigh Waters and Ben Johns are still the best players in pickleball and it is not even that close. At a certain point, pickleball fans are going to have to accept that dominance often prevails in individual type sports. Novak Djokovic just won his 23rd major title this past weekend as he continued this unprecedented length of dominance in men’s tennis between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic over the past 20 years. Even though Pickleball is a doubles heavy sport, one player can have an enormous impact on the final outcome.
What I find most remarkable about the dominance that Anna Leigh Waters and Ben Johns have exhibited this year is that they have found a way not to fall behind the times. Unlike other more established sports, pickleball is experiencing an unprecedented arrival of talent at the sports highest level. The number of years that Ben and AL have been playing the sport is long in pickleball years but low relative to most athletes in other professional sports. Despite the influx of more talented players and a sizeable shift in the sport is played over the past 5 years, the dominant duo somehow have separated themselves from the pack to a greater extent in 2023.
Their dominance separately and together is absurd, and it was not that long ago when we were questioning how long this dominance could last. Remember 2022 Nationals when Riley Newman and Anna Leigh Waters dismantled Ben Johns and Catherine Parenteau? That Nationals result combined with Riley Newman and Matt Wright’s success in men’s doubles over the Johns brothers in the 2nd half of 2022 was potentially a sign that Riley Newman had closed the gap as the best men’s player in the world.
With Anna Leigh Waters, we had often wondered what life would be like in women’s doubles if she partnered with one of the other top females. It is no surprise that she has been literally unstoppable in women’s doubles, going undefeated through the first half of the year. There haven’t been any questions as to Anna Leigh’s place as the best female in pickleball since she teamed up with Ben in mixed, but there has been an expectation that more athletic women would be coming to the game, which is finally happening.
As has been the case in men’s tennis for the past 10 to 15 years, we are always looking for the next thing and wondering whether there is a path for someone else to take the crown as best player. Dominance is needed to a certain degree, but it can also be boring. Did anyone care to watch this year’s French Open final with Novak Djokovic? What about the men’s, women’s and mixed finals in San Clemente? I’ll be 100% honest. I didn’t watch a second of those Sunday matches despite the fact that I’m writing a takeaway about how amazing these two are as players.
I get that Ben and Anna Leigh got in early to the sport, but it feels like a long time ago when I watched Anna Leigh and her mother win 2019 Nationals when no one really knew if their banger style could hold up at the highest level. Both Anna Leigh and Ben keep improving and honing their craft to hold their spot as the pinnacle of the sport. It’s not easy to maintain your standing at the top, especially for Ben who does not possess a physical athletic advantage over a good number of the players he is competing against on a regular basis.
I write this as another homage to the best in the sport. As much as I want to see someone else start to win, it cannot be ignored that we are at the halfway mark of 2023 and these two are better than ever in a sport that is as competitive as it has ever been.
(2) Still Tyson Time (Slim) – Tyson McGuffin podiumed in his first major back in 2016, a bronze at the Tournament of Champions. Fast forward seven years from there to today, and the sport has changed a lot. There are Pro Tours now, and it is unclear what the ‘Majors’ are, but what has not changed is Tyson McGuffin is still on the podium at the biggest tournaments in singles more often than not.
If you looked at how the game was played in 2016 and how it is played now, to say it looks different would be a vast understatement. You would have been hard pressed to find more than a couple of players back then that could hit passing shots from both sides whereas almost all of the pros have passing shots from both sides now. That also is what makes Tyson a bit of an anomaly at this point, as he still doesn’t really have a backhand passing shot of any consistency, yet he continues to find a way to get the job done at the highest level (his backhand has improved marginally).
Another impressive part of Tyson’s staying power, is the fact that most of the guys he is doing it against are in their early to mid-twenties while Tyson is turning 34 this year. Singles is very quickly transitioning to a young man’s game which makes sense when you consider the physical nature of the event, and the grind of these pro draws with the deep fields, and having to try and work your way through the whole bracket in a day. Tyson has continued to work and grind his fitness, and it is clearly paying off as this weekend he was on top of the podium, with a couple guys in their early to mid-twenties on either side. Tyson mentioned on a recent podcast that he has put on 10 to 15 pounds in the last 3 months, which is putting in work for that very short period of time.
Tyson’s staying power obviously isn’t limited to singles either, as he was on the podium in all three events this weekend, with the gold in singles, a silver in mixed doubles and a bronze in men’s doubles. We have both written about this many times since the inception of the blog but every time we are writing off Tyson thinking the game may be about to pass him by, he seems to reinvent himself and find a way to stay near the top.
Heading into this year I had questions about how the youth movement in singles and the overall depth of the draws would keep Tyson away from the podium in singles, but he keeps getting it done. We also wondered if he had the hand speed and firepower in doubles to keep up, but his mixed partnership with Catherine Parenteau has been very successful all year, and in Red Rock after James left him that tournament to partner with Riley, he made the improbable gold medal run with Brendon Long, which included beating James and Riley in the semi-finals.
The bottom line is, you can’t count out Tyson McGuffin.
(3) It’s the Grind (Slim) – We have talked a decent amount about the physical grind of pro pickleball but it is also a huge mental grind for pro players as well. It is a week in, week out grind of matches. Players are having to grind 2, 3 or in some cases 4 days in a row, week, after week. That is multiple matches a day, with events often taking up the majority of the day if you make a deep run. Then there is all of the travel involved, which we all know takes a toll, and then players also have to get their training in and live their everyday lives.
This weekend James Ignatowitch tweeted out “Anyone know a good sports psychologist” and that this was his “Toughest loss in a while” after a disappointing mixed semi-finals loss. He may have been, slightly joking obviously, but it was also pretty clear that he was in his head to a certain degree and disappointed with where his play was at. The thing was James still had men’s doubles the next day and to his credit he was able to pull it together, as he and Tyson had their best day together to date, beating JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier and ending the day with a bronze medal.
It was a commendable bounce back performance from James, and I have to wonder if maybe he wasn’t playing with a bit of ‘nothing to lose’ attitude. He and Tyson also switched it up having James playing on the right some and, as an outside observer, I also felt like this partnership was at that same nothing to lose stage, after probably not having the results they had hoped for to date.
It is going to also be interesting to see how players handle the mental grind of pickleball as well. Meghan Dizon posted on Instagram after this tournament that the back to back tourneys “really got to me”. We have talked about the physical toll that it must be putting on a lot of these players, who have now been playing pro pickleball for pretty much two years straight, but there is also a huge mental toll as well from that grind, and it is going to be tough for players to handle it. Outside of the top few players, taking an extended break is tough to do from both a financial perspective but also a competitive perspective, as taking time off means you aren’t collecting tour points and as result your seeding also suffers.
If pickleball continues on its current path, players are also going to have to learn to deal more with ‘fame’ and having a bigger spotlight on them. James and Anna Bright both have not been afraid to go on podcasts, and speak fairly freely on their goals in pickleball and their belief in their abilities. We have previously talked about how having these self beliefs and the confidence to say them is an important part of being a successful athlete, but for many people it also has to add another layer of pressure for them, and as pickleball continues to grow that pressure is only going to intensify.
(4) Hurricane Season (Slim) – Original title, I know. I’m not apologizing for it. Hurricane Tyra Black is one of the most intriguing rising female players in an ever-growing crop of new talent finally emerging on the women’s side of the sport. As a former professional tennis player, Black has a better resume that most of the pro pickleball world. Vivian Glozman and Black are probably the two most hyped new women in the game right now, and Tyra Black showed up this weekend in women’s as she got an opportunity to partner with Lea Jansen.
Jansen/Black did something that few teams have been able to do this year, which is take a game off Anna Leigh in women’s doubles. They came out with a Jansen drive, Hurricane crash strategy that worked wonders in the first game as Black’s athleticism was on full display. They were not able to take the match from Parenteau/Waters, but games 2 and 3 were not a walkthrough either. The solid day led to Jansen pronouncing (possibly somewhat in jest) on Twitter that Lea and Tyra 2024 is locked in.
In my view, Tyra represents a fascinating test case. Although on the surface she fits the classic mold of tennis player turned pro pickleballer, her skill set is not nearly as conventional as it may seem. Whereas someone like Glozman screams classically trained in tennis with a punishing forehand and picture perfect two-hand backhand, Black has a weird style where she slices balls that many other players would otherwise roll on her forehand and generally isn’t as silky smooth as an Anna Bright, Parris Todd or Etta Wright. Her athleticism may be the best in women’s pickleball, but that’s the biggest reason why she’s able to come away with back-to-back 5th place finishes in singles the past two tournaments. Hat tip to Slim for showing this to me a couple of months ago, but watch Tyra play professional tennis and you can see where her less than conventional singles strokes come from. I was floored to see that she appears to slice a very high percentage of her forehands in a professional tennis match. Something may have happened to her as some 2018 junior tennis footage of her shows her wailing on the ball from both sides so I have no idea what happened in those few years.
Despite her current somewhat unconventional style, Black is able to mask some of these quirks with exceptional hands and court coverage. She has this forehand counter that’s kind of a pancake but not really a pancake, which gives opponents trouble. Black’s one-hand, backhand roll is getting better and she has finishing power. She gets a lot of love, and rightfully so, but there has been little acknowledgement in this love as to how unconventional her style is.
That being said, pickleball is not a solved game by any means. I think Tyra’s natural abilities are going to take her a long way and she’ll keep figuring out how to best harness her abilities. I’ll just be curious what that ceiling ends up being should she continue being all-in on pickleball. The growth comes quickly at this stage in pickleball for players as athletic as Tyra is and putting in the reps. There is a good chance she will be drafted as a Premier player for MLP next month considering the next MLP event is still 3 months away. That is a lot of time for a team to bank on early, exponential growth in her game to keep happening.
I’m also curious what a fully formed version of Black’s game will look like. Players like Bright, Todd and Wright all have a polished style that Black doesn’t emulate in the same way. But how much does that matter when she’s so much more gifted physically than most new players and will likely be able to solve the riddle for how to do what is needed? Also, it does appear that a more conventional style of play was within her skill set at one point in time.
I don’t have any big proclamations with Tyra because I’m not entirely sure. There’s a part of me that could see her as a top 5 female in the game and there’s another part of me that wonders whether her unconventional style causes her to plateau at some point unless she makes some alterations to how she hits the ball.
5. Senior Pro Shake-Up (Gritty) – These PPA senior pro draws are not nearly as deep as what we were seeing at the APP pro events in 2022, but they are still bringing out some strong players at the top. A trend we have noticed is that once some of these players start pushing past those first couple of years at age 50, there is a noticeable dip in the level. This is not stat based or anything. It is anecdotal. So someone can put together the numbers if they really care enough to do that.
I just wonder if there really is something to the fact that there is a more noticeable physical drop off as a person shifts into their early to mid-50s. In their year 53 for pickleball, Dayne Gingrich and Scott Crandall had a borderline shocking loss to Todd Murphy and Scott Johnston. There is no double elimination in the PPA to come back to gold as Gingrich/Crandall lost 11-5, 11-9.
Todd Murphy is in his year 60 and isn’t brand new to this pickleball thing. Scott Johnston is in his year 51. The pair went 1-2 at the last PPA. Yet here they are beating Chris Miller and Kevin Booth then besting probably the most dominant senior pro player of the past few years, Dayne Gingrich.
The mental guru and Scott Crandall have been stalwarts at the top of the senior game for a while and I can’t help question whether it is an indication it is harder to be dominant at the senior level as the sport gets better and they get older. Maybe this was a small sample size for a one-off match and the mental guru has some lessons that will keep him being dominant for his next event. However, the pair also played two other matches that went to 3-games prior to losing the gold.
It was interesting to see this result. Notable enough to have a second straight week with a senior pro takeaway.
Fantasy Update: We missed a good chunk of points this week. It is 14-10 for Slim, which means we missed 6 total points. Collin Shick and Connor Garnett went undrafted in men’s singles while we also missed Ignatowich/McGuffin in men’s and Wright/Tereschenko in women’s. Slim is only 1 down for the year as we hit the halfway mark.
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