There has been quite a bit of chatter recently about the ability to go back to tournaments after MLP. We sort of contributed to this chatter by alluding to the possible letdown from MLP in our Fantasy Draft Preview before this tournament. On reflection, the talk of not being able to go back to regularly scheduled programming feels overblown. It’s like on a food show when a host tries the deep friend burger and says they can never go back to eating normal burgers ever again. No, that other dish tasted good but you’re going to keep eating burgers because they are damn good. Are team events the future of pickleball? It seems unlikely considering the history of individual and partner-based sports. It’s more likely that tournaments are the bread and butter of pickleball with MLP being the fancy accoutrements. The PPA had a big Tennis Channel weekend and, as much as we are skeptical of the TV side of things of pickleball at this stage, we are more optimistic about the Tennis Channel’s ability to bring in some new viewers compared to ESPN+ or Fox Sports 2. Let’s talk takeaways.
1. Parris’ In-Seine Weekend (Gritty) – A convincing win over the #2 singles player in the world on Thursday and a 5-game win over the dominant singles player over the past two years on Sunday to get gold. The only thing that Parris missed in San Clemente was the opportunity to take down the #3 player, Lea Jansen, who was on Parris’ side of the bracket but withdrew from singles this past weekend. While this was undoubtedly a breakout performance for Parris, it did not come out of left field either.
Now, I’ll admit it. I gave grief to Slim for taking Parris as the 4th singles player off the board. I have loved Parris’ talent, but I didn’t think she was ready for this. The last two PPA fantasy drafts, Slim has believed in the upside. Slim continued to believe despite Parris’ losses to Callie Smith and Megan Fudge at the Atlanta PPA. At the end of the day, he was right in a way that neither of us imagined he would be.
I’ll also admit this. It is annoying seeing people tout Parris Todd as this surprise breakout player when we have been talking about her for a while, especially when I’m sure there are players in the sport who see her in-person had to have been onto her sooner than us. Part of the annoyance for me comes from having been onto Parris since I wrote about both her singles and doubles performance as a takeaway after the PPA Foot Solutions in Arizona back in February. However, the bigger annoyance stems from the lack of awareness from those presenting as pickleball people who are either trying to create a better narrative or, more likely, are simply not paying enough attention to what is going on within the sport. Even the Tennis Channel’s research was lacking for Ms. Todd who was certainly not a college tennis player at UC Berkeley:
As Rodney Dangerfield might say, no respect.
Anna Bright has received the larger share of attention than Parris as the upcoming female star in pickleball, including from us here at NML. Somehow though, Todd has more quietly gone about her business with a steady rise in both her singles and doubles results. I repeat. This singles gold medal did not come out of left field for Parris.
Both her and Bright are what has been sorely lacking on the female side of pickleball, which is that influx of higher level of talent. The bare bones have always been there for Todd and a relatively short amount of time has allowed her to put the pieces of her game together. She not only won the past three APP singles events prior to her championship win at MLP, but she also found her way to a second-place women’s doubles finish with Michelle Esquivel (edit: Lauren Stratman) at the APP New York.
It’s also another piece of evidence of the tennis player takeover of singles pickleball. Although Bright’s singles results have plateaued for the time being, the two players that have given the most trouble to Anna Leigh in recent months prior to this weekend are Parris Todd and Anna Bright. The singles influx has been more evident on the men’s side as we saw James Ignatowich come away with bronze this weekend. But we’re going to keep seeing this more on the women’s side as players like Todd show how quickly the rise can happen.
The scary part for Parris Todd is that she is only getting started – her first tournament result is documented as October 2021. Anna Leigh may still be a teenager but her length of time in pickleball far exceeds Todd’s. Parris has a lot of room to grow in both singles as well as doubles but you can make strides rapidly when you probably have the best ground strokes out there on tour from the women right now. There are still going to be bumps in the road for Todd, as there always are. However, for the “old” guard in pickleball, it’s yet another wake up call that life comes at you fast.
2. Anna Leigh’s JOOLA Challenge (Slim) –
The women’s singles championship ended with some controversy as the match finished with the paddles being collected from the players. The news was that Anna Leigh had apparently challenged Parris’ JOOLA paddle that was being used. The challenge was confirmed by Parris herself as you can see in the clip below:
Parris’ paddle passed the test according to her. Now, Anna Leigh was well within her rights to challenge the paddle with the new PPA rules that have been implemented following the Crbn paddle controversy. It is $250 charge to the player if the challenge is unsuccessful, assuming the PPA is enforcing that cost – you can find the PPA Paddle and Compliance Testing policy here. While it was fully within AL’s rights to challenge the paddle, it was a very odd move from Anna Leigh and her camp. For those of you who don’t know, Anna Leigh was playing mixed with JW Johnson this weekend, who was also playing with the same JOOLA paddle. And we all know Anna Leigh’s regular mixed partner is none other than the face of JOOLA and the PPA, Ben Johns.
It is hard not to infer that Anna Leigh was under the impression that her own partners might not be playing with a legal paddle, based on her challenging the same paddle with another player. It’s fascinating on a couple of fronts as she clearly had no issue with her partners potentially playing with a paddle she thought could be illegal but when the shoe was on the other foo,t she was also willing to throw her own accomplishments into question, as well as her partners, after losing to Parris Todd in singles.
It is easy to see where Anna Leigh could get ideas about the JOOLA paddle not potentially meeting the requirements, given the previous controversy with the JOOLA paddle which we have covered fairly extensively on this blog. There’s also a lot more discussion that goes on behind the scenes with pro players that we aren’t privy to. Parris’ paddle did pass, and we can generously classify the move as very strange by Anna Leigh. It sure had a sour grapes feel for the budding teenage star who has not been accustomed to losing in singles.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Anna Leigh handles defeats and setbacks in an increasingly competitive sport, where she has had so much success so fast. Hopefully this is not an indication of how things will be moving forward. We already have seen how poorly Ben has handled losing over the past year. It isn’t expected that top athletes should be okay with losing, but there’s more professional ways to deal with these things that we are seeing so far in 2022 from the top players.
You also have to wonder if more players will start challenging paddles in the tournaments to come. One thing that seems almost certain is that all this paddle drama is not going away, any time soon.
3. Singles Draw Shenanigans (Gritty)- We may give PPA draws and seeding more attention than they deserve as we have been fairly vocal of the PPA’s apparent propensity to provide their contracted players with favorable draws really since the beginning of the year. Our commentary in this respect is generally reserved for live blogs or side comments in a takeaway. After this weekend though, I had to make the men’s singles bracket a takeaway all by itself as the draw for the Orange County Cup was the most hilariously constructed draw the PPA has put together to date.
The PPA’s unconfirmed, but quite evident draw shenanigans have been most apparent in singles as the structure of PPA points makes it very difficult for any fluctuation in the standings. Tyson has been the biggest beneficiary of this over the course of 2022 with a whole bunch of Championship Sundays to his name as the #2 seed without any gold medals to show for it. It’s pretty clear this isn’t conspiracy theory type stuff from our view. There’s too much evidence at this point, with the OC singles draw being the straw that broke the camel’s back. Without Ben in the picture, the PPA make sure to take exceptionally good care of one of its other prized contracted players.
In a very strong singles field, Tyson McGuffin somehow avoided being on the same half of the draw as the players we both had ranked in some order in the top 7 of the draw – JW Johnson, Federico Staksrud, Gabriel Joseph, James ignatowich, Jay Devilliers, and Julian Arnold. These players all had to battle on the death-half of the draw while Tyson was gifted the Charmin ultra soft-half of the draw. Tyson’s worst case scenario featured matchups against some combination of John Cincola sans spin serve, Tyler Loong, Ryan Sherry, Frank Anthony Davis or Hayden Patriquin. Of course, Tyson took full advantage of the cake walk draw to another Championship Sunday.
This draw was a complete joke. There’s no other way to put it. It takes an unthinkable lack of shame to consistently present draws as following a specific process when, in reality, there is hand-picked favortism to your contracted players. You really have to wonder what all the pros think of this behind closed doors, including the less favored contracted players like Jay Devilliers. As the #2 seed, Jay got stuck having to play tough match after tough match. Outside of the players we mentioned above, Jay had to play Dylan Frazier early in the day as well.
You want to present as the “premiere” tour in pickleball? It is hard for me to take that seriously when you are so willing to throw caution to the competitive integrity wind.
4. What’s the Beef with Matt Wright? (*Title edited from original post) (Slim) – You might not like him, but you also probably won’t beat him, is basically the Matt Wright story. This weekend it was Wes Burrows airing his feelings on Matt Wright which you can see here, and the usually affable Burrows made it quite clear that there was no love lost with Matt. It seems that this is a sentiment towards Matt is shared by a good number of players on the tour (*language edited from original post). However, you might not like Matt and how he acts, but you also can’t deny his talent and his results. As most of the game’s originals have been passed, Matt Wright remains at or near the top of the sport, despite being one of the only top pro players with a full-time job that isn’t pickleball, which makes his success and staying power even more impressive (we continue to be impressed by this). Add in the fact that he is in 40’s and it is all the more remarkable. I think there is a pretty strong argument to be made, that Matt has the most natural talent of any player in the game, when you consider all factors.
Matt and Riley Newman are now on a three-tournament winning streak after this weekend, and it has everyone looking forward to a potential rematch against the Johns brothers in August after Matt and Riley finally took them down in Atlanta. And in mixed, Matt with Lucy haven’t quite found the top of the podium this year yet, but after a slow start, they have gotten their familiar silver medal, in three straight tournaments as well.
Matt kind of carries himself as that bully in the school yard on the court, which is what I think rubs a lot of players the wrong way, but as we know, until someone can actually stand up to that bully and hold their own, that bully is going to run the school yard, and Matt Wright for the most part still runs the yard, Jeff Warnick trash talk be damned. Villains are good for sports, and with each player altercation Matt seems to become a bigger villain which may not be a bad thing from a fan interest perspective.
5. Jay Devilliers’ Rough Return (Slim) – Jay Devilliers had what had to qualify as a disappointing weekend return as he failed to make the podium in any of his three events this weekend. Coming off an 8-week layoff where he had not played a competitive pickleball match since the Red Rock Open, at the start of April, it would be fair to chalk up Jay’s results to simply being the result of rust. However, outside of mixed doubles, his results this year have been fairly disappointing overall. Given Jessie Irvine’s silver medal performance at the US Open with Tyler Loong and bronze medal performance at the PPA North Carolina with Julian Arnold, in his absence, it is fair to ask how much of that mixed success credit belongs to Jessie.
A fair question to ask is where will Jay rank and what will his game look like in a year’s time? Jay does not seem to have the same hand speed or power of many of the other top men’s players. Catherine Parenteau had no fear in going after him for the entirety of their mixed match on Friday. We have seen the lack of heavy hands in his partnership with Tyson McGuffin this year have resulted in largely sub-par results, outside of a couple of bronze medals. While he was able to pull out a silver in a very shallow singles field in Minnesota, the new talent in singles seems to be passing him by. This is not our first time nothing that he has yet to add a lot to his overall pickleball game over the last year, which in a sport that is evolving as quickly as pickleball is a problem. But the biggest issue is that it’s unclear how much anyone can do about a lack of quick and powerful hands at the highest level.
We could see Jay continue to partner with Jessie and have success in mixed doubles, using his length and athleticism to put pressure on the opponents. And perhaps he will find a new men’s doubles partner next year, one with a game similar to his old partner Patrick Smith, that better suits his strengths and weaknesses. Preferably a player with a big drive, that can put pressure on the opponents, and allow Jay to crash, and that also has weapons at the net which forces opponents to play Jay and allows him to be the workhorse in the partnership. And perhaps, he will also be able to continue to grind out some singles results, thanks in large part to his motor and no quit attitude. This would be the optimistic outlook on Jay a year from now. I fear, unless he finds a way to evolve his game, that in a year’s time, while still a good player, Jay will not be somebody we will be seeing regularly on the podium at the big pro tournaments.
Fantasy Update: We have a tie for the week. 15-15. Slim’s big Parris Todd pick was the difference maker here. Gritty said she went too early and there goes Parris winning gold against the #1 choice from the draft, Anna Leigh Waters. That was the only upset of the #1 slots picked this weekend. Although, you wonder how the women’s doubles matchup goes if Anna Leigh hadn’t come off of playing two grueling 5 game matchups in mixed and singles. Slim is still 5 up on the year.
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