It was a really rough weekend from a weather standpoint for the PPA Orlando. Neither of us had any idea that it basically rains every day in the summer in Orlando. The more we learn about Florida, it’s honestly a wonder why so many people move there. Yeah, there is lots of sunshine and beaches, but there’s also a lot of humidity, wind and even stormy weather. It’s quite the experience to have to expect a rain delay at some point of every tournament day in the late summer and, unfortunately, there were some fairly extensive rain delays in Orlando over the weekend. They did a good job working through it despite the not ideal TV timing with the Tennis Channel and not being able to finish the matches on there. From a results standpoint, this was a very fun, not what we’re used to results from a PPA tournament so lots to discuss with our takeaways from the weekend.
1. Simone Slip? (Slim) – Essentially since she entered pickleball Simone Jardim has been the surest bet in pro pickleball and, since she has teamed up with Ben Johns and Lucy Kovolova almost exclusively, she has been, until very recently, almost unbeatable. She was actually more likely to win a triple crown, entering into a weekend, then she was to not win, which is insane.
At the beginning of this year, we started to see her get passed by in singles by the likes of Anna Leigh Waters, Lea Jansen and Catherine Parenteau. This was not a shocking development as singles is primarily a young person’s game and Simone has usually only played singles in the biggest events. We have seen her primarily choose not to play singles events lately which makes sense, from a saving her body perspective, especially given that singles is now far from a free extra cheque for her. I think it is worth noting that Simone did try to play singles this week, and lost to a relative newcomer in the singles game Callie Smith, in straight games in her only singles match. I suspect we will not see Simone in any singles draws for a while now.
While there was a drop in her singles game, Simone has remained dominant in the doubles game until the last month. Other than one loss in the US Open women’s doubles gold medal match, Simone was winning everything with Ben and Lucy. We have now seen Simone and Lucy drop three straight women’s doubles finals, two of those to Jessie Irvine and Catherine Parenteau and then this weekend to the Waters. We have also seen Simone drop a gold medal match in mixed with Ben at the Takeya Showcase, against Matt and Lucy, and then this weekend we saw her and Ben fail to make the podium, losing on the Dekel Bar and Vivienne David on the winners side, 11-4, 11-7 and then getting knocked out by Matt and Lucy.
Losses happen, everyone is human, and we have seen Simone lose before and then come back on big winning streaks, but what is different about these losses for Simone, is that in the women’s game at least, teams for the first time are seeing her as the play and trying to grind her. It appears some teams view her as being older and someone they can grind. This does lead to a further question about how Simone’s game will age over the next couple years here, as she is someone’s whose game is very much predicated on consistency. She does not have overwhelming power or attacks, but generally she can just go longer than the other team without making a mistake. As she continues into her mid-40’s you have to wonder how this style will hold up, particularly as she is having to play more tournament pickleball than she ever has before, due to the growing pro tour.
It will be interesting to see how Simone responds to these challenges, as she has had to deal with relatively little adversity in her pickleball career, and now she is the one having to answer the bell and prove to her opponents and partners that she still has it. She is someone who also works very hard on her game, so I will be curious to what, if any, changes she makes. Maybe it is too early to ask but could this be a Kyle Yates 2019 situation coming?
2. AJ Koller (Gritty) – We really have talked about AJ Koller quite a bit since we started this blog but this is a guy that simply goes about his business. He’s not a big personality on the court nor does he have a game that jumps off the page. Over the course of 2021, Koller has turned himself into a legit triple threat at the higher end pro level of pickleball. He’s not a tier one or higher end tier two guy yet, but he has steadily climbed the ranks in not a great deal of time with tournament history going back only to early 2019.
This past weekend, Koller played with Lea Jansen and they worked all the through to 4th place in another stacked mixed field. The duo literally had match point against Lucy Kovalova and Matt Wright. He then followed that up with a huge silver in the men’s pro division, taking down Tyson McGuffin and Riley Newman in the process. AJ is in his early 30s so he’s not getting younger, which does not make the singles easier, but as he showed at the US Open April with his 4th place finish, he’s not one to sleep on in singles either.
Go through AJ’s tournament results, and you see a lot of wins against legit teams. Again, nothing fancy about his game but steady all around. He’s not a guy who has that D1 college tennis background either. He has just played a ton of pickleball over the past couple of years. It looks like he is starting to be a more coveted partner in both mixed and men’s going into 2022. I’m still not sure what his ultimate ceiling is. However, it is clear that he has podium upside in these bigger pro tournaments with the right partnerships.
3. Mixed Madness (Slim) – I have to admit that mixed day, in these bigger pro tournaments had become my least favorite day until recently, despite mixed being an event I generally enjoy. The inevitability of it all just took the fun of it, for me. Then a few weeks ago we got Matt and Lucy defeating Ben and Simone finally. And then this week, we got chaos and anarchy, a mixed final with no Ben, Simone, Matt or Lucy. We got to watch a couple of relatively new and entertaining mixed partnerships in Jay Devilliers and Jessie Irvine take on Riley Newman and Catherine Parenteau. It was honestly just fun to see something different. It was also cool to see another new partnership in AJ Koller and Lea Jansen, battling Matt and Lucy in the bronze medal match.
I am excited to see what may transpire with mixed next year as well, as I think the addition of a couple more women who can really compete at the top level has created the opportunity for a couple more elite mixed teams to work their way up next year. This should, in turn, create some for some fun and entertaining mixed draws.
4. More Seeding (Gritty) – I’m honestly a little bit tired of talking about the seeding at the PPA tournaments and there wasn’t too much that was overly poor from a seeding standpoint on the face of it at this tourney. Nevertheless, what brought this to the forefront on Thursday was the fact that Jack Foster had to play Tyson McGuffin in the first round. People were also upset that JW Johnson and Kyle Yates were playing, which was pretty dumb to get upset about in theory since Yates hasn’t been an elite singles player for years.
It was shared on Facebook that the PPA finally provided some transparency on how they are seeding their tournaments. The email explains that “from here on out” the new seeding process “solely depends” on PPA points represented on the Franklin PPA player ranking. The seeds are then set with the #1 and #2 seeds on opposite sides of the bracket, #3 and #4 decided by a coin flip, #5 through #8 randomized, and seeds 9 and beyond are completely random.
My understanding is that Kyle Yates was actually the seeded player in that matchup as JW Johnson does not have many PPA points. The system inherently rewards players who play at PPA events, which I guess is fine in a vacuum if you are trying to draw more pros to your events. The thing is, I really don’t understand only seeding up to #8 when a lot of these brackets go quite deep. It seems you should have seeding through #16 in brackets of at least a certain size so that we aren’t left with the JW’s and Jack Foster’s of the world playing seeded players in the first round. For example, all the tennis majors seed up to #32 out of a 64 player bracket and the remaining seeds past #32 are all randomized. I would think a good benchmark for seeding would be half the size of the bracket.
This system may be good for drawing pros to more tourneys but it doesn’t seem that good for the PPA itself when they continue to do things like seed the Waters outside of the top 4 – I should clarify, the gold medal winning Waters duo. They’re putting their better players in more danger of not being around for the bigger matches, especially without a back way into the gold. It’s nice there is some kind of transparency on the system, but I’d love to know more behind the reasoning of going this route – PPA points and limited seeding.
The last question that I have, which I noted in the live blog this wekend, is why is DUPR not being used. DUPR is a prominent sponsor of the PPA and we are constantly seeing the DUPR win probabilities for matches being shared on social media yet we’re using PPA points to determine seeding? Based on the win probabilities I have seen, DUPR clearly isn’t perfect but it has to be better from a seeding standpoint than PPA points. Maybe the PPA feels DUPR isn’t ready for prime time? Or it could come down to incentivizing players to play PPA?
We’ll have to give it a bit more time to see how the seeding goes in future tournaments. Early returns were not terribly promising.
5. Amateur and Senior Pro Experience (Slim) –
As we were not actually at the tournament, I am not going to comment on the specifics of the events but it seems a lot of the amateurs and senior pros were not happy with the PPA at the Orlando event. See below for a few of the threads on this issue from the Pickleball Forum.
I think that this is definitely something to watch and monitor, as there certainly seems to be sentiments out there, that the PPA caters to its contracted pro players and does not care about anyone else. I am beyond skeptical that a pickleball tour can survive at this point in time without the amateur players but, at the same time, having the biggest draws in the game under contract is a big advantage. As is the case with almost everything, it is one of those only time will tell situations.
Fantasy Update: We’re finally getting a run from one of us in the fantasy as Slim is now 3 up on the year with a 16-12 win. The Simone/Ben podium-less finish was the big game changer as that flipped a lot of points even though Gritty did have Parenteau/Newman to rack up 3 points. Slim had both the gold and silver medal women’s doubles teams, and also got a big 2 point silver from JW Johnson/AJ Koller (the pick of the week for sure).
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