The people in Utah sure do love their pickleball. Despite the cold weather last year, the fans came out in droves and were loud, especially for their hometown players. This year did not appear any different at the Red Rock Open. While pickleball continues to grow across the country, there are always going to be certain areas that have a different feel to them. Red Rock seems to have been one of the rowdier atmospheres that we have seen at any of the pro tour stops. There were not any Utah pro gold medals this time around, but there was plenty to cheer about throughout the weekend. It’s time for our takeaways from Red Rock.
1. Partnership Shakeups (Slim) – The big news heading into the weekend was the ending of the Catherine Parenteau and Jessie Irvine partnership, which created a couple of new first-time partnerships with Catherine Parenteau and Lea Jansen teaming up and Jessie Irvine teaming up with the newcomer Anna Bright. It was a mixed bag in terms of results for both of the new partnerships. Both partnerships made the winner’s semi-final and went three games, but both came up short of an upset. And then both teams lost their first loser’s bracket match. meaning they failed to make the medal match.
It sounds like Catherine and Lea are going to be partnering for the rest of the year, at least according to the report from The Kitchen. While some promise was shown, it was not the result that either Catherine or Lea were looking for. It will be interesting to see how that partnership goes long-term if they don’t quickly find some success. Parenteau is undoubtedly Jansen’s best partnership to date, but Parenteau likely has other options in the future.
Jessie/Catherine had a really good run of consistency, and they have made Championship Sunday a bunch of times in 2021 and 2022, including getting some gold medal wins. Parenteau obviously wasn’t happy with her results with Jessie but they were usually on the podium at least. It’s a risky proposition for Catherine who I guess felt that Jansen was a better option going forward in 2022.
It will also be interesting to watch and see who Jessie partners with going forward, I imagine the rest of the year will be a scramble for her, which could make finding partners difficult, in a fairly shallow pool of women’s players. That is sometimes the problem when you have a year-long commitment to someone that doesn’t work out. Irvine played a fair bit with Tereschenko last year with middling results. Lauren Stratman was supposed to be with Lea Jansen going into 2022 so it’s possible she has calendar space available. And I have no idea if Anna Bright is still working a job anymore as she can’t be working that much with all these tournaments and DUPR exhibitions she has going on.
Regardless of what happens, the shakeups have certainly added a lot of intrigue to what was quickly becoming a 3-horse podium race at these PPA events in women’s doubles.
2. AJ Koller the Natural Fit (Gritty) – Outside of losing to JW Johnson/Dylan Frazier on a terribly windy day in Port St. Lucie, Florida in March. the Johns duo have come out exactly as most people expected they would coming into 2022. The sailing was not quite as smooth in 2021 from start to finish and one of those bumps in the road came at a small PPA tour stop in Las Vegas at the hands of AJ Koller and Riley Newman. Koller had stepped in for Tyson McGuffin as a last-minute switch due to the birth of Tyson’s daughter. It was a very surprising win at a time when Koller was a lesser known commodity and McGuffin/Newman weren’t even really making Ben and Collin sweat during their matches.
We did not have a repeat of Las Vegas on Championship Sunday, but Koller/Newman came about as close as they could to doing it again. After going down 2 games in the best of 5, Koller/Newman found their way all the back and then some. They won games 3 and 4, although they almost lost game 4 despite being up 8-0. In game 5, they were up 8-3 before the Johns brothers got the stop they needed and went on an 8-0 run to take the gold medal. Ben’s JOOLA coming out party was looking like it could be spoiled for a brief few minutes in game 5 but it was not meant to be.
The most interesting part of the almost upset is that Riley Newman and Matt Wright have not been able to push Ben/Collin that far despite multiple cracks at them in 2022. Matt Wright rightfully is considered a better doubles player than AJ Koller, but there is more to partnerships than sticking two top players together. It seems like AJ Koller is simply a more natural fit for Riley than Matt Wright. Whereas Wright is a bit of a square peg, round hole situation for Riley, AJ seamlessly settles in on that right side.
Dave Fleming pointed out on the broadcast that dinking to the middle of AJ/Riley is not quite as effective by the Johns as AJ has more stuff he can do with those balls than either Wright or Newman, primarily left-sided players who are have both tried to make that right side work. Not to be the ‘intangibles’ guy, but so often in sports there is more of an art to team dynamics than we want to believe. I have no insight on the Newman/Wright dynamics, but, in addition to being left-sided players, they are two alpha guys. I noted in the live blog that AJ Koller’s overall success in doubles hasn’t been quite as good as expected so far this season, but suddenly you get him with an elite player, he’s on the brink of beating the Johns brothers again.
Expect AJ to continue playing a lot with Thomas Wilson, who is his cousin. However, you know Riley is probably wanting to find a way to get a few more tournaments scheduled with AJ. Once again, this can be the downside to committing to one player for an entire year. From a pickleball fan perspective, it would be fascinating to see AJ partner with Dekel Bar or Matt Wright as well. Koller is quite clearly an elite right sided player when given the opportunity. But AJ somehow finds his way into these random, unscheduled elite partnerships anyway. Maybe it will happen one of these days.
There it is. Partnerships. An art. Not just a science.
3. The Waters. Favorites Again (Slim) – Now riding a three-tournament winning streak, mother-daughter duo is again the team to beat in women’s doubles, for the first time since the 2019 Nationals. After taking almost all of 2020 off due to Covid, it seemed like some teams had moved ahead of the Waters, and we had kind of wondered if they would ever be able to get back to the top of the mountain together, but clearly they have been able to. At the start of 2022, it did look like the Waters were the odd-team out of the 3-horse women’s doubles race and now we have everyone trying to catch them. They have even indirectly contributed to the partnership breakup of Jessie/Catherine, who ironically were the duo that they beat at 2019 Nationals.
Of course, Anna Leigh’s game keeps improving and she has become the dominant female player in the game, but for the Water’s I feel like the key to their success this year has been figuring out the transition to Anna Leigh as the alpha in the partnership along with improvements in Leigh’s game. Leigh appears to be playing a little more patiently and with a little more consistency, and that seems to be making a huge difference for the Waters. It sounds like Anna Leigh will not be playing at the US Open but it is not clear if her time off will extend beyond that.
Nevertheless, the Waters have made their adjustments. Let’s see whether their opponents can figure out what needs to be done to get them off the top of the podium.
4. Challenge System Positives (Gritty) – The PPA implemented a challenge system a while back and, previously, I had been iffy on this implementation. In particular, I was concerned with the lack of reliability of the video replay system. There is no precision Hawkeye system in pickleball like there is in tennis. Pickleball video replay relies on less than ideal angles that can sometimes give a distorted picture to the viewer as to where the ball actually landed – if you don’t believe me, video your own play and see how it compares. However, the gold women’s doubles match on Sunday highlighted for me why (I think) I have come around to having a video challenge in place despite the shortcomings.
There were two challenges in the match. The first was a great display of sportsmanship. On game point at 10-9 in game 3, Callie Smith called a ball out on the sideline. The ball could not be challenged by the Waters because they were out of timeouts, but Lucy Kovalova self-challenged the call just in case. While I actually thought the video replay was not definitive enough to overturn the call, Callie’s call was reversed on review. The second challenge came later in that game where the Waters called a ball out on their baseline. Callie thought it was in and challenged, and the call stood.
Even though I actually think that first self-challenge shouldn’t have been overturned, it’s clear to me it is better to have a challenge system than to not have a challenge system. And, in my view, it is better than having line judges in place. I went off on Salome Devidze for what has becoming a poor trend in her short time on the pro circuit last week in the takeaways. With that recent Devidze stuff in mind, yesterday’s examples at the PPA highlighted what appears to be the best way to solve the line call issues in the sport.
Now, the PPA only has challenges for gold medal matches while the APP Tour did have line judges for their gold medal matches at the Legacy Open last weekend. So the limited PPA challenge system would not solve the Devidze situation that we saw last weekend in the earlier matches.
For where pickleball is at right now though, the problem with line judges is that we have volunteers who are making split second calls that could be the difference in thousands of dollars to these pro players, which is why pros have pushed back against line judges being involved. The challenge system is a check and balance that allows players to still make their own calls while, at the same time, ensuring players can’t make egregiously poor calls against their opponent. When players know there is a challenge available, they are going to be less inclined to make what they know is a bad call.
We have to consider the reality of what professional pickleball is. Unless someone can find a way to have enough adequately paid and trained line judges for at least all of the streamed matches, the unfortunate reality is that players making their own calls is still probably the most reliable method of line calling out there still. Calls are never going to be perfect without a Hawkeye-esque system, but I think the most important thing is having some kind of deterrent for players to take advantage of the situation.
Although the challenge system the PPA has is far from perfect, I have come around to it being the best thing we have to get as many calls correct as possible for the time being.
5. Women’s Pro Depth (Slim) – Slowly but surely, the women’s pro division is starting to add some more depth and calibre. Player’s like Anna Bright and Parris Todd who have just really started playing pro in the last few months, are showing that they have the talent and potential to be very high end women pro players in both singles and doubles. In singles this weekend, we saw Parris push Anna Leigh in two very hard fought games, and then we saw Anna Bright take bronze in three hard fought games against Callie. We also saw Lauren Stratman and Susanah Barr taking bronze in women’s doubles this weekend, over Irina Tereschenko and Yana Grechkina. It is good to see new and different faces, and something the women’s game has desperately needed.
Fantasy Update: A very Gritty 16-14 win as Slim is now back to 5 up on the year. Slim swept men’s and Gritty swept mixed, but the difference in the scores were the Waters winning and Stratman/Barr finding their way to a bronze. This week was not a matter of either person regretting their draft choices. It was simply the way the tournament went this time around.
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