PPA Tour Red Rock Open – 6 Takeaways – The Underrated Squad

📸 @ppatour

Utah always brings out a special kind of atmosphere for pro pickleball. There are so many pickleball courts and players in the state of Utah, and their thirst for pro pickleball is second to none. We sometimes wonder if the PPA does a disservice to its product at these rowdier stops by making every championship court look the same as each stop can feel quite similar on the live stream. Nevertheless, it was still evident that the crowds were different at Red Rock even though some of the top players were not there, including Ben Johns. There is no definitive conclusion on this, yet, but there seems to be a trend of Ben avoiding stops where you can expect faster conditions. The tournaments he will miss in the first half of the year are indoors in Minnesota, April in the high, colder altitude of Utah and indoors in North Carolina in May. So much to talk about, so little time.  

We said that we were going to have a big takeaway on paddle controversy but we have decided to defer that to tomorrow. There’s a lot of interesting stuff from the weekend that we want to cover, and we have a lot of words on the paddle situation so it will be its own separate article that we’ll post on Tuesday. Keep an eye out for that.

1. The Underrated Squad (Gritty) – Tyson McGuffin and Brendon Long are two players who are at vastly different points in their pickleball careers, but they have something very much in common. Somehow, both guys came into Red Rock as underrated. With one of the most surprising gold medals in pro pickleball history, which is a line that is likely overused at this point, Brendon Long and Tyson McGuffin demonstrated they more than belong in their respective places that people may not have thought or think that they belong.

James Ignatowich and Tyson McGuffin were set to play the entire year together, but plans can change. Tyson McGuffin made what I would call a marketing move to partner with American tennis star, Jack Sock, in North Carolina at the beginning of May. Our understanding is that some time after the North Carolina situation, with Matt Wright choosing not to play Red Rock, Riley Newman asked Ignatowich to partner and Ignatowich obliged, leaving Tyson without a partner. It doesn’t seem like there are any hard feelings as McGuffin/Ignatowich will continue to play together in 2023, but it was apparent Tyson had a chip on his shoulder as a result of this.

Playing with the rising stock of Brendon Long, McGuffin/Long smoked Devilliers/Young in the quarters, upset Newman/Ignatowich in the semis with Tyson getting a shot at James in the post-match interview and won a barn burner of all barn burners in the finals against Collin Johns/Dekel Bar, winning 13-11 in the 5th game. It was an all-time type of match, staving off a Dekel Bar sitter on match point that he dumped in the net.

Brendon Long played most of the tournament on the left side as Tyson seems to finally be accepting that he is optimized as a right-side player. However, in the finals, Long got beat up in games 2 and 3 on the left so they made the switch with Tyson on the left for the most part, and that did the trick for them to pull out the match.

Long/McGuffin were an afterthought in this tournament, undrafted by either of us in our fantasy preview. It is a theme for both of these guys in their careers, especially more recently with Tyson despite the success that he has had. Brendon Long has simply been an afterthought in pro pickleball before the last two months. It has been said a million times, but he went from undrafted in the Challenger division somehow to a near guaranteed Premier spot in that period of time.

Long’s bronze with Stefan Auvergne and gold with Bobbi Oshiro at the APP Daytona put him on the map to be picked up in the Challenger Shuffle Draft, and he parlayed that into taking Miami from a laughing stock to semi-final team. He proceeded to get picked up for the playoff run of a Premier division team for Tyson McGuffin, who was out at MLP with an undisclosed injury and was magically healthy a week and a half later in Utah. We have seen players have their profiles rise quickly, but we haven’t seen it move this quickly for an established player like Brendon Long. At least, not that I can recall. Long is no longer underrated, which is what a PPA gold medal in men’s doubles will do for you.

What is interesting is that McGuffin is underrated in his own way. As we are looking for the next best thing in pickleball, Tyson keeps grinding out medals. When I think he is done winning in singles, he shows his experience by making a fool out of Connor Garnett and winning in the finals against Pablo Tellez. Possible paddle antics aside for Tyson this weekend, he is somehow grinding out singles wins without a reliable backhand pass, which is a testament to his experience and ability to improve just enough each year.

McGuffin’s doubles game is where he has always been underrated. Tyson doesn’t do anything spectacularly nor does he have elite hands. He is just uber consistent and has developed enough offence to keep you honest. Tyson stays competitive in doubles even though he gets less high-end practice than probably any other established, top pro out there. It’s a testament to his grind and it should demonstrate to any pros or wannabe pros that you can still get better without top pros around you. It sure is helpful to move to Austin or Florida, but it isn’t a death knell either.

While Long is so underrated he could become overrated by the time Season 2 of MLP rolls around, Tyson will likely stay underrated (inability to finish MLP tournaments aside). His staying power is outstanding, but the lack of flash in his game will keep leaving people, including me, looking for the next, exciting thing rather than the dude with the mullet and tattoos. What is Tyson’s upside at this point in his career is a real question. Still, he is a threat tournament in and tournament out because of the fight and experience in him.

It was a heck of a showing from Long and McGuffin this weekend. Long has taken his opportunities when they have come for him in 2023 and Tyson seems to be at his best when we are all counting him out. Everyone likes an underdog, and these two underdogged their way to some outstanding results in Utah.

2. Utah Ladies Show Out (Slim) – Utah is known for their pickleball talent and there is no shortage of top players hailing from that region. There were a bunch of Utah players in the mix for medals this weekend and it was Etta Wright/Meghan Dizon coming out on top in women’s doubles over Lea Jansen and, fellow Utah gal, Allyce Jones, in 5 games

It has been a particularly good stretch for Meghan, as this was her second straight Championship day appearance in women’s doubles after she and Vivienne David took silver in Austin, at the last PPA stop.

Playing with Allyce Jones in 2022, neither Dizon nor Jones showed real signs of being great women’s players together, except Jones had mixed results that indicated she had more to give. However, we thought it was notable at the time of the MLP draft, that Ben Johns was comfortable to trade down and take Dizon, allowing his team a higher pick for the last men’s spot. After the first MLP stop where both Dizon and Wright struggled a bit, it seemed like perhaps it was a questionable move, but since that Dizon has proved that Ben was right in making the trade. Ben Johns knows pickleball and I’d be very curious what his thoughts were at the time of the draft – how much he expected this trajectory for Dizon as a real possibility. 

It was hard to know what Dizon was heading into the year, as she and Allyce Jones had average results last year playing together on the PPA tour, and her mixed results for the most part weren’t great. After Allyce got off to a great start with Lea Jansen this year, it was fair to wonder if Dizon was an average pro with not a ton of upside. But her last month has proven that she does have significant upside.

Etta Wright is a beast herself. She has all the tools to be a top end doubles player and she is continuing to show that in 2023. I don’t have much to say beyond that right now. She’s really good and I still expect her to be one of the best female players in pickleball by the end of the year. 

Dizon still isn’t getting great mixed results, but the theoretical power and aggressiveness is now showing up in her women’s results. Dizon and Wright will likely both be drafted higher than they were selected in the season 2 MLP Premier draft as non-singles players, and it’ll be fun to see what they can do over the next few months. 

In talking about the women’s doubles, it also has to be noted that it was another disappointing weekend for the Anna Bright and Vivienne David partnership. The Bright/David team lost to Wright/Dizon in the semis and then also fell to Lucy and Callie in the bronze match. They are a partnership that seem to make a ton of sense, as David is one of the best right side female players and Bright is one the best left side female players, but in a couple appearances this year, they haven’t gotten the results they could have been hoping for.

3. The Chicken and Egg of Collin Johns and Dekel Bar (Gritty) – Collin Johns and Dekel Bar are, on paper, a really good fit together. Collin is arguably the best right-sided male in the game and Dekel Bar is one of the best on the left, even though he has playing some on the right with more recent JW Johnson and AJ Koller partnerships. After Newman/Ignatowich got knocked out of the finals, it was expected Bar/Johns would be the gold medal team on Saturday, but it wasn’t to be. Collin/Dekel lost a back and forth 5-game final to Brendon Long/Tyson McGuffin, 13-11 in game 5.

I may not be talking this way if Dekel Bar put away a high ball that Long left up for him on match point at 11-10, but that’s the difference sometimes between gold and silver. What I am talking about are the questions that I have about Dekel Bar and Collin Johns as truly elite, men’s doubles players.

We don’t get many opportunities to see Collin Johns away from Ben Johns. Collin’s talent is undeniable, but the development of his game to perfectly suit brother Ben may have stifled his ability to play outside that specific role. Collin had a tough day with James Ignatowich in Minnesota, albeit after James almost collapsed due to cramping the day before, and now failed to secure gold with Dekel Bar in a thinner men’s field.

I’m also wondering whether Dekel Bar’s prowess has become more reputational than actual. His two recent, steady partnerships in tournaments have been square peg, round hole type of situations with JW Johnson and AJ Koller. In his first tournament with Koller, they almost knocked off the Johns brothers in Mesa and haven’t had anything close to that success since. At MLP, Dekel Bar is a step below the truly dominant men we see. Dekel is optimized in an Adam Stone type partnership but we also haven’t seen him be as dominant in men’s since the late 2021 Stone days.

Dekel Bar is not Ben Johns. He doesn’t play the same controlled, calculated game as Ben and that was apparent on Sunday. He takes more chances through transition to create offence and he simply misses more than Collin requires in the soft game. While good, the hands may not be truly elite for the big Israeli. His takeover the court ability is suited for Collin but losing to Long/McGuffin is not good.

I also wonder if Dekel and Collin both felt some extra pressure to perform in Red Rock. Dekel to get a win in a soft men’s field with Collin. Collin to finally get a win with someone outside of Ben as he also struggled with Travis Rettenmaier at the first two MLP stops.

Dekel and Collin will play together at MLP following the trade between Las Vegas and Florida, and should be one of the better men’s teams. They need to win most, if not all, of their matches to have a chance at success.

With all that being said, I can’t help but question who these guys are. It’s a team effort for them to lose against McGuffin/Long and it’s not clearly on one or the other. However, the longer that Collin does not have success outside of Ben and the longer Dekel doesn’t win at the very highest level, it’s a real question as to how elite Collin and Dekel are in their respective, theoretically elite roles.

4. Riley Newman’s 2023 Struggles (Slim) – Riley Newman has had a relatively tough start to the 2023, at least by his standards. He managed to pick up one gold with Anna Bright at the PPA Carvana Arizona Grand Slam but, other than that, he has not been able to top a podium this year. Following he and Anna’s win in Arizona, they lost to James Ignatowich and Catherine Pareneatu in Minnesota, and Anna decided to partner with James for the rest of the year, which has left Riley scrambling for mixed partners. So far he hasn’t been able to fully click with anyone.

In men’s doubles, Riley and Matt Wright had seemed to be neck and neck with the Johns brothers the second half of last year. However, this year it has become very clear that Johns brothers have created a significant gap again, as Riley and Matt have not been particularly competitive against the Johns brothers in 2023. Then with Matt not playing this weekend, Riley played with James Ignatowich in what felt like it might be a partnership test drive situation, and they fell to the Tyson McGuffin and Brendon Long in the semi-finals. Failing to win on a weekend that Ben Johns isn’t playing has to feel like a major disappointment for Riley.

Riley had a slow start to the 2022 season as well before he seemed to figure things out and by the second half of the year, where he was right there with Ben Johns, as the best doubles player in the world. So maybe Riley just needs a little time to figure things out this year. It should be noted that Riley was clearly the 2nd best men’s player at MLP Daytona with a top notch performance there. 

Riley has had a fair amount going on with his life to start the year, as he was in Australia for a few weeks in January, and has moved to Dallas, Texas from Phoenix this year. So you have to wonder if he maybe hasn’t been a little distracted. We have had good number of people more recently question Riley Newman’s on court support of his teammates, but this isn’t a new situation for Riley. Outside of his uniquely limited communication on the court, there isn’t really anything in Newman’s history that suggest his partners have had major issues with him.  

One other thing I want to mention is that we constantly see Ben adding things to his game and adapting his game to his opponents. With Riley, it doesn’t feel like his game is evolving as much, outside of some improvement in his forehand speed-ups and overall aggressiveness, as he continues to rely primarily on his hands and athleticism.

Hopefully Riley can get his partnerships figured out, and get fully focused on pickleball, because he still looks to be the one guy who can create problems for Ben Johns in doubles. And he is one of the few guys who believes that he is better than Ben, whether that is correct or not, that confidence is important.

📸 @jessie.i.Irvine

5. AJ Koller’s Upside (Slim) – This weekend was a good reminder of what AJ Koller’s upside is as a pro as he took silver in mixed with Jessie Irvine and finished fourth with Travis Rettenmaier in men’s doubles. Koller has had what has to qualify as a pretty disappointing 2023, but this weekend he demonstrated that when he is on and engaged, there are very few men who can do what he can do on the court.

Heading into the year, the Koller/Irvine partnership was very intriguing as Jessie is widely considered one of the best women mixed players in the game, and her consistency and defence partnered with AJ’s shot creation and hands could create problems for other teams. On the court, the chemistry has not been there in the partnership and I had pretty much written them off, but to their credit they were able to figure it out this weekend and managed to knock off Riley Newman and Andrea Koop in the semi-finals 8-11, 11-6, 11-3.

In men’s doubles, AJ has mainly partnered with Dekel Bar and after an appearance in the semi-finals in their first tournament where they almost knocked off the Johns brothers, they have also had some disappointing results. This weekend, though partnering with Rettenmaier for the first time, they were able to make the semi-finals of the men’s doubles draw and almost beat Dekel/Collin Johns. 

AJ is a player who is often trying to find the right mix of creativity and discipline with his play. Sometimes it looks like he literally just trying stuff out there, in important matches, and it can appear that he is completely unengaged. That may partly be Koller’s natural demeanor as he is not overly excitable when things are going well either, but it is more apparent when he is losing. Regardless, it often feels like if AJ could tone down his creativity a little, especially his lobs, and allow his hands to be in play, he could be a dominant force out there. There are few players with better hands in the game and he can get big results at any given tournament.

6. Post-MLP Boost (Gritty) – This is a mostly an anecdotal takeaway, but it feels like there is a post-MLP boost for players who have success at MLP. This isn’t going to be applicable across the board. However, I wonder if there is something to it where players leave MLP feeling very confident and that confidence translates into tournament success outside of MLP. I haven’t run any data. I haven’t gone through a ton of results. But I’m putting it on record in a takeaway that this is a thing! 

There are 4 players in Red Rock that seemed to benefit from that got that MLP bump over the weekend. Brendon Long, Meghan Dizon, Etta Wright and Pablo Tellez all came away with PPA Championship Saturdays in Red Rock after rockstar performances in Daytona for MLP. We saw Irina Tereschenko see a bump after the inaugural MLP event in Austin in 2021. Rafa Hewett is the all-time MLP bump player. A guy whose career trajectory looked like he would be a day spoiler for top pros at best is now a legitimate Premier level selection with the best players in pickleball.

This could very much be me cherry picking some good results when there is a bigger sample size of other players out there who have not had any significant increase in their results post-MLP success like Thomas Wilson or Irina Tereschenko after MLP Mesa.

Regardless, this is something I’m keeping an eye on, whether it is real or not.

Fantasy Update: Gritty is back. He questioned Slim for not taking McGuffin/Long with his last pick and that could have been the difference. 15-11 was the score and the other difference in this draft came down to Slim going with Connor Garnett over Tyson McGuffin. The Garnett pick was good as he took down Staksrud, but he was handled by Tyson in the semis. Gritty is 1-up again for the year.

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at nmlpickleball@gmail.com. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and also make sure you subscribe to our newsletter for fresh content!

19 thoughts on “PPA Tour Red Rock Open – 6 Takeaways – The Underrated Squad

  • April 10, 2023 at 5:30 pm

    Thank you for your time and posting. Really glad Long got Gold, the other guy, IMO, he’s just not very professional. Agree with Etta Wright, she is really just beginning and is an incredible player already. What we all have to remember is that many of these great newer players haven’t even played for over a year in pro tournaments. Nobody knew who Etta Wright was last February. Whereas many others who really are about equal have been playing for 6/7/8 years. Just think how good Etta will be in 5 years, or Jorja Johnson in 5 years (when she turns 21), nobody knew who JWJ was at last year’s Foot Solutions. Thanks again.

    • April 10, 2023 at 7:08 pm

      lol everyone knew JW before Foot Solutions

    • April 11, 2023 at 9:03 am

      The time period of development is so fast. Same with James Ignatowich. He was supposed to win with Riley but we also didn’t know who he was last February. You need pressure reps to get better and things will take time for these players still, as good as they already are. It will also become harder to rise as quickly as players like Etta and James have.

  • April 10, 2023 at 5:57 pm

    Gotta agree with you on Dekel. He’s got great highlights, but when I watch him for an extended period of time, it does seem like he has a problem keeping a consistent level. Also seems like he’s having issues finding partners to click with, which seems to suggest it might be something on his end. I don’t know, he’s fun to watch but I think you are right to question the ceiling.

    • April 11, 2023 at 9:04 am

      We have had some pushback on the Dekel take and we have been hard on Dekel over the course of this blog no doubt, mostly with his mixed, but his consistency is a problem. If you keep having difficulty winning with different partners, it suggests it may be something on his end as you say. He is great to watch and is such a presence though.

  • April 10, 2023 at 6:00 pm

    #1,#3 I am guilty here. I thought there was no way it’d go past 3 games with Collin and Dekel winners in a dominant fashion. Very happy to see such an exciting match instead!

    #2 David seems to do better with partners who doesn’t rip every single ball like Bright tends to do in WD. Their styles are opposite. Sure you need a strong left side player but you still have to complement each other. Bright brings the power and David brings the steadiness but you need more. I hated watching David get to the line then immediately have to back off for the counter-attack. AL can work any style because she can poach aggressively and set herself up for the counter. AB isn’t there yet in WD. David did well with Dizon in Austin but I think she’d do even better with Parenteau.

    #4 Riley was handcuffed somewhat in that SF with James because James would only play the left. So Riley’s ability to dominate and poach that left side like he does with Matt was severely limited. One time he got right in front of James as James was still moving up and James just stood there and waited for Riley to take the shot. He didn’t try to cover the right side at all. Also you could see James MD game has a ways to go. Riley was experienced enough to reposition himself for the counter attacks. James didn’t
    move in anticipation of the opponent’s return. In one instance, Riley had made it all the way back to the baseline knowing the slam was coming and James was still standing there at the NVZ. In the Bronze, Riley got more aggressive – and maybe AJ and Travis weren’t trying as hard either. IMHO, it was not so much Riley losing any of his amazing skills as it was just not being able to play “his game” with a new partner.

    #5 It was fun to see an engaged Koller for sure. Well done by him in his matches.

    • April 11, 2023 at 9:07 am

      #1 – Super fun match!

      #2 – This is an interesting thought with David. She is best with a more controlled, aggressive partner. Even with Dizon she made a Championship final and she has done so with Koop, or even Jorja is not so grip it and rip it. But you think AB isn’t there yet in WD? She has gotten some very good results with Jessie Irvine. Speaks to how good Jessie is too.

      #4 – James still has work and that is to be expected. You don’t just magically get there. This was his highest profile partnership and moment so far in MD. We also don’t think Riley is losing any skills or falling behind, he has just had some trouble replicating success and we expect it will turn around.

      #5 – He is fun to watch when he is engaged.

    • April 11, 2023 at 12:58 pm

      Not there in Womens Dubs? Anna Bright’s best event is Womens Doubles imo. She’s there. She has great wins with Paris AND Jessie over top PPA teams, Dominates with AL like she should, and has been an absolute force with Lacy at MLP

  • April 10, 2023 at 6:11 pm

    Big fan of Dekels’. Will Adam Stone make / get picked for a team this season? Dekel is the master of erne’s. Hope he and Christian Alshon keep doing them!

    • April 11, 2023 at 9:07 am

      Adam Stone seems to be retired at this point. Dekel’s Erne’s are wild sometimes!

  • April 11, 2023 at 4:33 am

    Dekel needs to watch game 5 repeatedly until he gets it. That was a microcosm of his weaknesses as a player all wrapped up in a single game.

    And it’s not like he’s got tons of weaknesses or miles to go before becoming a monster player. I feel it’s achievable for him and for AJ, too.
    But sometimes, taking that last step is the hardest.

    Riley will get it together sooner rather than later, I have no doubt, but long term, a 31 year old with a lingering knee issue whose game relies on athleticism is not a great bet. I think he would be wise to cultivate someone like Iggy as a future partner.

    Looking forward to reading your paddle takeaways!

    • April 11, 2023 at 9:09 am

      We have always wondered how hard Dekel grinds and it seems like that last step is there for him to be elite. We could be wrong but does he work to get there the way someone like Ben does?

      For Riley, it’s a matter of whether he has the patience to take a step back in his results with a more upside partner. He was willing for AB and that didn’t last, but not because of him.

      • April 11, 2023 at 3:11 pm

        It’s an excellent point – how much work is someone putting in? And that’s not to say that any of these players are lazy, I actually think most of them simply do not have the opportunity to put in the work necessary to compete at their very best.

        I think apart from a very few players, most of them simply don’t make enough money to be ” real ” pickleball professionals. For example, French is a lawyer. If you’re a lawyer, you are not a pickleball professional, you are a legal professional whose hobby is pickleball, even if you manage to make a few extra bucks from your hobby. Again that’s not a negative against French or any of the other players, it’s simply a statement of fact. If you don’t earn enough money from pickleball, you have to earn it somewhere else.

        Perhaps Dekel is in that same boat – maybe he needs to work a job in order to earn a living, and that doesn’t leave him enough time to train as often as he would like to train.

        I think this is an important topic because it’s unreasonable to judge a hobbyist by the same standards we apply to professionals. So if we know which players are actually professionals and which are hobbyists, then we can make more realistic comparisons. I also think with betting coming into pickleball, this information will be very useful to betters.
        Hobbyists are likely to show less consistency than professionals, have higher error rates and higher variability in outcome, and those are important things to factor in to your betting.

        • April 11, 2023 at 4:37 pm

          It is very true. We try to monitor this for when we make these kinds of comments. Dekel is 100% a full-time pickleball pro.

  • April 11, 2023 at 9:14 am

    my takeaways below.

    I’m entertained by “Big Daddy” as he is a likeable guy and I’d bet he keeps getting better at men’s doubles. BUT it was malpractice for him to be playing the left the whole time with Riley against Long/TM. Daddy/Riley should have let Riley take over the game and Big Daddy should have just played a support role on the right side. If he is uncomfortable on the right, he needs to learn to be comfortable. JI not a top 10 men’s doubles player yet – seems like from his pod he thinks he is. Granted he might be as soon as a few more tourneys – but my takeaway is he is just not there.

    The fact that Brendon Long doesn’t have a sponsor shows these paddle and pickleball companies aren’t as smart as they should be in finding/assessing talent. Companies are throwing $$$ at players nowhere near as good as him. Yes his good results have come last few months – but with all the companies and players seeing him firsthand out there – doesn’t seem like a good excuse that nobody picked him up. Unless he is pulling a Parris Todd kind of holdout for $$$ – just seems inexcusable.

    Not to be rude to the commentators as pickle has come a long way in that area from a few years ago, but I find Kyle McKenzie to be BY FAR the best announcer and he always leaves me wanting more, not less. He has very good and concise analysis that’s always interesting and informative. He doesn’t talk over the action. He isn’t afraid to be critical of players in a polite way when needed. He doesn’t try to manufacture hype and enthusiasm – he lets the game speak for itself and inserts himself when needed. People actually learn something from KM. Many of the other announcers just don’t have those skills like KM does. And many of them are just trying to hard, talking too much and very predictable and repetitive in what they are saying. PPA should put KM in the booth for all big matches.

    • April 11, 2023 at 12:11 pm

      To add to my comment – credit to Big Daddy for owning when he doesn’t play well like he did with Riley or with Colin Johns. No lame excuses from him when he doesn’t play well. Other pros should take notice.

      • April 11, 2023 at 4:35 pm

        He just isn’t that sensitive about things in general it seems.

    • April 11, 2023 at 4:31 pm

      They could potentially have used a switch up there on the left and right. James has played some on the right at least with MLP but he also just didn’t play well enough in that match. If he plays better, which is partly reps for him and probably the other part is pressure, they should win that match.

      Absolutely they are not smart enough. Long has nothing exciting about him but those are the guys you should be trying to identify as someone you can essentially underpay as a paddle company. It is a good point. However, no one drafted him Challenger so if MLP teams can’t figure it out, why would paddle companies?

      Kyle McKenzie does a bang up job as a commentator and is always trying to offer real insight rather than just the standard kind of stuff. Lots of good comments we have seen about Kyle’s commentating and it is well deserved for him.

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