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.
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.
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