It was a windy one at the PPA Riverland Open this weekend. Like, a real windy one. At times what was going on barely seemed to resemble pickleball. While the players have to play through the conditions, there is a certain degree of grain of salt that has to be attached to these results, particularly with the weather on the Saturday doubles day. On the other hand, there is something to be said for the mental fortitude it takes to play through the frustration of ridiculous wind. You never know what you’re going to get in Florida! There were a lot of things that happened this weekend and we try to bring you the most important takeaways from a whirlwind 4 days.
1. Benny Backdraw (Gritty) – We only got one instance of Benny Backdraw this weekend despite two missed Championship Sunday appearances. Ben Johns lost in singles to JW Johnson in the semi-finals on Thursday and then was taken down by JW Johnson again in men’s doubles with Dylan Frazier in the quarter-finals. Ben and Collin proceeded to immediately withdraw from the backdraw, presumably to rest up for his one whole match on Sunday. Ben is still clearly the best player out there still and we do see ongoing improvement in his game, but he’s also more gettable than ever right now. We are a broken record on this, but the increase in level from the rest of the players is what best explains this. JW Johnson, in particular, has seen a steady and significant improvement in his level that makes him so dangerous in these early rounds of PPA events where his PPA points-based seeding obviously does not accord with where he should be seeded.
It continues to be a bit of an amusing turn of events that one of the biggest drivers of a single elimination format, Ben Johns, is having to deal with the big downside of getting rid of the opportunity to get back to that gold medal match. The move by the PPA was made at a time when Ben was in a completely untouchable league of his own. That has not been the case since last summer. Most great athletes in their sports are not great losers and Johns is no different. Ben and Collin sulk like they’re LeBron James watching Russell Westbrook take a crunch time 3-pointer when things aren’t going well. Ben essentially refuses to talk about his losses on his podcast (when he used to do them at least).
It seems pretty much inevitable that he’s not going to be totally dominant over the course of this 3-year exclusivity deal he has with the PPA and I’ll be curious to see how he handles it when more losing comes his way. Benny may have to actually grind more backdraws in the future.
2. Anna Leigh’s Triple Crown (Slim) – Anna Leigh won the triple crown this weekend, and she didn’t just win it, she took it in dominant fashion. Between the three events this weekend, Anna Leigh dropped a total of one game, a game to Riley Newman and Catherine Parenteau in mixed, enroute to the triple crown. And most of her matches were not overly competitive, as the game scores indicate.
It will be interesting to see if and how many times, Anna Leigh can replicate this feat this year. I would expect that we will see Anna Leigh on top of almost every PPA singles and mixed podium this year (at least until Ben gets bored and checks out), so it really comes down to the women’s doubles. Obviously Lucy Kovolova and Callie Smith did not play together this weekend, and they have been the dominant women’s team this year. In Minnesota though, we did see the Waters play Lucy and Callie tight losing in 5 sets, so it is quite possible they are figuring things out, or maybe the conditions there just favored the Waters.
Women’s doubles is the last piece of puzzle for Anna Leigh as outside of Catherine Parenteau nobody seems to be close to her in women’s singles and she seems to be widening the gap over her opponents. In mixed, she and Ben are rarely challenged, and that looks unlikely to change anytime soon. If she and Leigh can find a way (I am a little skeptical) to top Callie and Lucy she will be inarguably the most dominant force in pickleball.
Also, I don’t think it’s going to happen but it is fun to speculate about Anna Leigh down the road here, looking to move on from Ben, and what a twist of fate it would be to see Ben getting dumped by a younger partner.
3. JW Johnson. Can’t Stop. Won’t Stop (Gritty) – As much as it could be beneficial for the APP Tour to have their marquee player be a bigger personality, they probably needed a person with JW Johnson’s temperament to handle what has been thrown at him as a non-PPA player. It takes a certain kind of person to not care about the perceived glitz and glamor that the PPA offers to players. Photoshoots? Social media growth? Guaranteed money? Free rental cars? That stuff doesn’t impact ol’ JW too much. It also doesn’t hurt that his mother and sister were going to be mainstays on the APP Tour. Regardless, the man is just going to go out to play some really good freakin’ pickleball and let the chips fall where they may.
This weekend was another massive JW Johnson performance. He won gold in singles and silver in men’s doubles with Dylan Frazier. The pair took down Ben and Collin Johns, and played a very competitive match against Matt Wright/Riley Newman even though Frazier appeared to be troubled by a back injury at one point in the match. The PPA is lucky that JW does not appear to be registered for anymore PPA events for the foreseeable future. It gives them time to figure out something that we know some of their contracted players are not happy about, which is the JW’s of the world getting low seedings that lead to very tough earlier than should be matchups in the draw. Ben Johns cannot be happy about the fact he would continue to see JW in singles semi-finals as the #4 seed..
There are only so many things we can write about JW Johnson but he keeps giving us more reasons to do so. It doesn’t seem like he feels pressure, which can be a double-edged sword when the man can probably find a way to be more aggressive at times in doubles. However, it also bodes well for a ‘bet on yourself’ mentality and it looks like JW is going to make a bunch of money doing whatever he’s going to do this year.
4. Jorja Johnson’s Rise (Slim) – To start this year Jorja has really proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with on the women’s pro scene, which given she is still just 15 years old is very impressive. She has been getting results all year, but her bronze in singles at this weekends PPA was just further evidence of her arrival.
Part of what is impressive about Jorja is at a young age she seems to be able to stay pretty steady. After dropping a tough 3 set match in the opening round, she was able to battle all the way back in awful playing conditions and take bronze. That run included a very impressive 15-13 win over Callie Smith and how easily she handled the fast rising Parris Todd in Bronze medal match was almost equally impressive.
Prior to this weekend, in the past two APP events at Punta Gorda and Plantation, Jorja medaled in 5 of her 6 events, including the surprise gold with Anna Bright over Simone Jardim and Corrine Carr and a gold medal in singles in Plantation, in a deep womens singles field.
It will be interesting to see where Jorja’s ultimate ceiling is. She does not play like a classically trained tennis player but she has as much power as pretty much any women out there, and her hands are beyond solid in general (I have to imagine most stuff looks pretty slow when you play with JW every day) so a lot of the tools are there. It will also be something to monitor who she gets for partners moving forward.
5. Lea Jansen’s Serve (Gritty) – I don’t want to beat a dead horse too much and so much has happened since singles Thursday when Lea Jansen’s serve was a very hot topic. Her serve is one of the most, if not the most, illegal looking serves we have seen in the pro ranks. Neither of us on this blog are rules guys. That’s not our angle. However, before getting into the real takeaway of what the serve could mean for pro pickleball, my thought on the serve itself is that it should be illegal. Yes, I know that when you watch the serve in slow motion the majority of them appear to be technically legal. But that’s slow motion. If you use the Bill Simmons ask 10 people in a bar approach, I bet most of them watch it live and say it’s illegal. She is basically full sidearm on some of the serves. If it looks like an illegal serve, talks like an illegal serve, and walks like an illegal serve, it should be an illegal serve. Here’s 3 screenshot photos from 3 different angles I took from the match with Bright that are not necessarily a full picture of where her serve motion ends up each time:
But I digress.
The real point of the serve is what it means for pro pickleball. In Lea Jansen’s match against Anna Bright, she was only called once for an illegal serve by the referee. Whether it’s legal or illegal, she is not getting called on it. It should be a message for pro players to realize that they can push the envelope when it comes to rules. Just the same as if a referee isn’t calling me for standing in the key on every play for 10 seconds, I’m going to go as high as I can with that serve until the refs start to call me on it.
I think it is more problematic in pickleball when there is a limited audience monitoring what goes on in the sport. The players have a ton of say in the direction of the sport relative to other professional sports and their influence on the tours is relatively large. If Jansen is posting on the Pickleball Forum about the legality of the serve prior to the tournament, I’m going to take a wild guess that some conversations were had with Mr. Connor Pardoe about the serve as well. That’s just a completely wild guess though.
My expectation is that we’re going to see a lot of other players continuing to push the boundaries on not only the serve but any aspect of the rules where there is a potential advantage to be gained. I worry that there aren’t going to be enough checks and balances to stop the players from being able to direct how the rules operate. I wouldn’t expect anything drastic to happen with Jansen’s serve and we’ll have to see if Jansen’s serve is somewhat of a tip of the iceberg for these kinds of rules questions.
UPDATE: I wanted to provide a little bit of clarification that I think could have been included in the initial post on how Lea Jansen’s serve is differentiated in my mind from ones like Tyson McGuffin, Gabe Joseph and Dekel Bar. From a live eye test perspective, those players have serves that no doubt border on illegal and, especially Gabe Joseph, it seems like some, but not all, are illegal. However, when I watch Jansen’s serve, pretty much every serve looks to be illegal. That does change to a degree when I slow her serve down or stop her motion at the point of contact, which I note in the post. The other point is that her serve is more sidearm than those other players I mentioned and that makes it more of an issue in my mind. So I wanted to be clear about why her serve is being written about and not other specific borderline serves that are out there.
Fantasy Update: Slim is back with another win. It’s a 17-12 win this weekend with Slim being the beneficiary of some upsets and betting on JW Johnson. Slim is once again 5 up on the year as the dominance continues. Gritty better figure things out fast or he might need to take out a second mortgage at some point.
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