We attended the PPA Seattle Open in-person last week. We weren’t available to stick around for the weekend, but we were there Wednesday and Thursday. It was a good experience to finally get out to one of these considering how much pro pickleball we consume and write about. We talk about our experience at the PPA on the latest episode of the NML Pickleball Podcast so you can check it out there. The PPA now heads to California this coming weekend for the Takeya Showcase taking place at the new pickleball courts at Los Cab Sports Village in Fountain Valley.
1. Paddle Controversy Again? (Gritty) – Some of you may be tired of the paddle stuff, but I’m not stopping until these issues get fixed. It had been all quiet on the paddle front for quite a while. However, that does not mean the issue has been solved. From what we have been hearing, this is far from a case closed situation.
The latest situation surrounds Zane Navratil’s signature ProXR carbon paddle. Navratil himself was the first to admit that the face of the paddle felt incredibly, well, gritty. He was concerned enough about it that when he first got his hands on it, he made sure to test it with PPA head referee, Don Stanley, who confirmed it was good to go. That was really the only thing we had heard about Zane’s signature paddle until this past week.
We talked about this extensively on our latest podcast episode, but there were 2 separate quiet challenges of the Zane ProXR paddle on singles Thursday. The three notable players that had some big wins on Thursday using the Zane signature paddle were Connor Garnett, Ryan Eveloff and Naveen Beasley. Garnett had an almost huge win over Ben Johns, Eveloff was a shocking lucky loser semi-finalist and Naveen Beasley beat Dylan Frazier in round 1 and Ryan Sherry in round 2.
Something I did not remember during our podcast was that Rafa Hewett had challenged Zane’s paddle after a somewhat embarrassing loss when he was playing with his Adidas paddle before he had gotten used to it. Although the challenge at the time appeared to be sour grapes on Hewett’s part, it is clear now that there have been questions bubbling at the surface about the Zane ProXR paddle.
For anyone that hasn’t felt the surface of the paddle, it truly feels like sandpaper and is undoubtedly one of the roughest, allegedly legal paddles on the market. While the paddle may very well be legal, what we have been told about the recent testing that was done following two separate challenges in Seattle is another red flag with respect to the PPA’s behind closed door paddle testing process.
You might be thinking, if the paddles failed, we would have heard about it. Even though that line of thinking is logical, we learned that the current surface roughness testing allows for a paddle to be tested for surface roughness 3 times when it is challenged and if it passes any of those 3 tests, then it passes the challenge.
We have been told that on both challenges on singles day of the Zane ProXR paddle, it failed the first two tests and passed the third, meaning that it failed 4 out of 6 times, with a good number of the readings in the 60 plus range for the Starrett test (the threshold for pass is an average of 40 Rt and Rz with an error margin of 7.5%, at least according to the rules previously posted).
The problem that I continue to have with the PPA testing policy comes down to 3 things – (1) there is no publicly available written policy; (2) the PPA does not publicly announce when a challenge has occurred and (3) the results of paddle challenges are not released. Obviously, nothing has changed since the Tyson McGuffin Red Rock scandal. If Ben Johns had lost to Connor Garnett, you have to wonder if something would have changed very quickly. I’ll be curious to see if something is done by the PPA if players keep winning with this ProXR paddle and it negatively affects the PPA’s golden children – we know the PPA is willing to make a move as they did with the CRBN earlier in the year. Interestingly, the original PPA paddle testing policy from 2022 is no longer available on the new website either, at least from what I can see. (Update: Someone was able to point us to this procedure which appears to be the old procedure and mentions 3 tests – PPA Paddle Compliance and Testing Policy)
Further to the lack of a publicly available written policy, we were made aware that a different player asked for a paddle challenge during a match but, since the opponent changed out the paddle in the middle of the match, the player was told by the ref they could not challenge the paddle. Leaving aside that this is an absurd rule, the fact is that no one has ever heard of this being a rule. Players are not aware of it, nor is anyone in the public from what we know. Whether the PPA has a written policy or not, the optics become that the rules are being made up as we go along or made to fit whatever is needed in the moment. Remember that Travis Rettenmaier challenged, but didn’t challenge, Tyson McGuffin’s paddle in the middle of the match despite Tyson switching out that paddle.
Is it a coincidence that 3 players with the same borderline illegal paddle had a great day in singles in Seattle? Possibly. From the matches that I saw, Eveloff and Garnett were playing very well. You still need to hit the shots, gritty paddle or not. ProXR is pushing the envelope on surface roughness and they are playing within the unknown rules for testing the PPA has implemented. Whether the paddle affected results is not the point from where I sit.
The point is that we don’t know if there is any consistent testing procedure or a consistent application of testing procedures. We talked to multiple reliable people who had never heard of either needing 3 failed tests for a single challenge or not being able to challenge where a player switches their paddle out mid-match.
There needs to be transparency. There needs to be consistency. It should not be this difficult. As the kids are saying these days, stop the cap.
2. Is Anna Leigh Waters Too Good? (Slim) –Anna Leigh Waters won her sixth straight triple crown this weekend. She has yet to lose in women’s doubles this year partnering with both Anna Bright and Catherine Parenteau. She has only lost one women’s singles match this year, which was to Catherine Parenteau, and she and Ben Johns have only lost once when playing together this year to the Johnson siblings. She even won mixed doubles in North Carolina this year when she partnered with Jack Sock in his first pickleball tournament ever.
Not only is Anna Leigh winning everything but, for the most part, she is not even being challenged. She and Anna Bright did not drop a single game in women’s doubles this weekend as the crowd was desperate for David/Kawamoto to steal a game. After dropping her only singles game 12-10 in the first to Lea Jansen, she came back to win the next two games 11-0, 11-3.
When Anna Leigh partnered with Sock, it was one of the more entertaining weekends because there were actual questions about how it would go. It would be so exciting to Anna Leigh partner with Sock again, and take on Ben and a partner of his choosing because there would be actual intrigue about the results. The issue as it stands currently is that Championship Sunday is pretty much a wrap before it even begins, especially in Anna Leigh’s events.
It is also baffling to some extent why the PPA seems to want to give Anna Leigh, and even Ben, every advantage instead of encouraging new talent to flourish, and for actual rivals to rise. The men’s singles draw this weekend was highly entertaining, but a big part of that was that we got to see Ben pushed. His semi-final match against Connor Garnett was absolutely epic, despite neither player being an overly expressive player, because we got to see Ben pushed to the absolute brink, and respond how only the great ones can.
Often the greatest sports moments involve great talents being pushed to their limits and being able to see them respond how only the greats can. Right now, Anna Leigh has no one pushing her and that gap only seems to be widening. I would recommend listening to Hard 8’s owner, Tim Parks, on the It Feels Right podcast discussing his chunking theory as a possible explanation for the widening gap. It seems very important for the future of the sport and the women’s game in particular, that new talent is cultivated that can actually push Anna Leigh so she has rivals and we can find out how great she can truly be.
3. JW and Dylan Firmly #2 (Gritty) – JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier secured their 3rd men’s doubles gold medal of 2023 in Seattle. The loss by the Johns brothers to Pat Smith and DJ Young opened the door for the kids to have an easier gold medal path and they took full advantage, beating Pablo Tellez/Federico Staksrud in 4 games in the final.
Riley Newman and Julian Arnold were unsuccessful in their first go around together as Matt Wright also failed to medal with Jay Devilliers. Newman/Arnold lost to Staksrud/Tellez in 3 games as the break-up of Newman/Wright has officially opened another door for Johnson and Frazier to have a stranglehold on the #2 spot in the men’s doubles game.
The duo did not need the gold medal this weekend to demonstrate they are the 2nd best doubles pairing in the world, but there is zero question on that topic for the time being. Johnson/Frazier didn’t drop a game until the gold medal match and they grinded Tellez/Staksrud to death in that gold medal. Despite this being a full-on PPA event, they didn’t make it look all that different from the Beer City Open the week prior where they cruised to a gold medal there.
There will inevitably be questions regarding Newman’s decision to split from Matt Wright after a ridiculous 27 for 27 podium streak together. Riley has failed to medal with Arnold and lost in the semis with Ignatowich while ending with bronze.* The thing for Riley is that he saw the Wright partnership through and there was a plateau in their results. He didn’t move on quickly and he’s probably okay with not medaling for the chance at being able to reach the top of the mountain, even if his best bet to do that would probably be with one of JW or Dylan.
JW and Dylan can’t hate the move from Riley, that’s for sure. They are surely much happier to see Riley on the other side of the court with Julian Arnold or AJ Koller. While JW/Dylan were starting to really figure out that Newman/Wright partnership, they historically had a lot of trouble against them.
What it will take the get to #1 for the JW/Dylan partnership is unknown currently. If someone had the easy answer, they might become a very wealthy person. The Johns brothers had one of those blips against Smith/Young, but they still haven’t lost to JW/Dylan at any point in 2023. #2 is great for now, but I’m sure JW/Dylan are gunning for that #1 spot.
4. Gabe Tardio Still Performing (Slim) – Gabe Tardio continues to get results, particularly in men’s doubles, that indicate he is a player still on the rise, and someone who has the potential to dominate the Challenger level of MLP in season 2. This weekend, he and Spencer Smith beat Thomas Wilson and Dekel Bar in three games, 9-11, 11-2, 11-9 and then played Matt Wright and Jay Devilliers very close 9-11, 9-11.
Tardio may not exactly be picking up podiums, but he is picking up quality wins week after week on the PPA Tour, and often giving his partners their best wins and results of the year. It will be fascinating to watch Gabe at the Challenger level in season two and see if he can be a dominant alpha player at that level, because the results are starting to add up that he may be better than the other men at that level. It should also be noted that Tardio and Tina Pisnik took Irvine/Arnold to the brink in mixed, losing 11-9 in the third.
It is well known that JW Johnson would have preferred for Columbus to pick Gabe over Collin Johns, but the Columbus ownership group preferred Collin Johns, and his gold medals. It is hard not to ask, at this point, if Columbus isn’t going to regret that decision. Collin is becoming a true men’s doubles specialist as he hasn’t played singles in years and he is almost undoubtedly the worst mixed player in the Premier division, constantly failing to get any results with quality female partners. Gabe, on the other hand, plays every event almost every week and his results are starting to demonstrate that he will be upping his level by another notch or two.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising given his gold medals and last name, but it does feel a little shocking that Collin didn’t see a drop in his value that almost every other men’s doubles specialist has seen. It is hard to believe that the difference between Collin and Callan Dawson is that one is in the Premier League and the other is completely undrafted. Collin is a much better singles player than Callan, but when it comes to both doubles events I am not sure there all that much difference in their games.
Another guy, who falls into the Callan Dawson boat and went undrafted is Patrick Smith, who we saw beat the Johns brothers in Seattle with a Challenger player, DJ Young. In my view, it is very likely that teams who don’t have a successful first Challenger event in Atlanta may be looking at proven veterans like Callan Dawson and Patrick Smith to fill a void. And if Gabe Tardio stays on this trajectory, I think Columbus may also have some regrets.
5. PPA Girl Power (Gritty) – There were 4 women that backed up some of their recent strong performances in Seattle – Jackie Kawamoto, Vivienne David, Lauren Stratman and Yana Newell. We had Vivienne David as one of our takeaways after the Denver PPA and then she went out in Seattle to get a silver medal with yet another player, Jackie Kawamoto. Enough said about Vivienne David and her consistency.
Jackie Kawamoto won gold at Beer City with her sister last weekend and gets a silver medal with a third different partner since December 2022. She has also reached a final with Jessie Irvine and Lea Jansen despite playing in only 6 PPA events over that span of time.
A 50% hit rate on Championship Sundays is not too shabby and I have to ask whether MLP teams made a mistake letting Jackie go to D.C. towards the end of the second round, behind Vivienne David, Callie Smith, Andrea Koop, Jorja Johnson and Meghan Dizon. The Kawamotos are known as players with less alpha power, but getting to a final with Vivienne David as a left-side player is sneaky impressive.
Yana Newell and Lauren Stratman played together where they secured their 3rd medal, taking bronze this weekend after coming close to a Championship Sunday. Their bronze medal included victories over Etta Wright/Irina Tereschenko and Jessie Irvine/Jade Kawamoto. Stratman is playing quality pickleball these days in women’s doubles and it is clear that Newell/Stratman are a partnership to be reckoned with. Newell continues to be a steal of the Challenger draft, somehow falling to #16. Newell also took a bronze medal in singles.
I also would be remiss not to mention Hurricane Tyra Black, who came inches away from beating James Ignatowich/Anna Bright with Christian Alshon – losing 11-9 in the third. She also had a close match with Rianna Valdes against Jackie Kawamoto/David as the results indicate she is making strides already. Where Black will be by the time the MLP Atlanta event rolls around in September should be fascinating.
This is not so much a takeaway as it is a reminder that the women’s doubles field continues to get stronger despite not a single team having any chance against Anna Leigh Waters currently. The fight for 2nd place is a many horse race and I don’t expect that to stop anytime soon.
Fantasy Update: Slim is officially back. An 18-10 shellacking means that Slim is 1 up on the year and has his first lead of 2023. We had 28 out of a possible 30 points with Yana Newell and Pat Smith/DJ Young going undrafted. DJ Young got his first PPA medal of 2023 and it was impressive to be able to do it over Matt Wright/Jay Devilliers. We’ll be back with another fantasy preview later this week.
*this article has been edited to correct that Riley Newman got a bronze medal with James Ignatowich
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