It has been a busy couple of weeks with a lot happening. We sometimes wonder what there is going to be to talk about in pickleball but there always seem to be storylines. The beauty of sports, really. Even in this small, niche professional sport, there are new topics each week. There is more that goes into a sport than simply what happens in a game or match, and pickleball keeps giving us that water cooler talk, at least for those of us that follow the sport closely.
1. Old and New (Slim) – Singles this weekend gave us two very unexpected champions this week. In women’s singles, Tyra Black defeated Anna Leigh Waters in the quarter finals on her way to gold, and Gabe Joseph, who we had not seen on a pro podium in quite some time, ran a gauntlet to take gold in the men’s singles.
In March of this year, Tyra Black played her first pro pickleball tournament, and her very first pro singles match was against Anna Leigh Waters that she lost 11-0, 11-0. Fast forward five months and Tyra beat Anna Leigh last week, 11-8, 2-11, 11-3. While the match was definitely an odd one, it had to have been satisfying for Black to see how far she has come in such a short period of time.
Tyra Black is part of the future of women’s pickleball and one of the players who may soon be able to challenge Anna Leigh on a regular basis. Tyra’s movement and athleticism, along with her elite hand speed enable her to compete with pretty much any lady in the game already. She also seems to be working extremely hard on her game, and that hard work is obviously playing dividends.
Black was player whose tennis strokes didn’t seem to initially translate smoothly to the pickleball game, but in this short amount of time she has already made massive strides with her pickleball shots. There is still a ton of room to grow in that area too. It will be fun to watch Tyra for the rest of the year, and see if she can get herself to the point in singles where she is regularly pushing Anna Leigh. Not to mention that Tyra took a bronze with Allyce Jones in women’s doubles as well.
Gabe Joseph is no stranger to pickleball. He played his first tournament in 2017, and has been playing tournaments regularly since 2019. Despite primarily sticking mainly to west coast tournaments, there was a time when he was one of the bigger threats out there in singles. When we did our player rankings last year, we had him at number 7 in our men’s singles.
Joseph has actually been playing a good number of tournaments this year, and has only been playing singles in all of those tournaments. His results have not been bad this year, but they also haven’t exactly shouted contender either – Josh Gartman noted on Twitter he had not made it past the quarterfinals in his previous 10 tournaments in 2023. It seemed like with the influx of talent into the game, and the number of people pursuing pickleball full time now, that Gabe’s days as an actual contender had come to an end. Shockingly, Joseph came out and put it all together, with the benefit of Yates Johnson knocking off Ben Johns for him.
Gabe’s run in the singles draw may have been one of the, if not the most impressive, runs enroute to a singles victory that we have seen. It speaks to the depth of the men’s singles draws these days, and what players to have to do, to win gold. There are no more free lunches out there in the singles main draw for the most part.
In the first round Gabe beat the 9 seed Pablo Tellez, 12-10, 11-5 after going down 9-1 in the first game. In the next round, he beat the red hot Connor Garnett 11-4, 6-11, 12-10, and then had to play Yates Johnson, who was coming off of defeating Ben Johns, and took him down 11-9, 6-11, 11-7. Joseph had to face Tyson McGuffin in the semis and again went three games, winning 2-11,11-5,11-4. Then on Championship Sunday, he beat Federico Staksrud, who has been the second best men’s singles player in 2023, 11-6, 12-10. For a run that arguably came out of nowhere, it was extremely impressive, because really other than not having to face Ben, Gabe had zero breaks on his way to the Championship, and cleared all the hurdles.
It was quite the contrast to see an old veteran, the man who used to go by Baby Kyrgios, find a gold medal on the same weekend that a virtual newcomer, Tyra Black, also came away with a victory. No free lunches all around in both men’s and women’s.
2. Ben vs. Riley (Gritty) – We often want to create rivalries in professional sports, even if they aren’t there. The idea of a best vs. best matchup, or some kind of beef between teams or players, adds some spice to the story. This is definitely not the first time we have compared Ben Johns and Riley Newman, and it likely won’t be the last time. This past weekend in California was a fascinating exhibit of two of the games best attempting to elevate their partners with varying degrees of success.
Collin Johns hurt himself playing mixed on Friday with Allyce Jones. According to brother Ben, he stained or bruised something in his Achillies tendon that forced him to retire from his mixed match. Collin unexpectedly pushed through the injury to play men’s with Ben but he wasn’t close to 100% of himself. It meant that Ben was taking even more court than usual while Collin was forced to position himself well behind the kitchen line for large stretches after opponents realized he was an easy lob target. Collin may have also told Altaf Merchant to hold his beer in the process.
Although they almost lost to Gabe Tardio and Jay Devilliers, Ben was able to beast mode the brother duo through the quarters and semis en route to Championship Sunday. It was arguably Ben’s most impressive performance of 2023 despite falling short of a gold medal as JW/Dylan were too good. Ben and Collin were able to summon one last push to come back in game 3 and force the match to 4 games, but it wasn’t enough at the end of the day.
In contrast, Riley Newman has failed to medal in men’s doubles in back-to-back tournaments following his partnership break-up with Matt Wright, He was not successful with Julian Arnold in Seattle, and he wasn’t able to get it done with AJ Koller in California. To be fair to Riley, he played quite well overall on Saturday. From what I saw, he didn’t get enough help from AJ Koller, who provided the full Koller experience with high end playmaking mixed in with hair-pulling errors.
Riley Newman does not have a partner who has spent his entire pickleball career robotically building his game to fit his like Ben Johns does. Still, it is an interesting exercise to compare how Ben was able to perform with a partner who spent part of the weekend dinking 6 to 10 feet from behind the kitchen line versus how Riley has done with two somewhat non-ideal new partners recently.
Ben Johns has been the best player in the world the past few years, and he’s constantly adding more to his game. Riley Newman has also added to his game, but not to the same degree as Ben. Beyond the improvements to each of ther games, one thing that remains lacking in Riley’s game is natural finishing power. Riley is an unbelievable player but high end finishing power is not something that comes easily to him. He has amazing hands that counter harder than they ever have, but I wonder if his limited (relative to being the best player in the world) power holds him back more than anyone talks about.
Riley doesn’t hit a great overhead and his forehand is relatively average from a power perspective. While Riley has that fantastic two-hand backhand, it is no longer as unique a weapon as it used to be in the pro game. We can talk about ideal partnership options and whether he should have broken up with Matt until the cows come home, but none of this is going to fix the natural power limitation.
It is too small a sample size to boil down the who is the best alpha question to Ben being able to carry a hobbled Collin and Riley not being able to get past the quarter-finals twice in a row without Matt Wright. Still, watching what was happening from the two best men’s doubles players out there trying to will their limited partnerships to victory in their own ways added more data to this question.
Riley will need to have more answers in the coming events if he wants to be in the same conversation as Ben Johns.
3. JW and Dylan (Sort Of) Climb the Mountain (Slim) – JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier had already cemented themselves as the clear number two men’s doubles team after the break-up of Riley Newman and Matt Wright. They were arguably already the second best team, at the time of the breakup, but there was one hurdle that they had not cleared yet, which has been beating the Johns brothers. For the most part, they had not seemed overly close to beating them. They somewhat overcame that hurdle on Sunday and, although the win needs a giant asterisk, you have to wonder if having done it in any capacity, could start to give them the confidence to do it again.
Sometimes athletes just have to feel like they belong, and once they do, their games go to another level. Even if it was a severely hobbled Collin Johns on Sunday, I think there is a chance that this win could give JW and Dylan the confidence that they need to be able to do it again. At the very least, it will make the next time these teams meet at full strength, much more interesting.
JW Johnson, may also start making a push for that number men’s doubles player spot over Riley Newman, JW is starting to more aggressively roll some of his forehand dinks and even speeding up the odd ball off the bounce on his forehand. JW is also gradually integrating a two-hand backhand roll shot off the bounce in doubles. If Riley continues to struggle to find the right partnerships, and if JW can become a little more consistent in mixed doubles, it may be time to start having that conversation sooner than later. JW’s hand speed and power remain at the top of the game in spite of his inferior paddle. He just needs to continue to find ways to add more variance to his game.
If I had to bet, I think I would bet on JW going ahead of Riley if there is another MLP draft after this current season.
4. Callie and Lucy Not Going Away (Slim) – Callie Smith and Lucy Kovalova are a funny partnership because so often now it is easy to almost forgot about them or write them off. And just when you start doing that, they have another performance to remind you that they are an elite team in women’s doubles still. Despite it perhaps feeling like they have dropped off this year, they still have two PPA Championships to their names this year, and added a third Championship Sunday appearance in Fountain Valley over the weekend.
It wasn’t a brutally tough draw for the #2 seeded Smith and Kovalova, who continue to benefit from legacy PPA points. However, part of the reason that it may so often be easy to write off Callie and Lucy is that I am not sure there are many teams out there that had less interest in playing the backdraws than these two. As a result, they took a number of ‘bad losses’ this year in the backdraw, that were probably mainly the result of just not caring, and not indicative of their actual level. They are the sort of veteran team that the backdraw has been eliminated for as they likely saw little reason to grind their way through the backdraw after losing on the winner’s side.
Callie and Lucy’s bumpy season is also another reminder of just how much the depth has increased in the women’s draws this year. There are no more easy rides to semi-finals for the top women’s teams, unless you are Anna Leigh and whoever her partner is.
5. Anna Leigh Follow-Up (Gritty) – It is sometimes hard to tell what post or topic will blow up. When I decided to write out my thoughts on ALW’s reaction to losing to Hurricane Tyra Black on Thursday, I knew this was something that people might care about, but I didn’t realize how much people would care.
I was also surprised with how many people agreed with my overall sentiments considering what I had seen initially on social media following the reaction. There was a lot of thoughtful commentary to my post in the blog comments, on Facebook and on other social media outlets.
Even though there is a strong fan base for Anna Leigh, it is no secret that she is polarizing to a certain degree in terms of how much she is liked by pickleball fans across the board. The capacity for people to feel compassion and sympathy for a 16-year-old female in a very unique position was more than I would have predicted prior to posting.
However, I will say that I thought that both Leigh Waters and Anna Leigh Waters’ social media posts felt somewhat odd. Maybe Leigh Waters was just Googling good sports quotes, but it started off weird to use a quote from Joe Paterno for her Instagram post addressing the issue. The full caption itself felt a little empty to me. Anna Leigh’s Twitter post alluded to her making a mistakes without providing an apology. You know that ALW’s post was curated with the assistance of her support system but the sense from me is that neither her post nor her mother’s was authentic.
I didn’t think an apology was required from Anna Leigh, especially in today’s culture that too often requires apologies from public figures for any little deviation from the public outcry norm. I’m not really sure what I wanted from the Waters, but it was something more genuine than what I read from either person.
This Anna Leigh thing was truly one of the most bizarre situations I have ever witnessed in watching professional sports in all my life. Perfection is not the standard that anyone should be held to in the public sphere and that applies to a silly social media post that alludes to, but doesn’t explicitly reference, the situation in question. Credit to ALW that she was able to win double gold in mixed and women’s this weekend as if Thursday never happened.
As with so many stories in sports, it won’t be long before most of us forget this ever happened as well.
Fantasy Update: It is a 13-9 win for Gritty this weekend as we end up missing out on 6 points this weekend, which were the two singles gold medals for Joseph and Black. Gritty has tied this thing back up for the season.
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