It was poor weather week at the Texas Open as it was windy every day and the mixed day got postponed from Friday all the way until Sunday. Communication on what was going to happen with the events was not good from the PPA as it appeared from an outsiders perspective that the mixed back draw would not even finish, but there they were on center court on Sunday. They also played the two singles finals only 2 out of 3 on Sunday, presumably to make sure they did not run too long. After Tyson won game 2 over Ben Johns, one of the commentators was not even made aware that the PPA had altered the format for the day.
The other thing that continues to be odd when tuning into the live streams at PPA tournaments is trying to figure out who is on the mic. The PPA continues to use this rotating cast of people at various tournaments that may or may not partly depend on who at the tournament is available when they have gaps. It feels like a misstep for the PPA to have revolving door of people in the booth at all of these different stops. Sure, live streams for 4 days are a slog, but we’ll be curious to see how they deal with their commentary in 2023. Let’s get to the takeaways.
1. Ben Johns Being Pushed (Gritty) – The Johns brothers took away another gold medal on Sunday, winning in 4 games over Matt Wright and Riley Newman. That makes it 3 out of their last 4 matchups against the duo that the Johns brothers have come out on top. It looks like both Collin and Ben have made the right adjustments to be able to slow the game down in a manner that suits their style more while counter-attacking the aggressive style of Matt/Riley more effectively.
The takeaway for me on this one isn’t about the Johns brothers being the best team in the world, which they currently are right now. The takeaway is that Matt Wright and Riley Newman have forced Ben Johns to work. They are making him put in the time to maintain his status as the best in the world and he is meeting that challenge right now. After an inability to solve the Johns riddle early in the year, Riley/Matt eventually decided to come right after their opponents, which meant Ben was getting attacked in a way he had never seen in his life. They found Ben’s sort of kryptonite, that higher left shoulder spot. They kept the brothers guessing not when a speed up was coming, but more so where it would be coming.
What may be scary for the new blood coming into the sport is that we are likely getting the best version of Ben Johns. There was a time when Ben could speed up just about anyone he wanted on command and win the rally. Those days are long gone, but Ben has still spent quite a bit of time being so much better than anyone he was never forced to truly better his game. That’s not saying that Ben was not working hard at his game. Rather, it’s that there is only so much one can do when they are not pushed to their limits.
Michael Jordan had to lose to the Detroit Pistons. LeBron James had to lose to the Dallas Mavericks (who would have thought that would now be a pickleball connection!).
Look at what Ben is doing now. He’s using 2-hands on that higher backhand counter far more frequently than at the beginning of the year. In general, he appears to be countering harder than ever. Even in singles, he’s using a 2-handed backhand groundstroke more often. When you don’t have to worry about anyone beating you, you don’t end up getting exploited enough to figure out how to be the best version of yourself.
Anna Leigh Waters, who won another Triple Crown in Texas, is kind of in the spot that Ben Johns was in previously, especially in singles. It’s quite possible we won’t see the best version of Anna Leigh until someone, or some people, come along to push her to the brink. She dropped a couple of games in singles this weekend, and you have to think that came down to a lack of focus from her, which you cannot blame her for with only one singles loss to her name this year. There has been a lot of chatter about Anna Leigh possibly moving on from Leigh in her partnership, but playing with her Mom could be the best thing for her long-term. It has required Anna Leigh to play in a way she would not have with a better partner and has turned her into the only female in pickleball that can single-handily take over a match.
You have to give Ben as well as Collin a lot of credit. They got punched in the mouth by Newman and Wright, got up off the canvas and punched them right back in the mouth. Adversity creates opportunity and Ben’s response to the adversity he has faced this year with his brother has been one of the more impressive things we have seen.
2. Steve Deakin, Comeback Player of the Year? (Slim) – Pro pickleball is so new so there isn’t much room currently for comeback stories. However, the comeback story of 2022 took place on Saturday. Steve Deakin, who had missed over a year between 2021 and 2022 with a lingering wrist injury took bronze with James Ignatowich in men’s doubles. Prior to getting injured, Deakin was known as “Podium Deakin” because he had a knack for finding his way onto the podium with a variety of different partners. His extreme competitiveness and the high level consistency in his game, made him one of the surest things on the tour.
However after missing more than a year due to injury, it was fair to wonder if Steve would find his way back to the podium and, if he did, how long it would take him to get there, after so much time off. The fields have only gotten deeper since Steve has been gone, and he also is not getting any younger at 48 years young. His partner on Saturday was less than half his age. Nonetheless, in just his third tournament back, Steve was back on the podium, which was an extremely impressive showing, as he and Ignatowich had to work their way through the loser’s bracket, and beat a number of strong teams to get there, including a 12-10 win in the third game over Travis Rettenmaier and Wes Burrows.
The podium performance was also extremely impressive for James, as it was his first pro medal in doubles. I have to admit that I had just presumed that James had made a doubles podium at some point, between his success in singles and MLP , it just felt like he had to have gotten there at some point. The doubles games, as we know, takes longer than the singles to figure out, and it seems like Ignatowich is figuring out the doubles game. Every time we see him, it looks like his doubles game is progressing, and this result speaks to his continued improvement. I think it is a pretty safe assumption that this won’t be the last time we see James on the podium in doubles.
Also on that note, it would seem like Deakin is the perfect partner for newer, talented guys like Ignatowich. James is a young, long, athletic player who likes to play a really aggressive style. With that aggressiveness, you are going to get both brilliance and inconsistency, especially as he figures out the nuances of the doubles game. Meanwhile, with Deakin, you know exactly what you are going to get pretty much every time out, which is a rock solid guy who is generally going to make more balls than the guy on the other side and still have the hands to hold up at his age. To have that steady presence and consistency, is so important for a guy like Ignatowich as it allows him to more freely play his aggressive game, while remaining fairly steady as a team overall.
It will be interesting to continue to watch Deakin’s return, and see who he partners with moving forward. This was potentially a big result for Deakin in terms of proving to the rest of the guys on tour that he’s all the way back. Regardless of what happens next, it is good having Deakin back and it was a lot of fun to see him get back in his old spot, on the podium.
3. Big Performance for Rettenmaier (Gritty) – Of course, in his first tournament after MLP, Travis Rettenmaier had a big performance with a 4th in men’s doubles with Wes Burrows and a bronze in mixed doubles with Etta Right. Wes Burrows is extremely talented but doesn’t appear to put the work in that some of the other pros are these days. Burrows has been more of a day spoiler than a consistent performer on the pro tour as we have seen in his Jeff Warnick partnerships. With Etta Wright, the talent is clearly there, but she is still relatively new without a huge body of work – although, she is definitely one to watch and could very well be the next top end female in the game.
Rettenmaier had big performances with both players on the weekend. His mixed day was split between Friday and Sunday. After losing their second match on Friday, Rettenmaier and Wright went on a run in the back draw winning 6 matches, including wins over Newell/Young, Sheehan-Dizon/Dawson, Bright/Loong, Waters/McGuffin and Irvine/Devilliers. The Irvine/Devilliers match was streamed on Sunday, and it felt like Rettenmaier drove just about every third ball he could get on his forehand. Their bronze victory was particularly noteworthy considering Irvine and Devilliers had beaten Rettenmaier/Wright 11-4 and 11-4 on Friday to knock them into the back draw.
The 4th place finish in men’s may have been more impressive for Rettenmaier. Travis and Wes beat Callan Dawson and Pat Smith in 3 games, before losing to the Johns brothers in 3 in the semi-finals. A 15-13 win over Jay/Tyson was followed up with a barnburner 3 game loss to Steve Deakin and James Ignatowich, where they lost 12-10 in the third. The match is on video with a choppy stream from Julian Arnold, but it was another strong performance from Rettenmaier who was the left side rock for Burrows. As a side note, Rettenmaier may be the king of the long-distance paddle toss.
Rettenmaier’s outing this past weekend was a strong follow-up to his 4th place finish at the PPA Cincinnati with Pat Smith in September. It has always been clear Travis has the talent as his power all around looks to be elite. However, as impressive as it is that this was only his 9th tournament of the year not including MLP, the lingering question is how invested Travis has been with pickleball and how invested he will be going forward. He’s going to be playing Nationals with Wes Burrows again next weekend, so it’ll be interesting to monitor how they follow-up their performance in Texas.
For now, we couldn’t avoid giving Rettenmaier a spot in this week’s takeaways.
4. Tyson McGuffin Finally Gets One (Slim)– There probably wasn’t a happier guy than Tyson McGuffin on Sunday. For a long time, it has seemed like the most predictable thing in pickleball was seeing Ben Johns and Tyson, in a singles final, and seeing Ben win that singles final. While we have certainly seen more variation this year with the singles finals, we have still gotten our fair share of Ben versus Tyson finals this year. It is hard to imagine the psychological toll and frustration that it would have on a player, to continually come up against the final hurdle, and fall short over and over again.
Tyson has actually been very open about the frustration that his inability to beat Ben has caused, and even talked last year on his podcast about crying in his car on Championship Sunday because he had lost so many times. So finally beating Ben in singles for the first time since the 2019 US Open (Tyson did beat Ben in Atlanta in 2020, in the best 2 out of 3 in the gold but then was unable to play the game to 15), had to have felt like the weight of the world was lifted off of his shoulders. One thing you always have to credit Tyson for is his resilience and competitiveness, so maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that he finally took down Ben again.
It seems like we are likely to see less Ben and Tyson finals, as we move forward, as more and more talent enter the game, particularly in singles. So it was a nice change of pace to finally see Tyson overcome his struggles and defeat Ben in a gold medal match at least one more time.
Fantasy Update: Slim wins 16 to 11. It’s back to a 6-up gap for the year. The scores don’t matter anymore but Slim is looking for maximum embarrassment of Gritty for the end of 2022.
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