It was a hot one in Texas this past weekend as there have been some comments about how June in Texas might not have been the best idea. It had to be a grueling weekend for the players as a lot of them will head into a stretch of 3 consecutive weekends of intensity, which concludes with MLP San Clemente. A good chunk of the players will be spending a couple of straight weeks in California and, even though San Clemente looks like a lovely place to be, that length of time away from home can be a strain on anyone.
1. Singles Is Here to Stay (Gritty) – Even though I disagree with the premise, the questions about the removal of singles from pro pickleball have not been completely unwarranted. It is undoubtedly the least viewed event and fans simply don’t have the interest in singles that they do for doubles. Considering the grind that pickleball tournaments can be, what is the purpose of singles?
However, just because singles is not the most interesting event, that doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting and fun. It’s usually my least favorite event to watch, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy watching it. I think it has been great for pickleball that singles has found the spotlight the past couple of weekends. At the APP NYC two weekends ago, it was William Sobek going toe-to-toe with Vuk Velickovic in one of the epic double dips in pro pickleball history. In Texas, it was the one-sided Lea Jansen vs. Anna Leigh Waters matchup we thought we had seen too many times, that also became one of the matches of the year.
Singles is basically a different game than doubles, which is kind of the case in singles versus doubles tennis. There are vastly different skill sets that make a player successful in singles as opposed to doubles, but it’s cool to see the athleticism and physicality that singles pickleball has to offer. That athleticism was on full display in the women’s singles final on Sunday where Lea Jansen almost played the match of her life, coming up just short of a major upset, unable to close match points in game 2 and 3 over the 16-year-old Anna Leigh. Jansen’s mental fortitude to fight for it all in game 3 after losing game 2 the way she did was one of the more impressive things I’ve seen in 2023.
A thought I have had is how singles can be important for bringing different storylines in the sport. With only doubles events, there’s only so much to talk about and doubles inherently means that the more established players remain in the spotlight. How many times have we had the opportunity to talk about new players because of singles versus doubles? It also puts the singles players in the public eye to more easily breakthrough in finding partners for doubles. Federico Staksrud and Pablo Tellez were both singles guys, who are now a top 5 men’s doubles team together.
Jaume Martinez Vich had a weekend to remember as he had upset after upset on his way to giving Ben Johns a run for his money on Championship Sunday. We also got to see the more personal side of Jaume, who showed he is someone we’ll probably want to root for. Tyson McGuffin was a few points away from having a true weekend to remember as he had some fantastic wins over Pablo Tellez and JW Johnson before also giving Ben Johns all he could handle in the semi-finals. These are fun storylines.
It is a trend of 2023 that we have new things to talk about because of singles. Outside of the great matches we saw on Sunday, which can be rare in this dominant world of Ben and Anna Leigh, Leigh Waters provided us with some interesting, mid-match commentary that I’m sure would have been major news if pickleball was covered in the same way as other established pro sports.
For those that missed it, Hannah Johns was interviewing Leigh Waters on the sideline in game 2 of the singles final on Sunday, and Leigh Waters had comments about the new JOOLA Perseus paddle that Jansen was playing with, saying it has “twice the power, three times the spin, is not coming up off the ground. It’s basically like playing a whole new player. So Anna Leigh is used to facing the Lea of the past and this paddle has improved her game a lot.”
The commentary from Leigh has not been well received based on what I have seen, including initially from Jansen after the match as seen by her Instagram story. The interview was given when her daughter was down 11-3, 6-3 in game 2 so you know tensions were running high. Regardless, in my view, the statement was both unreasonable and tone deaf.
The remarks on the new Perseus paddle from various JOOLA and non-JOOLA sponsored pros over the recent weeks have been overwhelmingly positive. Ben Johns has been playing with it for a little while now and we saw this past weekend that pretty much all the JOOLA sponsored players were using the Perseus. Aside from being the best free advertising JOOLA could have asked for and the fact that it is an upgrade in paddle choice for Jansen, the comments from Leigh represent a running theme from the Waters camp that when things are not going their way, there is going to be a complaint.
Lob-gate might still be the most hilarious and ridiculous complaint in all of pro sports history (I might not even be exaggerating here). I generally want to avoid paddle challenge shaming, but I’m not going to let that stop me from calling a spade a spade, which was the Parris Todd JOOLA paddle challenge from the Waters after ALW’s loss last year. There is no question in my mind we would have seen another challenge from ALW if she had lost to Jansen yesterday. In case you didn’t connect the dots, Anna Leigh’s mixed partner uses the very paddle that has twice the power and three times the spin.
The hyperbole from Leigh about the Perseus paddle is next level. It doesn’t take a mathmetician to tell you that twice the power and three times the spin would make the Perseus the most illegal paddle of all-time by a wide margin. But Leigh didn’t say it as a joke or make it clear that she was hyperbolizing the situation, nor did she give Jansen an ounce of credit for playing well with the new paddle. Leigh said it with the utmost seriousness. Even if the paddle should get all the credit, it is simply weird to publicly give zero credit to the opponent.
It’s always this weird balance giving commentary on a 16-year-old and her mother. Whenever we stray into criticism about Anna Leigh, it is inevitable there are a few people who insinuate it isn’t fair. Although that is fair to a degree because it is hard to separate a teenager from the influence of the adults around her, I usually fall into the camp that if you want to play a professional sport, you should not expect to be treated any differently. This won’t always be the case, but generally I subscribe to this ideology.
When it comes to the Waters, MLP San Clemente should be fascinating for a couple of reasons. Lea Jansen was quite complimentary of the support she received from Mama Waters following the first MLP event this year. If it wasn’t for the fact ALW and Lea were on the same team, giving the paddle all the credit would be more of a chip on the shoulder moment for Lea. Instead, she’s in this position where she has to go to battle with a coach who is throwing passive aggressive shade at her during the middle of a match. Leigh attempted some social media damage control.* Ryan Harwood better hope that the 5’s get off to a good start because team chemistry could get real dicey.
The other fascinating aspect to the general complaining, particularly about paddles, from the Waters camp are questions about Anna Leigh’s paddle that have not bubbled to the surface of any public discussions, other than an off-hand sly remark here or there. If MLP gets their paddle testing in place, it will be interesting to observe whether we hear a different sound coming from Anna Leigh Waters’ Paddletek Bantam TS-5 paddle during MLP San Clemente. Objectively, ALW’s paddle sounds nothing like an off-the-shelf Paddletex Bantam TS-5 nor does it create a sound that resembles any other paddle on the market, but it is still unclear why that is the case.
Bringing this back full circle from the tangent of non-match related storylines is my point that singles should have a place in pro pickleball. During the height of the ALW vs. Jansen match on Sunday, there were almost 10,000 viewers on the live stream. There was no doubles match to tune into after the match because the stream was flipping to ESPN yet fans were still locked in for the outcome of that match.
Doubles and mixed events have essentially zero spotlight in pro tennis but those events remain in the sport. For those that have been on the fence about this, my take is that the last two weekends should be ample evidence to demonstrate that singles is here to stay. People may not always watch in the droves that they do for doubles events, but good pickleball is good pickleball.
As we saw this weekend, singles pickleball can be very good.
2. Dizon Dialing it Up (Slim) – Meghan Dizon’s stock continues to rise as she made another Championship Sunday appearance in women’s doubles this weekend, and also made the semi-finals in mixed. It was Meghan’s third championship Sunday of the year in women’s doubles, her second with Etta Wright to go along with her appearance with Vivienne David in Austin.
While Dizon made the championship Sunday appearance with David in Austin, before the Daytona MLP event where her team the Seattle Pioneers won, you can’t help but wonder if she hasn’t benefited a bit from a boost in confidence from the Pioneers victory, and her own good performance there.
Heading into the year, it was hard to say what exactly Dizon was as a player. She was a long, athletic looking player who seemed to have all of the shots, but her results stagnated on the tour last year, and it seemed fair to question whether maybe she was a “JAG” (“just another guy/girl”) as a pro, but this year she is showing she still has levels to go as a pro. It felt even more fair considering the early returns her 2022 partner, Allyce Jones, was getting on tour.
In mixed doubles, Dizon and Federico Staksrud had an impressive run to the semi-finals, as they knocked out both Catherine Parenteau / Tyson McGuffin and the Jorja and JW Johnson, two of the better mixed teams this year, and won both handily in straight games.
I would also be remiss to not mention that Federico Staksrud, may be a mixed player really on the rise. He has some very impressive mixed wins, with women likely not considered elite mixed players, and now that he is getting more high end mixed partnerships, it would not be surprising to see him in the mix now.
For Dizon, she is dialing up her play far more than I expected prior to the start of 2022 and it looks as though she might just be getting started
3. War of Attrition (Gritty) – One topic we had discussed as a storyline heading into 2023 was whether injuries were going to become more prevalent in pro pickleball. It felt inevitable that injuries were going to become a bigger factor as more players take to the sport full-time, increasing the demand on their bodies. In addition, the current incentives in pro pickleball mean that the more you play, the more opportunities you have to earn money, which can serve as a double-edged sword.
Unfortunately, it appears that we are starting to see more injuries impacting prominent players on the tour. Thomas Wilson and Tyson McGuffin have both had injuries that impacted their respective MLP teams. Wilson recently came back from a nagging wrist injury and, despite playing singles on Thursday, he withdrew from men’s doubles on Saturday for reasons that are unknown to us. He’s not in the draw for San Clemente this week either.
Vivienne David and Andrea Koop are both suffering from some sort of abdominal/rib issues. Andrea Koop has been out for the past couple of months while Vivienne David sat out the Texas Open. Their status for the upcoming California swing of events remains in question. Koop had said on the ‘It Feels Right’ podcast a couple of weeks ago she had just received a cortisone shot.
It is such a delicate line to walk for these players who have certain contractual obligations to play a minimum number of tour events in 2023 to earn their appearance fees. The gravy train is here for pro pickleball players and pros do not know if the bubble is going to burst at any point soon. Moreover, with all the new talent coming into the game, the shelf life for pros to earn legitimate money could be limited as well. Understandably, pros want to take advantage of the gravy train as much as they can.
All those factors are motivation for players to play as much as they can. Some of the pros are going out there grinding all 3 events even if it sounds like most PPA pros are only required to play a minimum of 2 events to receive their appearance fee. I don’t know if the 2-event requirement is why we finally saw Wilson in a singles draw in Dallas or if the singles event contributed at all to his men’s doubles withdrawal, but it is unavoidable that some of these human bodies are going to breakdown over the course of the year.
Etta Wright had to pull out of a couple of events recently with health issues of her own before coming back strong in Dallas over the weekend. Andreas Siljestrom withdrew from MLP Daytona due to a back injury. I’m sure there are others that I am missing.
Another thing that can get lost is what players are battling through nagging injuries. Travis Rettenmaier alluded to some nagging issues he has been dealing with on a recent Tennis Sucks podcast.
Anna Leigh Waters and Ben Johns may be able to create a bigger advantage for themselves by carving more time off in their schedule than the average pro. They can do this because financially they do not need to play as many events and giving themselves a break to recharge their body and mind. ALW and Ben both go deep in all 3 events virtually every weekend, but having gaps of time off during the year is a luxury other pros may not feel they can afford to take.
With the way MLP is structured with no waiver moves in Premier, it can be ultra punishing for teams who lose a player due to injury. There’s nothing that you can really do about it other than monitor where players are at health wise as someone like Thomas Wilson may have their draft stock impacted for season 2 of MLP. Injuries are usually less of a concern in individual sports where it only impacts the individual and their partner, but the team aspect of pickleball changes what an injury means for the sport.
Players will choose how to manage their schedule how they best see fit to balance their body, mind and bank account. We are too early to really know what full-time pros should do to optimize their calendar, but there may become a tipping point as other pros notice more of their fellow players on the sidelines instead of competing on the court.
Injuries are inevitable and they suck, and the impact they could have on the landscape of pro pickleball in 2023 could end up being much larger than we currently anticipate.
4. The Newman’s Newman-ing (Slim) – Riley and Lindsey Newman were in a Championship Sunday together for the first time this year. For Riley, it is becoming a pretty familiar place, as Lindsey was the 5th different mixed partner he has made a Championship Sunday with this year (h/t to Josh Gartman for the stats). Riley and Lindsey did not drop a game on their way to final, and they were able to push Ben and Anna Leigh to three games in the final on Sunday. So it was a good reminder that the sibling duo, is right there with the best in the world, when they play together.
It was another reminder that Lindsey Newman’s defence is still amongst the best in the game, and that continues to make her a very high end mixed player. She also appears to have increased her fitness and improved her movement a bit this year, which is helping to get her back to the highest level. I still wonder if she couldn’t find more ways to create more offence for herself, which would definitely improve her women’s doubles games, but would also be an asset in mixed in terms of keeping the opponents honest. In any event, Lindsey was a huge question mark going into the MLP draft as to whether she should be top 24 material and there should be little question about that now.
This weekend was yet another example that Riley is clearly a top two men’s player in the doubles game, and also a reminder that he has not found the right partnerships to take down Ben Johns, in mixed or men’s doubles, if those partnerships are even out there. He will have another chance this weekend with Lindsey to see if they can beat the Johns and Anna Leigh duo in San Clemente, and it will be interesting to see what they can do after such a promising weekend in Texas, or if Ben figures something out once again.
One storyline that has been forgotten a bit, is Anna Bright leaving Riley earlier this year, to partner with James Ignatowitch. While Riley and Anna did get one gold together, Riley was not playing his best pickleball at the start of this year when they were partnering. It would have been intriguing to see how they might be performing now, if they had stayed together as a pair.
I think there are still some things that Bright needs to work on with her mixed game, but I do wonder if with her hands and weapons, Riley and Anna may have been able to at least push Ben and Anna Leigh, similar to how the Johnsons with Jorja’s hands were able to beat Ben and Anna Leigh earlier this year. Just another fun pickleball, what if.
It was also a pretty good debut for the new Takeya paddle, as it was the first weekend the paddle was in use. Side note, Hard Eights teammate, AJ Koller, was sporting the Takeya as well in his sorely needed strong men’s doubles day.
5. Stark Result (Gritty) – I thought it was worth noting a senior pro result, which I thought was interesting. Not shockingly, Dave Weinbach and Mircea Morariu won the senior pro men’s doubles draw that was relatively thin as most of the seniors were at the first National Pickleball League (NPL) event this past weekend. However, Morariu/Weinbach played a couple of matches against Joel Waiwaiole and Kevin Stark. Waiwaiole has a brother and they have often play together over the years, but I had never seen Stark’s name before so to see them take a game to 12-10 in the winners final and then go 3 games in the gold medal match was interesting. Waiwaiole and Stark also cleaned up Paul Olin/Mills Miller twice, giving up only 9 total points across 4 games. Stark is in his first year of being a senior pro and this was only his second event of 2023 according to Pickleball Tournaments. He doesn’t appear to be travelling the Senior Circuit. We saw it at US Open with the women’s split age event but it’s not too often you get a completely out of nowhere result like we saw from Kevin Stark over the weekend.
Fantasy Update: It’s another win for Gritty, 14-13 on the week. Sweeping the women’s singles was a big boost as was Juame Martinez Viche upsetting Federico Staksrud in the semi-finals to take those points away from Slim. The missed points this week in our draft, 27 out of 30, all came in singles with Juame getting silver and Tyson taking bronze – Tyson probably should not have gone undrafted. Gritty is now 2 up on the year.
*This post has been edited to correct that it was not Brendon Long who responded to Leigh Waters on Instagram.
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