The PPA are very fortunate that Matt/Riley have found a way to match up with the Johns brothers because prior to that match it had been a very boring Championship Saturday. As impressive as it is for Anna Leigh, it is not too exciting for fans to watch her win a triple crown without dropping a game the entire day. The Waters as a doubles pair appear to be surpassing the competition at this point in the year. Long-term, Anna Leigh may have some limitations in singles but there’s not a single female player that comes close to doing what she can in doubles. Let’s get into the more complete takeaways from the weekend.
1. The John’s Vulnerability (Gritty) – It’s already been written about in some pickleball spaces but the most compelling match of Championship Saturday cannot be ignored by us. After the first game of the men’s doubles final, it looked like we may be going 5 for 5 without a competitive Saturday match. In game 1, Ben was dominant in all around and finger wagged his way an 11-4 win with Collin. However, the tides turned quickly with an 11-1 rout the other way from Matt/Riley in game 2. Game 3 could have gone either way with a sort of popped up sitter off a let cord that Ben put into the net on game point. One little play could really have been the difference in this match going a different way.
The match went Riley/Matt’s way in 4 games for their second consecutive victory over the Johns brothers. The scary thing for Ben and Collin is that it is the second time Riley/Matt have succeeded in their swing for the fences strategy. They did not stop attacking the whole match and let it fly whenever they got a half decent ball to initiate the battle. Matt was particularly locked in and it sure felt like he won a good percentage of his speed-ups straight ahead with Ben. You could see the frustration coming out from Ben as the match went along
Jim Ramsay of Pro Pickleball Stats on Facebook posted that Wright and Newman initated 54 speed-ups that resulted directly in the end of the rally and won exactly half of them versus the Johns winning only going 7 for 21 on their speed-ups. While the stats don’t quite bear out what it felt like when Newman/Wright initiated, they were by far the aggressors.
There was a time not too long ago where Ben could almost literally speed the ball up whenever he wanted and win. As players keep getting better, it’s evident that Ben’s hands, while elite, are not so elite that he can dominate everyone out there anymore. It has to be tough pill to swallow for Ben’s psyche when he really hasn’t been attacked much in his career and, suddenly, in the span of two tournaments an opponent is findings its best success by going right at you. It’s probably an even harder pill to swallow when the man who is alpha-ing you is almost twice your age.
Matt/Riley may be the only duo in pickleball at this stage that can implement this attack at will strategy against the Johns brothers because their combined hands are so good. What is extra fascinating about this change in dynamics is that Matt and Riley are both guys who have been playing the game for a while, especially Matt. These are not brand-new talents coming in and changing the level of the game against Ben. The fact is that the level of pro pickleball as a whole continues to rise and doing the same thing that you were doing a couple of years ago is not going to cut it anymore.
This does not mean that the world has figured out how to beat Ben and Collin. It has taken two very skilled players being zoned in to get this done twice. Ben and Collin will likely find a way to adjust and be more ready for this the next time around. Although, it did seem like Ben was ready for what was coming in game 1 and it didn’t pan out the way his finger wagging self thought it would the rest of the way.
The big takeaway for me is that the Johns brothers are more susceptible to losing in a way that was unimaginable a very short time ago. It always felt like the pair was vulnerable because Collin was a step or two below Ben’s level. However, Ben being an equal opportunity target without fear from the other side is not the way I expected this partnership to be as vulnerable as they looked on Saturday night.
SIDE STORY OF INTEREST: I couldn’t figure out where to weave this in, but we had multiple people reach out to us to discuss the late start of Ben’s singles match with Dylan Frazier on Saturday. It was the first match of the day that was supposed to begin at 10:00 am MT and they announced at the venue at least 3 times the match would be starting at 10:00 am. They eventually announced at 10am with no sign of Ben at the venue that the first match wouldn’t be starting until 10:45 due to TV production issues. It sounds like Ben showed up at the venue in flip flops somewhere between 10:20 and 10:30 am, and the Johns brothers went to get warmed up together on court. Our understanding is that Ben was simply late, possibly because he thought he was the second match of the day. Regardless of the reason, the PPA is going to accommodate their number 1 star. It probably goes without saying that if this happened to Frazier there wouldn’t have been this level of accommodation, if any accommodation at all – showing up late and having adequate warm-up time without repercussions. We are very confident in the reliability of this version of events and are sharing it because we thought people might be interested to hear about it.
Additional Side Story (Updated as of 1:50 pm EST): Something we missed putting in was that the Ben Johns delay apparently led to only one timeout being allowed for the women’s singles match apparently due to time constraints. We had a reader point this out to us before we posted but you can see on the broadcast after game 1 that Jansen was not happy about having one timeout. This issue also came up in AJ/Callie’s mixed final when AJ wanted to take a timeout and the referee told him only one was allowed. Apparently for mixed it wad because they were taking referee timeouts for commercial breaks on FS1. It’s pretty clear that not all players were informed of going to one timeout, no matter what the reason was, but then for the doubles matches it went back to two timeouts (maybe because these ended up on Youtube instead of the Tennis Channel?). Either way, a very odd thing to do and not communicate to your own players.
2. Unsigned Female Talent (Slim) – The PPA has definitely cornered a majority of the top female players and we have become accustomed to seeing the podiums at their events, dominated by their signed female players. While they still have a majority of the top female players, we have seen a few more unsigned players break through this year.
This weekend, it was Vivienne David and Susannah Barr pulling off an impressive bronze medal in women’s doubles, including wins over Jessie Irvine/Anna Bright and Catherine Parenteau/Lea Jansen.
We have also seen unsigned females like Andrea Koop and Jorja Johnson in women’s doubles, Simone Jardim in mixed doubles and Parris Todd and Anna Bright in singles on PPA podiums this year.
This is yet another example of the growth of the pro female game, and is just a sign of things to come. Parris and Anna weren’t even playing pro pickleball last year, and Jorja Johnson was just starting to dip her toes in the pro game. Who knows what things will look like in a year from now, and whether any more of these future female (or male) rising stars will lock themselves into a PPA deal.
In addition, the Susannah and Vivienne bronze just hammers home my point from last week that a lot of Vivienne’s partner choices this year have been mystifying. When she plays with a quality partner who fits her game, she is almost a lock to get result, but she seems to rarely actually have those partners. She plays with Lauren Stratman this coming weekend in Philadelphia so that will be 3 consscutive tournaments with higher end partners for David.
Another Side Note: We were made aware of a petition to have the PPA and APP organize an event where they pit their best players against one another – http://www.thepbsummit.org/. We would 100% be interested in seeing this and have signed the petition. Click the link yourself if you want to sign the petition.
3. The Other Johnson’s (Gritty) – I wish I could take credit for this line but someone DM’d us this message on Instagram after Hunter Johnson beat Tyson McGuffin in singles: “No JW at TOC, but PPA players still getting owned by a Johnson.”
The overall results from TOC were very strong for the PPA’s contracted players who owned the podium spots for the most part. That does not take away from the storyline we see, which is that the other Johnson’s in pro pickleball can no longer be ignored. The Johnson twin brothers, Hunter and Yates, have only been playing tournaments since the beginning of 2022 and they are slowly, but surely, working their way as forces to be reckoned with on the pro scene. Hunter has had more individual success than Johnson with some notable results being his singles with his silver at the APP So Cal Classic and a nice run with Vivienne David two weekends ago in New Jersey. It sounds like Vivienne and Hunter Johnson will be playing more tournaments going forward too. Of course, this past weekend at TOC, Hunter ended up with a bronze medal as he was able to get the best of Jay Devilliers in 3 games.
The Johnson’s have had steadily improving results as the year has gone on as we often expect with these high level tennis players. Again, the learning curve gets pushed faster these days as players are putting all their energy into getting better at this sport. It is not always the case that you are destined for pro pickleball elite status because you have some high level tennis in your background though. We are very well aware of the one Johnson family that recently signed a family sponsorship with Franklin, but we can’t ignore the other Johnson’s, who are announcing their presence as a duo in the pickleball world.
4. No Tennis, No Problem for Frazier (Slim) – Dylan Frazier just started playing singles last year and after some early success his results seemed to be disappearing towards the end of last year and the start of this year. Lately though, as highlighted by his silver medal this weekend, Frazier has been making it known that is he a legitimate singles contender. This is especially impressive when you consider that he has no tennis background.
If you look at most of the guys coming in and dominating the singles game these days, like Federico Staksrud, James Ignatowich and the above mentioned Johnson brothers, they almost all have a high level tennis background. That high level tennis background and the ground strokes that come with it, simply translate very well and easily to the singles game.
So when Dylan started to struggle it kind of made sense that, without the ground strokes and tennis background, he was getting left behind and it was easy to write him off as someone who would just be a doubles specialist. To his credit though, he has clearly been working hard on his game and has taken his game up a level, including adding a two handed backhand. Those improvements in his game, along with more of a cat and mouse style that he can play but you rarely see at the pro level these days, makes him a very difficult match up for a lot of the top guys.
5. Paul Olin the New #1 (Gritty) – We highlighted in our takeaways some time ago when Paul Olin had finally beaten Mattias Johansson in singles. Johansson was consistently getting the best of Olin and it was notable that Olin had reached the summit of Mount Johansson. It now appears that the tides have turned in the senior pro landscape with Olin consistently besting the Swede. Olin did it again at a fairly strong senior pro draw in Brigham City, getting 4 straight games off of Johansson in the winners bracket final and gold medal match. It’s quite a turn of events for Johansson to basically go from unbeatable to can’t beat Olin. The same mental grind of tournaments goes for senior pros as it does for the younger pros. These players enter a ton of tournaments and you do have to wonder if Johansson’s first real run at senior pro events for an entire year is wearing on him. Olin has been around pickleball longer than Johansson and part of winning is being able to figure out how to manage the grind. It’s clear Olin has figured something out against Johansson so it’ll be interesting to see whether this trend changes anytime soon.
Fantasy Update: Gritty is on a streak. It’s a 16-12 win and a couple of places that made the difference were Slim going with Lucy/Callie over the Waters and then the men’s stuff not going his way with Collin/Ben losing, Julian/Pat Smith withdrawing and Tyler/Callan finding an unexpected bronze medal. There’s still a ways to go for Gritty to be able to catch up but this is the first streak in a very long time. Slim may be questioning himself on the drafts to come.
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