It was a unique weekend in Brigham City for a number of reasons. As just another tournament on the PPA tour schedule, it is evident that TOC has lost its lore from the time when it was legitimately one of the three major events in pickleball along with the US Open and Nationals. The substantially lower registration numbers compared to last year appeared to reflect in the crowds on the earlier weekdays of the tournament. The event had the feel of a typical PPA by the end, but there wasn’t the usual increased energy we see for big tournaments in Utah. We’ll have to see what happens to TOC in future years, but it feels safe to say that it will no longer be a marquee event for pro players going forward.
1. Double Triple Crown (Gritty) – TOC was set up to be as wide open as a PPA was going to be this year. The absences of the two best players in the sport, Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters, along with a few of the other top dogs meant that the spotlight could shine on other players. It was Tyson McGuffin and Catherine Parenteau who took advantage of the opportunity, both winning triple crowns in Brigham City.
Parenteau was coming off a self-imposed break of sorts while McGuffin was playing his second tournament after a mini hiatus to rest as well as recover from an elbow issue. The rust had worn off for McGuffin and apparently was never there for Parenteau as each player found their top level. Notably, Parenteau and McGuffin won the mixed event as the crown jewel of their relatively successful year as a partnership.
The road the triple crown wasn’t smooth sailing for either player. In mixed, the pair was pushed to the brink by Callie Smith/Jay Devilliers in Thursday’s quarter-final and then had to wait until late the following evening to knock off Jessie Irvine/Riley Newman, once again in 3 games. The mixed final was more straightforward and ended with a whimper after Pat Smith’s concussion withdrawal. Tyson continues to play big in mixed and is whipping that forehand as well as he ever has in his career. Combined with Parenteau’s steadiness and high end ability to hold her own against the men, McGuffin are as dangerous as any non-Anna Leigh/Ben team on the right weekend.
Tyson’s alpha ways were demonstrated on the men’s day as well. At the start of the year, it was pre-determined that James Ignatowich would play the left in his year-long commitment with McGuffin. This ended up with sub-par to mediocre results and a slow, winding road to near splitsville. However, a win over JW/Dylan in their last event and a bronze medal with Tyson on the left side of the court may have the boys rethinking their choice to end things.
The last two tournaments in men’s, McGuffin/Ignatowich have committed to the Tyson on the left alignment to far more success. The alignment has simplified the game for Ignatowich as they force teams to either dink cross-court with Tyson or go straight on with Ignatowich. It has resulted in a pick your poison situation for opponents who have to choose between dinking with the consistent as all hell McGuffin or playing with the possible fire of a hand battle with one of the hardest counter punchers out there in Ignatowich.
The alignment with Ignatowich straight across from Riley Newman in the gold medal match did not seem ideal, but McGuffin/Ignatowich trusted the process, made some subtle adjustments and came back from a steep 2-0 deficit against Koller/Newman. It was one of the most exciting men’s matches of the year and meant that Tyson’s triple crown was still in play to start Championship Saturday. Tyson then won his mixed match and took down his buddy, Connor Garnett, in straight games to secure his triple crown.
When it comes to Parenteau, the path was near disastrous in women’s doubles. Parris Todd was a last minute fill-in for Etta Wright. After a shaky first matchup that resulted in a 12-10 in the third game win over Vivian Glozman/Susannah Barr, Parenteau/Todd then had to fight to win a 3-game match against the Kawamotos. They were able to then take out Irvine/Jansen in the semi-finals before winning the gold over the hometown Callie Smith/Allyce Jones in 4 games. The women’s singles final was borderline pre-determined against Devidze.
From a takeaways perspective, although McGuffin and Parenteau’s triple crowns were impressive from a pure pickleball perspective standpoint, the physicality of the event can easily get lost in all of this. For Tyson, in particular, the grind was real. Tyson had to get through a singles draw on Wednesday, play mixed on Thursday only for his semi-final be pushed to the end of the day on Friday, go again on Friday for men’s and then mentally regroup to play a long-mixed match very late Friday evening.
Then it was another quick turnaround to Saturday where Tyson played a 2-hour men’s match, played 2 games of a mixed match and looked fresh as a daisy against Connor Garnett to lock up his triple crown.
The physicality that the tournament grind requires in pickleball is underrated in how unique it is to professional sports, especially with the best players playing half the year on the road for multiple days in a row. McGuffin and Parenteau are two players who treat their job as professionally as any players do in the sport. Tyson McGuffin even said on his podcast at the end of May that he had put on about 10 to 15 pounds of muscle over the prior 3 months. Their personal trainers, Craig Feinstein and Connor Derrickson, travel with them to events and ensure they put the work in between events. It makes a difference and it shows on weekends like TOC.
It’s also easy to forget that Parenteau and McGuffin were both stock significantly down at the end of 2022. Tyson and Catherine’s mixed partnership was the result of necessity for both players. Riley Newman had chosen to move on from Parenteau after stagnating results when it appeared that Parenteau couldn’t hold up against top end male power (the first Newman breakup mistake?). The Jay Devilliers/Tyson McGuffin men’s partnership was never a success. Add in the Partner-gate stuff from Parenteau and there weren’t many options available for either player. Heck, Tyson was set to partner with Lea Jansen before Catherine came calling.
What a difference about 9 months makes. Tyson and Catherine are both on top of the pickleball world, albeit with a slight asterisk with the top players out of the sport. Nevertheless, being the best of the rest is nothing to scoff at as two of the sports true legacy players are as good as they have ever been.
2. The Winter Solider is Back (Slim) – Patrick Smith, did not get selected in the last MLP draft, and although Gritty had him firmly in his challenger players, while I had him borderline as a Challenger player, it definitely was not shocking to not see him go undrafted. Pat seemed to have been battling a number of injuries the last couple years, and it seemed like those injuries, combined with the fact that he is not a dedicated, full time pickleball pro, were causing the game to pass him by. The past few weeks, have shown though that Pat definitely still has plenty of gas in the tank, and is certainly at the very least a Challenger player.
Perhaps, Pat got motivated by the snub of the MLP draft, but more so it seems like he has just finally gotten healthy. In one of his post match interviews he noted that he was able to move well, and that movement is essential for him to be able to play well. This weekend Pat and Tina Pisnik went on an impressive run to the gold medal match, where they were not able to compete unfortunately due to a concussion Pat sustained playing men’s doubles. This mixed doubles run, came on the heels of Pat and DJ Young beating the Johns brothers and picking up a bronze medal in the Seattle.
His resurgence has been noted, as the Seattle Pioneers have already picked him up in place of the injured Brandon French for the season, which seems like a very fortunate break for Pioneers. The Pioneers have to be beyond excited with this, as there just aren’t really many, if any, other guys at the Challenger level that are capable of making the podium in both mixed and men’s doubles at the PPA level.
It was obviously a very unfortunate end for Pat this weekend, having to pull out the mixed final with a concussion so we can only hope that he is back to full strength soon, and that this concussion doesn’t set him back.
3. Tina Pisnik Right There (Gritty) – I’m not sure how many times people can say that Tina Pisnik was the #29 rated doubles player in the world, but I’m here to say it again. It’s relevant to the discussion as Pisnik reached her first Championship Sunday, taking a silver medal with Pat Smith, over the weekend. Pisnik is now undoubtedly one of the breakout females of 2023.
After being picked up by the Texas Ranchers for the final Challenger event of season 1 MLP, Pisnik’s rise has been borderline meteoric. The Ranchers poor showing in San Clemente masked what was an impressive overall event for Pisnik. Despite still teaching tennis full-time, Pisnik has also dedicated a lot of her time to pro pickleball and the results are showing. Pisnik also had a strong women’s doubles day in Utah with a higher end partner of Andrea Koop.
We both thought we were very high on Tina Pisnik going into the MLP draft relative to the market, but the BLQK Bears went a step further taking Pisnik with the 12th overall pick (the 6th female overall). If we were to re-do the MLP draft today, Pisnik is undoubtedly a top 5 female pick, and possibly even a top 3 pick, with probably the only other players in the mix above her being Jillian Braverman, Susannah Barr and Yana Newell, who also fell criminally low.
While Pisnik had previously shown flashes she could compete with the best players on the PPA, TOC was her true breakout into mainstream pro pickleball. Making a Championship Sunday with a guy who has been borderline irrelevant since the beginning of 2022, then beating Newell/Stratman and almost beating Smith/Jones in women’s, was an announcement of her presence. To be fair, Pat Smith is playing like a different player recently.
It’s unclear if anyone noticed that Pisnik almost beat Barr/Fudge last weekend with her BLQK teammate, Alix Truong, demonstrating that they should be able to compete with any Challenger team out there. BLQK have clearly struck gold with Pisnik. It is very hard to nail any MLP draft completely, but it might have been curtains for other teams if BLQK had opted for Yana Newell at #13 overall instead of Alix Truong.
Tina Pisnik is no longer on the rise. She has arrived. The rest of the field better watch out.
4. Indoor Pickleball? (Slim) – It was another win for the indoor pickleball crowd this weekend as high winds, in particular, affected play while it was going on and also caused delays when it became too strong. There has been a push lead by Rob Nunnery to make professional pickleball, at least, an indoor sport, and now many others have jumped on that train. This weekend was another win for them.
I actually remain of the opinion that it would be bad for pickleball to move almost exclusively indoors, even if just at the pro level. I think a big part of what has caused pickleball to explode is its accessability, and if it becomes associated as an indoor sport it could lose some of that appeal. I also prefer to play outdoors, over indoors, so I may be biased, but I think it’s just hard to beat playing pickleball outside on a beautiful sunny day.
With that said as more and more money comes into the sport, we can’t have professional matches being played outdoors with a wiffle in extremely high winds, and it also becomes a problem if there are too many weather delays. I think having some indoor tournaments, is fine, but there also still needs to be outdoor tournaments, where to a degree at least the elements are involved.
A happy compromise may be moving more of the outdoor events into more stadium style courts, that may be at least partially covered to limit at least the wind. This obviously isn’t really possible with the way pro tournaments are currently run, but it something that could perhaps happen if MLP teams do eventually have their own cities and facilities in those cities.
5. Not Getting the Results (Slim) – It was another disappointing weekend for Riley Newman, he picked up a silver medal in men’s doubles with AJ Koller and a bronze in mixed doubles with Jessie Irvine, but heading into this weekend that can’t have been the results he was hoping for with no Ben Johns and no JW Johnson in the field. At some point we have to start asking if maybe Riley is the issue, not his new partners. Two of the bigger issues I see with Riley are his lack of elite power, which is an area that I think Matt Wright really covered for him in the men’s game the last couple of years, and that his forehand still remains a very safe place to dink which is a problem when he is playing on the left side, in particular, as teams can generally middle dink him to death.
It also continues to be a disappointing year for Riley’s mixed partner Jessie Irvine, as the bronze this weekend with Riley was actually a very rare podium appearance for her at this point. Outside of Jessie’s surprise singles performance at the Beer City Open, when was the last time that she surpassed expectations? Her movement continues to be an issue, and like Riley she and her partners seldom seem to appear to be having a good time playing together.
Anna Bright picked up a bronze with Tyra Black in women’s doubles this weekend, but her women’s results without Anna Leigh Waters this year have been very disappointing. Heading into the year, I had her as the second best women’s doubles players, but her results this year have not supported that at all. I am not quite sure what is missing with her game, but I do wonder if playing half her events with Anna Leigh, and then the other half with a wide variety of partners has sort of stalled her development? Playing with Anna Leigh she isn’t developing the tools necessarily to be the alpha on the court, and then she also hasn’t really had the opportunity to develop chemistry with another partner.
Fantasy Update: We had two events this weekend. Slim won the PPA event, 14-12, as he found gold medals with Parenteau in women’s and Tyson in gold. We missed 4 points at TOC, missing out on Lauren Stratman’s bronze in singles, Pisnik/Smith’s silver in mixed, and Garnett/Alshon’s bronze in men’s.
For the niche Gamma Classic tournament, Gritty won in a landslide 14-5. The women’s doubles sweep was the winning strategy as the sweep alone would have been enough to win this week. With the push on the week, Slim is still 1 up on the year.
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