There are a lot of complaints on the amateur side of nationals. However, a big plus this year has to be the sense that this was back to being the biggest tournament of the year. With the rapidly diminishing importance of US Open and TOC, it is important to still have at least one tournament that feels different from the rest. Despite being at Indian Wells, last year’s Nationals did not have the larger than life feel that it did for those of us around the game of pickleball prior to COVID. It actually seems anti-climatic to have any tournaments after the biggest one of the year, but that’s a story for another day. Nationals was back for 2023.
*It is a Gritty only version of the takeaways this week FYI.
1. Progressive Draws Working – A big discussion point coming from Nationals was the implementation of progressive draws for the pros. Instead of playing all the matches of a single bracket on one day, they started the tournament on Wednesday and played one round from all five pro brackets each day. Naturally, it was something I was skeptical of going into the event, but I actually thought the format worked quite well. I wasn’t aware going into the event that all the doubles was going to be played best 3 out of 5, and I was a fan of that choice too.
My skepticism going into the event mainly stemmed from the weirdness of switching between different events throughout the day and trying to keep an eye on five different draws during a single day, especially the early rounds. Other questions that I had, and continue to have, is how the pros would deal with this change. The consensus from pros appears to be that they like the progressive draws, but that’s also coming from the more established players. Starting a tournament on a Wednesday with an unknown finish line for newer players with jobs could be a new barrier to entry if they decide to continue this format.
Sticking to Nationals itself, I found that the early rounds were more interesting because we had an opportunity to focus on teams that you often aren’t seeing or thinking much about. That being said, my perspective is skewed by the fact that they had 5 live streams going on Wednesday and only 2 courts going the rest of the week. The 5 courts being streamed on YouTube gives the crazy people a chance to watch people who rarely see the light of day. Most people probably don’t care about 5 streams but this is our blog and this is what I care about.
Although, having the main court on the new Pickleball TV sucked, to be perfectly honest. The PPA posted some of those matches in the earlier rounds on their YouTube page but the inability to go back to watch matches during the day isn’t ideal when you have 10 plus hours of pickleball on for 5 days. They don’t have any of the weekend matches posted at the time of writing this.
But I digress. For me, the most important aspect of this is that the progressive draws made it feel like a bigger tournament. It was different. It was unique. It was Nationals. I wonder how the pros who had to play late into the evening felt about these progressive draws. 3 out of 5 matches take a long time and some had to play well past 10pm local Dallas time. However, as a viewer on the west coast, having 3 out of 5 matches to come home to in the evenings was a nice change of pace.
In terms of whether they should do this going forward, I don’t think they should be doing 3 out of 5 progressive draws for standard tournaments. My suggestion would be to keep the progressive draws out of it for the majority of tournaments, bring it out for the bigger events and then save the 3 out of 5 format for only the very biggest events like Nationals. We have discussed doing 3 out of 5s on the blog here before to try to differentiate the standard tour events from the more marquee ones but we had never considered it in the context of daily progressive draws. There is no question that playing 3 out of 5 sets in tennis makes it very clear that this major is more important than the other random tournaments throughout the year.
Progressive draws and/or 3 out of 5 matches could provide that same effect on fans for pro pickleball. They don’t need to overuse it like NBC did with when they started putting on ‘Deal or No Deal’ 5 nights a week back in its heyday. People will come to associate progressive draws with bigger tournaments and that’s one way that pickleball can start creating its own traditions as some of its limited traditions are already being erased.
Every sport has to start somewhere. The progressive draws were a worthwhile experiment in my eyes and should be used going forward. How it is used will help shape the way the pro sport looks in the near future.
2. Sibling Success – Mary and Maggie Brascia made their first Championship Sunday together, and at the biggest tournament of the year to boot. It should be noted that the women’s draw at Nationals wasn’t the deepest we have seen on the PPA this year. Apparently, Parris Todd was supposed to play with Simone Jardim but that fell apart amidst rumors of some MLP hot stove discussions. Todd ended up playing with Jessie Irvine, which is not an optimal fit for two set up type players. Jade Kawamoto and Anna Bright formed what was the second best team on paper in the draw followed up by Vivienne David/Lacy Schneemann. However, without the likes Lea Jansen, Lucy Kovalova, Simone Jardim, Jackie Kawamoto, Andrea Koop, Jorja Johnson and Etta Wright, the field was open for some upsets to happen.
The Brascia’s were that upset. Considering the draw, the sisters had about as tough a road as they could have gotten to the finals without facing Anna Leigh/Catherine. Impressively, they beat Rohrabacher/Valdes and Irvine/Todd in straight games, and they were able to pull out the semis win against Bright/Kawamoto in a very tight 5 game match. The Brascia’s came away with a silver medal after an expected loss to the undefeated Anna Leigh Waters, with the silver showing how far they have come as a pair.
I was hard on the Brascia’s, especially Maggie, earlier in their careers. I never thought Maggie was going to be very good. She didn’t look the part of a pro player to me and didn’t have the tennis background of her sister. The Maggie Brascia for Jackie Kawamoto trade that slanted the landscape of the 2022 MLP season was not nearly as bad as I thought it was in the moment (although, it still wasn’t a good trade). Every step of the way since that time, Maggie Brascia has proven me wrong and I can’t even say I feel like I should have seen it coming.
I still watch Maggie and I don’t think she should be as good as she is. However, that is me likley suffering from what I could call Susannah Barr syndrome. A player not fitting into the mold of what you expect they should look like in pickleball, does not necessarily mean they do not have the chops to be a top level player. There’s no denying that Mary and Maggie Brascia have made significant strides in their games and play really well together as a women’s doubles team.
There is something to be said about the sibling effect too. As much as there may be bickering and fighting that siblings can have with each other, the familiarity and comfort is something that cannot be replicated anywhere else. The Kawamoto’s, Newman’s, Johnson’s and Brascia’s have been playing together for a long time. The number of reps they share together compared to just about everyone they face is unmatched. Those reps probably provide a real edge over opponents that serves them well over the course of a calendar year.
Much like the Kawamoto’s, the Brascia’s remain underrated. I almost didn’t pick them with my last women’s doubles selection over Rohrbacher/Valdes and Barr/Fudge in our fantasy draft preview. Despite the strides they have shown, I still didn’t feel great about their upside to get to a podium in this setting, but there they were on Championship Sunday in front of a gigantic Nationals crowd.
The Brascia’s are not new to the game, but they are another duo of siblings that are having big success in pro pickleball.
3. Kings and Queens Stay Kings and Queens – It is the end of 2023 and here is where we stand. Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters have lost one doubles match together. Anna Leigh Waters has gone undefeated in women’s doubles and has only lost two matches in women’s singles, with more close losses in there. Ben Johns and Collin Johns have been virtually unbeatable outside of an aberration here and there, which included Collin Johns trying to play through an injury.
Ben Johns lost to Christopher Haworth in the round of 16 for singles. They played inside. Ben’s arch nemesis. He said that he has some issues indoors mainly due to lighting from a childhood eye issue. Regardless of the result, Ben has stayed as the best singles player in pro pickleball for another year.
The singles matches were enjoyable on Sunday but the doubles matches were as snoozey as ever. This is likely the nature of racquet sports and we have seen this in tennis, with the only difference over a good portion of the 2000s being that we had multiple players in contention for the greatest of all-time on the men’s side to make majors more interesting.
Nationals still featured some great matches but they just happened in the earlier rounds. There were a ton of matches that went the distance with a prime example being the Johns brothers getting pushed hard by Loong/Ignatowich in the semi-finals. A plastic ball, Collin Johns’s arch nemesis, ricocheted off Ben’s paddle causing Collin to take a 15-minute medical timeout, which appeared to halt some of the momentum that Loong/Ignatowich had up 2 games to 1 in game 4.
Some are comparing Collin playing through a plastic ball hitting him in the forehead to the Michael Jordan flu game, the Kirk Gibson walk-off home run and Tiger Woods gutting through a torn ACL to win the US Open. It was professional sports warrior mentality at its finest. In all seriousness, if it was someone other than Collin, I would have been more worried it hit him in the eye or that he may have been hurt, but Collin is the boy who cried wolf when it comes to getting hit by a plastic ball. My money would still have been on the Johns brothers to win the match had the forehead hit not happened, but it was an interesting side storyline that complicates an otherwise fantastic match.
There does not appear to be any player or partnership on the horizon that looks like they can take down the King and Queen of pro pickleball anytime soon. Things happen fast in pro pickleball so that could change, but the landscape is essentially the same as last year, except we are no longer wondering whether Riley Newman had the chops to take down Ben Johns as top dog.
4. Staksrud-Koller Altercation – Most of you reading this have probably heard the story by now. Leading big in their group stage match against the Utah Black Diamonds, Federico Staksrud/Tyra Black were playing Anna Leigh Waters/AJ Koller. At one point late in their game that they are losing handily, Anna Leigh Waters says something to Federico Staksrud to the effect of “if you played that well in a PPA maybe you would beat me.” After winning a hand battle against Anna Leigh, Staksrud responded with “take that bi—“.
It is an objectively terrible thing for Staksrud to say and has no place in the sport – or anywhere, for that matter. It should not be said to a player of any age but that was a situation where your professional opponent being a 16-year-old female does matter. That shouldn’t be a hot take. AJ Koller was not happy with Federico immediately after he said it, he was not happy after the match, and he expressed his displeasure on social media.
Apparently, this spilled over to an altercation at Nationals. We want to be very careful on this topic as we have only gotten pieces of information and not enough independent people have been forthcoming about exactly what happened. From the information we have received, Koller went up to Staksrud unprompted, bumped his chest, grabbed him and pushed him back.* The words used by a couple of people were that Koller “manhandled” Staksrud and it was not a joke. Whether this description of the incident is fair is still not entirely clear.
Despite pickleballdotcom and the Dink posting, deleting and then only pickleballdotcom re-posting a re-worded story on social media regarding the incident (see above), it appears fairly clear that Koller was disqualified from Nationals by the PPA as a result of the incident. You could see on the live stream someone talking to Koller after the first point of his first-round match and then he walked off with someone after winning the first game against Duong/Teoni, never to return and withdrawing from the match.
This led to a couple of posts on social media from AJ Koller and Pablo Tellez. AJ Koller posted a story on Instagram with a smile emoji and the words “truth will prevail” “always has, always will. Pablo Tellez posted the following later in the evening asking for Koller to be “banned from the sport”:
As is often the case in these situations, it’s hard to say if we will ever know the exact truth in all of this is. Koller has not issued a public statement. It’s a very weird situation for something like this to occur that lingers over the course of multiple days to a random-ish somewhat physical confrontation. It is not a good situation and nothing has really come out as to how the PPA is dealing with it. Shockingly.
Two wrongs do not make a right from Koller and by no means is what Koller did to Staksrud justifiable. Does it warrant a complete banning from the sport? Based on the information we have from those not involved in the incident itself, it doesn’t seem that way to me, but that’s without knowing more. Should there be some kind of penalty to Koller beyond the disqualification from Nationals? Quite possibly.
It is one of the odder stories we have seen in pro pickleball. The incident itself that led to this is completely unacceptable on Staksrud’s part, but an unprompted confrontation isn’t really the answer reither. I’m not sure if this is a situation where a mountain is being made out of a mole hill, and I think this should be on the PPA to be more (ugh, I’m going to say it again) transparent about what has occurred. Controversial matters continue to be swept under the rug and that’s no way to handle things either.
We’ll have to see if more information comes out. For the time being, here’s my take. Don’t call a 16-year-old woman a “bi—” and don’t carry over beef to some kind of confrontation in an attempt to make a point about it. Seems straightforward enough.
5. JW Johnson Wins Singles – JW is an enigma in his own way. He does not go about his business in the manner many of us expect from a pro athlete. He is reserved, wears cow sweatpants and shows up with literal bed head to center court. As consistent as JW has been in men’s doubles, his singles game has been very hit or miss over the past year. He has the capability to win events, as he showed this weekend, as much as he is capable of losing in the first round to a nobody.
I think one smart thing that the Johnson camp has done for JW in 2023 is limitng his singles events. JW has played a ton of pickleball over the past 3 years and looked like he might have bit off more than he could chew in 2022. JW took a fairly significant hiatus from singles earlier this year and, since that time, has been playing events in a sporadically consistent manner.
Yes, JW had the benefit of top seeds Ben Johns and Tyson McGuffin losing out in earlier rounds, but he had to get through the newcomers like Quang Duong and Gearbox powered Christopher Haworth en route to his eventual win over Jaume Martinez Vich in the finals. While he may not show it, JW seems to get geared up for the bigger events and it probably helps him that he’s not grinding out all 3 brackets for every tournament.
JW is a sneaky big-time competitor. It is still a real question as to whether MLP brings out the best competitive side of JW as he continues to be hit or miss in that setting as well. At the same time, JW was out here at Nationals taking away a podium in all 3 events. He won silver with Dylan Frazier in doubles and took bronze with his sister, Jorja, in mixed.
As it stands, JW is the closest competitor to Ben Johns across all 3 events. The consistency is not always there at every tournament, but he is the 2nd most likely male to find a triple crown at a PPA event as slim as the odds are that he can do it with both ALW and Ben present.
Fantasy Update: An underwhelming 12-12 tie with 6 missing points. Slim missed JW in the draw so we ended up missing all 6 points there in the men’s singles draw. The Brascia’s reaching Championship Sunday was definitely a surprise, but the rest of the draws went more or less to form. We are still all tied for the year.
*this sentence has been edited to remove the words “and expectedly”
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