2021 Nationals is done and that signals the end of tournaments for the calendar year. The APP’s year end tournament will actually take place in 2022 in Boca Raton, Florida in January (not Mesa as was previously written). That means that this will also be our final post-tournament takeaways post for 2021. What a wild ride it has been for us over the last 8 months. We have truly been blown away with the amount of engagement there has been with all of our takes, musings, questions and overall pickleball fanaticism since we decided on a bit of a whim to start this blog. We really appreciate everyone who has taken time out of their day to read our stuff as knowing there are even a few people who care the slightest as what us yahoos have to say about pro pickleball keeps us motivated to push out more content. This definitely won’t be our last post of 2021 either. We’ll be doing some 2022 preview type stuff, including our thoughts on some of the new partnerships and big questions heading into a new year of pickleball. We are also hoping to upgrade the website with a little extra time over the holidays but no promises there! Again, thank you all very much and we hope you continue to come back for more in 2022.
1. Zane-Y Controversy (Gritty) – Probably the biggest story of the weekend came off the court with Zane Navratil. Frankly, I didn’t notice that Zane Navratil and Altaf Merchant were absent from the men’s doubles bracket on Saturday until we received some unconfirmed information that Zane had been disqualified from playing men’s doubles because he had pulled out of the singles final on Sunday. The tournament had already announced in their Thursday notebook that Navratil had withdrawn and Tyson had been awarded the gold. After we put the unconfirmed report on the Pickleball Forum and our live blog, Navratil came out on with his own personal statement that he had withdrawn from the final on Sunday because he had a prior commitment with his girlfriend competing in the Miss America pageant beginning on Sunday. Navratil stated in his release that he was not aware of the Championship Sunday format until December 2nd.
Based on the comments we have seen from fans on social media, Zane’s choice to withdraw from singles on Championship Sunday has been mostly met with applause. How could it not be, right? He is prioritizing being supportive of his girlfriend over his own professional career. In contrast, USA Pickleball’s decision to disqualify Zane and Altaf could be described as odd, at best. Presumably, USA Pickleball was upset at Zane for putting a wrench in their broadcast schedule and it seems they decided to punish Zane, which in turn punished his partner Altaf. USA Pickleball has not come out with any statement addressing the matter, which is not surprising given their lack of transparency overall.
We have talked ad nauseum at this point on the merits of getting pickleball on TV or paid streaming services like ESPN +. That’s not what I’m here to do today. Clearly, USA Pickleball prioritized getting a Championship Sunday format similar to the PPA and it all came together pretty last minute. It’s not fair at all for them to expect players to upend their schedule that has been made months in advance because they want to do something different than what was originally planned. The PPA had the same issue with Callie Smith earlier in the year when they shifted to a Championship Sunday format.
Nevertheless, in my view this story isn’t about one side being in the right and other side being in the wrong. We shouldn’t be overlooking the fact that Zane did not tell USA Pickleball that he was not going to be able to play Sunday until after he beat Tyson on Thursday. It’s evident that Navratil did not disclose this information before hand because he knew it would be a problem. He was wronged by the tournament organizers for losing a chance to be a National Champion so he wasn’t going to give them the benefit of the doubt. Realistically, he likely would have had a Callie Smith-PPA situation on his hands (although, who knows if that is possible with a double elimination format).
There is no doubt that USA Pickleball handled this about as poorly as possible. Changing the tournament schedule one week before the event begins is asinine (EDIT: Further clarification has been provided that the schedule was on the website earlier but it was not directly communicated until December 2nd). Disqualifying Zane/Altaf is childish, especially after he was allowed to play mixed on Friday (mixed was all played on the same day). Considering the way they handled Zane’s late disclosure of information, I can understand why Zane wouldn’t expect them to try to make things work somehow if he told them in advance. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how it would have been handled because Zane didn’t tell them in advance. Personally, I think you have to tell them in advance and if you get screwed over, you get screwed over. They have put you in a horrible spot but that doesn’t mean you have to do the same to them.
It’s commendable for Zane to prioritize what is most important to him. But he knew all along what he was doing by not putting all of his cards on the table before the tournament. He figured “what can they actually do to me” and when USA Pickleball went rogue on the situation, it essentially justifies the way he handled it. The real losers of all this is the sport itself as we add this notch to the belt of distrust between the players and USA Pickleball. I don’t want this to be seen as any defense of USA Pickleball because this was handled terribly at every stage by them. At the same time, Zane tried to have his cake and eat it too and shouldn’t be absolved of any responsibility from this very unfortunate situation.
2. Partnership Breathing Room (Slim) Nationals was JW Johnson and Callan Dawson’s 5th tournament playing together this year. When we first saw that these two players were partnering, we were very excited, as it seemed like it could be a very elite partnership. Callan Dawson is one of the best right side player’s in the game, who brings a level of consistency that few players can match, and it seemed like his game was perfect for the emerging star JW Johnson, to continue his growth of becoming a dominating force on the court. In theory, their styles should blend wonderfully and that with both players having elite hands, they should be able to compete with the top teams in the game.
However, in their first four tournaments together these two failed to reach a single podium. Their results weren’t terrible, but when both players are regularly making the podiums with other partners and when their styles on the court look like they should mesh so well it was a little mystifying. But sometimes these things just need a little time to come together and that may have been what happened for the pairing at Nationals. Callan and JW came away with the silver medal and picked up a very impressive win over Dekel Bar and Matt Wright enroute to that result. It is a good reminder that sometimes a partnership can take some time to come together even if it seems like the fit should be natural.
3. Bizarro Nationals (Slim) – Nationals has always felt like the biggest tournament of the year, particularly since it moved to Indian Wells. It has been the one tournament where you can pretty reliably count on seeing all the big names in the game at the same time. This year it just did not have that same feel, with smaller brackets in many of the pro events, and fairly empty stadium courts, it did not have the same special feeling that other nationals have had. The picture we used for this post is from the women’s doubles winners bracket final on Friday.
There’s something about Indian Wells that gives it a Wimbledon kind of feel, not that I’ve ever been to Wimbledon before. Not only is there a championship court that should be packed with fans but in prior years there were tons of fans packing the stands for the side court matches. With there now being a couple pro tours, and more large tournaments and events, it is very likely that Nationals may never again hold quite the place it used to, as “the event” of the year. Regardless, I think it is important to have it back as the biggest event of the year in pickleball. The venue is too cool for it not to be, and it’s important for the sport to have it back as a true major.
4. Irina’s Resurgence (Gritty) – Irina Tereschenko has had a fantastic conclusion to the 2021 season. We have been pretty critical of Irina in this space, but she has played at a very high levely since her loss with Ben Johns against Anna Leigh/Kyle Yates in their first match against the Chimeras. Irina played well at MLP, helping Team BLQK to a championship there. She followed that performance up with an almost gold medal with Lauren Stratman at the PPA Masters, getting wins over the Waters and Callie Smith/Lindsey Newman. Last week in Casa Grande, Irina won double gold in a thin women’s doubles and singles field. The icing on the cake for her in 2021 was at Nationals where Irina and Lea Jansen were able to make it to Championship Sunday after upsetting Catherine Parenteau and Jessie Irvine in the bronze 11-5, 11-6. They also rolled through Andrea Koop/Lucy Kovalova before the bronze in the back draw.
The numbers had not been friendly to Tereschenko for most of 2021 and it’s interesting she has been able to come up with these better results after playing the better part of the first half of 2021 with Jessie Irvine and Callie Smith to very limited success. I don’t have a ton of explanation for Irina’s resurgence. She looks to be more or less the same player, albeit with better consistency. You do always wonder what confidence can do to a player. We often forget how important that confidence means for athletes and that team win at MLP may have been a catalyst for Irina’s end of year push. I don’t always want to make things about the ball, but I do think it’s worth mentioning that Irina’s recent success at bigger tournaments have all been with softer balls for someone who doesn’t have elite, elite hands. MLP and Nationals were played with the Franklin, and Irina made a joke, not a joke in an interview at the PPA Masters at how the slow Dura was helping her in those hot conditions.
It’s likely a multitude of factors, as it usually is with these things. Irina has fit in seamlessly with the aggressiveness of both Stratman and Jansen in their recent partnerships. Jansen played extremely well on Friday and showed that her one-handed backhand roll is still getting better as a serious weapon that most women at the top level don’t tend to have. We’ll see what happens to 2022 Irina, but she still has to be considered a podium threat for the time being.
5. APP Bonus Takeaway – DJ’s Double Gold (Gritty) – With Nationals happening this past weekend, there was also an APP tournament happening on the other side of the country. There weren’t a lot of true pros at the event but some of the pro draws were quite sizeable.. We were keeping tabs on the APP event and we thought it wouldn’t be fair to ignore DJ Young’s double gold performance with Thomas Wilson and Vivienne David.
For me, it was the men’s victory that was most impressive for the talented yet enigmatic DJ. After handling both Kyle Yates/Rob Cassidy and then Eden Lica/Andrei Daescu on the winner’s side of the bracket, Yates/Cassidy got a bit of a free pass to the gold medal match after Eden Lica couldn’t continue due to cramping (side note: the big man may want to spend a little less time hitting the weights if he’s at all serious about pickleball). The gold match was a finish of epic proportions, coming down to the game to 15 that didn’t end at 15. DJ and Wilson barely scraped out the gold, taking it 18-16 at the end of a very long day.
2022 DJ will be just as fascinating as 2021 DJ. He gives the appearance on social media he’s putting in the work like a pro should. He is in the gym regularly and we’re seeing new tools being added to his repertoire. While he has toned down the use of his new 2-handed backhand for the time being after he struggled with it at the PPA Master, I expect that to be a legit weapon for him in 2022 in addition to his already tantalizing array of shots. Taking down Yates/Cassidy twice is a real accomplishment. He’s had a few big wins this year at APP’s playing previously with Vivienne David, Jay Devilliers and Maggie Brascia. It sounds like DJ and Vivienne will be playing together quite a bit next year too. The question for DJ will always be whether he is just flash in the pan guy or can he put it all together to be a consistent threat on the pro tour?
Fantasy Update: Slim won 16-13 this week and it ends up being a landslide victory to conclude the year. He finishes 4 up, which will be a whopping $40 based on the agreement we had earlier in the year – in case you weren’t aware, we came up with the fantasy draft thing before the blog was started. We’re still figuring out what to do with our previews for next year because there’s no way we can handle 50 plus fantasy drafts, but we’ll have that all sorted out in time.
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