USA Pickleball Tournament of Champions – 5 Takeaways – JW Bandwagon SZN

Photo Credit: Belinda Elaine Photography

The second major of the year led to a lot of scrambling due to the weather in Brigham City, Utah this past weekend. The fact that they have these crazy huge indoor facilities now in Utah made life managable at the Tournament of Champions (TOC) and they were able to get all the matches in. The Picklr facility was able to accommodate all but the final day where they moved indoors for the medal matches. Our brief thoughts on the matches can be found in the live blog. We didn’t have takeaways for you all last week but we’re back at it with our usual post tourney 5.

1. JW Bandwagon SZN (Slim) – This certainly isn’t the first time we have talked about young JW and it certainly won’t be the last time we talk about him either, but I think it is fair to say that TOC was his official breakout party. In a tournament featuring almost all of the sport’s biggest names, he took gold in men’s singles, bronze in mixed doubles and fourth in men’s doubles.

The gold medal in men’s singles was obviously the crowning achievement. En route to gold he had to hand Ben Johns his first loss in 170 matches (stat courtesy of the Dink)! And then follow that up by beating world number two Tyson McGuffin, twice. In doing so he left little doubt that he was the best player on the court that day. I think at this point JW has clearly put himself in the conversation for top men’s singles player (non-Ben Johns Division).

He followed up that singles in performance, in mixed, where after a rough start to the day and his partner Lea Jansen was dealing with some health issues, they were able to battle all the way back through the loser’s bracket to win bronze. Johnson rounded out the weekend with fourth place in a deep men’s doubles field, playing with Dylan Frazier.

We had seen JW have some big weekends before but this was the first time we’ve seen him do it in a field featuring most of the game’s top players. It’s hard not to be excited about what the future might hold for the soon to be 19 year old phenom and it’s also a little hard not to like the ever understated Johnson.

2. Simone Jardim jumping off the bandwagon SZN? (Gritty) – It’s now 2 weeks in a row m without a gold medal in women’s doubles for Simone Jardim. Two weekends ago at the Denver PPA, Jardim and Kovalova lost twice to Jessie Irvine and Catherine Parenteau. They were able to win the 2 out of 3 in the gold match, but then lost a tight one 16-14 in the game to 15. It was essentially the same story at TOC where they lost twice, except they couldn’t quite get to the game to 15. One weekend is an aberration, especially when Kovalova had to withdraw in mixed the day before due to altitude sickness. Two weekends is something to talk about.

The reason the TOC loss is something to discuss is not just because Jardim lost but it’s the way in which she lost. It has become clear that teams are targeting Jardim over Kovalova in these matchups. Jardim can grind the dink battles like no one else in the women’s game but she doesn’t have quite the pop to punish high balls or to counter the speed ups. The last couple of weeks, Jardim has had few answers for Parenteau and Irvine who have been steady as can be. In the gold medal match at TOC, Jardim was clearly frustrated as she was more impatient than I have ever seen her play. Her impatience was sort of working better but the fact that Jardim had to last resort her way to play a style that runs counter to everything she stands for was jarring to watch. 

This is something to monitor going forward from a player who basically never loses with Lucy Kovalova as her partner. It’s only 2 weeks and I don’t want to get too caught up in small sample sizes, but it appears the top teams may have found a formula against Jardim/Kovalova that no longer makes them unbeatable. Irvine came out the past two weeks and showed that it is possibly more a partnership thing rather than her own issues that have led to spotty 2021 results. Can Jardim show that these past two weeks are an outlier rather than a downward trend for the female GOAT of pickleball?

3. Ben Johns Bored (Slim) – In the last three weeks we have seen the improbable, Ben Johns losing in singles and mixed. It was inevitable that Ben was going to lose in both of these at some point and statistically it was likely way overdue. Winning 170 straight matches, as he did in singles, in anything, is absolutely absurd, it’s not supposed to happen. I don’t think there is any need to do some deep dive into Ben’s game. He is still clearly the best player in the world, and losses happen. I do think it is fair though to ask if Ben is bored? I think when you have the period of unmatched excellence that Ben has had, at least a sense of complacency is almost inevitable. Although these losses may provide Ben with some short term motivation, I do think it’s woryh asking if we continue not to get the absolute best version of Ben that we could see until someone comes along who can truly push him on a week in, week out basis.

4. Women’s Singles (Gritty) – It’s no secret that a lot of the women’s draws, particularly in singles, are often limited in number of teams/players in a given draw at a lot of pro events. Even in the bigger draws, the numbers don’t reach near the size of the men’s draws. At TOC this weekend, the women’s singles draw was sad to put it simply. It was already a small draw to begin with but, on Saturday, it ended up being a 4-player bracket – Anna Leigh Waters, Callie Smith, Irina Tereschenko and Michelle Esquivel. While that is a strong foursome, it’s not good that we can’t get more than 4 teams in a draw for a major event. It’s hard to understand why Catherine Parenteau does not even register in such a small field when one or two wins puts you into the winners bracket final. I will note that Lea Jansen had to withdraw due to health issues.

There seems there is some kind of negative feedback loop going on here. For pros on the level of Lauren Stratman, who was initially registered in the TOC singles draw, it must feel like a waste of time and pounding on the body for a very possible 0-2 day. Money is often discussed as a significant barrier for entry into this sport. Without sponsors helping to cover travel and entry fees, going to a single tournament on your own is an expensive endeavor. In such small fields, there aren’t many wins out there for new players so what is the point of spending a couple hundred bucks on an entry fee to go 0-2 or 1-2. Unlike the men’s draws where a non-pro can legitimately find their way to 2 or 3 wins on a given day, there aren’t enough players in the women’s draws to find your way to some competitive matches. It has to be discouraging for newer players to find themselves playing a top 10 player in both their first round match and possibly their first losers bracket matchup. 

That’s a lot of words for me to say I don’t know what the solution is. The pro tours are paying out the same for the women’s fields compared to the far bigger men’s fields but that is not incentivizing more players to play pro singles events even when it appears there is “free money” that is up for grabs. For a new female entering the sport, singles seems to be the place where you can actually make some money if you are willing to grind through that initial stage of likely failure. However, if the draws continue to be small with top end talent, there’s going to be even less incentive for newer and even 2nd and 3rd tier pros to subject themselves to the singles grind.

5. ESPN Plus (Gritty) – What you see on the Pickleball Forum is not necessarily representative of the entire population but every time there’s a tournament that puts some of its matches on a paid streaming service like ESPN plus, there are always complaints about not being able to watch the matches without payinf. It is especially problematic when people pay for the service then the matches just end up being streamed on Youtube and Facebook like they were this weekend due to IP issues from ESPN.

I am always curious with more stuff going on places like ESPN plus, as TOC had for the most part this past weekend, if these networks are helpful for the growth of the sport. My intuition without any inside information about the actual viewing numbers is that the sport would be better served slowly growing numbers through free streaming instead of trying to legitimize itself by paying a network like ESPN to broadcast the sport.

There is always a lot of hoopla about this tournament or that tournament being on ESPN plus or ESPN2 (even if it is ESPN 2 during the Super Bowl, which means no one is watching). The recent “big” news has been the PPA’s deal with Fox Sports where Fox Sports is the exclusive broadcast partner of the PPA for 2022. Assuming PPA’s championship Sundays are not shown on the big Fox station, personally, it’s hard to get that excited about pickleball being on one of their subsidiary channels like FS1 and FS2 that really only get real viewership numbers when they throw an MLB playoff game or a bigger NASCAR event in an attempt to drive viewers to the network. These USA Pickleball run tournaments also seem to all be broadcast on ESPN plus and if there aren’t many people tuning in then it could mean less eyeballs on a sport that needs as many eyeballs as possible right now.

I can’t be fully confident in my gut sense that these partnerships with big name networks like ESPN and Fox Sports are only better for headlines than actually attracting more viewers to pickleball without seeing what the ratings look like. But this should be a long term game and I’m going to continue to be skeptical of the long-term benefits of these major network partnerships until I see proof to the contrary.

Fantasy Update: It was a full on whooping this weekend as Slim smoked Gritty 18-10. Gritty got no points in mixed or men’s singles, and did not get anything from Lea Jansen who had to withdraw in singles. Not getting any points from #1 overall pick Ben Johns in singles wasn’t the difference but it was indicative of the week that was to come.

Slim is now 1 up on the year.

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