We are 5 PPAs into the year and we’re getting a pretty good idea of what these tournaments are going to look like. As is almost always going to be the case, there are players who have had better than expected years and players who will feel disappointment with how things have gone. Anna Leigh is 5 for 5 in singles. Lucy/Callie are 3 for 4 in golds. Ben and Collin are 4 for 5. Ben and Anna Leigh are 4 for 4. Tyson is 5 for 5 when it comes to Championship Sundays. There seem to be some trends that, for the most part, we’ll have to expect will continue in 2022. Slim noted it last week in his takeaways that it’s simply unfortunate for us fans that we probably won’t see as much shakeup because we have two tours. However, it’s not out of the realm that things change to some degree, especially considering how fast the landscape shifts in this sport. Time to get to the takeaways.
1. Opposite Directions (Gritty)– There have been 3 teams that have formed the staple of women’s doubles podiums at PPAs this year – Smith/Kovalova, Parenteau/Irvine and the Waters. While Smith/Kovalova have gone 3 for 4 in gold medals, Parenteau/Irvine and the Waters had been battling for that second spot prior to this weekend in this first quarter of 2022. Jessie/Catherine had a very strong second half of 2021 after Irvine was seemingly the beneficiary of Callie Smith not playing Championship Sundays earlier in 2021. Following some early struggles, Parenteau/Irvine concluded year with 4 gold medals in their last 6 tournaments in 2021, finishing off the season with golds at the PPA Championship and PPA Masters.
On the flip side, the Waters had what had to have been a disappointing 2021 together. Outside of a thin Nationals field and the APP Punta Gorda in January 2021, the Waters had one gold medal the entire year. There were questions, including from us here at NML, as to how long the Waters could continue to play as a duo for. Was Leigh holding Anna Leigh back?
Now that we’re a quarter of the way through 2022, these two partnerships are going two different ways. The Waters are fresh off their second gold medal in a row whereas Irvine/Parenteau have yet to secure a gold medal in 2022. For the first time this year, Irvine/Parenteau didn’t podium in Austin after they lost in the bronze to Jorja Johnson and Andrea Koop. In the women’s doubles world where there are only 3 true contending teams, to go without a gold must be a bit discouraging. Although Jessie Irvine played the entire day on Saturday, I will note that Irvine posted on Instagram earlier today that she was not in top form on the women’s doubles day after a collision with partner Jay Devilliers in their mixed match on Friday against Leigh Waters and Tyson McGuffin. Potential head injuries are no joke so hopefully Irvine is okay.
The potentially scary thing for Irvine/Parenteau and the rest of the women’s field is that it looks like the Waters have figured things out. We have questioned why Leigh has primarily been playing on the left side, but that alignment is working out very well the mother-daughter duo. Leigh is very comfortable parking herself on that left corner and showing the Erne to her opponents with Anna Leigh doing her thing taking a bunch of the court. I wonder if Anna Leigh is simply more comfortable covering that middle with her backhand when she is covering all that court. AL may be more comfortable initiating offence with her backhand when taking all that court. Either way, I think it has taken some time for the Waters to figure out the transition to Anna Leigh being the dominant player and, now that they have sorted that out, they are back to having success with their relentless attacking style. It felt like Callie/Lucy were constantly on the defensive in the gold medal match yesterday and that is not easy to do against two of the best counter-attacking females out there. Leigh also has just upped her game to another level.
It is likely going to be a three-way battle at the top in most of the PPAs this year. Right now, Irvine/Parenteau are at the bottom of that trio. Parenteau and Irvine are both fantastic players. You do wonder if Parenteau would be better served with a partner who is more offensively dynamic than Jessie. If it can’t be Callie Smith, what about Anna Bright? It may be too early to speculate with that kind of talk, but this is a team that is going the wrong direction with their recent results.
For the moment, this is a tale of two teams going in opposite directions. Will we see another shift in the next quarter of the year?
2. Women’s Reps (Slim) – With Andrea Koop and Jorja Johnson taking bronze in impressive fashion and breaking into that top three in the women’s doubles at the PPA, I do wonder if they have benefited from both tours and getting lots of tournament experience in. Jorja, in particular, looked very strong, and seems to be improving every week.
We have hinted at it before but it’s becoming a bigger quesiton mark if women like Yana Grechkina, Meghan Sheehan-Dizon and Allyce Jones, who are all PPA contracted players, and all still relatively new to the pro game, might be better off getting to play both tours, and getting more tournament repetitions in. More specifically, I think they would likely benefit more from the experience of making deep tournament runs and the added confidence of having success at the pro level. The women’s pro division at the PPA usually features relatively small fields with extremely high end players. Until this weekend, nobody has been able to to crack into the top three in women’s doubles teams when all of the top teams are playing. These small top heavy fields mean that it is often shorter days for the other women in the field. Most teams do not get extended days in higher pressure situations.
Anna Bright is an obvious example of a newcomer getting reps but another player who has started playing quite a bit on both tours is Parris Todd. Although Todd hasn’t broken through with a PPA podium, we have seen her getting some impressive wins on the PPA tour and her game seems to be improving rapidly. Todd and her doubles partner this weekend, Cierra Gayten-Leach, were even a couple of points away from knocking off Kovalova/Smith in Austin. Practice and experience are undoubtedly very important, and I think players who are still developing their games and have not fully established themselves at the top of the pro level, should be very careful about limiting their ability to get more playing experience and opportunities.
3. Kings of the Backdraw! (Gritty) – There’s been quite a bit of space used by me in the live blog over the last two PPAs regarding Jay/Tyson. Needless to say, but it has been a roller coaster. Jay/Tyson have lost their first or second match of the day in 4 of the 5 PPA events so far this year. In the last two tournaments, they have worked their way through the backdraw to secure back-to-back bronze medals – this past weekend it was an early exit at the hands of Neil Mediratta and Brandon French. For two guys that are having success elsewhere – Tyson in singles and Jay in mixed – bronze medals are really all this team needs to keep rolling. Without these bronze medals, I truly think this partnership could have been headed for a mid-season break-up.
As we have discussed before, the fundamental problem with this team is lack of elite weapons. What they lack in elite weapons though, they make up for in pure grit and fight. In the PPA, where there is no backdoor to gold, it’s extra disappointing to get punted down to the loser’s side of the bracket. It can lead to and sad sack efforts from teams (see: Johns, Ben). You know you’re never going to get that from McGuffin and Devlliers though. Jay played 14,000 tournaments in 2021 and you never saw a complaint from him about how much he was playing. Tyson’s fight is well documented over the course of his career, and you see it in the way the man continues to fight in these singles matches against Ben and JW where he keeps getting dominated.
I’m really not sure where this partnership is going. It’s not going to 2023. I’m pretty confident about that. In the meantime, we shouldn’t be surprised by early “upsets” to teams like Mediratta/French or Chuck Taylor/Rob Cassidy, and we also shouldn’t be surprised when they grind their way to a bronze. They’ll have to go deeper in the main draw if they want more podiums because those margins are just so thin in the backdraw with the games to 15. They may even find their way to a Championship Sunday or two somewhere along the way.
Nevertheless, 5 tournaments are enough for me to see this team for what it is. This is a high floor, low ceiling partnership. What you see is what you get.
4. Ben and Anna Leigh, Better Together (Slim) – It is noteworthy that neither Ben nor Anna Leigh made the podium this weekend in mixed. Together, Ben and Anna Leigh have been dominant this year, as they have yet to lose a match together, and for the most part they have made it look easy. However, both players failed to make the podium this weekend, playing with new partners. Anna Leigh playing with Dekel Bar, ended up fourth losing the bronze medal match, and Ben partnered with Andrea Koop and they were knocked down to the loser’s bracket by Tyson McGuffin and Leigh Waters. Dekel and Anna Leigh ended Ben and Andrea’s day on the loser’s side in a 15-3 rout. In my view, these results speak a lot to the growing competition and depth at the pro level. Despite both players being widely considered the top male and female players respectively, neither were able to get to the podium with their new partners. I know last year on his podcast Ben said he felt like when he is engaged nobody can beat him in mixed, and I felt that was a take that was hard to argue with. Clearly, that is no longer the case with the level of competition being too high now.
I also think that partnership experience is really important. Dekel Bar and Andrea Koop are both very solid partners, and I think that both of these teams on another weekend could make the podium. But it is important to acknowledge the three teams that did make the podium this weekend have been playing together all year. Particularly in mixed, where it can be an intricate dance between partners, with the man often trying to insert themselves, that experience matters. Ben and Andrea have played together before at Casa Grande last year and MLP, while this was Anna Leigh and Dekel’s first time playing together, so both partnerships were relatively new.
For the most part Ben and Anna Leigh are playing the rest of the season together, but if we do see them separated, it will be interesting to see how they do going forward.
5. Senior Pro at the PPA (Slim) – Almost all of the top senior pros decided to skip Austin Texas with the exception of Dave Weinbach. At this point, it is very evident that the senior pros are favoring the APP Tour, which makes sense given that I believe payouts at the PPA are about 90% to the pro division and 10% to the senior pro division, while the APP is about 70/30 on that split. I know some PPA stops this year do not feature a senior pro division, and I have to wonder if they will plan to scrap that division at their tournaments all together in the future.
BONUS: The Ben Johns to JOOLA report we posted back in February appears to be coming to fruition. We posted this on Facebook but you can see from the screenshot below the subtext on Google cache shows on a broken link from JOOLA’s website. Hat tip to a couple of our readers for reaching out and alerting us to this.
Fantasy Update: Gritty gets his 2nd win of the year to move within 5 of Slim. It was a convincing win this weekend, 18-11, as Gritty was a Jessie/Catherine bronze away from sweeping both women’s and mixed. The mixed field was the difference as both Catherine/Riley and Lucy/Matt found their way to their first Championship Sunday of the year. Is this an aberration or can Gritty finally make some sort of run after a terrible past few months of fantasy pickleball?
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at email@example.com. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook too!