Anna Leigh Waters celebrating at the Select Medical Orange County Cup.
Anna Leigh Waters stole the show in Southern California. PPA Tour

A final look at the Select Medical Orange County Cup

The latest stop on the PPA Tour was in beautiful San Clemente, California. Perfect weather and a progressive draw were features and it led to some of the best and most exciting pickleball we have seen all year.

Let’s go over the hits (which were many) and the misses (of which there were a few).
The Hits:
1. What a venue! It was my first time at the San Clemente event, but it will not be my last. If this is not the best venue on tour right now, I would sure like to know what beats it. Weather was unbeatable, it is easy to walk around, great sight lines for fans on grandstand and showcase courts, super-nice Humana Championship Court, what else could you want? If I had to criticize something, the only thing I could say is to ask for championship court to have more stands; it was packed all weekend, standing room only. If you could only go to one PPA event, I would pick San Clemente. The good news is that the PPA Finals in December are back in San Clemente. Good choice!
2. The Vulcan ball. Vulcan redesigned the ball. The new V Pro Flight was rolled out in Sacramento, but because of the heat, it was hard to tell how the ball performed. In San Clemente, the ball did well. It stayed round, bounced consistently, and was fair to the players. In talking to the pros, they said it played fair, a little slower than a Dura, a little faster than a Franklin.  With the paddles being so advanced, a somewhat slower ball is a necessity. The ball led to longer rallies and exciting pickleball.
3. Anna Leigh Waters is the star (again). When we look at who shined in San Clemente, we of course have to start with Waters and her triple crown. The only news may have been how easy it was in singles and women’s doubles. ALW is so much better than anyone else, it can make her wins anticlimactic. For example, in the semifinals of women’s singles, Judit Castillo played very well, but she could only score six points in two games off ALW. In mixed, the Johnson siblings had ALW and Ben Johns on the ropes, but could not convert six match points. There are many things that make ALW tough to beat, and one of them is how tough she is on late points in games.
4. Chris Haworth was singularly good. In men’s singles, Haworth was a very deserving champion. He beat Ben Johns in the semifinal and then Federico Staksrud in the final, both in three games. If you can beat Ben and Fede back to back, you deserve a gold medal and Haworth got one. Hopefully, we will see Haworth more at PPA events. Men’s singles is the most competitive event right now, and if Haworth joins the tour regularly, it will be that much more difficult to win.
5. Big H continues to shine. Hayden Patriquin continued his recent run of Sunday appearances. He and Pablo Tellez got a silver in men’s doubles and Patriquin teamed with Vivian Glozman to get fourth in mixed doubles. At some point, someone will dethrone Ben Johns as the #1 player. Patriquin is on my list of candidates who could possibly do it. His recent run of Sunday finishes shows he has that kind of potential.
6. Offense takes center stage. There is an ebb and flow over time in the NFL, where sometimes offenses dominate and sometimes defenses dominate. The same thing is true in pickleball. Defensive play has dominated for years in pro pickleball. The ability to do a good third shot drop, get to the line, and outdink your opponent was the way to win for years. If you had the upper hand in dinking, you could wait for your opponents to speed it up, and you could reset or counter. However, offense is now having its day. Drives are more prevalent, smash and crash wins quick points, and successful speedups are winning more points. The more powerful paddles certainly have a lot to do with it. It was very clear in San Clemente that players who could not generate offense were at a big disadvantage. More to come on this trend in a future column.
7. The overall depth of the draws. The trend continues of draws getting deeper and more difficult. Men’s singles is absurdly deep. The qualifier had 124 players! Of the eight qualifiers who made the main draw, five won at least one match. The round of 16 in every event features matches which, if they were the final, no one would be surprised. Getting to the quarterfinals in any event is an achievement.
8. The courtesy of players. I have commented on this before, and I am going to keep on pointing out how courteous pro pickleball players are to fans. This time I want to single out Ben Johns. After his win in the singles bronze match, Ben started to walk off the court. I am sure he wanted to just sit down and catch his breath for his later gold medal match in mixed doubles. But, one fan tentatively asked for an autograph. Once that one fan succeeded, the flood gates opened. Every other fan that wasn’t sure approaching Ben was ok, now saw their chance. A line formed that must have had 20+ people, all wanting an autograph, a selfie, or both. Ben stood there and did every autograph, every picture, or both, and he did it smiling all the time. Being a great player is one thing; being a good ambassador for the sport is another. Kudos to Ben for being so courteous and patient with the fans.
The Misses:
1. The Johns brothers suffer another early defeat. Ben and Collin Johns lost in the quarterfinals, for anyone else, that would be a decent result. For them, it is a big miss. Collin Johns, as usual, played good defensively, but supplied little to no offense. Every time they lose, social media buzzes that Ben may want a different partner. Is the time finally right? That is a topic worthy of a separate column; more to come.
2. A new partner for Wright? The last time we talked about a new partner for Wright, we were talking about Matt Wright; not this time, now we are talking about Etta Wright. Etta Wright is, in my opinion, the fourth of fifth best woman player. However, she needs more help from her partners. Meghan Dizon simply did not play well in San Clemente. Dizon has not played well for a couple of months now. It may be time for Etta Wright to find a new women’s doubles partner. I would like to see Tina Pisnik get in there with Wright. In mixed, Etta Wright has moved around some with partners. This week was Hunter Johnson. Johnson played fairly well, but Etta Wright deserves a top player as a consistent partner. Etta, give Riley Newman a call. Wright/Newman did one event together and need to give that pairing time to grow.
3. Leave the chirping to the birds? Opinions differ on how much players should talk back and forth with their opponents. Jack Sock has brought a new level of banter to the PPA Tour. Sock always does it with a smile, and he is awesome for the game. But, what I would call “negative” chirping is a big miss for me. Cursing or saying derogatory things to an opponent are out of bounds. The curses drew a warning, but I would like to see technical warnings for players who go over the line with negative comments directed at an opponent. Comments like “you’re a 4.0” or “you have no backhand” have no place on the court in my opinion. I like personality, I like some chirping, but there has to be some lines.
James Ignatowich said we should put half the events in San Clemente. Hard to argue with him, when the Select Medical Orange County Open was such a huge success. But, we now move on to Kansas City on August 7. As to San Clemente, we look forward to seeing you in December, for the PPA Finals. How about a shuffle draw for the finals?
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