DALLAS, TX - The latest stop on the PPA Tour, in Phoenix at Desert Ridge, is now in the books.
Let’s look at some of the highlights and things we learned from the second event of 2024.
1. These draws are tough
The days of the top pros getting to ease into an event are over. No more easy matches in the round of 32. Every match is difficult. Dekel Bar and Tyson McGuffin made the mens’ doubles final, but their day almost ended early, as they lost game 1 (rather easily) in the round of 32. The depth on the PPA Tour, especially on the men’s side, is incredible. And getting deeper with each event.
2. Ben Johns’ triple crown days are over?
One of my predictions at the start of 2024 that has come true right away is that Ben would not be able to dominate men’s singles any more. We saw that again this week, as Ben is now 0-2 in medaling at singles. He is still a great singles player, and is still the best until conclusively proven otherwise, but the field has caught up. The days of Ben winning 15 gold medals a year in singles are over. He may have trouble winning more than perhaps 5 this year.
3. The pros’ interactions with the fans are great
We all spend a lot of time on the X’s and O’s of pickleball and who won/lost. Let’s not forget the pros are people first and they are being watched by the fans. Desert Ridge had very big crowds. Center Court was packed every day to capacity, and Grandstand Court had standing room only, with people stacked seven deep at times. The pros had to run a gauntlet of fans to get to/from the court. Every pro I saw interacted courteously with the fans, every single time, to their great credit. I want to single out Anna Leigh Waters and Tyson McGuffin who, as very popular players, were asked for pictures and autographs more than most players. They were unwaveringly courteous, especially to the young fans. Major shout out to both of them for being so nice.
4. The ball, the ball, the ball
The Vulcan ball was again center stage at Desert Ridge. This was only the second time the pros had used it in an event, so they are still getting used to it. I wouldn’t say the Vulcan is better or worse than the Dura, just different. The Vulcan is more reactive to spin. Pros are able to hit heavy topspin and the Vulcan will pop up/forward off topspin more than the Dura. The Vulcan also sometimes slides lower than the Dura off a powerful flat shot. This was especially evident on serves. Several players used powerful serves to great advantage, either with big topspin or just heavy speed. Thus, pros missed more serve returns than normal. The ball also encourages players to play fast. Just watch a replay of the bronze medal winning performance of Zane Navratil and Erik Lange. They played very smart pickleball, taking advantage of the ball’s characteristics better than anyone.
5. The paddles, the paddles, the paddles
In addition to the ball, the paddles are changing. Paddles ten years ago were not very different from paddles five years ago. However, paddles today are very different from paddles just two years ago. We saw that on display at Desert Ridge. The Gearbox Pro Power paddle had made waves when Chris Haworth used it a couple tournaments ago to beat Ben Johns in singles. That hot paddle now has company. The new JOOLA paddle, the newest ProXR paddle, the newest Proton paddle — all of these and some others are allowing players to play fast, hit with topspin and hit with power never seen before. Players using paddles designed just a year or two ago appeared to be at a disadvantage. The combination of hot paddle and hot ball has changed the game.
6. Comebacks galore
Not only is every match difficult, but it is often hard to put the opponent away when you have a lead. We saw a lot of superb comebacks. Riley Newman and Thomas Wilson had an 8-4 advantage in game 3 against Navratil and Lange, only to see Zane and Erik score a touchdown and kick the extra point for an 11-8 comeback victory in men’s doubles. Pablo Tellez and Etta Wright played great pickleball against Ben Johns and ALW, coming back from a bad loss in game one to get two match points in game three. Unfortunately they didn’t convert either one, losing 12-10 in game three. As mentioned before, Dekel Bar and Tyson McGuffin came back from losing game one in the round of 32 to make the men’s final. The players are so good, that it is not enough to get a big lead. Until you get to 11, no lead is safe.
7. This is the big leagues
One player I really wanted to see was CJ Klinger. He has had great success on the APP Tour and at Challenger level in MLP. He was now playing a PPA event and I was interested in seeing him against top competition for the first time. While I think he is going to be a great player, CJ got an education on PPA-level play from James Ignatowich in men’s doubles. James came right at CJ with speedups from the first point on and CJ was not able to handle it. James seemed to focus on CJ, as if to say “welcome to the big leagues, kid”. CJ will need to make the proper adjustments to the much higher skill of the players on the PPA Tour. He’s young and he will get better, but for this event he got outclassed.
The next event is the Mesa Open
at the end of February. Rumor has it that Jack Sock will be back in action.
If you have a chance (and before it sells out), come on out to see the best play the best.
It’s a treat!