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Thomas Wilson and Christian Alshon celebrating their doubles championship in Minnesota.
Thomas Wilson and Christian Alshon celebrating their doubles championship in Minnesota. PPA Tour

Wrapping up the Pickleball Central Indoor USA Championships

Another week, and another great week on the PPA Tour. Some big names were missing, but all that did was add to the intrigue and uncertainty of who would win each event. This was definitely a tournament where many different teams had a shot at a medal and even a gold. In addition, we saw some new pairings, and several players making a statement that they are ready to make a move up the rankings. Let’s review it all.
1.  Rohrabacher/Bright show who is (almost) boss
With Anna Leigh Waters sitting this one out, Rachel Rohrabacher and Anna Bright showed they are the second best women’s doubles team. They dominated the event, and easily defeated top seeds Lucy Kovalova/Callie Smith in the final. Rachel and Anna continued their full power style, and worked it to perfection. Interestingly, Lucy and Callie appeared to recognize that the ball and the paddles have changed the game; they abandoned their usual defensive style, and tried to play more of a power game. Unfortunately for them, Rohrabacher and Bright are just better at the power game, and the result was as predicted. It will be interesting to see Rohrabacher and Bright challenge ALW and Catherine Parenteau for the top spot going forward.
2. Wilson and David also show who is (almost) boss
Again, the draw was affected by the absence of the usual top seed of ALW/Ben Johns. Their usual #1 seed was taken over by Thomas Wilson and Vivienne David. Wilson/David cruised to a fairly easy gold medal, cementing their status as the #2 mixed team on the PPA Tour. Federico Staksrud and Rachel Rohrabacher were a new pairing and played very well, earning a silver medal. The upset in the mixed draw was the relatively poor showing of Parenteau and Jack Sock. This appeared to be an event tailored for them to win their first gold or at least a medal. Instead they were ousted in the quarters, a result no one expected.
3. Some new pairings work, some do not
Minnesota saw a number of new pairings. It is always interesting to see players pair with someone new. Sometimes it clicks, sometimes it does not. In men’s doubles, Christian Alshon and Thomas Wilson were a late entry, but it could not have worked better, as they won gold. They played a very fast pace. In their semifinal win, they showed you can win a match by driving every third shot and speeding up every dink (only a slight exaggeration). Another successful new pair was Tyler Loong and Connor Garnett, who played a nice defensive/countering style, earning themselves a silver medal. In women’s doubles, keep an eye on Chao Yi Wang/Brooke Buckner. They finished 6th, employing a style similar to that of Rohrabacher/Bright, indicating a solid future for that pair. Lea Jansen played with Lina Padegimaite, and earned a 5th place finish. Padegimaite in particular played well in this tournament, showing she is moving up the rankings. The Lina/Lea pairing is another one that can employ the new fast style dominating women’s doubles and they will be well-served to continue their partnership.  On the downside, the much anticipated pairing of Jack Sock and Julian Arnold in men’s doubles did not go as planned. They appeared to have difficulty deciding who should play left side. Arnold played more on the left than Sock, but when Sock is on the right, he is a bit of a fish out of water. Sock can and should play with a top 20 player, but he needs a right side/defensive player as that partner.
4. Fantastic matches were the highlight
The tournament featured a lot of great matches. Three game matches going down to the wire were commonplace. It shows the depth of the PPA Tour, with more excellent players than ever before. No more can a team count on having multiple easy matches. Indeed, just look at these super close matches, all of which occurred in the quarterfinals: Wilson/Alshon against Devilliers/Smith; Garnett/Loong against Staksrud/Tellez; Garnett against Sock in men’s’ singles; and, Lea Jansen/Hayden Patriquin against Anna Bright/Collin Johns in mixed. Every one of these matches could easily have gone the other way. The difference between a quarterfinal exit and a medal is a small one.
5. Stacking was being punished in this tournament
Stacking is a very common strategy. Equally common is the strategy of attacking the stack, often by driving at the player on the move. However, Minnesota seemed different, in that the attacks on the stack appeared to be more successful than normal. Quite a few pairs had trouble stacking, so much so that they even had to abandon stacking. A good example was the pairing of Collin Johns/Matt Wright. They had a fairly easy draw, but when they ran into Wilson/Alshon in the semis, Wilson and Alshon drove the ball mercilessly at the middle and at the moving player, so successfully that Johns and Wright had to abandon stacking. This same dynamic occurred in other matches. While attacking the stack has always been a viable strategy, once again the emerging predominance of the power game made the strategy more effective than ever.
6. Should we put the brakes on Sock as a top player?
Jack Sock’s entry into the full time pickleball pro world has been the biggest story of 2024. His combination of size, power, and athleticism make his matches must see pickleball. Many people have projected him as someone who can challenge Ben Johns for the top spot in pickleball. Indeed, there is much speculation that he will be the #2 pick in any MLP draft. However, we are now 4 events into the PPA season, and it is time to assess where reality meets speculation and hype. Sock’s best event continues to be singles, but now he has lost twice to Connor Garnett, and has also lost to Federico Staksrud. These matches indicate he is a very good singles player, but not yet a top five player. In mixed, it was anticipated that his partnership with Catherine Parenteau would yield top results, but they again failed to medal this week. Finally, in men’s doubles, Sock lost in the round of 16, despite having a top player in Julian Arnold as his partner. The men’s doubles matches showed Sock’s strengths, but also his limitations. He continues to have that much-discussed power forehand, but what is not discussed as much are his weaknesses. What his matches in Minnesota showed is that his ability to block and counter needs work, as well as his dink game. With power so predominant, the counter has become the most important shot in doubles. Veteran players Connor Garnett and Tyler Loong showed that they understand the importance of the counter, and used that advantage when facing Sock. None of this is to say that Sock is not a great player, or that he lacks potential. However, we may need to put the brakes a little on the idea that he is likely to be a top five player any time soon. His obvious skills have gotten him to a top 15-20 player quickly; however, achieving any higher rank will depend on him mastering the intricacies that make pickleball a different game than tennis. Specifically, he needs to improve his dinking, especially off the backhand and he needs to get significantly better at counters, or he will continue to lose the firefight battle.
Next up for the PPA Tour is the Veolia Austin Open at the end of this week. Should be another good one! Check it out, either in person or on TV.
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