The past three weekends in professional pickleball have been exciting to say the least. The APP Tour stopped in Flushing Meadows and hosted the New York City Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Then, Major League Pickleball came roaring back for Season 2 by taking over the boardroom of the New York Stock Exchange, holding a draft party in New York, and then completing the first of this season’s three events at Dreamland in Dripping Springs, Texas, in what was a jam-packed weekend of tight matches (including 10 of the 23 team matches going to a singles tiebreaker (called the “Dreambreaker”)). Fast forward to the third weekend, the PPA Tour donned upon San Clemente, California for the Orange County Cup at the beautiful Life Time Fitness facility buried into the mountainside.
In these three weekends, one professional pickleball player has been rising above the rest—not only because of his on-court performances (which certainly are critical—everyone loves a winner), but also because his personality is beginning to shine through his to-date stoic persona.
Teenager JW Johnson played in three events at the APP New York City Open. He took home three medals, including two gold medals. JW Johnson was drafted and played in the second season of Major League Pickleball. He was the #1 draft pick and led his team to a second-place finish. JW Johnson played in three events at the PPA Orange County Cup. He took home two gold medals and one bronze medal (meaning that he was in the top three of every event in played in over the last three weeks).
This winning theme is not new. Johnson has been on the podium for the better part of the last 12 months, using his clean strokes, crazy fast hands at the Kitchen line, emotionless and stoic focus, and consistency to put him there week after week. But, what is new is how he is winning. And, what it seems to boil down to is that Johnson is emulating the core characteristic of pickleball on and off the court… JW Johnson is emulating fun.
- Play with Family – As they say, the family that plays together, stays together. The Johnson family has been playing pickleball together as a family since moving to Florida a few years ago. And, since then, the Johnson family not only plays together, but travels the country playing pro pickleball tournaments together, trains together in their home of Florida, and relatively recently (within the last six or seven months), older brother, JW Johnson, even teams up with his younger sister, Jorja Johnson (who is a rising star of her own), in pro pickleball events. This kind of support, trust, and bond created through this shared experience is relatable to many families.
This support, trust, and bond are even prevalent when JW and Jorja are on opposite sides of the pickleball net, as is what happened when the two were on competing teams at the Major League Pickleball event in Dreamland. Although Jorja got the best of JW in the mixed doubles match-up, JW’s team took home the win in the team match, booting Jorja and her team out of the running (which is clearly an upsetting moment for any competitor). When the two got home from the venue that night after a long day in the Texas heat, Jorja said to JW, “You know how much I love you, bud. I am going to give you a hug right now and you stink.”
- Social Media Laughs – Evidence of the Johnson family having fun together on and off the pickleball court is abundant in JW’s and Jorja’s recent social media posts. Short videos jokingly explaining that JW stands for “Just Winning” Johnson, showing how JW and Jorja best their mother’s demands to take a day off from pickleball, and capturing their breakfast of champions, are all proof of the fun that the family is having through this experience.
- Team Brought Out the Best of JW – As alluded to above, JW Johnson has been known for his stoic, almost emotionless performances on the pickleball court. Whether he was up by 10 points or down by 10 points, you could never tell. However, at the first event of the second season of Major League Pickleball, this seemed to change with just one paddle toss (a very uncharacteristic move of the to-date stoic Johnson). The semi-final match-up between Johnson’s team, the Florida Smash, and The 5’s came down to the Dreambreaker (the singles tiebreaker). In this tiebreaker, JW Johnson carried his team by winning 10 of his team’s 21 points against Simone Jardim (the arguable greatest player of all time). On that final point to clinch the victory and head to the finals, Johnson flicked his paddle to the court, raised his arms, and immediately looked to his teammates—Travis Rettenmaier, Lee Whitwell, and Maggie Remynse. Whether it was the emotion-filled play of JW’s partners, Rettenmaier and Whitwell—who were consistently and emphatically fist-pumping, high-fiving, and letting out bursts of emotion all weekend long—or dramatic format of MLP, the team atmosphere certainly brought out the best in JW.
- Teenagers Joke on Court – The emotion that the MLP brought out of JW was fully present in the next event at the PPA Orange County Cup. JW Johnson now paired with his close friend and fellow teenage pickleball star, Anna Leigh Waters. As someone that watches a lot of pro pickleball, I have never seen either of them smile so much on the pickleball court in a competitive event. After every point, the two friends laughed all the way to the baseline. After the semi-final match-up against another set of pickleball siblings, Riley and Lindsey Newman—which featured another paddle toss by JW as he and Anna Leigh made it to Championship Sunday—the pair admitted that JW was cracking a lot of jokes in between points, all the way through the gold medal.
Smiles. Jokes. Paddle tosses. Emotion. Fun. JW Johnson is bringing the core of pickleball that you may see at any public park to his pro pickleball game. He is seemingly coming out of his shell and into his own. The fun that JW is emulating is infectious for his partner/teammates, infectious for his own game, and infectious for the fans. We all play the game to have fun, and it is nice to see it on the pickleball court at the highest level.
We would be remiss to say that it is easy to have fun when you are winning. But, what about when you are losing? Will JW be emulating fun then? Well, for a number of reasons—the natural talent of JW on the court, the fact that he can play with a multitude of players (just look at the mix of partners he has had the past few weeks), the hard work that JW puts in off the court in his training (both pickleball and fitness), the fact that JW is not a contracted PPA player and is able to play any event that he wants (which more events leads to more opportunities to win), the fact that JW seems to have the “number” of Ben Johns (the arguable current #1, but arguably so too is JW), and so on—JW “Just Winning” Johnson may not have to worry about losing too often. We just hope he continues to bring the fun because, regardless of the outcome at that point, JW Johnson will be winning.