The PPA Tour held its first pickleball grand slam of the 2022 calendar year at the Life Time Fitness in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. This first grand slam brought out some of the most exciting and most watched pickleball matches of the year, which was capped by the PPA Tour livestreams pulling in some of the largest live viewership that pickleball has seen to date (including YouTube live views exceeding 3,000). Championship Sunday for the PPA Atlanta Open featured three matches that forced a game five (as a reminder, the PPA Tour uses a best of five game format for Championship Sunday). Championship Sunday also saw some new championship faces, as the PPA Atlanta Open was the first tournament of the 2022 season where pickleball pro, Ben Johns, did not receive a gold medal, and where his mixed doubles partner, Anna Leigh Waters did not medal in an event that she entered.
Let’s break down the pickleball action…
Men’s Singles Shake-Up
The field for men’s singles was missing some familiar faces, as pickleball stars like Jay Devilliers, Tyson McGuffin, Ben Johns, and JW Johnson were all missing in action. Jay Devilliers was stuck in his home country of France with visa issues, Tyson McGuffin was unable to play due to illness, and Ben Johns was celebrating his graduation from college. Nevertheless, the men’s singles final was one of the most exciting to date.
The men’s singles final featured Rafa Hewett (#23 seed) versus Federico Staksrud (#12 seed)—in other words, a final match-up that you would expect in the tennis world, Rafa v. Fed, but maybe not in the pickleball world with their respected seeds at the time. Staksrud took home his first PPA title, defeating Hewett in a five-game thriller (11-3, 11-7, 9-11, 10-12, 11-8).
Also, shout out to the bronze medalist in men’s singles—James Ignatowich!
Women’s Singles as Expected
Unlike men’s singles, the women’s singles final featured some very familiar faces (and the #1 and #2 seeds)—Anna Leigh Waters and Catherine Parenteau. The PPA Atlanta Open was Anna Leigh Waters’ first tournament in about six weeks. She spent time away to work on her fitness, strength, and speed, which was on full display over the course of the weekend (and, noticeably missing from her attire on the weekend, were her knee braces that she had been wearing for the year prior, which made a visible statement that she had elevated her physical strength).
Her opponent, Catherine Parenteau, was coming into the weekend on a high, as she took home her first ever triple crown at the PPA North Carolina Open, as well as three medals at the US Open Pickleball Championships (to note, Waters did not participate in these two pickleball tournaments). Despite Parenteau’s momentum, Waters—the #1 women’s singles player—proved too much. Waters won in three straight games (11-7,11-2,11-6).
And, shout out to the bronze medalist in women’s singles—Lea Jansen!
Mixed Doubles Finally Is Mixed Up
Prior to the PPA Atlanta Open, Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters hadn’t lost a match. The duo had won gold in every pickleball tournament that they had entered. In fact, the way they have been playing, it looked like the two could not be stopped. However, in Atlanta, the two were handed the #2 seed (not sure how this team could be the #2 (and not the #1) seed) and started to show some cracks.
In the winner’s bracket semi-final, Johns and Waters ran into Riley Newman and Catherine Parenteau (the #3 seed), who had won the previous PPA Tour tournament in North Carolina (to note, Johns and Waters did not participate in this event). Newman and Parenteau were riding their momentum and playing with great confidence. They even went the extra mile by reviewing game film together to make a few strategy adjustments in order to try to beat the then-unbeaten Johns-Waters duo. This proved to be the winning formula, as Newman and Parenteau served Johns and Waters their first loss on the year in straight games (12-10,11-5).
Newman and Parenteau went on to play the #1 seed, Matt Wright and Lucy Kovalova, in the finals on Championship Sunday. Newman and Parenteau showed that nothing can beat momentum, taking home gold in straight games (11-2,12-10,11-2).
Looking to the back draw, after dropping to the losers’ bracket, Johns looked to have even less energy and desire to be on the pickleball court than in the winners’ bracket. With a long, grueling pickleball schedule, and just coming off the high of his graduation, Johns looked to be off his game. Taking full advantage and stopping at nothing but the bronze medal was Simone Jardim (Johns’ former mixed doubles partner) and her partner, JW Johnson. Jardim and Johnson snagged the bronze after beating a handful of team along the way, including Johnson’s younger sister, Jorja Johnson and Gabriel Tardio (twice! – tough luck in the draw to draw your sibling twice), the Johns-Waters team, and then Dylan Frazier and Lauren Stratman (who also had a good run).
Men’s Doubles Lead to Double-Double for Newman
Although Ben Johns had a tough mixed doubles day, he had a chance for redemption in the men’s doubles day with his brother, Collin Johns. The Johns brothers had a strong start to make it to Championship Sunday as the #2 seed, including overcoming large deficits to opponents like Dekel Bar and JW Johnson. The Johns brothers faced Riley Newman and Matt Wright, a team that the Johns brothers had never lost to.
After winning two of the first three games, Newman and Wright looked to be on their way to their first every victory over the Johns brothers in game four, as they had a 9-0 lead. However, the Johns brothers fought back to take 11 straight points and win game four, 11-9. As a result, the men’s doubles went to game five, where Newman and Wright again had a lead and, again, the Johns brothers looked like they would close the gap. After taking a time-out, Lucy Kovalova (partner to Matt Wright) seemed to give Wright and Newman some advice—drive middle. They executed perfectly, broke through, and won the gold medal in the fifth game (11-7).
Newman had now won double golds (in both mixed doubles and men’s doubles) at each of the last two PPA Tour stops—in other words, a double-double. On the other side of the pickleball net, after the tournament, Ben Johns announced a summer break, which will hopefully be a good reset for him after he seemed to “check-out” at times on the pickleball court.
The bronze medal went to a relatively new partnership, Dekel Bar and JW Johnson (for Johnson’s second bronze medal on the weekend). This pairing seems to have potential, as they took a game off of the Johns brothers and already have strong results with the bronze medal in a deep field. However, their strategy—which is akin to a mixed doubles strategy, where Bar plays the left-side of the court and takes a lot of shots on Johnson’s right-side of the court—does not seem to quite highlight the talent of Johnson. With a few strategy adjustments, this team could be very deadly.
A Rivalry in Women’s Doubles?
Last, but not least, the women’s doubles final on Championship Sunday was another five-game thriller, featuring the #2 seed in Team Waters—mother-daughter duo, Leigh and Anna Leigh Waters—and the #1 seed in the powerhouse duo, Lucy Kovalova and Callie Smith. This match-up has been on repeat throughout the year, with Team Waters getting the better of Kovalova and Smith as of late (and before Team Waters’ six-week break from competition).
After dropping game one, Kovalova and Smith looked to change their strategy to stay in the match and not repeat history. As they say, don’t lose the same way the whole game—mix it up! Kovalova and Smith did just that by switching sides. Kovalova, who typically plays the right-hand side, moved to the left, and vice-versa for Smith. The strategy proved to help Kovalova and Smith take down Team Waters (8-11,11-9,11-8,8-11,11-2).
Looking to the back draw, a relatively new partnership of Jessie Irvine and Anna Bright grabbed the bronze, defeating Meghan Sheehan-Dizon and Allyce Jones (who snagged their first medal in women’s doubles at the previous PPA stop at the North Carolina Open). On their way to the bronze medal, Irvine and Bright also had to go through Irvine’s former women’s doubles partner, Catherine Parenteau, which was a solid win, given Parenteau’s performance this year.
Congrats to all of the medalists at the PPA Atlanta Open!