As 2023 comes to a close, we figured it’d be appropriate to create a year-in-review for pro pickleball. We’ve seen a lot of highs and plenty of lows, but ultimately, it’s been a year of growth for the sport at the professional level.
PPA Tour: The Unstoppable Duo
How many times have we seen this ^^^ photo? Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters both had career-high, record-setting years, proving that they remain pickleball’s top professional athletes.
While we saw the rise of many new PPA Tour stars, the two staples we were guaranteed to see on Championship Sunday every week were Waters and Johns. Waters ended up with 47 total gold medals, Johns with 39, and together, they earned 15 titles in mixed doubles, making them the winningest duo in all of professional pickleball.
Waters earned her 20th career triple-crown this year after a big win at the USA Pickleball National Championships, making her the only women’s player to do so in PPA Tour history. She and Catherine Parenteau went undefeated in women’s doubles, earning ten total gold medals, and won another seven golds with Anna Bright.
Johns earned his 100th career gold medal this year, making him the first player in PPA Tour history to do so. He was strongest in mixed doubles alongside ALW but also excelled in men’s doubles with his broth Collin Johns, winning 12 gold medals together.
MLP: The Most Exciting Event In Pro Pickleball
Major League Pickleball’s goal of making pro pickleball a spectator sport was an ambitious one. If the resulting fallout of the organization at the end of 2023 is any indication, one might say it was maybe even overly ambitious. However, 2023 wasn’t all merger disasters and negligence of pro players – there were also some incredible pickleball matches!
Looking back to the first half of the year in MLP Season One, that might have been the most exciting time for pro pickleball. The new team competition format was fresh on everybody’s minds, and the 24 Challenger and Premier Level teams had some stellar rosters featuring doubles teams we had never seen before.
The Season One Super Finals might just be our favorite event of the MLP in 2023. It’s hard to forget that moment when Catherine Parenteau and Julian Arnold won that final match point in mixed dubs, making the Los Angeles Mad Drops the Premier Level Champions! Goosebumps.
APP Tour: A New Standard
The most surprising part of 2023 for us has to be the consistency exhibited by the APP Tour. While it was easy for us all to get caught up in the excitement of the MLP’s newness and the PPA’s star power, the APP maintained a slow and steady sense of quality across their events.
We noticed that as the year went on, we grew more and more eager to cover the next APP event as the tour’s stars started to really shine. From Andrei Daescu rising as one of the best doubles players in the league to the rotating cast of women’s singles gold medalists, there wasn’t a single weekend that didn’t have some sort of surprise!
One of our favorite moments happened at the final tournament of the year, the APP U.S. Indoor Championships. Women’s dubs saw so many exciting teams come together this year, from Megan Fudge and Susannah Barr to Alix Truong and Vivian Glozmann; however, the newly-founded team of Simone Jardim and Riley Bohnert came together for the first time ever and won one of the biggest APP events of the year!
What made it even more special was Bohnert’s admiration for Jardim as someone she would look up to while learning the game for the first time.
“When I first started playing pickleball, my parents and I sat on the couch and watched Simone play,” she said. “Now, I’m on the same court as her, and it’s just the best moment in the entire world.”
NPL: The Rise Of Senior Pro Pickleball
We’ve seen a multitude of new leagues break into the pro pickleball sphere, but none have wowed us as much as the National Pickleball League (NPL), a league dedicated to players 50 and older. 2023 marked its inaugural year, which saw its six founding teams compete through five regular-season events and a huge championship event at the end of the season.
Looking back at when we first met with the NPL’s founders, Michael Chen, Beth Bellamy, and Rick Witsken, they managed to surpass many of the goals they set out for at the beginning of 2023. They recognized the need for support of senior pro players and managed to create a fully-fledged pro league that features many of pickleball’s best senior athletes.
“There was a desperate need for Champions Level players to have team play in a league format. Many of us talked about it and were very excited about that kind of format … It was becoming apparent that for the visibility of Champions Level players, we needed to have an independent production to properly showcase the skills and talents both on and off the court of our players.”Rick Witsken, Co-Founder of NPL
NPL plans to continue its growth moving into 2024, exemplified by its recent appointment of Paul Bamundo as the organization’s CEO. We had a chance to meet with Paul recently, who is confident in the league’s expansion and continued success going into its second season.
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