Maybe it was the talk AJ Koller and Callie Smith had before the Tournament of Champions that made the difference.
Perhaps it was just the fact that the two now have more experience playing together and are a bit more disciplined after their struggles together earlier in the season.
Or maybe it’s the fact that Smith is relaxed, thanks to the fact she’s playing in front of a hometown crowd made up of friends and family in Brigham City, Utah.
Honestly, it’s probably a combination of all of these things. Equal parts comfort on the court, being around family, and just hitting some good shots. Whatever it is, it’s working.
“There was no mindset of how we needed to play. We just had a talk. We hadn’t made a final all year. We came in with a better attitude.”
– AJ Koller
A better attitude, outlook, and now some better results, too, as the fifth-seeded duo took out the No. 4-seeded Newman siblings in the quarterfinals and then topped that accomplishment by beating the No. 1-seeded team of Matt Wright and Lucy Kovalova, 11-2, 7-11, 11-2 in the semis. That means the two are set for their first finals appearance of the PPA season, in which they will take on none other than the formidable No. 2-seeded Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters.
“At the beginning of the year, it was our very first time playing together. While I feel most everyone else had already had some tournaments together, we were still figuring out each other’s games and how to play with each other. AJ has some unorthodox shots that I wasn’t prepared for at the beginning, and I didn’t even know what he had in his arsenal.”
– Callie Smith
Their familiarity on court has improved and the familiarity in the surroundings this week is definitely a bonus for Smith as the tournament is about 90 minutes north of Orem, Utah, where Smith grew up. She also went to Brigham Young University before graduating from the University of Utah. All of that means lots of people and friends in the crowd cheering for the “local” girl.
“I love the fans and the cheering,” Smith said. “It always helps me to play better, especially when there’s so much energy and fun, so no pressure there. Most of them are friends and family, so it just feels like home, and I love playing at home with my family.”
Well, Koller and Smith will definitely need all the support they can get as they take on Johns and Waters who have had an extremely impressive season. Johns and Waters cruised into the final with an opening round 11-1, 11-1 win, then beat the 15-seeded team of Yana Grechkina and Hayden Patriquin, 11-2, 11-3. They followed this up with a win over No. 7-seeded Tyler Loong and Anna Bright 11-4, 11-3, before defeating No. 3-seeded Jay Devilliers and Jessie Irvine 11-2, 11-3.
“They’re amazing players,” Smith said of the Saturday final’s matchup against Waters and Johns. “But what I love about their games is that they don’t do anything too fancy— they stick to high-percentage plays, and stay consistent throughout. They make the changes needed throughout the game, but don’t waver from what they know works. I’m betting on a great match.”
Friday is men’s doubles and women’s doubles in Brigham City at the Tournament of Champions, and Smith will team up as the top-seed with Lucy Kovalova. Waters will play with mother Leigh Waters as the No. 2-seeded team in a highly competitive field.
On the men’s side, Johns and brother Collin will be the No. 2-seeded team in the field of 30 teams. Koller and his partner Thomas Wilson are the No. 4 seed.