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What folks will be talking about Saturday at the PPA Tour’s Arizona Grand Slam in Mesa, Az: Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters will not play on Championship Sunday together.

What folks ought to be talking about for the rest of the PPA season: how truly difficult it is to win on tour.

On a weekend where the No. 1 men’s player in the world has gone 0/2 in slots on Sunday so far and Waters, the No. 1 women’s player in the world, earned her way to a Championship Sunday singles showing, but lost alongside Johns for the first time this season, Friday was a bit of a shock to the pickleball system and a glimpse into its future.

Jorja Johnson and JW Johnson won the laurels of the day with the biggest upset of the 2023 season so far, taking down #1 seeds Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters, who had been previously undefeated this year. It was a hard fought battle over three games that ended with the Johnson siblings hugging each other in celebration after the game-winning point. While JW played phenomenal, clean pickleball, Jorja’s skillset and development really shined, and the chemistry between the two was clear. 

“The draws in the PPA are deep and tough and a lot of teams can go far and everybody can beat everybody,” said Dekel Bar, who was making his first appearance of 2023 on the PPA Tour. “There’s a lot of interesting matchups and it’s great. Every year the pros get better and better, the skills and technique gets better, even from a few years ago. Everyone is putting in more time, work, and training. It’s good to see.”

If you love an upset and an underdog, you’ll want to rewatch the mixed action, as well as tune in to Championship Sunday, because Friday was quite a day.

Think about this for a second: in the first or second round of the pro mixed doubles event, a 24-seeded team beat a No. 9; a 26-seed beat the No. 7 seed, and a 23rd-seeded team beat the No. 10 seed. Dekel Bar, who partnered with Megan Fudge and was assigned the No. 18 seed, beat the second-seeded team of Lucy Kovalova and Matt Wright.

Overall in the first two rounds, there were 10 lower-seeded teams that won. In the quarterfinals, where the top-seeded Johns and Waters lost to the eighth-seeded team of JW Johnson and his sister Jorja, 4-11, 11-8, 11-9, there was a 13-seed, the No. 18 seed, the 23rd-seeded team and a No. 11 seed. Three of the top four seeds were gone. 

“Many of us are doing this as a full-time job,” said Zane Navratil, who partnered with Jade Kawamoto as the No. 26 seed and beat the No. 7-seeded team of Catherine Parenteau and Julian Arnold. “The level of intensity and competitiveness has ramped up, as opposed to a few years ago when fewer people did this. The game is growing really quickly.”

All this provides a level of uncertainty as pickleball and the PPA Tour move forward. There’s still the element of the dynasty with Johns and Waters. The two have been prolific winners this year and all of last year and are still the players and team to beat in any competition they enter. 

However, when a day like Friday happens, it gives hope that anyone, anywhere can have success.

“There are a lot of new players and up-and-comers who people haven’t heard of,” said Travis Rettenmaier who was alongside Lea Jansen and topped the fourth-seeded team of A.J. Koller and Jessie Irvine in the second round. 

“Every round is a battle,” Jansen said. “You’re going to grind away and see who has the hotter hands that day.”

And when Friday was finished, the third-seeded team of Riley Newman and Anna Bright moved into the final with an 11-2, 11-2 win over Bar and Fudge. Newman and Bright will face the Johnsons who rallied for their third, three-game victory of the day, 9-11, 11-5, 11-3 over the fifth-seeded team of Vivienne David and Thomas Wilson.

“I’m just going to live in the moment,” said Jorja. “It’s my first Championship Sunday and I’m happy to be there with my brother.”

Meanwhile, Thomas Wilson and Vivienne David finished with a hard-fought bronze medal against Dekel Bar and Megan Fudge, 12-10, 5-11, 11-8.

Dresden Sutherland contributed to this report

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