Championship Saturday at the Tournament of Champions in Brigham City, Utah featured some of the most spectacular pickleball ever played. The coveted tournament, one of the oldest in pickleball history, highlighted the brilliance, athleticism, skill, and finesse of the best pickleball players in the world.
It was clear to see that players were playing for a whole lot more than just money. It was a day of non-stop battles of the highest calibre and players fighting with everything they had to see who would walk away with the title.
The day began with the men’s singles final. It was exciting to see an unfamiliar match-up with Ben Johns, the #2 seed, taking on #8-seeded Dylan Frazier. Ben Johns defeated Federico Staksrud (11-4, 11-9) in the semifinals of the bottom half of the mens draw, while Dylan Frazier defeated James Ignatowich (12-10, 11-5) in his semifinal match to make it to Championship Saturday.
With an enthusiastic and packed crowd cheering on the players, Ben Johns got off to a very good start in his first game against Frazier. Johns came out aggressive from the get-go and made it clear why he’s made such a name for himself in the sport. Johns’ deep, powerful serve made a big difference in the match and drew a good amount of return errors from Frazier. Johns’ ernies, cross-court rolls, feather touches, and huge forehand passes dominated the game. He gave the crowd and fans a nearly flawless performance.
Frazier also had some shining moments. It was clear to see that Frazier is a serious top-level contender in singles and a force to be reckoned with. Frazier’s incredible forehand passes and extreme quickness and athleticism were on display as he scrambled around the court, getting to balls that would be unreachable for most mortals. Frazier’s cat-and-mouse skills at the kitchen line were also showcased, and Johns admitted that Frazier got the better of him in the majority of those exchanges. Ultimately, Johns won the match in three: 11-2, 11-7, 11-2.
The women’s singles final came next and was a match filled with anticipation and excitement as #1 seed Anna-Leigh Waters and #3 seed Lea Jansen have not played each other in some time. Jansen beat Salome Devidze 11-6,12-10 in her semifinal match to make it to the finals and Waters took down the veteran, Irina Tereschenko 11-1,11-5 in her semifinal match.
Jansen started the match off aggressively and with high confidence. Her approaches to the net were on-point and her passing ability gave her an early 5-1 lead in game 1. Many fans began to ask themselves: “Are we about to see a massive upset?” At that point, Waters chose to take a preemptive timeout. When she returned, she came back to win the next four points and stormed on from there to win the game.
Waters executed some truly brilliant points and displayed exactly why she is a true triple crown champion. Unfortunately for her opponents, Waters has admitted that she actually enjoys chasing down balls and giving max effort on the court, thanks to her days playing soccer. Her precision, her touch, her power and her strength are what make her seemingly unbeatable. Jansen also had some jaw-dropping passes, beautiful reaches and aggressive volleys, but Waters was not to be denied and won the match 11-7, 11-5, 11-2. This earned Waters the first jewel in her attempt to snatch the Triple Crown.
Next up was the mixed doubles final which featured the #5 seeds Callie Smith and AJ Koller taking on the singles-champions-combination of Waters and Johns who were the #2 seeds. The mixed doubles draw contained an extremely large and talented pool of players, and Smith/Koller had some massive wins to get to the final. In their quarterfinal, they beat the famous brother/sister duo Riley and Lindsey Newman 11-7, 11-8 and in their semifinal, they beat Lucy Kovalova and Matt Wright in a thrilling match 11-2, 7-11, 11-2. Waters and Johns, most impressively, did not drop a single game on their way to the final. They defeated dangerous teams like Jessie Irvine/Jay Devilliers, and Anna Bright/Tyler Loong.
Johns and Waters, having been there many times before, looked comfortable on-court and really seemed to enjoy their championship match. They shared some smiles and laughs in between incredible hand battles and mind-boggling poaches from both players. Waters held her own against Koller and seemed fearless of his power and attacks against her. Koller/Smith did their best to create openings in the match, trying to slow the game down, then surprise Waters/Johns with speedups, but errors plagued them and they couldn’t seem to gain any momentum. Waters and Johns dominated, putting on an impressive display and showing why they have such a great partnership together, winning their match 11-5, 11-4, 11-5 and earning themselves the second jewels in each of their crowns for the day.
The women’s doubles final followed, and the Brigham City crowd was in full-force rooting for their very own Utah girl, Caliie Smith, in her second final of the day. #1 seeds Callie Smith and Lucy Kovalova took on the mother-daughter duo #2 seeds Anna-Leigh Waters and Leigh Waters. In game 1 alone, Lucy and Callie fended off 5 game points against the very powerful and aggressive Anna-Leigh and Leigh, who came out blazing from the very first point.
Throughout the match, all four ladies demonstrated their insane firepower and athleticism. Watching the speed, hands battles, and brilliant passes and attacks was very impressive. The energy on the court was electric and both sides fought with everything they had to walk away with the victory. The second game was a nail-biter and could have gone either way, but the Waters prevailed and beat Lucy and Callie 11-8, 12-10, 11-4. Fans are eagerly awaiting many more match-ups to come between these four incredible superstars for the reminder of the season.
Championship Saturday ended with the men’s doubles final which some have already begun calling one of the best men’s doubles matches ever played! #1 seeds Matt Wright and Riley Newman were up against the #2 seed brother duo, Ben Johns and Collin Johns. It was clear to see Ben and Collin began with a definite plan and, rather than relying on their usual third shot drops, came out firing and driving every shot. Ben targeted Riley and insane hand battles ensued. The firepower between all four men was relentless.
The Johns won the first game 11-4, making the crowd expect another Johns victory. However, game 2 began and before we knew it, Wright/Newman were up 6-0. The brother duo looked both surprised and frustrated throughout after the first game finished. Wright and Newman were insanely aggressive in the second game to combat the Johns’ strategy and were relentless with their endless pressure, speed-ups, quick hands, and incredible defense. The crowd was going crazy as Wright and Newman, pumped up and playing almost perfect pickleball, went on to win the next three games and defeat Ben Johns and Collin Johns in what may go down in the history books as one of the greatest pickleball matches of all time.
Although this ruined Ben Johns’ chance at the Triple Crown, his mixed doubles partner Anna- Leigh Waters managed to capture hers. If this Tournament of Champions is anything to go by, the rest of the PPA Tour’s 2022 season is going to be a wild ride!