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December 8, 2022

2022 Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships

Fifteen-year-old Anna Leigh Waters takes the Triple Crown!

By Drew Wathey

The tournament venues may change. The competition may look different and pose diverse challenges. But the end results have mostly been the same for the past few years. Ben Johns capturing gold amongst the men, while standing atop the medal stand for the women is the familiar face of 15-year-old Anna Leigh Waters. To say these two are dominating the sport may be the most understated comment of all. Their level of excellence is unyielding and perhaps the greatest this sport may ever see, even with the continual influx of talent each year. They are writing and then ultimately rewriting the record books every time they set foot on the pickleball court. And they did it once again in the California desert.


The latest competition for the sport whose popularity is defying logic shone brightly under the glaring California sun at the 2022 Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships at famed Indian Wells Tennis Garden, just outside Palm Springs. It is the game’s ultimate prize. Speaking of prize money, the gold medal winners for both men and women in singles earned $5,000 from the $150,000 purse. For those winning it all in doubles and mixed doubles, the two split the top prize of $14,000.


Nearly 2,300 players made their way onto the courts for the week, some coming from as far away as Maine. The youngest competitor was 8-year-old Jack Loughridge, while Dick Creamer and Joel Korelitz held the banner for oldest at 85 years old. Those familiar with the acting Van Patten family may have recognized Vincent, former tennis pro, actor, and poker connoisseur, who captured a silver medal in the age skill bracket 65+, 5.0/4.5. Another player, taller than most, was NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry who converted his skills from one court to another and used his 6'7" frame to win the Senior Men’s 75+ gold medal.


The sport is literally touching every demographic in society, and based on the turnout at one of the country’s finest tennis and pickleball facilities, it may never slow down.


One who never slows down and is like a constant blur on the court is Anna Leigh Waters. The teenage phenom out of Delray Beach, Florida, continues to amaze the pickleball community and will soon have the entire sports world taking notice outside of the 20' x 44' court. “Anna Leigh is extraordinarily impressive. Her ascendance in the last year has been spectacular,” said Ben Johns, whose rise in the sport is equally impressive. “She has little to no weaknesses. I can’t predict how long she’ll be dominant, but currently she is far ahead of the curve.”


That curve has been more like a straightaway to success for Waters. At this year’s Nationals, she cruised in the women’s singles finals, defeating Lea Jansen in straight games—11-5, 11-7 and 11-6—to continue her dominance in that division. “I attribute my success to my hard work and dedication on and off the court. I have been working hard in the gym recently to try to get stronger and faster,” said Waters. “I believe that work has been paying off. I also have a game plan for every match, which helps me perform with confidence.”


Then in mixed doubles, she played with Riley Newman, a new partner for this tournament. Her regular partner of late has been Ben Johns, whom she was now facing across the net in the finals with Catherine Parenteau. Waters apparently felt just fine with Newman, easily winning the gold medal match—11-3, 11-0, 11-3. “Playing with Riley, we just tried to communicate really well because it was our first tournament playing together,” she said. “I try to stay true to my game and be positive to my partners.”


Perhaps the match of the tournament was women’s doubles where Waters played with Catherine Parenteau and faced off against Jessie Irvine and Anna Bright, a newcomer to center court. Down two games to none, Waters and Parenteau regrouped and fought back. “In the women’s doubles match, I tried to stay true to my game and be aggressive even though we were down,” Waters explained. “I just realized we had played tentative for the first two games and at the beginning of the third game, we realized that we needed to stay confident and be more aggressive.”


Well, the new mindset worked for the pair, who took the next three straight games 11-9, 11-4 and 11-4, giving Waters the elusive Triple Crown!


Her regular doubles partner since she started playing pickleball has been her mom, Leigh, but an unfortunate injury forced the family matriarch to sit out the finals. The Waters women were going for a three-peat at Indian Wells. “Unfortunately, on mixed doubles day, while I was playing with Tyson McGuffin, I crossed the court and poached off Tyson’s drive, and when I landed on my right leg, my knee twisted, and I fell to the ground. After evaluation, it was clear that I had to withdraw from the tournament at that moment,” said Leigh.


Anna Leigh, who was a rising soccer star before she became immersed in pickleball, has had a year for the ages—one that has surprised those close to her just a bit, especially her mom. “We knew that she had a lot of potential and a lot of talent as we watched her rise from an amateur to a pro very quickly,” she said. “But I had no idea that she would have the great mental strength to have the type of year she has had so far.”


The sport’s most celebrated and recognizable men’s player is Ben Johns, and he once again used the courts at Indian Wells as his own personal playground, winning two of three gold medal matches. He took on newcomer Julian Arnold in men’s singles, winning a fourth game bagel, 11-0. “I was not familiar with Julian’s game. I prepared by developing a game plan and strategy beforehand based on what I did know,” said Johns. He then teamed with brother Collin to capture the top prize in men’s doubles, beating the tandem of JW Johnson and Dekel Bar in four games.


Johns sent out an ominous tone for his competitors as he plans to excel even further next year: “My plans for 2023 are primarily to keep doing what I do, get better, and win more than ever!”


More than ever may not be entirely possible, given what the young University of Maryland graduate has already accomplished so far at 23 years old.


It also means that Collin will be a beneficiary of that improved play with doubles victories clearly on the horizon. “Our success on the court is our pursuit of adapting and improving our games at all times. Pickleball, being such a new professional sport, gives you the opportunity to be creative with how you approach, practice, and evolve your game, which is something Ben and I both enjoy doing,” said Collin.


But what the sport of pickleball has accomplished in 2022 is simply spectacular—pro tours with increased purses and continual celebrity ownership signings, increased participation from folks young and old all over the country, new courts being built every day, and a national tournament at a world-renowned venue that has embraced this sport like no other.  •

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