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May 20, 2024

Biggest Pickleball Party in the World™

More than 3,200 participants, consisting of pro and amateur players from 31 countries, and 50,000 visitors filled East Naples Community Park for the Minto US Open Pickleball Championships.

By Drew Wathey

As the dawn of a new day welcomed the warming sun in Naples, Florida, the $150,000 Minto US Open Pickleball Championships was set to crown its next wave of champions.


Anna Leigh Waters and JW Johnson dominated, winning two gold medals each, including as a team in mixed doubles. Teenage phenom Anna Leigh, who recently captured her 100th gold medal at the Carvana PPA Tour in Cary, North Carolina, is clearly the most talented woman playing the sport. Her closest competitor in gold medals is Catherine Parenteau with 37.


With Anna Leigh entering only mixed doubles and women’s doubles at this year’s US Open, enter her mom, Leigh Waters, who has been her playing partner since Anna Leigh turned pro but suffered a torn ACL in late 2022. This was their first major event back together on the court. Parenteau had been filling in, but the Waters are now trying to pick up where they left off.


Across the net from Anna Leigh and Leigh in the semifinals were Parris Todd and Yana Newell. Todd had a fantastic season a year ago, capturing the Triple Crown at the US Open—winning singles, doubles and mixed doubles. But the Waters seemingly never missed a step as they easily moved on to the finals after winning 11-6, 11-3.


Waiting for them was a woman who captured hearts and imaginations long before anyone ever heard of Anna Leigh Waters. Triple Crowns were once synonymous with the name Simone Jardim, since she had won two at the US Open along with 13 gold medals. With 87 career pro titles, Jardim—who would later receive an Impact Award at this year’s tournament—was teamed with Allison Harris in perhaps one last opportunity to take part in unseating pickleball’s darling duo.


In two competitive games with numerous long rallies, the Waters prevailed 11-5, 11-5. Afterward, a disappointed Jardim praised her opponents and gave thanks to tournament founders Terri Graham and Chris Evon.


“I’m not getting any younger. I’m getting older. It’s a privilege to play against Anna Leigh. The sky is the limit for this kid—she’s only going to get better. Terri and Chris, I’m so proud of what this tournament has become. We moved to Naples because of you, and it became our home. Naples will always be our home.”


The last point having special meaning since Jardim is soon moving to Nashville to get her country swing on.


The victorious Anna Leigh praised her mom on the stand. “I don’t think you get enough credit. You’re an amazing player. Props to my mom.” The mutual admiration didn’t end there, as Leigh had plenty to say about returning to the game she loves and playing alongside her daughter.


“The US Open is the only trophy we never had, so it is sweet to get it today. It’s an emotional day for me because I’ve been out with an ACL injury and didn’t know if I would ever play with Anna Leigh again,” she said. “But it was truly a blast to be here at the Open and play with Anna Leigh.”


Their love and support of Simone Jardim and what she has meant to the sport was evident as well. “I didn’t even know what a Triple Crown was when I started coming to this event and Simone was winning them back-to-back,” recalled Anna Leigh. “I really looked up to her as a kid and what she was doing. One day I wanted to be just like her and here I am today.”


Anna Leigh partnered with JW Johnson in the mixed doubles final as they went up against the talented tandem of Megan Fudge and Andrei Daescu. Waters/Johnson jumped out to an early 8-1 lead in the first game and went on to win it 11-2. More of the same in the second game, as they cruised to an 11-3 victory and the championship.


“Credit to them, they played a fantastic match. I never played Anna Leigh before, so it was fun to step on the court with her and play here and make it to the finals,” said Fudge.


More than 3,200 players representing all 50 states and 31 countries converged on the courts in Naples, the largest number of participants in the event’s history. The players’ ages ranged from 7 to 85 years old. The sport is unquestionably attracting players from numerous generations.


Johnson’s sister, Jorja, made easy work of the women’s singles bracket, coasting to a quick 11-2, 11-3 win over Megan Fudge for the title. Prior to that, she ably handled Jardim 11-4, 11-4 and Jenna Hessert, 11-0, 11-1.


Over on the men’s side, Jack Foster battled Chris Haworth, but held on to take home the singles crown, 11-5, 11-4.


Perhaps one of the most electrifying matches at the US Open was the men’s doubles final featuring the 2nd seeded team of Andrei Daescu and Gabriel Tardio going up against the top seeds Dylan Frazier and JW Johnson.


Having won their previous two matches against them, Frazier and Johnson were nonetheless determined to get out quick and early, but it didn’t go according to plan. The rangy Daescu was tough to pass, and playing alongside the quick and agile Tardio, they jumped out to a 7-2 lead. Johnson and Frazier fought back, tying it up at 9, before Tardio split the pair with a winner down the middle to take the first game 11-9.


“I tried to be more patient, more dinking… and waited for the right time to speed it up. They’re a great team and we knew we had to come back and not get behind so early,” said Johnson.


The second game was one for the ages and it brought the raucous crowd to its feet numerous times. Daescu and Tardio had three championship points on their paddles but were unable to convert them. With continually long rallies and back-and-forth lead changes, Frazier and Johnson found themselves on top 11-10. Johnson eventually found an opening and hit a running smash to win it 12-10 and send the match to a deciding third game.


After that disappointing setback, it seemed like the wind came out of the sails for Daescu and Tardio in game three. With numerous unforced errors, they fell 11-1 in the final game. “The momentum just went the other way. They started very well in game three and we tried to get back into it… but props to them. They’re competitive players,” said Daescu.


“I remember watching this tournament as a 3.5 player, working my way up the rankings,” said Frazier, “watching the men’s doubles action and being a fan—and hoping one day I could play on the Zing Zang Championship Court.”


Anna Leigh Waters is no longer a stranger to the top of the medals stand at the US Open, having won two more gold medals, and also fondly remembers when she first started coming to the event in Naples.


“I was so nervous playing the first time on Championship Court that I was serving on the wrong side,” she said laughingly. “Actually, my first tournament here I played 4.0 at this facility, and I played with my grandfather. Just a lot of great memories and it’s always super-special to play on Championship Court.”  •


Drew Wathey is a published author and screenwriter (“A Season With Hope”) and former director of communications for the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open. Wathey is the owner of SportsLink, a home-based sports public relations and marketing company. He is also a national sports anchor for iHeart Radio. His family lives in Phoenix, Arizona.


Chris Evon and Terri Graham
Chris Evon (left) and Terri Graham at the 2024 US Open. Photo by Bruce Yeung; IG: @yeungphotography

US Open Founders Terri Graham and Chris Evon Bid a Fond Farewell


After nearly a decade, Terri Graham and life partner Chris Evon, co‑founders of the US Open Pickleball Championships—trademarked as The Biggest Pickleball Party in the World™—are handing their “pickleball baby” to the capable team of Pickle4, owner of The Pickler and Pickleball Den.


Mike Dee, CEO of Pickle4, says, “These two women are a rare combination of trailblazers, start-up mavens, and for sure first-ballot Hall of Famers in the world of pickleball. What they have accomplished in under a decade in Naples is truly extraordinary. All of us involved in this great game sit on their shoulders as we move forward.”


Terri and Chris took a nostalgic look at the development and wild success of the US Open. “It started while I was working at Wilson Sporting Goods,” Terri explains. “I did an extensive business plan on the sport and the report showed pickleball was about to explode. We were spot-on with the numbers. When you have most players over 60 and most of the country’s Baby Boomers, it was the perfect storm.


“As for the growth of the US Open, it didn’t surprise us much at all. We built an event, with support from our team of Jim Ludwig and his wife Carol, and Bryan and Lisa McKenzie, along with 500 volunteers, into the top item on so many people’s bucket lists. Who wouldn’t want to come to paradise to play a game and then all go out to happy hour and dinner? It is the perfect way to enjoy the journey of life.”


Chris has been by Terri’s side through it all in developing this Paradise Coast into a thriving pickleball community. “Terri and I have worked together for over 25 years. We worked at Wilson Sporting Goods in the same division and then we moved to the US Open. It works because we both have different skill sets and we both have a passion to create new things. We have somehow managed to balance it all with our personal life.”


Terri and Chris will forever be linked to the US Open, and their imprint on the event will never be lost. They looked back on what they’ll miss most.


“One thing I will remember is the first day in 2016,” says Chris. “We were all exhausted and not sure how this was all going to go. Then the athletes and fans started arriving at the park. The energy was palpable and was the spark we all needed. That energy remains today and is hard to describe unless you are here.”


For Terri, it’s also the energy and the people. “But most of all,” she says, “it’s the party. That’s why we trademarked the US Open as ‘The Biggest Pickleball Party in the World.’ It’s a little bit of Woodstock mixed in with Mardi Gras and a touch of The Masters.”  •


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