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December 11, 2023


“Everything is bigger in Texas” proved true during the 2023 Biofreeze USA Pickleball National Championships powered by Invited and the PPA Tour where more than 50,000 attendees descended upon Brookhaven Country Club to take part in the biggest event in the history of pickleball.

By Drew Wathey

Few, if any, would have envisioned the sport of pickleball to captivate the sports landscape as it has today back when the game was first being developed on Bainbridge Island, outside Seattle in 1965. The growth of the game during those early years was stagnated by doubters and lack of quality equipment and playing facilities.


Fast-forward some 58 years and you now have a sport that has firmly evolved into the social consciousness of millions of players and fans across the globe.


USA Pickleball’s National Championships have risen like a phoenix from the original playing venues in the Southwest to the biggest event in pickleball’s history at the Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas.


“These staggering figures surrounding the success of Nationals are truly a testament to the continued growth of our sport and community,” said Mike Nealy, USA Pickleball Chief Executive Officer. “We’re grateful to all of our partners for helping make an event of this scale possible and taking our National Championships to new heights across the board. We look forward to building upon this momentum in the coming years.”


“We had extremely high expectations for the 2023 National Championships and through the hard work of our team, and with the incredible support of the pickleball and Dallas communities, we were able to shatter those expectations,” said Connor Pardoe, CEO and founder of the PPA Tour.


Nearly 3,500 pro and amateur players played a total of 6,928 matches over the course of the tournament. On TV, more than 2.6 million viewers tuned in to catch the action across 20+ hours of coverage on ESPN, Tennis Channel and PickleballTV, the brand-new 24/7 pickleball channel launched by Pickleball Inc. (the parent company of the PPA Tour) and Tennis Channel.


Those jumping into pro events are a continual influx of new and talented players. One of the newer names on tour is Jaume Martinez Vich. Crowd favorite Tyson McGuffin was introduced to the 21-year-old Spaniard and the crafty veteran was bounced in a quarterfinal match at Brookhaven 11-6, 11-9, enabling Martinez Vich to advance to the semifinals. There he defeated Hunter Johnson in a match that featured perhaps the shot of the tournament—an intense rally that ended up with Johnson unable to return a down-the-line passing shot after making a mad dash across the court. Johnson ended up thoroughly exhausted and sprawled out on the court. The raucous crowd loved every spine-tingling shot.


Martinez Vich, who was well-rested entering the event, looked forward to playing JW Johnson in the men’s singles final. “That’s the goal—to win the event. I took two weeks off before this tournament. I really wanted to win this tournament so I could take another vacation.”


But first he would have to get by Johnson, a talented player in his own right and good friend of Martinez Vich. After dropping the opener 11-6, Johnson steadied his game and took the next two, 11-7 and 11-5, and the title. “I kept going for my drives for the most part and mixing up the shots a little bit, with a couple more drops and tried to get into the kitchen more,” said Johnson.


It worked, and for the first time since 2016, someone other than McGuffin or with the last name of Johns took home the national championship. Earlier in the event, Ben Johns lost in straight games to the 16th seeded Chris Haworth, sending shock waves throughout the Dallas suburb.


What Anna Leigh Waters is doing on a pickleball court is unprecedented and it’s almost unimaginable that a 16-year-old is dominating a sport such as she is. Already having captured 19 career Triple Crowns, Waters began her quest to unlock the tie with Ben Johns in that category and easily won the mixed doubles crown with Johns by beating her practice partners back in Florida, Anna Bright and James Ignatowich, who were the #2 seeds, 11-6, 11-5 and 11-3. For the top-seeded Johns-Waters pairing, the win marked their 14th gold medal of the year. “There are some pros and cons about playing Anna and James and it’s pretty weird, but I’m glad to see that they made it to the finals this year,” said Waters.


Waters’ brilliance on the court is never lost on her partner. “She’s incredible, definitely a phenomenal player,” said Johns. “I’m just happy to be on the court with her and play with her and help her to win another Triple Crown.” The duo did not lose a single game the entire week at Nationals.


And, as with everyone else who’s been associated with the sport of pickleball over the past few years, Johns reflected on the undeniable growth of the game: “From 2016 when I started playing Nationals to now, it’s worlds apart. I can’t wait to see where the sport continues to go.”


Where he went was to accept another men’s doubles crown with brother Collin. They claimed their second consecutive Nationals title by defeating JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier, 11-6, 12-10 and 11-7. For the Johns brothers it was career title #26. “It [had] been an adverse week, mentally recovering, resetting and having the confidence to come back,” said Ben.


On the women’s side in doubles, the dynamic duo of Catherine Parenteau and who else but Waters breezed to their ninth gold medal this season, disposing of the Brascia sisters, Maggie and Mary, 11-7, 11-0, 11-4. “A lot of time, I’ll just move the ball around until she puts it away,” said Parenteau, ranked #3 in the world in doubles. “Or oftentimes, I’ll start speeding it up at first and then she’ll clean it up.” Both are cleaning it up in doubles, having never lost a match in their time together on a pickleball court.


Then it was their time to stare at each other across the net, as Waters’ attempt to break the deadlock with Johns at 19 career Triple Crowns would be decided. Women’s singles would cap off an unforgettable week of pickleball in Dallas. Parenteau had a tougher time reaching the finals, trailing in both games to the talented Megan Fudge in the semifinals, before prevailing 11-8, 12-10.


Waters broke out early, capturing the first game 11-6, but then Parenteau went up early in the second game and led 7-1 at one point. Waters battled back, tying it up, but eventually ended up on the short end, 11-7. Once again in the deciding third game for the title, Parenteau led an early charge, opening up a 7-2 advantage, before Waters gathered herself. “I know Catherine is a great player, but I also know that I can come back when I’m down,” she said. “I was just remembering that and all the times I had come back before.” Waters faced four championship points off the paddle of Parenteau, but eventually closed it out, electrifying the crowd with a 12-10 victory, earning a record 20th career Triple Crown.


Off the courts, fun and festivities were a hot topic as well, with more and more celebrities inside the sports and entertainment fields being drawn to pickleball. The nationally televised Deep Eddy Vodka Celebrity Pickleball Showdown on Tuesday night of Nationals week cast a spotlight on the likes of former Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, current Mavs head coach Jason Kidd, Masters champion and world #1 golfer Scottie Sheffler, former tennis star John Isner and former Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco. Pros who joined in on the action included Ben Johns, Anna Leigh Waters, Julian Arnold, Lauren Stratman, Jay Devilliers, Allyce Jones and Catherine Parenteau.


You often hear of pickleballers not wanting to get off their respective courts, playing for as long as they can. Well that came into play when a new Guinness World Record for a continuous pickleball match was established, with 288 participants playing in 10-minute intervals hitting the ball back and forth over a 12-hour period—breaking the old mark of 250 players. “People were asking every time they walked by me, ‘Can I jump in? How do I sign up?’ If we had more time, I bet we could’ve played for a whole 24 hours with the number of people who wanted to jump in for this event,” said Brook Thygerson, PPA Tour event planner. Two of the players who did jump in were Ben Johns and Anna Leigh Waters, among some of the other touring pros.


All in all, it was a week for the ages in the sport of pickleball and for the game’s National Championships.


From Anna Leigh Waters’ record-setting performance, to a breakout star in Jaume Martinez Vich, to another dominating win for the Johns brothers, the Biofreeze USA Pickleball National Championships powered by Invited and the PPA Tour is one that will not soon be forgotten. The only real question that remains: How can pickleball top this event next year? The way the sport has been growing, it won’t be a problem.  •



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.


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