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Wow, that first US Open – 2016 – let me tell you, the excitement for this upcoming new tournament was out of this world! For starters, what a great name for a tournament – prestige to the max. Yes, we had Nationals which held, and still holds, huge prestige. And then John Gullo’s Tournament of Champions came along in 2013 – again, wow, now there’s a name with prestige, plus it offered some real prize money. But Terri Graham and Chris Evon smartly snagged “US Open” and created a massive party to go along with a prestige tournament at an out-of-this world venue in Naples, FL.
Not to say all was well that first year … can’t have a tournament without some drama, you know! Two big, big (did I say big?) things that were going on was (1) the news that a new ball was being used, and (2) the not-real double elimination format would be used. Fortunately, one of those things was resolved. Unfortunately, the other has stuck around and grown to become the norm for a professional tour.
Here’s the story on the ball – a big sporting company had come out with a pickleball and Chris and Terri had/have a good working relationship with that company as they were former athletes and employees. Quite natural for them to accept the ball as the sponsor and plan to use it for their tournament. The problem was that, like that company’s paddle that had come out a few years earlier, the pickleball was – well – crap. No one liked it. NO ONE. But it was the tournament ball, gotta suck it up, right? Turns out that’s not correct, thanks to one Aspen Kern. (You may recognize Aspen’s name from the Pickleball Forum on Facebook – he started that group.)
Kern stood up publicly and said that the ball was horrible and he wouldn’t play US Open if that was the ball being used. This was a big deal as Aspen was a pretty top player at the time. And it started a movement amongst other top players who all agreed that the ball was bad and they didn’t want to play with it, and also wouldn’t play the tournament if that were to be the ball. Well, about a month before US Open was set to start, Terri and Chris did the right thing and changed the tournament ball to be the Dura-Fast 40. Fortunately, David McCallum of Pickle-Ball, Inc. (the Dura’s creator) was able to come through with barely a month’s notice to get the 2,000 or so needed balls to Naples, FL in time. Disaster averted as the tournament went on as planned!
But – as mentioned before – the plan also included the dreaded change in format. The one where if you lose once the best you can do is win the bronze medal. This still leaves a distaste in players’ mouths, and yet it has become the norm on the professional pickleball tour. And it’s one reason you tend to see withdrawals in the losers’ bracket – there’s no chance of fighting back to gold. It’s just not double elimination if you have two teams (or players in singles) who have only lost once yet one gets silver and the other gets bronze.
Anyway, now you know some backstory to the first US Open. Despite some of the early drama, the US Open truly is a fantastic tournament with a fun party at a cool venue in a beautiful place. What’s not to like?!? Put it on your pickleball bucket list if you have one, just don’t expect perfection – it is a pickleball tournament after all!
BTW – the 2023 Minto US Open Championships starts April 16 and runs the whole week, with viewing during the week on Pickleballchannel.com and on Saturday evening on CBS Sports. Plus, catch some of my pro interviews and US Open highlights on social media during the last half of the week!
Team Vulcan Pro Alex Hamner was inducted into the Pickleball Hall of Fame in 2020, noted for her 21 gold medals from USAPA Nationals, the US Open Pickleball Championships, and Tournament of Champions. She and her partner, Jennifer Lucore, have earned more gold medals than any other women in pickleball.