By: Shad Powers Palm Springs Desert Sun
Anna Leigh Waters has established herself as one of the top female pickleball players in the world.
She is currently ranked No. 3 in singles and No. 4 in doubles and has sponsors and prize money rolling in.
The fact that she’s only 14 hardly comes up anymore.
“I don’t think they think of me as 14 anymore,” Waters said as she prepared to begin play at the season-ending Pro Pickleball Association Masters event in La Quinta on Thursday. “When I first played pro as a 12-year-old, I think people were like ‘Wow, she’s pretty young,’ but now I think they think of me as just another player like them. They don’t care how old I am, they just really want to beat me.”
Pickleball’s young gun has won three singles tournaments in 2021. In the world of pickleball, she’s already a household name.
“It’s pretty amazing and a little weird to go places and get recognized on the street or something,” said Waters, who lives in Delray Beach, Fla. “But I really enjoy getting to travel around the country and play a pro sport where my family can travel with me. I’m making memories and having experiences that I would never have without pickleball, and it’s just a really exciting time for me right now.”
Her origin story
It was Irma who got Waters into pickleball in the first place. Irma is not a coach or a relative, it’s a hurricane.
In 2017 when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, she and her family had to evacuate and went to Pennsylvania to stay with her grandfather for a couple of weeks.
He played pickleball and asked Anna Leigh and her mother, Leigh, if they wanted to give it a try.
“He asked us ‘Do you want to go play pickleball?’ and my mom and I looked at each other and said ‘No, not really. We don’t want to play pickleball,'” she said with a laugh. “But, of course, we tried it and fell in love with it right away, and we played non-stop those two weeks. Then we went back home to Florida and started playing in tournaments … and now here we are at the La Quinta Resort in a professional tournament.”
When she turned pro in 2019 at age 12, she became the youngest player ever on the pro tour. She won a tournament that year, which naturally made her the youngest winner ever on tour.
Waters is homeschooled, which she has been since the third grade, long before she picked up a pickleball racket, so she’s continued with that throughout her career. She likes to work ahead and get everything done before a tournament so she doesn’t have to think about school during a tournament.
In what amounts to just two seasons as a pro — she didn’t play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — she’s won four singles titles and has made $41,875 in career earnings.
Why pickleball and not tennis?
Most top pickleball players started as tennis players and Waters is no exception. She started playing in youth tournaments at the age of eight. She had a lot of success, but not a lot of fun.
To be honest, she hated it.
“Pickleball is just so much more fun, that’s basically all there is to it,” Waters said. “Junior tennis tournaments are kind of terrible. After I would win a match or something, there were times I’d get threatened by other parents, and it just wasn’t fun for me. Then, when I found pickleball, I was enjoying tournaments at a recreational level, and I just kept moving up in the divisions. And now here I am at the pro level, and it’s still really fun.”
Waters still played an occasional tennis tournament even up until the pandemic hit in 2020, but since then, she’s moved entirely to pickleball.
Playing with mom
Another reason her journey has been fun-filled is that she and her mother have been playing doubles together. Not just playing together but winning together.
Her mother Leigh said it’s basically been any parent’s dream come true.
“We just have way too much fun together, I love it,” she said Thursday while watching Anna Leigh play singles (their doubles competition begins Saturday.) “We have such team camaraderie as well as mother-daughter camaraderie out there. I think that gives us the advantage, that mother-daughter intuition. It’s a blast. Who wouldn’t want to play a professional sport with their kid and actually make money doing it? It’s like a win-win-win situation. It’s unreal. It’s changed our lives.”
Aside from the intuitive edge, Team Waters plays with a power and an aggression not often seen in women’s pickleball.
They began playing together in 2019 at the Texas Open when Anna Leigh filled in as her mom’s partner. And in that event, the first time they played together officially, they took second place.
Still new to the sport, they fell back on their tennis instincts of just plain hitting the ball hard whenever possible. The women’s game was more about finesse, and the truth is some people didn’t love seeing that style of play being introduced, but now it’s become all the rage.
“A lot of people attribute us for having at least something to do with changing the game, especially the women’s game,” Leigh said. “Because it was all about finesse and dinking, and we were just going with pure power and aggression.”
Anna Leigh said it was noticeable when they returned after the COVID-19 break.
“When we first started playing pickleball, we played it like tennis, we never totally changed our game,” Anna Leigh said. “We’re known as ‘Bangers.’ Some people sort of resent us or that style, but now it seems like recently pickleball has changed and it’s become way faster and it seems like everybody is starting to play like that. When we got back from COVID-19, it was like a totally different sport almost, and everybody was starting to do what we were doing.”
Anna Leigh won her opening match on Thursday, defeating Kaitlyn Christian 11-4, 11-1 as she began to move through the women’s bracket. She then rallied in the second set to beat Callie Smith 11-8, 12-10 in the semifinals. She will play for the women’s singles championship on Sunday against Lea Jansen who knocked off World No. 1 Catherine Parenteau 9-11, 11-6, 11-6.
She will play mixed doubles on Friday with one of the most recognizable players on the men’s side, Tyson McGuffin. Then on Saturday, it will be women’s doubles with her mom. And then Sunday will be the championship matches. She will definitely be in the women’s singles final, she hopes to be involved in all three.
“It felt good to get out there because the last tournament I played, I lost in the finals and didn’t have the energy I usually bring to the court,” she said from a shady spot after Thursday’s opening-round win, avoiding the 90-plus degree temperatures. “So today my goal was to not just win, but to play to my strengths, you know, have a lot of energy, hit my shots and everything. And I did that.”
Of course, Waters wants to win every time she steps out on the court, but she feels like at this stage in her life it’s really just about getting better and more comfortable in big events like this. Wins or losses will come, but each event makes her better. That’s her philosophy.
And she feels like the sport in general is on the rise, and showing no signs of slowing down. That’s exciting to her.
“Right now in the last year the sport has grown so much and I think it’s going to keep growing and bigger sponsors are going to get involved and it’s just going to become a bigger sport in general,” she said. “Like it will be just like other pro sports that people are watching on TV and things like that.”
Whatever happens in the future, the Waters family is just enjoying the present. How could you not?
“There’s not many sports where at this age she could be a professional athlete,” Leigh said. “But she’s so composed on the court, and she’s a good sport out there but also a fierce competitor. I couldn’t be more proud. And with each tournament she’s getting better and better. It’s definitely a fun ride.”
Shad Powers is a sports columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at email@example.com.