How 15-year-old pickleballer Anna Leigh Waters is shaking up the sport

She performs doubles together with her mother, is backed by means of Fila and says faculty can wait: Pickleball’s Anna Leigh Waters is the face of an exploding sport.

Anna Leigh Waters returns the ball during the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Baird Wealth Management Open in September.
Anna Leigh Waters returns the ball all the way through the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Baird Wealth Management Open in September. (Arden S. Barnes/For The Washington Post)


Anna Leigh Waters is 15 years previous, which is virtually a footnote taking into account all the sudden turns and alternatives of the previous 12 months. Not way back, she used to be a promising football participant together with her attractions set on faculty, most likely even the execs. That seems like a very long time in the past now.

Now she is one among the greatest stars in skilled pickleball, her skyrocketing possibilities aligning completely with the explosion of the sport.

Nearly each and every week, she’s posting wins in singles, doubles and blended doubles, the “triple crown” at Professional Pickleball Association tournaments. She’s locked into primary endorsements with larger offers most likely on the horizon and has performed with the swimmer Michael Phelps, actor Jamie Foxx, boxing nice Sugar Ray Leonard and golfers Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth.

“The timing has been just absolutely perfect,” stated her mom and doubles spouse, Leigh Waters. “Between her age and the way her game is developing and the way the sport is developing, it’s all like coming together.”

Pickleball is exploding, and it’s getting messy

In lodge lobbies, eating places and airports, pickleball obsessives are taking realize of the charismatic youngster with the bobbing blonde ponytail who’s poised to sit down on the pickleball throne for future years. A flight attendant on a up to date flight to California begged for a selfie. A girl in Las Vegas chased her down the Strip with a digicam in hand. At tournaments, fanatics push their small children in Anna Leigh’s fingers for a fast {photograph}.

“The first time I was like, I’ve never even held a baby before,” she stated with amusing.

Anna Leigh enters this week’s n2Grate DC Open, in College Park, Md., having received 11 of the previous 12 occasions she’s performed, together with triple crown wins in 3 of the previous 4 tournaments.

Though only a highschool junior, she’s taken a professionalized method to a sport that has graduated from a weekend and after-work passion to a booming trade. In contemporary weeks, Tom Brady and LeBron James have signed on as buyers with one among PPA’s competitors, Major League Pickleball, and primary firms are angling to get in the area. Anna Leigh unearths herself at the vanguard of this impulsively increasing universe.

“She’s in a unique place right now in terms of her dominance,” stated her agent Kelly Wolf, who’s spent years running with tennis gamers. “If you’re a brand and you’re trying to reach a certain demographic or you want to put a foot in pickleball, she’s just a fantastic ambassador. It’s her age, her personality, her ability to communicate with people, her love for the sport.”

Even for a sport that is simplest just lately bursting into the mainstream, Anna Leigh’s upward push has been meteoric. Five years in the past, she used to be gifted with a tennis racket however had by no means held a pickleball paddle. As Hurricane Irma began ripping via the Caribbean, her circle of relatives evacuated from their domestic in Delray Beach, Fla., to Allentown, Pa., the place they stayed with Leigh’s folks.

LeBron James is purchasing into the pickleball explosion

Neil Eichelberger steered his daughter and granddaughter, 10 at the time, to seek advice from the group pickleball courts with him to assist go the time.

“And we were like, no,” Anna Leigh recalled with amusing. “It didn’t even seem like a sport to us in the beginning.”

They in the end did hit the pickleball court docket and had been temporarily hooked. For two weeks in Allentown, they performed two or 3 times an afternoon. When they returned to Florida, they visited the native pickleball membership and started to take the sport critically. Leigh entered a match later that 12 months in Dallas and, when her doubles spouse pulled out, Anna Leigh, 11 at the time, took the spot. They completed 2nd.

“That was when we kind of decided like, okay, this can work; we can do this. She’s not too young; she’s ready,” Leigh stated.

They temporarily made waves on the budding professional circuit. The sport, lengthy common in retirement communities and interesting to a variety of skill ranges, used to be a finesse recreation even at the professional degree, with in moderation positioned photographs and cushy dinks over the internet. The Waters duo charged in with their tennis background, muscling groundstrokes throughout the internet and injecting energy and velocity into virtually each and every shot.

“When we first started, everyone would either make fun of us or tell us we were playing the game incorrectly,” Anna Leigh stated.

“We had top pros, top coaches tell us, ‘You’ll never win playing that way,’ ” her mom added. “We just didn’t listen because it just didn’t feel right to us.”

The pandemic sidelined the circle of relatives for the 2020 season, as the Waters extended family have shyed away from shuttle and skipped a number of tournaments. When they returned to the excursion in 2021, they discovered that the recreation had developed, and the vast majority of the best gamers had tailored their energy manner.

Meanwhile, Anna Leigh had persevered together with her budding football profession, splitting her time between her football membership and pickleball coaching. She used to be already listening to from faculty coaches and had an be offering to coach in Germany.

But a couple of 12 months in the past, the Waters circle of relatives started to get a way of what a pickleball long term may seem like. Potential sponsors saved calling. Prize cash used to be expanding. Television networks had been expressing passion in the sport.

Leigh used to be a training legal professional and determined to press pause on her criminal profession to concentrate on the sport — each managing and enjoying along her daughter. And in January, together with her pickleball credentials neatly established, Anna Leigh give up football, which had change into too taxing on her frame but additionally her time.

“I think it was just the timing of it all,” Leigh stated. “And really the opportunities are just insane right now for her in the sport.”

She has a multiyear endorsement contract with Fila, the sports activities attire corporate. Anna Leigh competes solely in Fila tools, and the corporate, which first presented a pickleball-specific shoe in 2019, turns to her for assist in each product design and trying out.

“I love that Anna Leigh is the face of the sport because it shows how much the sport is really accessible to all,” stated Lauren Mallon, Fila’s senior director of promoting and strategic partnerships. “I love the energy that she brings to the court. She has a great passion. She is dynamic to watch. I love her enthusiasm. She’s always so positive.”

Anna Leigh additionally has offers with a water corporate, a paddle producer and a jewellery trade. She is a six-figure annual earner at this time however may well be on the cusp of a lot more. Her agent says she’s being strategic, however the younger participant is poised to tackle extra sponsors and may well be dressed in corporate emblems on her enjoying outfit subsequent season.

“We’ll be on the phone with these companies and they’re like, I can’t believe a 15-year-old is on this call,” Leigh stated. “It’s just not something that a kid is normally involved in. And the size of the contracts for a 15-year-old are kind of mind-blowing.”

Perspective: Pickleball raises our social capital. That’s what America wishes.

The circle of relatives’s manner is very a lot borrowed from the tennis global. Anna Leigh travels to important occasions with a private instructor, who is helping her heat up prior to fits and funky down after. Her mother serves as her doubles spouse, trainer and trade supervisor. Anna Leigh additionally ceaselessly meets again domestic with a psychological trainer, who has helped her navigate the pressures that include being a phenom.

“When I first started playing, it was just like I had nothing to lose and I was trying to be the one to take down the No. 1 players and stuff. So it was kind of easier in the start,” she stated. “…What I like to tell myself when I’m on the court is that there’s a reason that I’m ranked No. 1. I don’t think, ‘Oh, I have so much to lose’ — but I can think, ‘I have so much to gain, I get to show you why I’m No. 1.’ ”

For Anna Leigh, there’s much less force in doubles, which is pickleball’s extra prized match. In blended doubles, she performs along Ben Johns, the Maryland local who at 23 is already the PPA’s all-time winningest participant. And in doubles, she’s with Leigh, 43, which pairs the excursion’s youngest professional participant with its oldest.

They credit score familial instinct for far in their on-court luck, the place accept as true with is inherent and verbal exchange tacit.

“We’re just able to be, like, one shot ahead of everybody because we know what the other person’s going to do,” stated Leigh. “And there’s not many other teams that have that.”

The circle of relatives needs to be considerate to ensure Anna Leigh is up to the rigors of a full-time agenda that may most likely see her on the highway for twenty-four weeks subsequent 12 months. She is home-schooled by means of her grandmother, Ann Eichelberger, a retired schoolteacher and is already a 12 months forward, heading in the right direction to graduate subsequent 12 months, her circle of relatives says. After highschool, she’ll most likely stick to pickleball and pursue faculty on the facet or down the highway.

“I feel like college is always going to be there,” Anna Leigh stated.

Her folks rigidity that Anna Leigh can reduce if she wishes, however the younger phenom isn’t stressed out that manner. None of this used to be anticipated, however the entire circle of relatives is seizing the alternatives that stay bobbing up.

“If I didn’t love it, then it might be an issue. But I feel like right now it just all works out,” Anna Leigh stated. “I’ve always loved, like, training and playing the sport in general, so, like, it doesn’t really feel like work. It just kind of feels like fun.”

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