Pickleball may be the craze of the senior set, irreplaceably hip among so many replaceable hips. There are entire residential communities based around a shared love of pickleball, the—all together now—fastest growing sport in the United States.
But, if you need sound evidence that—twack—pickleball cuts a wide demographic swatch—twack—consider the fate of the world’s best female player. She turned in an MVP season in 2022, winning eight triple crowns—the singles, doubles and mixed doubles events at a tournament. She became a celebrity who’s gotten to slug and dink a wiffleball alongside the likes of Michael Phelps and Jamie Foxx.
Sadly, though, her 2023 campaign got off to a bit of a slow start because of a physical malady seldom seen on disabled lists and on inquiry reports. This spring, Anna Leigh Waters had her wisdom teeth extracted. “They all had to be surgically removed and it was just, it was the most painful thing ever,” she says. “I couldn’t close my mouth for like a day. It hurt so bad.”
Now, happily, she has returned to form. This past weekend she bagged another triple crown at the Professional Pickleball Association’s (PPA) Texas Open and will try to repeat the feat this week at the Orange County Cup in Southern California. She recounted her adolescent dental agony from the Charlotte Airport, where she found herself one morning earlier this season, on the road for the North Carolina Open, one of the 30 or so events she’ll play this year.
Technically, Waters, 16, should be a junior in high school. But after years of homeschooling by her grandmother, she’s now taking mostly online coursework. Then again, who needs proms and hallpasses and pep rallies when you’re not just a professional sports star but a blazer of trails?
The word “unprecedented” tends to get batted around a lot in sports talk, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. But in the case of pickleball, there literally is no before. A few years ago, if the sport were played at all, it was likely in backyards and in rec centers imbued with all the serious treatment befitting something named for a brined cucumber. Yet, a few years later—critically, one of those years coming during COVID-19, when we needed simple, socially distanced pastimes—pickleball is ubiquitous. And the money has followed. Tours. Sponsorships. Television coverage. Celebrity adjacency.
But all the sloshing commerce still doesn’t solve the problem of history. Who is a young player to emulate when there is no equivalent of Serena Williams or LeBron James to look up to? How do you know when and whether to drill or practice or scrimmage? How much to work on strength versus cardio? “Everybody’s just kind of figuring it out as we go, honestly,” says Waters.
And that, of course, makes being an ascending star all the more exhilarating.
The unlikely Anna Leigh Waters origin story is already the stuff of pickleball lore, inasmuch as such a thing can exist in a sport this young. The daughter of a former University of South Carolina tennis player (mom, Leigh) and former Gamecocks golfer (dad, Stephen) and maternal granddaughter of a former Cubs draft pick (grandpa, Neil Eichelberger), Anna Leigh was born with jock genes.
But they took a while to express themselves. “I just was not good at sports at all,” she says, laughing. “And people would go up to my parents and be like, Are you sure this is your daughter? She should be really good at sports. But I just wasn’t.”
Then, around 12, it was as if she got the owner’s manual for her body. She began playing tennis and working her way up the ranks. And around the same time, she took to soccer. So much so that she and her parents moved from the Carolinas to South Florida, largely to nourish her passion. By age 12, Anna Leigh was invited to international competitions and was making her way onto the radar of college coaches.
In 2017, Hurricane Irma rolled through the Caribbean, and, before the storm could make land, the Waters family left Florida and headed to Allentown, Penn., where Leigh’s parents lived. Eichelberger invited his daughter and granddaughter to try out this newfangled sport he’d discovered, a marriage of tennis and badminton, played with paddle and wiffleball on a surface half the size of a tennis court, and a lower net.
The evacuees were skeptical. As tennis players, mother and daughter both viewed pickleball perhaps the same way an architect would view a dog house. But they tried it. They grasped it. They liked it. They were hooked. Anna Leigh discovered that her tennis strokes translated well, including her two-handed backhand. Her footwork, sourced from soccer, helped her reach the ball with small, efficient steps. Her reflexes were astounding. And, damn, pickleball was fun.
Soon, she began entering tournaments. Which meant winning tournaments. She was 12 when she won her first national title, women’s division. Leigh entered as well, as Anna Leigh’s doubles partner. Though mother and daughter both were warned that their power games from tennis would fail against the nuance required for pickleball, that was not the case. (Again, no precedent.) Soon, they became the Bryan Brothers of pickleball, a family act in doubles with a sixth sense for what the other was doing.
Even during COVID-19, Anna Leigh improved dramatically. So much so that Leigh quit her law practice to become her daughter’s business manager, travel companion and doubles partner. By 2014, Anna Leigh held the No.1 women’s ranking. For all of her titles, she says her crowning moment may have come when she and her mom won the nationals together in women’s doubles. “That,” says Anna Leigh, “was back in 2019.”
Anna Leigh’s rise traces the arc of the sport. Suddenly, it felt like, marketers began paying attention to the growing, easy-to-pick-up sport with an affluent demographic. One year, top players entered events where the winner might get $500; within a year, the purse could be 10 times that. One year, “pickleball endorsement” meant a comp paddle; now, as Anna Leigh waits to pass her driving test, she uses her learner’s permit to pilot a Range Rover, thanks to her deal with Carvana. Other sponsors include Dynasty Financial Services and a shoelace alternative (who knew?), Lock Laces.
She is clad head to toe in attire provided by Fila, another sponsor. As personable as she is talented, she is represented by Octagon, the same management agency that counts Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo among its clients. Increasingly, she walks through airports and gets asked for selfies and even to pose with a baby. Waters’s camp believes that between the pickleball prize money that comes with winning the biggest events and off-court income, she could make seven figures this year.
Poised and precocious as Waters is, her sport can resemble that rambunctious, rebellious, identity-seeking teenager grappling with its growth spurt. As Sports Illustrated detailed last year, the pitched battles on pickleball courts pale in comparison to the vicious territorial disputes. If you’re in the market for a headache, ask someone to try to explain the various alphabet soup organizations, agencies and governing bodies all trying to seize market share and take a paddle to the backsides of their competitors. There’s the AAP Tour and the PPA Tour, not to be confused with the IFP. There are already, hilariously, multiple pickleball Halls of Fame.
As for Waters, as the No. 1 draft pick, she currently plays for the New Jersey 5’s in the IPL, the league in which Tom Brady and LeBron James own franchises. She also plays in the PPA, which runs the constellation of the most significant individual events.
If the sport is still sorting itself out and settling on both business models and governance models, it’s also still establishing a culture. What’s cool. What’s not cool. What are the unwritten rules. What’s gamesmanship and what’s cheating. This is not lost on the sport’s youngest star.
“It's really funny because every weekend that you’re playing a pickleball tournament, you’re playing against the same players, so you really get to know them and their personal life, which may or may not be a good thing, honestly, I don’t know,” she says. “A lot of drama is going around. I didn’t go to high school, so this is, like, the drama I would’ve gotten from high school. There’s a ton of women’s drama and a ton of men’s drama. It’s kinda like all intertwined.”
With no previous generation of pickleball stars to provide counsel or examples, Waters tries to emulate athletes from other sports. She says she has no regrets about dropping tennis—she likes pickleball better, anyway—but still looks to Roger Federer as a role model. “I always wanted to be like him and be number one in the world in tennis,” she says. “Now I’m trying to do the same thing, just in pickleball.”
In service of that, she lives the life of … well, a committed full-time professional athlete. Based in Florida, she has a trainer, Brandon Oakes, who has devised a personalized plan, stressing endurance and reflexes. Also, over phone and FaceTime, she works with a mental coach, Jack Llewellyn, whose past clients have included the Atlanta Braves. In addition to her mom and often Oakes, Waters is joined on the road by her grandparents. “I always have a big entourage with me,” she says.
The notion that a professional pickleball player would not only exist, but would roll deep? It would have been a joke a few years ago. But here we are. And it has rerouted Waters’s path. “Growing up I always wanted to play college soccer. It was my dream to do college or go pro with soccer. And then when pickleball came around, it kinda threw me for a loop.”
The plan now? “As long as pickleball keeps doing what it’s doing, and as long as I’m kind of on the top of the game, college is something I would do after. I don’t know if I’d ever actually do this, but after I retire from pickleball, I’d like to go back and maybe play college soccer. Maybe there will be college pickleball by then. But I wouldn’t be [eligible] because, you know, I’ve done pretty well already as a pro.”