- The top female pickleball player said she used to think the sport was "for old people."
- Anna Leigh Waters and mom, Leigh, are doubles partners dominating the competition.
- She hopes that pickleball will be represented in the Olympics ones day.
This teen pickleball pro is going to need a bigger trophy room.
Indeed, the darling of the ever-expanding pickleball universe is a 15-year-old from Florida who inadvertently picked up the sport at age 10.
And as Anna Leigh Waters, the youngest pickleball champ in the country and current No. 1 women's singles player in the world, tells Insider, she's just getting warmed up. The teen spoke from her home in Delray Beach after a winning a stunning Professional Pickleball Association Tour title in Women's doubles in Austin, earning herself some more shiny hardware to add to her put-upon mantle.
But it's not always easy explaining to people what you do, especially in a sport whose name few people recognized until recently. And it's even harder defending it from a bad rap, which includes the perception that it's a benign pastime for the septuagenarian set when they get bored of mah-jongg.
"I can see how people think it's an old person's sport," said the spunky Waters, who's known for her signature long blond braid, reminiscent of a young Anna Kournikova from that other sport. "Before I started playing, I thought the same thing. Then my mind was blown."
As a 10-year-old in the fall of 2017, she and her mom fled Hurricane Irma bearing down on south Florida for her granddad's place in Pennsylvania. When the avid pickleballer invited his nonplussed granddaughter to get her feet wet, she grudgingly humored him. "He asked us if we wanted to play pickleball, and I was like, 'No, not really,'" she recalled. But it all changed once she picked up her first paddle: "I was immediately hooked and wanted to play every single day."
She's in good company. The pickleball craze has swept a rapt country, courting a ragtag group of celebs, including "Friends" star Matthew Perry, "Vanderpump Rules" stars Lala Kent and Randall Emmett, cranky comedian Larry David and Leonardo DiCaprio, all of whom reportedly play. There's even a forthcoming celebrity pickleball CBS special called "Pickled," set to air later this year. A new glossy magazine, dubbed the InStyle of pickleball – and appropriately named "InPickleball" – debuted last year. (Waters and her women's doubles partner — and mother — Leigh, graced the cover.)
It's culminated in a league of some 4.8 million players, according to The USA Pickleball Association, and has grown exponentially since its modest 1965 beginnings on Bainbridge Island, Washington. In the last two years alone, its popularity has grown by 39.3 percent. "It's exploded," said Waters, noting that she used to have to explain the sport to her seatmates on flights to tournaments a couple of years ago. Now, she's recognized by fans on the street.
For the uninitiated, pickleball is an electrifying hybrid of tennis, ping pong, and badminton. The court, which looks just like a tennis court, but covers about a quarter the size, is played with paddles and plastic wiffle balls. It's fast-paced, and shots are so quick it can give you whiplash. Rallies are exhilarating but long – a single point can have 60 strokes — but it's all part of the deceptive athleticism at the heart of the sport.
After playing locally every day and cultivating her game, Waters turned pro at 12 and won the Nationals the same year in women's doubles with her mom, Leigh, 42, a former competitive college tennis player. The pair are considered to have revolutionized the sport, adding a thrilling dose of hard-hitting power to the otherwise finesse-driven sport.
"We played differently from everybody else," Waters said looking back to those early days, when the duo brought their brash tennis skills and style to the pickleball court. "A lot of people do credit us with changing the game to a more aggressive style.... We out there ripping the ball as hard as we could. They call us bangers." She wears it as a badge of honor. "Bangers are cooler than dinkers, I'm just sayin'," she joked, noting the style of play that hews to a softer, slower game.
The constant travel around the country for tournaments multiple times a month works well with her homeschooling schedule, which she's had since she was 8. And Waters is fresh off her first triple crown win — nabbing women's doubles, singles, and mixed doubles wins in the same tournament — in Port St. Lucie in March. "That's my biggest accomplishment yet," said Waters, who's earning street cred as well as serious bank. Every tournament's purse varies, but Waters said that the $6,000 to $10,000 prize money — split if it's doubles — leaves babysitting money in the dust. There's also matched moolah from sponsors and bonuses. "And recently the tournaments have been giving appearance fees for players," she said. With their prize money, the mom and daughter splurged on a gold Chanel necklace that they share.
There are of course other advantages to the pro circuit — like playing with football phenom Larry Fitzgerald Jr. and Michael Phelps in a celebrity charity game this past winter. Not a terrible pickle to be in for Waters, who said that playing with the Olympic swim champ was thrilling, especially watching him warm up with his signature grandiose arm swings — even if the results were lackluster. "He should stick to swimming," she said tactfully, noting that another GOAT, Tom Brady, is also reportedly into the sport. Her dream matchup is the Waters women versus Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
Waters is modest about her meteoric rise, but chalks it up to luck — and genetics, coming from her tennis-playing mom and golfer dad. "It's just some talent that I have that I honestly think is in the genes," she said demurely of her improbable and unstoppable ascension. "I went from being a 3.0 player at age 11 to winning the [women's doubles] national championships at 12," she said of her 2019 historic victory, which the team repeated in 2021 after a year break during the pandemic. "It was so unbelievable — it's super cool to win." Her most lethal shot is her backhand roll from the "kitchen line" — a quick, surprising power shot with topspin at the kitchen line, hit just at the right time to either win the point or set up a put away shot.
But the drive is all self-derived, Waters said, revealing a story about the nature of her unquenchable competitive spirit. Her family gently teased her about cheating at the board game, Candy Land, when she was a kid. "I've always been super competitive," she said. "I don't like to lose, which I think is a good and bad thing."
Not bad at all, considering that this year alone she scored four out of the five wins in mixed-doubles events, two of five wins in women's doubles events, and won all five singles events, maintaining her No. 1 world ranking.
And it's in her women's doubles play with her "best friend" and mom that makes the game particularly meaningful. "We're really good about not letting results get in the way of our relationship," she said of the duo, 28 years apart, but who look more like twins in their matching electric neon outfits on court. "We say we have this intuition on the court," a shorthand about what shot the other is going to make that doesn't happen with a random partner. "When we're on the court, we're equals," she said.
For Leigh, a former lawyer who left the court of law for the pickleball court three years ago, this newfound fame has been surreal. She and Anna Leigh are even jeered on court."We've had to deal with fans trying to heckle you and get in your head. It happens a lot. You get a couple of fans of your opponent, and they can get pretty ugly," Leigh said, some of whom are given warnings.
The mom said that her daughter's tender age is no longer an issue, but it's a long way from being an arriviste on the circuit a few years ago, when the competition wanted her out of the way. "Opponents would try to get her removed from events because of her age," the mother said. The argument? "It's not fair a kid is beating an adult, it's not fair to the adult."
As for Anna Leigh, she has no plans to slow down and wants to expand the sport to a younger generation and dreams about playing pickleball under five famous rings. "The Olympics would be super cool. It would be amazing to represent my country," she said.
But for now, she'll settle for the energy her fans feed her during matches, when hundreds and even thousands of passionate spectators show up. "I love when crowds are into the match and when the stands are packed and they're rowdy. I love when they cheer for me," said the teen queen of the sport, taking all her historic success in stride. "It's super cool to finish a point or match and see the crowd erupt — it makes me play better."