For pickleball’s first superstar, strategy outweighs athleticism (2024)

The best pickleball player in the world considers himself equal parts jock and nerd.

His favorite hobby is “Magic: The Gathering,” a fantasy role-playing game with sorcery and strategy.

Discussing the subtleties of pickleball, he will casually reference how a paddle’s “coefficient of friction” yields spin on a ball.

And as for his on-court tactics, he turns to poker: “If I and my opponents both operate game-theory optimal, just based on skill, I should win, typically,” he says, citing a Texas hold ’em playing style and making clear that, in pickleball, he almost always has the best hand.

Ben Johns has conquered Chapter 1 of the professional game — emerging as its first superstar, establishing himself as its most influential pitchman, co-owning two companies and becoming a multimillionaire along the way. He has done so largely with his cerebrum.

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During an hour-long conversation about his career, as Johns drives from his home in Austin to an event in Houston in April, he isn’t particularly interested in measuring his legacy — despite what he just accomplished. Three days earlier in Cary, N.C., he completed a Triple Crown, winning championships in singles, doubles and mixed doubles over a single weekend, the peak of pro pickleball performance. It was his 21st career Triple Crown; the universe of men’s players aside from him has done it a combined once.

This week, the 25-year-old who grew up in Montgomery County is in D.C. to play an event for Major League Pickleball, a separate team-based league for which Johns was the No. 1 pick.

People consider him the undisputed GOAT, even if the “all time” part of that acronym covers a limited life span in this sport. As pickleball grows, though, it is becoming too big to monopolize. With more money at stake, more dynamic athletes are transitioning in. This spring, a tennis convert briefly passed Johns as the top-ranked singles player.

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Still, Johns holds the trump card. Pickleball may face skepticism about its legitimacy as a sport, and that’s partly because it is dictated by the many nuances Johns has mastered. In this game, played on a 20-foot-by-44-foot surface (roughly one-third the size of a tennis court), strategy often supersedes athleticism.

“He’s playing a chess match,” said Anna Leigh Waters, the top women’s player and Johns’s mixed doubles partner, “and he moves a piece every time he hits a ball.”

‘Two or three steps ahead’

Pickleball has been around since the 1960s, when three fathers with a hodgepodge of equipment invented it on a family vacation to Bainbridge Island, Wash. For most of the next five decades, it was a niche game with a silly name — perhaps an activity for phys ed class or sunbaked retirement homes.

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It went pro, in earnest, in 2019, when Connor Pardoe started the Pro Pickleball Association. His goal was to make pickleball as big as beach volleyball. It would begin with a touring series with 15 top players, including one with spiky hair under an occasionally backward cap.

“At that time — I mean even now — he was so much better than everybody on the court, and it was hard to tell why,” Pardoe said of Johns. “He wasn’t necessarily the fastest person on the court, or he wasn’t necessarily the most athletic, but he was just so calculated, the way that he played. … It almost seems like he’s two or three steps ahead of everybody.”

Here’s the strategy, at its most basic: Players try to move up the court and park their toes just outside the “kitchen,” the zone within seven feet of the net where hitting the ball out of the air is forbidden. When all four players make it there, action can slow considerably, with teams trading finesse shots called “dinks” so the other side can’t attack.

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To viewers, this can appear monotonous and, well, not like a sport. But dinks carry heavy spin and are meant to put you in compromising positions. With each shot comes a decision about where to hit the ball to nudge your probability of earning the point. Eventually, a dink might be imperfect — high enough that an opponent can reach to attack it out of the air — and bang-bang-bang! A plodding point turns into a fast-paced firefight.

What’s hidden to the untrained eye: As in chess, pickleball has certain patterns that high-level players can diagnose several moves ahead of time. Johns is the grandmaster.

He is 6-foot-1 with broad shoulders and smooth agility, but ask his brother and men’s doubles partner, Collin, about his best attributes and he’ll list the unmeasurables. Patience. Discipline. Hand-eye coordination. Concentration.

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Collin points to a best-of-five championship match in Las Vegas last fall when they fell behind 2-0. The brothers decided they would not change a thing; they were making calculated shots, and odds were their opponents would cool down. They trusted the long-term math and came back to win.

Waters, the 17-year-old queen of the court whose fiery approach runs in contrast to her mixed partner, considers Johns a role model for his on-court approach and how he handles stardom.

“If you look at the guy, you would never know if he was winning or losing a match just because of how levelheaded he stays,” she said.

‘Paddle nerd’

Johns’s signature shot is the backhand roll, where he takes a ball seemingly too low to attack and blisters a line drive with the trajectory to get over the net and topspin to keep it from going too long. Its roots were planted in the Johns family’s basem*nt in Gaithersburg, Md.

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When Ben was a child, his father brought home a table tennis table from Sears. Ben and Collin took the game seriously and learned moves such as the forehand loop, where a player slides to their left to hit a powerful shot. Alas, a bookshelf in the basem*nt got in the way, so Ben learned how to hit a backhand with uncommon force.

Home-schooled by their mother, Johns and his siblings — he is the middle of seven — were habitually active. Collin, a future tennis pro, needed a hitting partner, so as a 14-year-old he would bribe “chunky” 8-year-old Ben with powdered doughnuts. Though Ben developed into a strong tennis player and also thrived as a baseball pitcher, “I liked variety more than I liked doing one thing very intensely,” he said.

The Johns family spent winters in Estero, Fla., where one day in February 2016, Collin and Ben went to the courts to hit. Ben saw pickleball and got curious. He learned the inaugural U.S. Open was taking place that year, 25 miles away in Naples. At 17, he finished fifth; the following year, he won.

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Addicted to the sport — “It’s kind of physically aesthetic, where certain shots just feel good,” he says — Johns was led deeper by his inquisitive mind. He became a “paddle nerd,” as one friend calls him, intimately aware of the physics behind the instrument he wields, down to the type of glue keeping it together.

He began college in the business school at the University of Maryland and later started a pair of companies: Pickleball Getaways, which provides lessons during overseas trips, and Pickleball 360, an instructional video service. But his passion for paddles prompted him to switch majors as a sophom*ore to materials science and engineering. That interest eventually led to him signing a lifetime contract with Joola, which hopes to make Johns an identifiable brand — the pickleball equivalent of Michael Jordan.

Though Johns, theoretically, could contend for decades, he said he anticipates he’ll stop playing by 30 to explore something new. He says he’s not concerned with accumulating championships like Jordan or Tom Brady or Novak Djokovic.

“They dedicated their whole lives to the sport, right? Like, it is them. Tom Brady is football; football is Tom Brady,” Johns said. “So when your whole life has not revolved around the sport, it’s hard to call it your legacy, right? Those people have worked their entire lives for that, and I haven’t.”

‘More pressure to perform’

During a stretch that feels like urban legend, Johns once earned 108 straight singles victories. Pro pickleball had its marketable star, but it also had questions about how compelling the game could be if the same guy always wins.

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In time, competition would come in the form of tennis talent. The similarities between the sports make pickleball a quick transition and, ostensibly, an easier climb up the ranks. The only thing missing was money, and that would come, too.

Over the past few years, as pickleball has exploded recreationally, the pro level has become a fashionable investment for A-listers. (Brady, LeBron James, Drake, Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Patrick Mahomes are among the biggest names.) Pardoe said pro players will split more than $30 million this year — with the top tier guaranteed seven figures. Put another way, pickleball has soared past beach volleyball.

Pardoe’s PPA is a tour-style league that features 26 events across the country in 2024. Through the first two, something odd was happening: Johns failed to medal in singles, a discipline that resembles mini tennis, with its groundstrokes, passing shots and emphasis on speed.

Instead, a new star was emerging. Federico Staksrud had played and coached tennis collegiately before becoming a pickleball pro in 2021. He modeled much of his game after Johns, and in April he surpassed him.

Johns appreciates the competition. It provides motivation to improve and more complex equations to solve. But in a sport in which he is supposed to win every time, the weight can be heavy.

“I remember a time where pickleball was just more of a hobby to us … but there’s more pressure to perform now,” Collin said. “With Ben being the number one player and expected to win every match, I think he feels the pressure more than he used to. I don’t think necessarily at an unhealthy level. But when he loses, he definitely is upset. There’s not a lot of talking.”

How would Johns respond to being the No. 2 men’s singles player? In May, he reached the championship of a grand slam event in Atlanta. On the other side was a man appearing in his 10th straight final: No. 1 Staksrud.

Johns jumped out to a quick lead, swept two games and earned his 37th PPA singles title. By the end of the weekend, he was back where he belonged: world No. 1.

For pickleball’s first superstar, strategy outweighs athleticism (2024)
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