Meet the teen queen of professional pickleball

She plays doubles with her mom, is sponsored by Fila and says college 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 during the Professional Pickleball Association (PPA) Baird Wealth Management Open in September. (Arden S. Barnes/For The Washington Post)

How

Anna Leigh Waters is 15 years old, which is almost a footnote considering all the unexpected turns and opportunities of the past year. Not long ago, she was a promising soccer player with her sights set on college, perhaps even the pros. That feels like a long time ago now.

Now she is one of the biggest stars in professional pickleball, her skyrocketing prospects aligning perfectly with the explosion of the sport.

Nearly every week, she’s posting wins in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, the “triple crown” at Professional Pickleball Association tournaments. She’s locked into major endorsements with bigger deals likely on the horizon and has played with the swimmer Michael Phelps, actor Jamie Foxx, boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard and golfers Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth.

“The timing has been just absolutely perfect,” said her mother and doubles partner, 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 hotel lobbies, restaurants and airports, pickleball obsessives are taking notice of the charismatic teen with the bobbing blonde ponytail who’s poised to sit on the pickleball throne for years to come. A flight attendant on a recent flight to California begged for a selfie. A woman in Las Vegas chased her down the Strip with a camera in hand. At tournaments, fans push their babies in Anna Leigh’s arms for a quick photograph.

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

Anna Leigh enters this week’s n2Grate DC Open, in College Park, Md., having won 11 of the past 12 events she’s played, including triple crown wins in three of the past four tournaments.

Though just a high school junior, she’s taken a professionalized approach to a sport that has graduated from a weekend and after-work hobby to a booming business. In recent weeks, Tom Brady and LeBron James have signed on as investors with one of PPA’s rivals, Major League Pickleball, and major corporations are angling to get in the space. Anna Leigh finds herself at the forefront of this rapidly expanding universe.

“She’s in a unique place right now in terms of her dominance,” said her agent Kelly Wolf, who’s spent years working with tennis players. “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 only recently bursting into the mainstream, Anna Leigh’s rise has been meteoric. Five years ago, she was proficient with a tennis racket but had never held a pickleball paddle. As Hurricane Irma started ripping through the Caribbean, her family evacuated from their home in Delray Beach, Fla., to Allentown, Pa., where they stayed with Leigh’s parents.

LeBron James is buying into the pickleball explosion

Neil Eichelberger urged his daughter and granddaughter, 10 at the time, to visit the community pickleball courts with him to help pass the time.

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

They eventually did hit the pickleball court and were quickly hooked. For two weeks in Allentown, they played two or three times a day. When they returned to Florida, they visited the local pickleball club and began to take the sport seriously. Leigh entered a tournament later that year in Dallas and, when her doubles partner pulled out, Anna Leigh, 11 at the time, took the spot. They finished second.

“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 said.

They quickly made waves on the budding pro circuit. The sport, long popular in retirement communities and appealing to a wide range of ability levels, was a finesse game even at the pro level, with carefully placed shots and soft dinks over the net. The Waters duo charged in with their tennis background, muscling groundstrokes across the net and injecting power and speed into almost every shot.

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

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

The pandemic sidelined the family for the 2020 season, as the Waters clan avoided travel and skipped several tournaments. When they returned to the tour in 2021, they found that the game had evolved, and nearly all of the top players had adapted their power approach.

Meanwhile, Anna Leigh had continued with her budding soccer career, splitting her time between her soccer club and pickleball training. She was already hearing from college coaches and had an offer to train in Germany.

But about a year ago, the Waters family began to get a sense of what a pickleball future might look like. Potential sponsors kept calling. Prize money was increasing. Television networks were expressing interest in the sport.

Leigh was a practicing attorney and decided to press pause on her legal career to focus on the sport — both managing and playing alongside her daughter. And in January, with her pickleball credentials well established, Anna Leigh quit soccer, which had become too taxing on her body but also her time.

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

She has a multiyear endorsement contract with Fila, the sports apparel company. Anna Leigh competes exclusively in Fila gear, and the company, which first introduced a pickleball-specific shoe in 2019, turns to her for help in both product design and testing.

“I love that Anna Leigh is the face of the sport because it shows how much the sport is really accessible to all,” said Lauren Mallon, Fila’s senior director of marketing 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 also has deals with a water company, a paddle manufacturer and a jewelry business. She is a six-figure annual earner right now but could be on the cusp of much more. Her agent says she’s being strategic, but the young player is poised to take on more sponsors and could be wearing company logos on her playing outfit next 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 said. “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 needs.

The family’s approach is very much borrowed from the tennis world. Anna Leigh travels to big events with a personal trainer, who helps her warm up before matches and cool down after. Her mom serves as her double partner, coach and business manager. Anna Leigh also regularly meets back home with a mental coach, who has helped her navigate the pressures that come with 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 said. “…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 less pressure in doubles, which is pickleball’s more prized event. In mixed doubles, she plays alongside Ben Johns, the Maryland native who at 23 is already the PPA’s all-time winningest player. And in doubles, she’s with Leigh, 43, which pairs the tour’s youngest pro player with its oldest.

They credit familial intuition for much of their on-court success, where trust is inherent and tacit communication.

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

The family wants to be thoughtful to make sure Anna Leigh is up to the rigors of a full-time schedule that will likely see her on the road for 24 weeks next year. She is home-schooled by her grandmother, Ann Eichelberger, a retired schoolteacher and is already a year ahead, on track to graduate next year, her family says. After high school, she’ll likely stick with pickleball and pursue college on the side or down the road.

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

Her parents stress that Anna Leigh can scale back if she needs, but the young phenom isn’t wired that way. None of this was expected, but the whole family is seizing the opportunities that keep arising.

“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 said. “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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