In one of the more surprising and significant developments in men’s pickleball so far this year, pickleball pro Austin Gridley and his partner J.W. Johnson won the pro men’s doubles competition at the APP Mesa Open tournament in fairly dominant fashion. Their opponents included some big names: Zane Navratil and Dylan Frazier, whom they defeated 11-13, 11-4, 11-4; and Spencer Smith and Callan Dawson, whom they defeated 11-9, 11-8 in the winner’s bracket and 11-8, 11-3 in the gold medal match. The top-ranked team—Dekel Bar and Adam Stone—was eliminated before Gridley and Johnson had a chance to play them.
Gridley, 25 years old, is currently ranked #23 in men’s doubles, according to the World Pickleball Rankings. Frazier and Navratil, by comparison, are ranked #13 and #17, respectively, while Bar and Stone are ranked #5 and #6.
Remarkably, Gridley started playing pickleball only a little more than two years ago. He first popped up on our radar last fall when he and his partner defeated Ben and Collin Johns at the Las Vegas Open. He called that victory the upset of the year, which it undoubtedly was. Some pickleball observers, however, seemed to view that performance as a fluke. Last weekend, Gridley proved the skeptics wrong: Given the chance to play with an A-list partner–Johnson–he won gold. There can no longer be any doubt that he is the real deal.
Yesterday, we asked Gridley if he would answer a few questions. To our delight, he agreed.
Dinkheads: Tell us about your pickleball journey. When did you start playing and how old were you then? Did you suck at first?
AG: I started playing pickleball in late December 2019 at the age of 22. After a week of playing every day I was a solid 3.0. After trying pickleball I was hooked, so I was playing 6+ hours every day and hit 4.0 after 3 months. If I were starting now it would have taken 4-5 months as the general skill level is higher.
Dinkheads: How long did it take you to get to 4.5?
AG: Playing 6+ hours a day for another three months (six months total).
AG: Another six months with more of the same (a year total).
Dinkheads: When did you first realize you could play professionally?
AG: After about 6 months I started teaching and people were willing to pay $22 for a 1.5 hour session. Now I’m at $80 for an hour lesson but planning to focus more on tournament winnings, sponsorships, and online coaching. At my year-mark Shellton Jean Baptiste and I won a big 5.0 tournament in Utah that no one expected us to place in. I didn’t necessarily know if I could make it pro, but I wanted to find out. I knew I wanted to work in pickleball in whatever capacity I could.
Dinkheads: We’ve heard you didn’t play tennis before you took up pickleball. Do you have any racquet sports background and, if so, how has that affected your game?
AG: I played slightly competitive ping pong from 9-14. I hated ping pong, lots of childhood anger and trauma that I couldn’t control, so I quit. I had a good ping pong coach though, Glen Brown, and so a lot of the good strokes and technique stayed with me. (I highly recommend getting a pickleball coach in general, especially for youth.) My take on how ping pong has helped me… 1) my backhand roll, 2) competing in tournaments, 3) understanding angles and spin better than most players, and 4) a proven work ethic.
Dinkheads: It’s remarkable that you are competing with (and beating) people who have played tennis for years. Why do you think you are getting so good at this game?
AG: I am singularly focused on working on whatever will have the highest ROI, and my coaches have helped tremendously with that. I get coached and I’m constantly coaching myself which has made me highly adaptable on the court. This has helped me with helping my own students at my clinics and my virtual clients.
Dinkheads: How much time do you spend training per week? How much of that time is spent drilling as opposed to playing?
Tournament weeks I’m not able to train as hard as I like. Weeks I don’t have tournaments I train probably 12-20 hours. Typically 75-90% drill to 10-25% play.
Dinkheads: Do you think other professional players train as much as you do?
AG: I don’t know, but if anyone out there is training more than me they can let their foot off the gas a bit—my first child was born December 31st so I’m juggling a bit extra right now.
Dinkheads: Do you have a day job that interferes with your training?
AG: I quit my inside sales job over a year ago and replaced it with private pickleball training and clinics. I currently am fortunate enough to spend a good amount of time running my clinics and working with virtual coaching clients. I’ve been all-in since the beginning of 2021.
Dinkheads: What do you do off the court to improve your game?
AG: Yoga, a little bit of lifting at the gym, watching hours and hours of pro matches, watching my own game tape, doing PB data analysis, mental work, and spiritual work. Pickleball is life.
Dinkheads: How did your partnership with JW Johnson come about?Did you reach out to him or did he reach out to you?
AG: The best answer would come from him and I haven’t really asked. I’m more grateful than curious. I thought yes not why when he asked haha. JW slid into my DMs and said something very JW-like, along the lines of “Hey Austin, do you have a partner in Men’s Doubles for Mesa? This is JW.” I sent a message back saying “I don’t.” He liked my message and the rest is history haha.
Dinkheads: Who will you be partnering with going forward (mixed doubles and men’s doubles)? What is your next tournament?
AG: I’ll play mixed doubles in a tournament with Susannah Barr (and have been working on some key mixed doubles shots, so be sure to tune into our performance). In men’s doubles I’m playing with Kyle Yates this weekend in Boca Raton and then with Rob Cassidy in the Legacy APP Arizona tournament. I also am playing with Joey Farias at the APP tournament in Punta Gorda. I just want to shout out to everyone who’s shown support to us this weekend; I appreciate all the DMs on Instagram and can’t wait for Boca this weekend.
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