Delray Beach teen ranked No. 1 in the world in pickleball

By Gary Curreri

Sun Sentinel Correspondent

Mar 11, 2022 11:39 AM

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Anna Leigh Waters returns a shot during at the Professional Pickleball Association Riverland Open at the Riverland Sports and Racquet Club in Port St. Lucie.

Anna Leigh Waters returns a shot during at the Professional Pickleball Association Riverland Open at the Riverland Sports and Racquet Club in Port St. Lucie. (Connor Pardoe/Courtesy)

While most teenagers are thinking about their high school homework and what they want to be when they get older, Delray Beach’s Anna Leigh Waters has already carved out her future plans.

The 15-year-old has been playing pickleball professionally since 2019 and has accumulated quite a résumé in the sport.

Waters was introduced to the sport during a chance road trip with her mother Leigh Waters to Pennsylvania in 2017 to avoid Hurricane Irma. The hurricane and its outer bands had knocked out power to the family’s home in Delray Beach, so they went to their grandfather’s home, while Leigh’s husband Stephen remained in Florida to stay with their dog and man his construction materials business.

“We played for like two weeks straight and we were hooked from then,” said Anna Leigh, who has captured nine professional singles championships to go along with a myriad of other titles and accomplishments during that span. Among them are playing in a celebrity pickleball event with Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer Michael Phelps and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

“That was so cool,” Anna Leigh said. “I grew up watching the Olympics, and when I played Larry Fitzgerald in singles, they spotted him 9 points and gave him the serve. I beat him 11-9. He was an amateur, but he was super fast. At the end of the match, he asked what he could work on and I told him a two-handed backhand.”

It is not surprising that Fitzgerald didn’t provide much competition: Anna Leigh is currently the No. 1-ranked pickleball singles player in the world across all platforms. Between prize money and sponsorships, she has netted over $200,000 in her brief career.

There are four levels of tournaments ranging from $2,000 in prize money to $8,000 at the top tier. Sponsors will match earnings in addition to giving out gear. The top male player could make over $1 million this year.

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“Recently, at the end of the last year, and the beginning of this year, I have done a ton of traveling,” said Anna Leigh, who is homeschooled. “I have been balancing school, traveling, tournaments and practice. I am super competitive and I always want to be No. 1, but getting to be No. 1 at age 15 is a tremendous accomplishment and I want to stay at No. 1 as long as I can.

“The training that has to be done with everything,” she said, “even though I was playing professional pickleball before, the sport has exploded in general and there are a lot more tournaments and a lot more opportunities than I used to do. I have been doing more juggling between school and professional pickleball. Since I have been doing this a couple of years now, I think I have gotten the hang of it.”

Anna Leigh is slated to face 29-year-old Lea Jansen (Valleyford, Washington) for her 10th career singles title at the Professional Pickleball Association Riverland Open at the Riverland Sports and Racquet Club in Port St. Lucie. She has won five straight championships dating back to last year and she has won at least one singles title over the past seven months.

Jansen is ranked No. 2 in the world.

“Someone recently asked me if I thought she would be this good,” said Leigh, 43, who is ranked No. 5 in the world in the Women’s Doubles Division with her daughter. They won their first national doubles title together back in 2019 at the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships Pro Women’s Doubles. Even though they took 2020 off due to COVID concerns, they have not lost a step.

“I am super proud of her because I know how hard she has worked,” said Leigh, who played Division 1 tennis at South Carolina and her husband played Division 1 golf at South Carolina. “I wish I was as good as she is. Now that I see how many people she is better than, it is OK if she leaves me in the dust. That’s fine. She is a good girl on and off the court. If anybody deserves it, she does.”

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