Delray teen becomes youngest pickleball pro to win men’s singles titles

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In just a few months, Delray Beach’s J.W. Johnson has made some huge strides as a professional pickleball player.

He recently topped Ben Johns, 22, the No. 1-ranked singles/doubles/mixed doubles pickleball player in the world 11-9, 9-11, 11-3 en route to the singles title in the 2021 Tournament Of Champions in Brigham City, Utah.

After Johnson, 18, downed Johns, he had to defeat world No. 2 Tyson McGuffin, 30, twice. He won the first match, 11-8, 6-11 and 11-7, and then needed three sets to win the Gold Medal final, 11-0, 9-11 and 11-3. Johns had not lost a singles match since the summer of 2020. Johnson halted Johns’ winning streak of over 170 matches.

That victory came one month after he became the youngest professional pickleball player to win a men’s singles title at the Association of Pickleball Professionals 2021 Beer City Open in Grand Rapids (Michigan) when he defeated Jay Devilliers, 26, in the gold medal match, 4-11, 11-8 and 11-5. To date, he has pocketed $5,900 in earnings.

“I am saving the money right now,” Johnson said with a chuckle. Johnson’s mother Julie is also a senior professional pickleball player, while his 15-year-old sister Jorja also plays pro tournaments. The three of them travel coast-to-coast playing in events. “Getting those big checks is definitely pretty exciting. It is also funny having people come up to me asking for autographs.”

Johnson, a converted tennis player, started playing pickleball about 2 1/2 years ago but started taking it seriously just two months ago. Despite not playing in many United States Tennis Association events because he was playing ITFs, Johnson held a ranking of 11th in Florida and 17th in the Southeast before he traded in his racquet for a paddle.

“It’s definitely been interesting,” said Johnson, who graduated in May from Florida Virtual School. “I was introduced to it back in Kansas where I used to live and I just started playing it here in Delray more. This has definitely been exciting because I am playing all of the top players. I will do better the more I keep playing.”

They moved from Pittsburg (Kansas) to Naples Florida 3 1/2 years ago and after a year in Naples, moved to Delray Beach because of his tennis training. He converted because tennis was an expensive endeavor.

“It was probably better to go with (pickleball) because it doesn’t cost as much to play right now,” he said. “The way it happened was my mom kept telling me I had to quit tennis.”

“We actually moved to Florida so that he could train full time for tennis and he did online schooling,” Julie said. “He just switched to pickleball full time about two months ago when he graduated high school but before that, he was training full time in tennis.

J.W. Johnson shares the historic moment on the Tournament of Champions Gold Medal stand with his mother, senior professional pickleball player Julie Johnson.

J.W. Johnson shares the historic moment on the Tournament of Champions Gold Medal stand with his mother, senior professional pickleball player Julie Johnson. (Jack Olmstead/Courtesy)

“He would go to tennis all day and I would go to pickleball at night and he would be bored,” she said. “He started to ask, ‘Mom, can I come? Mom, can I come?’ I was like fine, especially since COVID was really hard on tennis and kind of shut everything down. He started going to pickleball tournaments and doing well and I said, ‘Buddy, you can’t do tennis and pickleball half-heartedly and you have to pick one or the other.’”

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She said she did not see this coming.

“Honestly, no,” she said. “He has worked so hard at his tennis his whole life, this whole thing seems like a big surprise. It was only two months ago that he finally decided to go full-time pickleball.

“It’s been surprising,” Julie said. “He already had the fitness aspect down and he has excellent technique, but he’s never had a pickleball lesson in his life and he analyzes the sport on his own and with his friends and has been able to break it down successfully.”

She said she’s not saying her son wouldn’t benefit from a pickleball coach, but he’s done well so far on his own.

“He has had so many coaches for tennis and with pickleball, it has been something he has done with no formal training,” she said. “So yes, the whole thing has been surprising. I told him, J.W., tennis doesn’t need you, pickleball does.”

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