by Eric Barton | October 18, 2022
This Mother-Daughter Duo is Dominating the Pickleball Scene
South Floridians Leigh and Anna Leigh Waters are changing the face of the game from a retiree favorite to the most competitive sport on the court. Oh, and they can't stop winning.
For Leigh Waters, that moment all parents fear, and also hope will one day come to pass, happened at a restaurant called Chicken N Pickle.
It’s a place in Kansas that, as you might guess, serves fried chicken. It also has courts for pickleball, a sport that’s a mix between tennis and Ping-Pong.
This was in 2019, and Leigh, now 43 years old, had been playing pickleball for two years at that point. She was immediately good at it—so good that she went pro. She even quit her job as an attorney at a big firm to spend more time playing pickleball.
Then, she had that match at Chicken N Pickle. It was mixed doubles—the bronze medal match—and across from her on the court was her daughter, her best friend, her mini-me: Anna Leigh. Her daughter was only 13 at the time, but she was also getting good. Very good.
At the time, this was perhaps the most important tournament in pro pickleball history with the biggest prize money yet. The mixed-doubles champs would split $10,000 at this tournament, the Franklin Pickleball Masters. Leigh Waters was, as she still is today, one of the top-ranked pickleball players in the world. And yet still, Anna Leigh won, which was the first time she’d beaten her mom.
Leigh isn’t proud of what happened after her partner flubbed the matchpoint into the net.
“I just went off the court. Went to the hotel room. Oh no. Just like, let me be by myself. For a long time.”
They tried to go out to dinner, but Leigh wasn’t ready to talk to her daughter. Anna Leigh tried to let her mom just process it.
“I wasn’t happy or anything, because I was just like, ‘Oh, I beat my mom. This is not good.’ I feel like the whole match was just, like, weird.”
Leigh had a decision to make. This was a big parenting moment for her that maybe you can relate to. Although, yours probably wasn’t pickleball related. What do you do when your kid gets better than you at chess or trigonometry or something that truly matters, like the sport you gave up everything to pursue?
Leigh and Anna Leigh had never played pickleball until a series of unfortunate events led them to it. It was September 2017, and Hurricane Irma had just rolled through. The storm knocked out power to their home in Boynton Beach. They headed up to Leigh’s father’s house in Pennsylvania to wait it out, and he asked them if they wanted to play pickleball. They said no at first. But her father kept trying to convince them. So they tried it, and they just never stopped playing. During those two weeks in Pennsylvania, Leigh and Anna Leigh played for hours every day.
Leigh had the skills right away to excel at this new-to-her sport. Back before law school at Villanova University, Leigh had been a Division I tennis player at the University of South Carolina, where she honed her forehands and backhands, which also apply to pickleball. Anna Leigh was only 10 at the time, but she was also good. She’s a natural athlete and was among the best at her age at soccer before she gave it up to make sure she didn’t suffer an injury that would stop her from playing pickleball. Within a few days, they were the best players at that neighborhood court in Pennsylvania.
They got back to Florida and hooked up with the Delray Beach Pickleball Club. Soon, somebody, without them knowing, signed them up for a tournament. They put Leigh in with the pros.
I want her to beat me. I want her to be better than me. I want her to get the sponsorships. I want her to win the tournaments.
— Leigh Waters
Leigh says, “They found us partners, and they were like, ‘Here we signed you up. Go play. It’s going to be fun.’ And we were like, OK. Maybe we won one match, but I was like, ‘Whoa, these people are good. I thought I was pretty good, because I was beating just the local people, and then I played in this pro tournament, and I was like, OK, we’re not that good. And you can hit like that? And what’s that shot they’re trying? It was definitely an eye-opener.”
After that tournament, the two of them both got serious about pickleball—practicing almost daily for hours and studying the nuances of shots. Leigh went pro in 2018, and Anna Leigh went pro in 2019. They play as a team in doubles, but occasionally they play against each other in mixed doubles. At first, it was all Leigh, clearly the better player. Then came that October day at Chicken N Pickle.
The morning after that loss, Leigh remembers waking up and realizing she needed to reposition how she thought of her daughter’s success. Anna Leigh would get better than Leigh, and Leigh needed to not only accept it but do even more than that.
“My goal shifted to where I was focusing more on her getting better in her career than mine,” Leigh says. “It was more about me at first, and then when she got so good, and you could see the potential, I think it shifted, and so then it was like, ‘I want her to beat me. I want her to be better than me. I want her to get the sponsorships. I want her to win the tournaments.’”
Luckily, it’s rarely about which one of them is better. Usually, they’re playing together, like they did in August in what was the biggest moment in pickleball.
For most of the short history of pickleball, a sport invented half a century ago that has really been getting its moment in the past couple years, it has been played on converted tennis courts. Pickleball’s best players and most dazzling plays were maybe captured on cell phone videos uploaded to YouTube or replayed on the bowels of TV sports shows—until now.
In August of this year, Skechers sponsored an invitational in Los Angeles, inviting the sport’s best players—four men and four women—to face off in exhibition matches covered on live network TV. On a Saturday afternoon, CBS broadcast the pickleball greats to the world.
Of course, when you’re talking about the top pickleball players, Anna Leigh and Leigh Waters better be there. At the time, in early August, they were No. 2 in the world for female doubles. They faced the No. 1 team, their nemeses, Callie Smith and Lucy Kovalova.
Usually in pro pickleball, teams play in bracket tournaments, having to work their way past mediocre, decent and skilled players over the course of about five hours to get into a final match with the other best team in the world. But at the Skechers Invitational, Anna Leigh and Leigh jumped right in to play the best players they’ve ever faced: a pair of former college tennis players who are taller than they are, have a longer reach and play an aggressive game.
They won. In the biggest match of their careers—in the biggest match in pickleball history—Leigh and Anna Leigh won.
The four of them have played many times against each other, so you might figure that they’re friends. “No, we’re not,” Leigh says quickly. She explains that the men who play pro pickleball are often friends off the court. “Yeah. No, the girls really aren’t.”
Early one morning this summer, Leigh and Anna Leigh showed up to their home court for a quick practice. Usually, they’re out here somewhere between two to four hours, working drills, playing quick matches and practicing new shots.
The mother-daughter duo live in a gated community full of snowbirds, so, on summer mornings, with most of the residents having migrated up north, they’ve got the court to themselves. It’s rare in Florida to find an open pickleball court. As the sport has exploded, cities and communities have converted tennis courts to pickleball courts and still can’t meet the demand. Since 2019, pickleball has grown 39 percent to an estimated 4.8 million players in the United States, according to a report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. For a game once associated with retirees, it’s also bringing in far more young people —players under 24 years old jumped by 21 percent. A lot of that growth is happening here in Florida, home to 607 pickleball courts, second only to California, according to places2play.org.
You definitely, at the tournaments, get that feeling of being a celebrity, because you have people coming up crying, telling you how much you’ve influenced their lives and everything, and it’s really cool.
— Anna Leigh Waters
At their early morning practice, Leigh and Anna Leigh start by volleying near the net, letting the ball bounce just in front of them, rarely needing to shift their feet. They speed up, the ball never hitting the ground, both of them slapping it back and forth like a pinball bouncing between bumpers. Then, they take turns with one of them at the back of the court, before progressing on to actual games.
“Sorry,” Leigh says when she scores a point.
“Sorry,” Anna Leigh says when it’s her turn to ace a serve.
Later, when asked about why they apologize to each other when they make good shots, they say in unison: “Do we?”
They speak a lot in unison. Maybe it’s all the time they spend together—Leigh’s mom homeschools Anna Leigh. And with all their pickleball play, they’re rarely apart.
A novice might not notice it, but they play quite differently. Anna Leigh is a careful player, solidly volleying, patient—waiting for her opponent to make a mistake. Leigh takes more risks, trying to drop shots into hard-to-reach parts of the court—a big risk with a potentially big payout. They both have skills the other doesn’t with Leigh working more on putting a spin on the ball, while Anna Leigh has been perfecting trick shots, getting damn good at hitting it blindly from between her legs as she’s retreating back to the line.
These days, Leigh doesn’t play singles since there’s a far greater likelihood of injury chasing the ball across the entire court, and she only wants to focus on doubles, so they don’t face each other often in tournaments. But Leigh will admit her daughter is better now, and so they’re both thinking long term about her career. Unless a university somewhere starts offering pickleball as a scholarship sport, Anna Leigh will go into pro pickleball full time after high school.
“That’s what I’m thinking right now,” Anna Leigh says. “I mean, pickleball is just exploding, and the sponsorships are getting better, and the money is getting, like, more and more. So right now, it makes sense to put off college.”
“I mean,” Leigh jumps in, “right now she’s at the top of the game. So assuming she’s still at the top of the game in two years when she graduates high school, then I would imagine she’ll keep going with pickleball.”
They’re famous in some circles. At the big tournaments, young girls especially will crowd around Anna Leigh after matches asking for her autograph, telling her how she’s an inspiration.
“You definitely, at the tournaments, get that feeling of being a celebrity, because you have people coming up crying, telling you how much you’ve influenced their lives and everything, and it’s really cool,” Anna Leigh says.
“Yeah, especially when the mothers and daughters come up to you,” Leigh adds. “And they’re like, ‘Our relationship has gotten so much stronger, because we see that you guys play pickleball together, and we started playing pickleball together.’”
After the morning practice, they headed into the athletic center across the street from the pickleball courts and took a seat at a table in the lobby, soaking up the icy AC after cooking in the sun. Anna Leigh wore a matching sleeveless sky-blue outfit, her blond ponytail bobbing above a blue visor. Leigh had on black workout shorts and a purple-with-white top, her ponytail hanging out from the back of a blue baseball cap.
A lot of people ask them about how they could have such a close relationship—they never fight on the court, although they bicker sometimes, like when they both show up wearing the same color scheme. Leigh remembers how excited she was when she found out she was having a girl, hoping she would have the same kind of close relationship she had with her mom.
“I feel like it’s made our relationship better, not worse,” Anna Leigh says of pickleball.
“She’s so focused and determined on being the best that, I don’t know, I think it helps our relationship,” Leigh says.
They talk in short sentences often, going back and forth like they’re both having the same thoughts at the same time. They don’t just complete each other’s sentences as much as they formulate a point together, like they’re both thinking out an answer at the same time.
“I think we’re more like friends, honestly,” Anna Leigh says.
“It’s like we’re friends, we’re teammates. I’m your mom, I’m your coach,” Leigh says.
Then, they say together: “There are a lot of different roles.” And then they laugh, at the same time.