She plays with her mother, sponsored by Villa and says college can wait: Anna Lee Waters of Picklepool is the face of an explosive sport.
Almost every week, wins in the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, the “triple crown” in the Professional Pickleball Association tournaments. She’s made big hits with potentially bigger deals on the horizon and has played with swimmer Michael Phelps, actor Jamie Foxx, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, and golfers Scotty Scheffler and Jordan Spieth.
“The timing was absolutely perfect,” her mother and marital partner said, Lee Waters. “Between her age and the way her game is developing and the way the sport is developing, it’s all like meeting up.”
In the lobbies of hotels, restaurants, and airports, pickle-ball nerds take notice of the attractive teenager with a swaying blonde ponytail who’s poised to sit on the pickle throne for years to come. A flight attendant on a trip to California recently begged for a selfie. A woman in Las Vegas chased her down the bar with a camera in hand. At tournaments, fans push their children into Anna Lee’s arms for a quick photo shoot.
“The first time I was like, I’ve never had a baby before,” she said with a laugh.
Although just a freshman in high school, she took a professional approach to a sport that she graduated from weekend and post-work hobby into a thriving business. In recent weeks, Tom Brady and LeBron James signed As investors with one of PPA’s competitors, Major League Pickleball, and major companies looking to get into the space. Anna Lee finds herself at the forefront of this rapidly expanding universe.
“She’s in a unique place now in terms of her dominance,” said her agent Kelly Wolff, who has spent years working with tennis players. “If you are a brand and trying to reach a certain demographic or want to put your foot in the pickle ball, she is just a great ambassador. It is her age, her personality, her ability to connect with people and her love for the sport.”
Even for a sport that has recently come into the mainstream, Anna Lee’s rise has been meteoric. Five years ago, she was a good tennis racket player but had never carried a pickle racquet. When Hurricane Irma began to penetrate the Caribbean, her family was evacuated from their home in Delray Beach, Florida, to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where they stayed with Lee’s parents.
Neil Eichelberger urged his daughter and granddaughter, aged 10 at the time, to visit the Buckleball community pitches with him to help pass the time.
“And we were like, ‘No’,” Anna Lee remembers laughing. “It didn’t even seem like a sport to us at first.”
They eventually hit the pickle ball court and quickly got hooked. For two weeks in Allentown, they played two or three times a day. When they returned to Florida, they visited the local Pickle Ball Club and began to take the sport seriously. Lee entered a tournament later that year in Dallas, and when her doubles partner dropped out, Anna Lee, 11 at the time, took center stage. They took second place.
“That was when we kind of decided, OK, this can work; we can do it. It’s not so small. It’s ready,” he told me.
They quickly made waves on the emerging pro circuit. Long popular in retirement communities and attractive to a wide range of ability levels, the sport was a masterful game even at the pro level, with carefully placed shots and smooth strides across the net. The Waters duo blasted off a tennis backstroke, powerful ground strokes across the net and injecting power and speed into nearly every shot.
“When we first started, everyone was either making fun of us or telling us we were playing the game incorrectly,” Anna Lee said.
“We had the top pros, the top coaches told us, ‘You’ll never win playing that way,'” her mother added. “We just didn’t listen because we didn’t feel right.”
The pandemic sidelined the family for the 2020 season, as the Waters clan shunned travel and skipped several tournaments. When they returned to the Tour in 2021, they found that the game had evolved, and that nearly all of the top players had adapted to their powerhouse approach.
Meanwhile, Anna Lee continued her budding football career, splitting her time between her football club and pickleball coaching. She was already hearing from college coaches and had an offer to train in Germany.
But about a year ago, the Waters family began figuring out what the future of pickle might look like. Potential sponsors kept calling. Prize money was increasing. Television networks were expressing their interest in this sport.
Lee was a practicing attorney and decided to pause her legal career to focus on sports – both managing and playing alongside her daughter. And in January, with her pickle ball credentials proven, Anna Lee quit soccer, which became extremely stressful on her body but also on her time.
“I think it was just timing for everything,” he told me. “And the truth is the chances are crazy right now for her in this sport.”
She has a multi-year endorsement contract with Fila Sportswear. Anna Leigh competes exclusively in Fila Equipment, and the company, which first introduced a pickle ball shoe in 2019, is turning to her to help design and test the product.
“I love that Anna Lee is the face of the sport because it shows how accessible the sport really is for everyone,” said Lauren Malone, Senior Director of Marketing and Strategic Partnerships at Villa. “I love the energy she brings to the court. She has so much passion. She is dynamic to watch. I love her enthusiasm. She is always so positive.”
Anna Lee also has deals with a water company, a paddle factory, and a jewelry company. It’s earning six figures a year right now but could be on the cusp of much more than that. Her agent says she’s playing a strategic role, but the young player is gearing up to take on more sponsors and could wear company logos on her 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,” he told me. “It’s not something a kid would normally get involved in. And the amount of contracts for a 15-year-old is kind of astonishing.”
The family approach is largely borrowed from the world of tennis. Anna Leigh travels to big events with a personal trainer who helps her warm up before games and cool off afterwards. Her mother works as a marital partner, coach and business manager. Anna Lee also regularly meets with a mental coach who has helped her cope with the stress that comes with being visible.
“When I first started playing it was like I had nothing to lose and I was just trying to be the one to beat the number one player and stuff. So it was kinda easier at first.”…what I like to tell myself when I’m on the field is That there is a reason why I am number one. I don’t think, ‘Oh, I have a lot to lose’–but I can think, ‘I have a lot to gain, I’ll show you why I’m No. 1’ “
For Anna Lee, there is less pressure in the doubles, which is the most valuable event in pickleball. In mixed doubles, you play side by side Ben Jones, the 23-year-old Maryland native is already the best PPA player ever. And in doubles, she’s with Leigh, 43, who combines the youngest professional player on the tour with her oldest player.
They credit family intuition much of their success in court, where trust is ingrained and communication is tacit.
He told me, “We’re only able to be, like, one-shot in front of everyone because we know what the other person is going to do.” “And there aren’t many other teams that have that.”
The family wants to think twice about making sure Anna Lee lives up to the rigors of the full-time schedule that you’ll likely see on the road for 24 weeks next year. Her family says she was home-schooled by her grandmother, Anne Eichelberger, a retired teacher, and is already on her way to graduating next year. After high school, you’ll likely stick to the blended ball and pursue college on the side or on the road.
“I feel like college will always be there,” Anna Lee said.
Her parents stress that Anna Lee can slim down if she needs to, but the young phenomenon isn’t wired that way. None of this was expected, but the whole family is taking advantage of the opportunities that keep popping up.
“If I don’t like him, it could be a problem. But now I feel like everything is working fine,” Anna Lee said. “I’ve always loved, like, training and playing sports in general, so, like, I don’t really feel like working. It just kind of feels fun.”