We put out our Challenger division draft grades but we already have more information since those grades came out. There will be more pickleball than any reasonable human can consume at each event this year at MLP so we’re spending the week giving our 3 biggest storylines from Challenger, Premier and MLP as a whole. We start off the week with our top Challenger storylines.
1. Which Challenger Division Players Will Make Their Case to Go Premier in Season 2?
One of the most unique aspects of 2023 is that we will see some flip-flopping between Premier and Challenger players. It is inevitable that there will be at least a few breakout performers in the Challenger division who will make their case to be drafted in Premier for season 2 of this year. There may even be a couple of players that will bust onto the scene that are not on anyone’s radar right now.
The obvious breakout candidates are players like Hunter Johnson, Christian Alshon and Connor Garnett. All very high upside singles players who are working on their doubles games and have the raw ability to take over matches. Hunter Johnson is coming off of a double gold weekend at the APP in Punta Gorda and another gold medal with Parris Todd in Boca Raton.
You have your more proven talent like Rob Nunnery, Susannah Barr, Spencer Smith, Wes Burrows, Cierra Gaytan-Leach and Megan Fudge. Is anyone from that group going to be able to show that they are more deserving of a spot than any current Premier player?
There are other players, who are getting their first chance to shine on an MLP stage. Stefan Auvergne, Alix Truong, Emily Ackerman, Ewa Radzikowska and Yates Johnson. Then you have wild cards like Andreas Siljestrom and Sam Querrey.
It would be silly to list 75% of the names in the Challenger division, but you get the idea. One of the things we saw in 2022 was a shift in mindset to teams choosing upside over proven talent. However, with a 2024 spot in Premier on the line, there is going to be a lot more to lose for teams finishing in the bottom of the Premier division for season 2. We may see draft strategy shift based on where a team finishes in season 1 as it won’t be as straightforward as going for broke with nothing to lose.
The other wrinkle is that one lucky loser will get a shot to play Premier with Riley Newman missing from the Hard Eights for the first event. It will be a massive opportunity for one player in this indefinite tryout period for these players with their most important showcase being these MLP events.
2. What Value Can Sam Querrey Provide as a Number 1 Overall Pick?
We already went in-depth about Sam after his first Masters event, but we would be remiss not to mention him as one of the biggest storylines going into the weekend.
Sam Querrey is lucky he has Stefan Auvergne by his side as a borderline Premier level talent. Querrey joked on the Inside MLP podcast that he’ll be playing mixed with Stefan and taking only a sliver of the court. If their practice clips are any indication, it would appear that Querrey will be playing as the #2 mixed team with Monica Paolicelli.
With their group, we’ll be surprised if this team finds it’s way past the group stage of the first event. if this team gets a win in the first event, Stefan Auvergne will have to play like a number 1 overall pick and Shelby Bates will have to play like a first round Challenger pick. If this team does find its way to a Dreambreaker, Querrey’s singles was competent enough, as awkward as it looked. He should hold up well enough in men’s to be competitive as well as to play 4 points at a time in a Dreambreaker.
Querrey is going to see a lot of balls this weekend in men’s and, despite his accomplishments in tennis, we have to believe he’s feeling some heat after his expectedly underwhelming pro debut. As we have said before, Querrey’s desire to skip steps in the process has seemingly put him in a far tougher position than he needs to be. The team construction around him as a number 1 overall pick puts a target squarely on his back and will likely leave his teammates in the precarious position of having to carry the number 1 overall pick on their back if they want any chance to compete.
3. How Much Will the Groups Matter for Each Event?
There is no real group of death for event 1. The fact that DC (Sam Querrey’s team) and Miami (Matt Manasse’s team) find themselves in 2 separate groups already should make things easier for the other teams in their respective groups.
Group A features DC, Columbus, Bay Area and Utah. There are two clear top teams in this group and that is Bay Area and Utah. We have talked extensively about Querrey, but Columbus looks to be a troubling roster more so since the draft with Milan Rane, Becky Ryan, Yates Johnson and CJ Klinger. It is becoming more apparent Yates is the inferior Johnson twin and it will be surprising if he can lead a team well. Milan Rane as a number 1 female does not inspire confidence either. As long as chemistry stuff stays in check for Utah, this should be the most straightforward group in terms of teams advancing.
Group B features a solid 3 team with Chicago, Orlando and Texas with the awful looking Miami rounding out the 4 teams. None of the 3 top teams in this group are world beating on paper, but there isn’t a clear top 2 either. The Texas Ranchers have a veteran stable of players with Genie Erokhina as a good upside fit. Orlando is steady with Callan Dawson, Rachel Rettger and Bobbi Oshiro while Chicago features solid veterans mixed with upside new talent.
Group C will likely come down to Brooklyn and the others vying for 2nd. Brooklyn has 2 Premier level players in Cierra Gaytan-Leach and Rob Nunnery. Atlanta has Hunter Johnson who is looking like he could be the top Challenger male after these past two weeks. Arizona is weird with Wes Burrows and Andreas Siljestrom as well as Dallas with Brandon French. All 3 of those teams have flaws and we’re going to learn a lot about the wildcards like Brandon French.
The groups are relatively even and it will be interesting to see if there are the free wins to be had for all of season 1.
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