Major League Pickleball (MLP) Big Questions
This weekend marks the inaugural season (really, tournament) for Major League Pickleball (MLP). The event is taking place over 4 days starting Friday, November 5th with the championship DUPR Bowl to take place on Sunday evening on CBS Sports Network. Before MLP begins, the two of us weigh in on some of the biggest questions heading into the weekend and we give you our predictions for the DUPR Bowl.
If you haven’t had a chance to read our previous MLP coverage or want a refresher on anything MLP, see the links below:
Who is the most intriguing team heading into the inaugural MLP season?
Gritty – Chimeras (Anna Leigh Waters, AJ Koller, Kyle Yates and Lee Whitwell)
This is the team we gave the lowest draft grade to but that doesn’t mean they aren’t intriguing as hell. AJ Koller has more than sustained his high level of play since the MLP draft and his stock is even higher now. Both of us didn’t think Yates should have been drafted but his level of play has been better in recent months, particularly over the last 2 or 3 tournaments he has played in, but when you go through the other 7 teams I don’t find one matchup where I would favor them – maybe against Pat Smith and Tyler Loong? The other big wildcard for this team is how much weight can a dominant female like Anna Leigh carry on her shoulders. Taking the lion’s share of the court with her mom is one thing, but having to do that with Lee Whitwell is quite a different story. Even though I’m highly skeptical of how this team will fare, I’m looking forward to seeing the results.
Slim – Team Rally (Jessie Irvine, Dylan Frazier, JW Johnson and Susannah Barr)
I am really curious to see what the teenage duo of JW Johnson and Dylan Frazier can do. They have had success playing together, and it will be interesting to see how they stack up against some of the stronger men’s teams in this field. With Jessie Irvine and Susannah Barr they have partners at the level that they should both be able to do damage in mixed as well. Jessie and JW should be a high-end mixed team in this tournament, and I don’t think many teams can field a more competitive second mixed duo than Dylan Frazier and Susannah Barr. I still have a few concerns about this team’s ability to win tie-breakers with neither Jessie nor Susannah, playing singles regularly but I am very excited to see the young guns on this team compete, and would not be shocked at all if they upset enough teams to a finals appearance.
Who is the most intriguing player heading into the inaugural MLP season?
Gritty – Collin Johns: We don’t see Collin Johns play that much outside of Ben Johns. In the limited amount Collin has played without Ben recently, the results have been underwhelming. Although, he did have a 4th place finish with Erik Lange at the PPA Championships. Upon reflection, we may have overrated Collin for MLP’s purposes in doing our mock draft but him going 14th was a great spot for him. The men’s pairing with Jay Devilliers is an ideal fit as Collin has been referred by brother Ben as the best right sided player in pickleball. Collin will have to play a bigger role in mixed, likely getting a bunch of matches in with Michelle Esquivel, and that has the potential to go quite poorly. Seeing how Collin stacks up against higher end competition over the course of the weekend without Ben will be more than worth keeping an eye on.
Slim – Andrei Daescu: Most of the players who were drafted to MLP are players we see regularly on the pro tours. However, Andrei Dasecu seldom plays and when he does he usually demonstrates a very high level. With Riley Newman and Leigh Waters as partners, it will be a great opportunity to get to see him play with a couple of high end partners against the best players in the game. I suspect he and Riley will be a fairly dominant men’s team, but it’s not often we get to see Andrei play mixed, so I will be very curious to see how he fares playing with Leigh. If he can show a high level in mixed, it is very possible that I am sleeping on team Pickle Ranchers. With the rumor being that we will be seeing Andrei playing more events next year, this is Daescu’s opportunity to show he truly belongs.
What is the most intriguing storyline heading into MLP?
Gritty – Is overall team depth more important or having a dominant player?
This question speaks to what I alluded to in my most intriguing team answer. There’s teams out there like the Warriors with a group of good/very good players but no one is dominant. On the other hand, the Chimeras feature a wide range of talent discrepancy, except they have the best female player in pickleball in my opinion. Team BLQK appears to be an anomaly with the combination of a dominant player (Ben Johns) with across the board talent (Irina, Andrea Koop and Rob Nunnery).
When there’s a clear weak link in an otherwise strong team such as Corrine Carr on Team Clean, how is that going to go when upside in a lot of their matchups could be 2 wins? We are guessing with a lot of things here given the format is so new, but it seems that overall team depth is going to be crucial for the MLP format. This will be put to the test this weekend for the teams with an obvious drop in player talent – another example is Yana Grechkina or any reserves that have to fill in for injured player.
This is to be determined but injuries could be a major storyline, particularly on the female side. If any reserves are necessary, it could be game over.
Slim – Is Ben Johns still the undisputed dominant force in pickleball?
It’s kind of crazy that I am even asking this question as this would have seemed completely nuts to even ask the question a couple of months ago. But here we are. Over the last few months we have seen Ben dropping more matches than ever before, especially in mixed and singles, two events where had seemed almost untouchable. The question I still have is, is this just complacency on Ben’s part or is the field actually catching up to him? With this being one of the bigger events of the year, real prize money on the line, and a new format, one would have to think we should see a motivated Ben Johns this weekend. He’s got the team to win it all, can he cruise to the title or are we going to see more chinks in the armor?
Who is your prediction for the Most Valuable Player?
Gritty – Jessie Irvine: Ben Johns is the obvious pick here but I think the most valuable player will end up being one of the top female players. Considering the greater talent drop-off between the male and female pros, it’s going to be crucial for the women who were picked higher to be able to win the vast majority of their games. For someone like Irvine, she is going to have to lead two youngsters in Frazier and JW Johnson as well as take the lead with a Susannah Barr who is still establishing herself, especially in the women’s game. Callie Smith was another option for me as an answer to this question but I just don’t think Callie’s consistency is quite there for this format to carry a team over the course of 7 matches.
Slim – Zane Navratil: Ben Johns is the obvious choice, but I am going to go with Zane Navratil who is riding a wave of momentum into MLP, and with that serve being legal I like him to wreak some havoc. I think Zane has a chance to really make an impact in all three events. He should do well playing with Tyson in men’s doubles, and benefit from Tyson’s consistency. Then we have seen him have a lot of success in mixed lately with numerous different partners and that still legal serve gives him a big advantage in mixed, particularly with it being games to 15 where players may not have seen it for a while. Finally, if it goes to a tie breaker, he is obviously a very strong singles player, coming off the gold at the PPA Championship, but in this field and format, I think if teams don’t get the right match up against Zane he is going to be automatic points, with that serve, in singles.
What is your prediction for the MLP finals aka the DUPR Bowl?
Gritty – Team BLQK and Pickle Ranchers: Even though we gave Team Rally the higher grade after the draft, I’m a bit concerned with their potential lack of leadership beyond Irvine and Barr’s recent women’s results. Team BLQK is an easy pick but sometimes you have to go with the easy choice because it is the right one. I’m banking on Ben Johns wanting to show out for the pickleball world with this new and exciting event. Irina is my biggest concern on this team as it’s problematic that Irina’s results have been so spotty with good partners in 2021. Is Irina just living off her name at this point?
The Pickle Ranchers are the upside pick. The biggest potential problem for this team is Andre Daescu, who has not been playing many tournaments these days and he barely plays mixed when he does enter tourneys. The other issue is whether Leigh Waters has enough juice to win women’s matches with Lindsey Newman, who is a far better mixed than women’s player due to her lack of weapons. The plus of this team is that Riley and Lindsey should be favored every time they step on the court. We also know Daescu can take on a beta role despite having alpha abilities so his personality shouldn’t get in the way of the Riley Newman style. Finally, Leigh Waters should be a very solid partner for Daescu in mixed and if they can win just a few of their matches together, that could be enough to get this team to the finals.
I should note after reading’s Slims answers I may have undervalued singles across my thinking in MLP and that applies to the Pickle Ranchers choice who don’t have a single player who regularly play pro singles even if all 4 players are likely capable to some degree at least.
I have Team BLQK winning the whole thing.
Slim – Team BLQK and Discovery Warriors: Team BLQK is probably the easy choice here. With Ben Johns playing with his Freestyle Boys partner Rob Nunnery, and two solid women in Andrea Koop and Irina Tereschenko, you would have to like this team’s chance to make the finals. One thing to watch is how Irina fares this weekend. Her results have been spotty at best in 2021, and you have to wonder if she is this team’s Achilles heel. I tend to think we are going to see Ben partner with his Sick Trx friend Irina this weekend, and if Ben is as motivated as I think he is going to be, I am not sure that it will matter, in mixed at least, if Irina has slipped a bit.
We gave the Warriors a very average grade after the draft but I am going with Team Warriors here because I think this team has a huge advantage in the sense that they only need a two-two split in the doubles events. If they get to a tie-breaker, I don’t think anybody is beating them in the singles tie breaker. With Tyson McGuffin, Zane Navatril, Lea Jansen and Vivienne David, they have no weakness in the singles tie-breaker and I don’t see how any team competes with that depth overall. It’s not just depth in upper end singles talent. The recent results of all team members has been very encouraging since the draft and this team should put forward 4 very solid doubles teams. This should make it very hard for teams to beat them 3-1 or 4-0 in the doubles match, and thus they will force a tiebreaker or they will win outright.
Team BLQK wins 3-1 in the finals is my prediction, but they better win 3-1, because if the Warriors pushed them to the tie breaker, I like the Warriors.
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