We have decided for next time that we will (most likely) rank the top 10 players rather than only 5. It’s a lot of fun to go through this exercise and we think it’ll be even more fun to debate the rest of the list rather than only have larger categories after the top 5. However, you’re stuck with a top 5 for the time being. It is part 3 of the 2.0 version of NML’s definitive player rankings!
Top 5 Women
1. Anna Leigh Waters – Anna Leigh gets the top spot. She may not have the top results, but we think what she has done this year with Leigh, is the most impressive. MLP was another great showing for her, where she partnered with the steady Lee Whitwell, but was able to assert herself and be a dominant force. With the rest of our top 5 rated players teaming up next year, Anna Leigh is going to have her work cut out for her, but if anyone is up for that task, it is the young Waters.
2. Catherine Parenteau – Catherine brings a consistency that few others players can replicate in the women’s game. She has also been the most consistent player results wise this season in women’s doubles – winning with both Callie and Jessie. The reason, we have her number 2, is that to maximize her abilities Catherine really needs a partner with a fair amount of power and weapons, like a Jessie or Callie. This is why in the MLP draft we would have gone with Anna Leigh number one, because you knew you weren’t getting that power player at sixteen. Catherine is still a tremendous player though, and if she and Jessie can dominate next year she may have an argument for the number one spot.
3. Lucy Kovalova – Lucy is clearly the best right side women’s player, and her counter-punching is about as elite as it gets. The reason Lucy is not really vying for a top two spot, is at this point she just seems to be a right side player. When Simone got hurt she was not able to really step up and take a bigger role to help ease the pressure on Simone. Something tells me we are going to see Lucy back on top of some podiums next year, as she partners with Callie Smith.
4. Callie Smith – Callie comes in just ahead of Jessie in our rankings on the basis that her results have been slightly better than Jessie’s when she is not playing Catherine. It is obvious that both players have been at their best this year when they are getting to play alongside the super consistent Parenteau. Callie has some of the best hands in the women’s game, but she still makes a few too many unforced errors for an elite player.
5. Jessie Irvine – No player this year benefited more from mid-season partnership change ups than Jessie Irvine. Once she started playing with Catherine, she became a regular podium presence including ending the year with a couple gold medals, at the PPA Championship and the Masters. With Callie is playing with Lucy next year, and Jessie is playing with Catherine next year, we should get some real clarification on the Jessie versus Callie debate. Jessie’s inability to produce any results without elite partners does raise some questions as we saw that problem at MLP for her too.
Stock Up: Vivienne David, Lea Jansen, Lauren Stratman, Andrea Koop, Lee Whitwell
Vivienne David definitely took a big leap in the last couple months of the year, which was highlighted with her gold at Hilton Head with Lea Jansen and her and Lea’s undefeated performance in women’s doubles at MLP. Lea has improved all year and it will be interesting to see if she can make another leap in women’s doubles next year. Lauren Stratman finished the year on a high note with her silver with Irina at the PPA Masters. We continue to believe in Andrea Koop’s talent, but she does not play the same number of tournaments as the other players on this list.
Stock Down: Simone Jardim, Corrine Carr, Irina Tereschenko, Leigh Waters, Michelle Esquivel, Susannah Barr
It might not be totally fair to Simone, this is a very injury driven result, but she is not getting any younger and after she got hurt, the top teams had a lot of success grinding her in matches. Irina Tereschenko really didn’t have any results this year, despite a lot of Jessie Irvine and Callie Smith partnerships, but she did finish the PPA year with a silver medal at the PPA Masters with Lauren Stratman.
Biggest Potential to Rise: Jackie Kawamoto, Jade Kawamoto, Yana Grechkina
All three of these young ladies have shown tremendous potential. One the big questions is how much will they play next year? Yana acquitted herself at MLP and just had a dominant performance at the APP’s NexGen event. The Kawamoto sisters have both put up some real results in limited APP Tour stops.
Top 5 Men
1. Ben Johns – Ben in men’s doubles and singles is not the same story as Ben in mixed. While he has clearly mailed in some tournaments in mixed, Ben’s losses in doubles have not appeared to be for a lack of effort. The losses have still been few and far between in doubles, but there have been losses. He lost to Mario Barrientos/Austin Gridley and AJ Koller/Riley Newman in Las Vegas with Collin, then at the PPA championships settled for a bronze with a loss to Dekel/Adam when playing with Matt Wright. However, there just can’t be any doubt that he’s the #1 men’s player out there. Men’s doubles has historically been the place where Ben has been most vulnerable so it will be interesting to see if he and Collin continue to be completely dominant or just sort of dominant in 2022.
2. Matt Wright – We flip-flopped on this one between Riley Newman and Wright, but Wright gets the nod with the head to head results. Wright was inches away from taking down Newman/McGuffin at the US Open and that really came down to Kyle Yates’ cramping issues. The pair then proceeded to take down Newman/McGuffin in Denver later in 2021. The ability for Wright to be that alpha and beat an elite pairing with a less than elite partner is a testament to his place in the rankings. The fascinating partnership will be pairing the two alphas together of Newman and Wright in 2022. It seems like that could go either really well or really poorly.
3. Riley Newman – We can’t forget that Riley was able to take down the Johns brothers with AJ Koller in Las Vegas. In hindsight, though, that Vegas victory doesn’t look quite as impressive as it initially did with Koller proving to be one of the elite players in pickleball. Newman’s lightning quick hands are his best attribute and propels him to elite status in the world of pickleball. The Tyson partnership was clearly getting somewhat stale before the end of the year. While they finished strong at the PPA Masters, there were a number of sub-par results for the duo. Newman is a unique individual and even from a chemistry standpoint playing with him is not likely the easiest task. We are not sure where his game is going to grow but there’s no doubt he’s a top 3 men’s player in the world right now.
4. Dekel Bar – Men’s specialist Dekel Bar missed our top 5 back in the 1.0 version of the rankings and we thought at the time that he may have deserved a top 5 spot. It’s now very clear that Dekel is a top 5 men’s doubles players. His game has evolved substantially over the past couple of years and he continues to get better. He puts Tyler Loong to shame when it comes to what a human is capable of doing with an Erne. It’s obviously more than the Erne for Dekel though. He covers a ridiculous amount of court with his you can’t teach the reach length, and his hands measure up in high-end firefighting. Bar has also simply become a steadier player overall in terms of cutting down the unforced errors. He’s made podiums with 5 different partners in 2021, including a breakthrough win at the PPA Championships with primary partner Adam Stone. That’s a good sign in men’s doubles for Mr. Bar.
5. Tyson McGuffin – There is a noticeable drop off after the top 4 slots and we put Tyson on the list because of his dependability. He has usually been the beta partner with Riley Newman, but as we saw at MLP he and Zane were able to thrive together. McGuffin is going to be that beta again with Jay Devilliers next year but there should be concern as to whether there is enough firepower between the two of them. There are a lot of podiums in men’s doubles for McGuffin who has noticeably made an effort to be a more aggressive player in 2021. You probably could have put either Jay Devilliers or AJ Koller in this spot, but McGuffin’s slow but steady improvement as a doubles player is what lands him inside our top 5.
Just Missed the Cut: Jay Devilliers, AJ Koller
Devilliers is almost a poor man’s Dekel Bar/Ben Johns in men’s doubles. He is able to cover a lot of court but he just doesn’t have the same weapons. We mentioned it in our 1.0 rankings but it still seems like he needs to find a way to get more juice on his backhand somehow. He also doesn’t have the same natural power that the very elite alpha players possess both in terms of what he can do with his shots and the hands in firefights at the net. Like Newman/McGuffin, the Pat Smith partnership obviously became quite stale and he should be rejuvenated playing less tournaments in 2022 with new partner, Tyson McGuffin. We really like Devilliers, but it’s a real question to ask whether he has come close to maxing out his ceiling.
On the flip side, AJ Koller’s sky is the limit. Who knows where his ceiling is at considering he already smashed whatever anyone thought his ceiling was as a player. Nothing looks conventional about the way he plays and he could stand to lob a little bit less, but that’s nitpicking a guy who has leapfrogged past a lot of very good players.
Stock Up: Zane Navratil, JW Johnson, Dylan Frazier, Adam Stone, Rob Nunnery, Rob Cassidy, Kyle Yates, Erik Lange, Callan Dawson
The two guys with the biggest room to separate themselves in our Stock Up list may very well be Zane and JW. Navratil will be with Andrei Daescu and JW Johnson is #good. Frazier and Nunnery are the other two guys who are ones to watch when it comes to the question of how high their ceiling can be.
Stock Down: Collin Johns, Patrick Smith, DJ Young, Jeff Warnick, Steve Deakin (not his fault, injury)
Collin played better at MLP and he had a nice 4th place with Erik Lange at the PPA Championships, but we may never really get our answer to who he is as a player. Is Collin just an elite Ben Johns specialist? It’ll be curious to see who Pat Smith plays with in 2022 as his game does not seem to be evolving. Smith actually works a non-pickleball full-time job making it much more difficult to dedicate the time needed. Unfortunately for Deakin, having a major wrist injury going into year 48 of life as a pickleball professional is far from ideal. We have to wonder if Deakin has gotten lost in the shuffle of partnership musical chair and it’ll be interesting who he can line up for 2022 – maybe Pat Smith?
Biggest Potential to Rise: Andrei Daescu, Thomas Wilson
The most intriguing new partnership of 2022 may be Daescu and Zane Navratil. There are slated to play together quite a bit next year and that seems like a great fit for both of them. Daescu has always had the talent needed to thrive and we’ll have to see if playing consistently pushes him closer to more consistent elite status. Thomas Wilson, cousin of AJ Koller (you’ll see that fact thrown out 40,000 times next year), should be playing a good chunk with Koller in 2022 and he’s got serious game. Not completely fresh to pickleball, Wilson now looks to be going all-in on being a pro and he gets the good fortune an elite partnership very early on in his journey.
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