What an incredible 4 days of pickleball. Team BLQK ultimately take the first season of MLP by the smallest of margins. As hardcore pickleball fans, we were excited for this event but it still exceeded our expectations. Shockingly, not all of our takes were correct going into MLP. It’s almost as if there was one specific take that some people took exception to. Regardless, a couple of incorrect opinions isn’t going to stop us from writing all the takeaways from a jam packed inaugural event from Major League PIckleball. Let’s get to it.
1. Lee Freakin’ Whitwell (Gritty) – What can you say that hasn’t been said about the now official MVP of season one, Lee Whitwell. She outperformed all expectations of what most anyone thought going into MLP. For anyone who cares a lick about pickleball, you couldn’t have asked for a better story than Whitwell. She’s 47 years old, has had only very recent success from a national perspective (she’s been playing since 2016), and was probably the most likeable human being at MLP. Oh yeah, some silly bloggers said she shouldn’t have been drafted too. What fools.
The improvements in Whitwell’s game prior to MLP had not gone completely unnoticed by us. She had a couple of really good performances with AJ Koller (silver at So Cal Classic) and Dylan Frazier (4th in Bend) at two separate APP events. Whitwell was one our takeaways after the So Cal Classic. But we hadn’t given her enough credit. Why is that?
Part of the reason for our miss was simply not being able to overcome a prior view of a player. She has been around but not had great success without consistent higher end partners until 2021. Whitwell played with Vivienne David at the PPA Orlando and Lauren Stratman quite recently, winning bronze with Stratman at Hilton Head, a strong APP field. Whitwell no longer is a Pacific Northwest resident but she has had a number of pro partnerships with Susannah Barr, and we may have incorrectly assessed who was the weaker link in that partnership. The thing about MLP is that it gives the opportunity for someone like Whitwell who would never typically partner with the best female in the world on the pro circuit. The last aspect to all of this is we just had an incorrect assessment of Whitwell.
Her match in the final women’s match was so impressive and a miccrocosm of her game. They could not go after Whitwell. The softer Franklin ball could be of some assistance but she was unattackable, and that’s how it was throughout the tournament for Whitwell. When Anna Leigh is on your side and can take all that court, Whitwell is a really good foil because she can hold her own so well. You don’t have to worry about her being sped up and just losing points outright as a result. The last thing about Lee, which was always apparent, is her power. She has shots and finishes high balls, which isn’t the case for a lot of these #2 women at MLP. It’s a big advantage in both men’s and mixed. The Koller partnership was perfect for Whitwell as she again got a #1 draft pick but then got to play the #2 mixed teams.
The fiery personality of Whitwell is the cherry on top. Having players mic’d up was a smart choice for MLP and Whtwell has been reason numero uno for why being mic’d up is cool. This wasn’t the ESPN edited version, except for the finals on CBS. We got all the talking, cheering and strategy. Whitwell has made a lot of fans. We wrote in our Whitwell takeaway after So Cal that we were buying all the senior pro stock for her come age 50, but we should have been buying all the pro Whitwell stock. MVP! MVP! MVP!
2. MLP Format (Gritty) – We liked the sound of the MLP format when we first heard about it but the format was an even bigger success than I could have expected. The team format delivered in exactly the way you hoped it would based off similar team events in individual sports like the Ryder Cup (golf) and Davis Cup (tennis). The players are substantially more excited than they are in your standard tournaments and it comes through to the fans. The decision to go with games to 15 was necessary from a scheduling perspective. However, playing to 15 was perfect for entertainment as anything can happen rather than playing 2 out of 3, which generally favors the better team. The matches were close for the most part and the win by 1 scoring made for extra drama.
The added level of intrigue from team’s being able to choose their matchups in mixed and singles was also a ginormous win. From the get go, there were singles moments you will never see anywhere else with Whitwell taking 4 straight points off of Dekel Bar and also taking multiple points off Jay Devilliers in the tiebreakers. Callie Smith was another player who won a bunch of points off the men in those tiebreakers (7 of 8 off Kyle Yates in the first one). I’m not sure how I felt about the need to win by scoring on your serve in the tiebreaker as that really put the female at a disadvantage if they were up against a guy.
The only other thing they need to be cognizant of going into the next event is scheduling family members against one another at the end of the round robin – Johns and Waters both were matched up in pivotal spots where one had nothing to play for. A reader noted this going into day 4 on our live blog. AJ Koller was heard on the mic in the Waters’ women’s match something to the effect of expecting Leigh to let off the gas. Now, that did not appear to happen and full credit to Leigh as a competitor for keeping the integrity of the tournament. Nevertheless, the optics are problematic and can be mostly avoided.
Still, not much I would change at all, which is surprising when you’re trying to be innovative with a new event. I do wonder whether they will try to keep team’s together or draft new players for each event going forward.
3. Dekel Bar Men’s Specialist (Slim) – I think one of the mistakes we made in our mock draft for MLP, of many, was overrating Dekel Bar for this event. Dekel is an excellent men’s doubles player, but he just cannot seem to produce consistent results in mixed doubles or singles (when he does play singles). This weekend was another example of this, Dekel and Adam Stone were clearly one of the best men’s teams in the field, but Dekel failed to put up anything near consistent results with Callie Smith, an upper tier woman in this field. Dekel also struggled in singles, most notoriously getting passed repeatedly by Lee Whitwell. Although I actually would not put much stock into the singles results, in this specific event, as the format, really randomized results in my mind. He has however, shown little interest in playing singles over the past year.
In this event, I would have a hard time taking Dekel, in the upper half of the draft again, unless he can show significant progress in his mixed game. At this point I think Dekel is definitely the most talented men’s doubles specialist out there, but I think that is all he is.
4. Vivienne David the almost MVP (Slim) – Lee Whitwell, based on expectations going in and her team’s overall performance, was a deserving MVP, but in my mind Vivienne David was probably the actual MVP as she went 14-0 in her doubles matches, the only player in MLP to finish with an unblemished record. Vivienne, fit very well with both of her partners Zane Navratil and Lea Jansen, and I also think her boundless positive energy has to be a real bonus in this team format.
Vivienne has shown some serious improvements over the course of the last few months, and I think we saw some real evidence of that Hilton Head, where playing with Jansen and Navratil (another real advantage, getting practice reps with her partners) she walked away with a gold and a bronze. But this weekend was the real culmination of her improvements as she went and showed that when playing with the right partners she can be a real force.
I had kind of pegged Vivienne, as a “JAG” (Just a Guy/Girl) in the pro ranks, but her recent leap has me seriously revaluating this take, and I will be very curious to see who she gets for partners next year and what success she can have, if she gets some upper level partners.
5. Strategy, or Lack Thereof (Gritty) – We weren’t able to watch every single match but we watched enough of them, and I was baffled on 2 occasions to see the lack of strategy that would have been discussed going into a match. In the round robin match of BLQK vs. Chimeras, Ben Johns and Rob Nunnery were deciding in the moment both who they would each play with and against in mixed. Johns ultimately overruled Nunnery on playing with Tereschenko against Waters/Yates that might have been a bit ego driven for a decision from Johns. Then in the Chimeras second singles tiebreaker of MLP against the Lions, the mics showed AJ Koller calling Kyle Yates to discuss who was going to play who. It worked out for the Chimeras as they won the tiebreaker.
I just can’t imagine how these teams didn’t have that strategy sorted out going into the match, or at least appearing to have a tentative plan for singles order if they won the toss to pick the matchup. I have to think there were discussions but the fact that it wasn’t locked in or close to locked in seems to be something teams should have figured out beforehand. It looks like Team BLQK had it sorted going into the finals. I wonder if this will be different next time around.
6. Flawed Challenges (Slim) – I am all for the idea of getting calls right, but if we are going to have a challenge system we need a challenge system that is actually going to enable us to get the right calls. The camera angles and views being used to determine a lot of the calls on replay, simply could not lead to, at least in my mind, conclusive results, and thus conclusive calls. If we are going to have a replay system, and I presume we are a long ways away from any hawk-eye type technology, could we at least get a camera on each line?
7. Was this the Renaissance of Kyle Yates? (Gritty) – The above abbreviated quote from Kyle Yates was put out there across a lot of social media. After their big evening win in another tiebreaker on day 3, Yates answered Hannah Johns’ question with a reference, non-reference to our D (not D minus!) draft grade of the Chimeras. Kyle didn’t actually name us but we’re going out on a limb to assume he was referring to NML. Anyway, here’s the video of the quote:
Kyle Yates has been one of the hills we have stayed true on since we started this blog. We have both taken the stance that he’s not the elite player he once was and the game was passing him by. But Yates showed out pretty well during MLP. His team, in particular, proved us to be dead wrong in our draft grade. Obviously. Brian Ashworth reminded everyone of how wrong we were as well on the Pickleball Forum.
There’s no doubt Yates has been playing at a higher level since the draft and he generally seems to have calmed down his game over the past few months, even before the draft. He’s doing more of what made him a national champion, mostly playing that right side with Koller throughout MLP and being that rock with some deceptive attacks.. You saw that in the finals as AJ Koller was simply too trigger happy but Yates was very steady.
I truly think since 2019 Nationals Yates struggled with his identity as a player once he lost Ben and Simone as partners. However, unlike Whitwell who I think we were substantially wrong in our assessment of as an individual player, I still don’t think we were that far off on our Yates assessment.
Yates found himself in the perfect situation. He gets to be the #2 guy picked but then plays with the #1 female in the world in mixed – going 4-4 overall. Koller was a good fit with Yates but they still went 3-5 overall with a nunber of very close matches. The Chimeras also won 3 singles tiebreakers and if not for Lee Whitwell playing out of her mind in 2 of them, it’s a different story. There’s also the matter of the Franklin ball, which we aren’t sure of but it’s a discussion of whether that’s a helpful ball for Yates (he got 4th in US Open too this year).
Kyle Yates is definitely a big winner leaving MLP and his play was solid throughout the tournament. He showed that it was not wrong at all for him to be drafted. Nevertheless, call it stubbornness, call it unwilling to concede on a take, call it whatever you want. But I think the jury is still out on Yates as an elite pro player as we head into 2022.
Also, please reference the blog specifically in future interviews Kyle. Thanks for reading!
8. Team Rally Disappointment (Slim) – I was fairly high on Team Rally heading into this event, and well the results speak for themselves, as they finished as the only team to win zero matches and a minus 15 game differential. Outside of the JW and Jessie partnership, none of the partnerships on this team really lived up to expectations. The team finished with one women’s win and one men’s win. I did not think that the Jessie Irvine and Susannah Barr partnership would exactly be a powerhouse, but I was expecting to see them finish somewhere around .500, perhaps 3-4.
JW and Dylan, finishing 1-6 was extremely surprising to me. This is a team that took gold at the APP Hilton Head in a pretty formidable field, and took silver in the APP Georgia event defeating Jay Devilliers and Adam Stone to get there. Both Susannah Barr and Dylan Frazier really struggled in this event, and perhaps just weren’t ready for the constant grind against the top players in the game. I also think it demonstrated that neither Jessie nor JW are quite able or ready to carry lesser players, despite being very talented players themselves. Irvine has had really good recent success with Devilliers and Parenteau, but she was not having much success with Warnick and Tereschenko earlier in the year.
I think this team also showed that chemistry matters, in this format, as they really did not gel, and once things started to go poorly for them, they did not seem to have the glue guy/gal to pick them up and keep the energy up. Especially with two low energy guys in JW and Dylan, which may be helpful in extended tournament play but far less so for MLP.
9. Commentating Complaints (Gritty) – I have avoided writing anything significant in relation to commentating in pickleball for the most part, but that’s not for a lack of opinions. Slim cares far less about these things than I do but a couple of surprising choices for me to commentate MLP has left me tired of some of the decision-making that goes into broadcasting pickleball. We noted after the MLP Draft that having Morgan Evans and Dave Fleming was a very good combination. However, I was really surprised to see that MLP chose to go with Drew Felios as a primary play-by-play voice and also had Michelle McMahon supplementing that over the weekend. I simply do not understand the fascination with needing a conventional play-by-play voice on the broadcast. It’s clear from reading the comments on the streams that not everyone agrees with me and people somehow seem to enjoy people like Felios, McMahon, Dave Benz, Rusty Howes, Camryn Irwin etc. And don’t even get me started on Johnny Pickleball who thankfully seems to not be doing much commentary these days.
Having a traditional play-by-play person for a sport like pickleball could be great. The problem is that there aren’t many Chris Fowler’s out there. Listening to the commentary over the weekend and there is nothing added to the broadcast by having either Felios or McMahon in the booth in my opinion. My biggest pet peeve with broadcasters is trying to sound like an announcer, which is big strike #1 for Felios and McMahon. Like, do you talk like that in your real life? They are not alone in this. It would make way more sense to me to keep these people out of booth for me. Pickleball is brand new and has the chance to carve its own path. We don’t need someone sounding like an announcer just because we’re on CBS Sports Network.
I noted this in the live blog but Lauren McLaughlin not being invited to either be in the booth or do interviews for this type of event is mind-boggling. I actually think the APP broadcasts are much better when McLaughlin is paired with either Fleming or Catalano as they seem to play off each other well. There’s a good mix from McLaughlin in setting up her co-broadcaster(s) and also providing her own thoughts – and I mean actual thoughts that add something to the broadcast. Morgan Evans is the best color commentator in my view, but you get the best Morgan when he is paired with either Fleming or Catalano. This is what ESPN does with most of their tennis broadcasts at the majors, in fact – the McEnroe brothers, Chrissy Evert, Cliff Drysdale, Darren Cahill etc.
MLP was a big win overall because of the ingenuity and innovation. I think that’s why I was disappointed in a couple of the commentating choices. Let’s move away from the conventional, shall we?
10. Ben Johns. Motivated. (Gritty) – Ben Johns was motivated this weekend. Very motivated. He wanted that first mixed match against Kyle Yates and Anna Leigh Waters, maybe a little bit too much. Once BLQK got settled in the tournament, Ben was his usual dominant self. We expected that he would want to remind the world of his dominance if at all possible going in. He did lose a men’s match to Daescu and Newman, but overall he was clearly the best player out there in the tournament.
Ben’s team was constructed for what he needed to win, especially getting Nunnery as the last guy. It was interesting that my big question going into the tournament of what would matter more – team depth or a dominant player – was kind of both. Obviously you need both. But the Warriors, a team of strong depth without true dominance, were a 15-14 Waters vs. Waters mixed match away from the finals while the two teams that made the finals each had the most dominant male and female player respectively on their side. It was wrong at the time and it looks even worse now that AL did not go 1st overall in the draft.
I have the perfect draft strategy for season two of MLP. Get the most dominant player and fill your team with the right mixture of depth and chemistry. Fool proof!
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org