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Season-Opening MLP Atlanta Delivers Upsets, Breakouts and Plenty of Passion

by Erik Tice on

The first event of the 2024 MLP Season is in the books.

There were plenty of exciting points and matchups, so let’s just get right into it.

New players in Premier Level played great

Coming into the season-opening event, there were a lot of question marks about the players who had never played in the Premier Level and whether they could withstand the pressure. It turns out, for the most part, they all did.

Here is how the top five newcomers fared:

  • Tina Pisnik - Texas Ranchers - 3rd overall in player standings - Went 6-2 on the weekend, helping her team earn six points in four matches. She remains a steady player that every team would love to have.
  • Kate Fahey - St. Louis Shock - 8th overall in player standings - Went 6-4 in her matches, helping the Shock earn a first-place 12 points on the weekend. Fahey looked confident the entire time. A known "pickleball pundit" kept saying Fahey didn’t have enough power to be in the Premier Level when she was drafted. Kate proved that pundit – and many others – wrong this weekend. She is Premier Level ready.
  • Augie Ge - Dallas Flash - 14th overall in player standings - Went 5-3 in his matches, helping his team to a 2-2 record and seven points for a 3rd place overall standing. Ge was solid on the right the entire time, flashing his ridiculous hand speed. 
  • Will Howells - New Jersey 5s - 19th overall in player standings - Literally had a 50/50 weekend. Will went 3-3 in his matches, and also won 137 points and lost 137 points. Howells was a little tight in the first match for the 5s, but that quickly diminished as he helped his team to the only undefeated weekend by stepping up in Dreambreakers when it mattered most.
  • Mari Humberg - New Jersey 5s - 23rd overall in player standings - Went 3-3 in her matches. Humberg played mixed doubles with Zane Navratil, who didn’t have his best stuff this weekend. I expect this team to do much better in their next event. Humberg is the slice master and has the best one-handed backhand roll volley at the kitchen line in the women’s game.

There is more parity in Major League Pickleball than ever before

In recent years, there have always been some really good teams and some REALLY bad teams in Major League Pickleball. Just this last year, two examples were the Season 1 Frisco Pandas and the Season 2 Atlanta Bouncers. These things happened due to a variety of reasons, some of which include:

  • GMs/owners not knowing the players and their skills
  • Players getting too much say in who gets picked for the team
  • Recency bias was a huge deal when it came to the draft

These issues, by and large, have been rectified in 2024. GMs and owners are paying way more attention to players and their skill sets. Companies like Real Clear Stats have begun to form real stories with the statistical data they provide, and teams are paying attention.

Are there teams that are not as good as other teams? Of course. It is that way in every single sport. The point is, the margin between the "good teams" and "bad teams" has gotten significantly tighter in the last year. Every team that played in Atlanta came away with at least one win. 

Five teams won 50 percent of their games or more on the weekend. The other five teams either went 1-2 or 1-3, depending on their schedule. The LA Mad Drops won just over 50 percent of their points (329-326) and still only got four points on the weekend. Meanwhile, the Sliders went 1-3, only winning 47 percent of their points (349-400), earning them the same four points.

The gap is now razor thin in the Premier Level.

New rules were rolled out in Atlanta and were met with mixed reviews

Here were the biggest changes to the rules that affected play in Atlanta:

Major League Pickleball announces 2024 Competition Structure
Major League Pickleball announced its competition structure ahead of the 2024 season, which kicks off later this week. We break down the key changes.
  • Serve - The serve could be hit from anywhere on your body, as long as your swing was on an upward trajectory. This is a very different approach than the one the PPA has taken. Dekel Bar took full advantage while playing for the D.C. Pickleball Team, as he was serving missiles all weekend. 

My take on the rule: I really like this rule - it is less ambiguous, the referees can see more clearly if you are doing an upward motion, rather than checking to see exactly where on your body the serve is coming from. MLP is really exciting and this is another way to get the crowd into the game – a service ace every once in a while at the pro level isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion.

  • No More Freeze - The freeze is gone! There are generally two schools of thought on this one. First, some people don’t love that a team is winning in rally scoring not on their serve. They have watched rally scoring in MLP the past year or two and it feels weird to win a game when the other team is serving – very understandable. The other crowd thinks that the removal of the freeze allows the better team to win at a higher percentage.

My take on the rule: I REALLY like this rule - At first, I didn’t like it. By Saturday I was totally hooked. Yes, it’s definitely a different feel to the game for sure. Here is my logic: When the freeze was implemented, it falsely made matches closer. A team could have been up 20-12, dominating another team, but due to the freeze, they ended up winning 21-19. Now, teams are incentivized to stay in the game from start to finish, otherwise a comeback is much more difficult.

  • Games to 25 - The slight change was made to go from 21 to 25 in all of the doubles matches. Dreambreakers still stayed the same to 21. 

My take on the rule: This one is fine - Is it a mind-blowing change that vastly changes the outcomes of matches? No. The one thing I do think it does is make it so the overall better team has a higher percentage chance of winning the match, by making it slightly longer and implementing the no freeze.

Team-by-Team Recap

Here are the overall standings in Premier Level after MLP Atlanta:

I pulled all data from the MLP Scores website, but one thing I think is missing is points per match. I added this to the chart above in the right column. Yes, the Shock have the most points, but they also played the most matches, so I think a "points per match" data point gives the audience a little extra context.

As you can see, the D.C. Pickleball Team and the 5s are averaging 2 points per match. Everyone else is averaging less than two, with NY averaging just 0.8 points per match.

Teams that had a great weekend

St. Louis Shock

To say that Kate Fahey played well above expectations is an understatement.

Meet Kate Fahey: A Fresh Face Ready to Shock Pro Pickleball
Kate Fahey was a dominant collegiate tennis player and only picked up a pickleball paddle last summer. Fast forward to now, and she’s a motivated member of MLP’s St. Louis Shock.

Sure, the team sat her on the right the entire time and asked her to play a solid right side, covering one-third of the court in both mixed doubles and women’s doubles. Watching all of her events, there was never a time where I said to myself, 'Fahey doesn’t belong in Premier.'

She had great counters, her transition zone consistency was amazing, and her two-handed backhand drive has some whip to it. If she can figure out her footwork at the kitchen line, she is going to be a real problem moving forward.

Hayden Patriquin and Gabe Tardio played great throughout the weekend. In my opinion, Hayden’s backhand counter is the best in the game. Tardio brings a ton of offense and covered a ton of court while playing with Fahey. 

Anna Bright played phenomenally throughout the entire weekend and deserves major props for the Fahey pick, because most people thought Fahey was further behind than she showed in Atlanta.

New Jersey 5s

The 5s went undefeated in their three matches on the weekend, but all three went to a Dreambreaker. The 5s proved they have one of, if not THE, best Dreambreaker team in MLP 2024. 

Will Howells played great in the second two matches after a little tightness in that first one. He was thrown out every time as the top singles player in the Dreambreakers and did his job at the top of the lineup.

Anna Leigh Waters had a good weekend playing alongside Howells in mixed and Mari Humberg in women’s. 

Zane Navratil came out on the losing end of things in MLP Atlanta for the 5s. He went 0-6 in his matches, playing with two new partners in Howells and Humberg, winning just 42 percent of his points. Zane is a great teammate in MLP and is still getting to know his partners. 

I am higher on the 5s after Atlanta than before the event. I think they will create more chemistry at their next event and put together some regulation wins.

D.C. Pickleball Team

D.C. dealt with unfortunate timing on the weekend. They played their first match against the Columbus Sliders, who were playing their fourth and final match. This showed, as Columbus was able to pull out the win, 3-1, in their only victory on the weekend.

After that match, D.C. got rolling with wins over the AZ Drive, the Shock, and the Flash. James Ignatowich looked great playing with Dekel Bar and Rachel Rohrabacher. The men’s team has the two hardest serves in the game. 

Rachel is able to play a big left side with Allyce Jones, but they only won one match of their four together. I think with more time this women’s team will develop into a top-six duo.

Teams that did OK, but it could have gone better

Dallas Flash

I had higher expectations for Dallas than 2-2 with seven points. The Flash had a GREAT Saturday, beating a very good Texas Ranchers team, 3-1. They followed that up with a 4-0 victory over the Hustlers. 

Sunday is where the Flash fell flat. Against the Mad Drops, Jorja and JW Johnson lost 22-25 to Jade Kawamoto and Hunter Johnson, sending them into a Dreambreaker - a very tough loss for the Johnson siblings. 

The second match on Sunday proved MLP is won by inches. The Flash lost men’s doubles and the first mixed doubles match by a score of 23-25, only pulling out one win in the match. 

I still think Dallas is a playoff-caliber team, but they have to bring their A game throughout the weekend to prove that.

Texas Ranchers

I was extremely high on the Ranchers going into the weekend, but a 2-2 record with six points was disappointing.

The Ranchers were a tale of two teams. On the one hand, they beat the Sliders 4-0 on Thursday and the Squeeze 4-0 on Sunday, rolling through both teams.

On Friday, they lost 1-3 to both the Dallas Flash and the Shock. Yes, they are both good teams, but every point is going to count this year in the standings, so not getting either of these two to a Dreambreaker was not ideal. 

I think this team has time to figure out how to get to the elite level in 2024 MLP. The big 4-0 win over the Squeeze should give them some momentum heading into the next event.

Have Some Work To Do

Orlando Squeeze

Yikes - 1-2 overall record, only winning four out of 12 games. 

Parris Todd was ranked as the second-to-last player in the event on the weekend. She looked disengaged at times, which is the first I've witnessed of that. The same goes for Federico Staksrud. This mixed pairing needs to create some chemistry to find their winning ways, as they only went 1-2. 

The bigger problem, perhaps, is the women’s doubles team. Don’t get me wrong, I am very high on both Parris and Viv David. However, they are both right-sided players and now Parris has to play the left. The women’s team didn’t win a single match, with score lines of 15-25, 18-25, and 23-25. 

I think this team is a prime example of one where a trade sooner rather than later could work.

AZ Drive

This was the most disappointing team to me on the weekend. Going 1-3 with only four points from four matches is not where the team wanted to be. 

The women’s team was only able to win one out of four matches. Lacy Schneemann is a good left-sided woman, but Kaitlyn Christian is also good on the left. This is the exact opposite problem that the Squeeze has (hint hint). 

More perplexing is the men’s team. Andrei Daescu and Dylan Frazier, on paper, should easily be a top-three team in MLP. They were the first men’s team drafted and are expected to carry the Drive. Instead, they only went 2-2 in men’s doubles on the weekend, having a net point differential of -2.

The Drive doesn’t need to be in panic mode, but they definitely need to solidify some of their strategies if they don’t make a trade soon. 

Columbus Sliders

Thank goodness for that fortunate win over the D.C. Pickleball Club at the end. Before that, the Sliders were 0-3 with few positives. There were a number of mitigating factors for this team.

First, Meghan Dizon was not herself. After a rumored bout with Mono a couple of weeks ago, she seemed out of sorts. Secondly, I am being conservative in estimating that Connor Garnett missed his serve at least 20 times throughout the four matches played. He MUST dial in his serve before the next event. Remember, that isn’t 20 sideouts, that is 20 points lost due to service errors.

At times Riley Newman looked so frustrated that he wanted to scream. Riley is known for having poor body language with partners from time to time, but who could blame him this weekend? To his credit, in his post-match interview against the D.C. Pickleball Team, he was very upbeat and celebratory and said he was looking forward to the next event with the team.

I have no idea what Columbus is going to do. I think waiting another event before deciding to make any trades would be prudent. Garnett HAS to fix his serve by then and hopefully we can see a fully healthy Dizon. I wouldn’t pull the trigger on any trades just yet.

NY Hustlers

The Hustlers are easily the most entertaining team to watch. Jack Sock and CJ Klinger are super fun and got along very well.

Lea Jansen and Jackie Kawamoto played great together, winning two of their four matches. The Hustlers were the team in this bottom tier that was the closest in every match. They won their only match in a Dreambreaker and lost in another Dreambreaker.

The Hustlers lost to the Squeeze, 3-1, but lost their mixed doubles games by two points each. Even in their 4-0 loss to the Flash, they lost two games by two points. The Hustlers are right there, they just need to be a little better in crunch time when the game is on the line.

LA Mad Drops

Many people were saying Hunter Johnson didn’t belong in Premier Level and I think he heard the critics. Rated as the fourth-best player overall in Atlanta, Johnson proved he belongs. Johnson went 5-1 in doubles matches and tore it up as the lead singles player in Dreambreakers for the team.

The Mad Drops played three matches and all three went to a Dreambreaker. Catherine Parenteau and Jade Kawamoto got a little unlucky with the opposition they faced, and consequently went winless in women’s doubles. I would look for that to turn around at the next event. 

Out of the teams in this category, the Mad Drops over-delivered the most, especially Hunter Johnson. If he can keep his level high, I think this team turns things around in a hurry.

Erik Tice

Erik Tice

Erik produces content for The Dink related to pro and collegiate pickleball. He is an avid watcher of pickleball and became passionate about the sport in early 2022.

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