Major League Pickleball had its final event of the 2022 season in Columbus, Ohio at Pickle and Chill, which is the first fully indoor event that MLP has had and what MLP founder Steve Kuhn called MLP’s “best event yet.” The facility featured a pretty full crowd across two stories and a beautiful painted backdrop. With the scene set and the courts ready, the pro pickleball players came together to compete for their respective teams at a chance to win $100,000 (or $25,000 per player on the winning team).
As a reminder, Major League Pickleball features a unique play style, where pro players compete as teams. The teams must win the best of 4 games—women’s doubles, men’s doubles, and 2 mixed doubles games. If there is a tie, then the tiebreak will come down to a unique singles playoff called the Dreambreaker. Also, unique to Major League Pickleball (at least for now), all scoring is by rally scoring.
The Road to the Finals
Heading into pool play, DUPR (the Dynamic Universal Pickleball Rating system) analyzed the various teams and pools by pro player ratings. DUPR had a strong liking to the #1 DUPR-rated team, BLQK, who was in the same pool (Pool A) as the Florida Smash (the #2 rated team). As a result, Pool A was dubbed “Death Valley.” The previous MLP champions, the Ranchers, were ranked #5 and placed in Pool B, which was deemed “Easy Streets.” Pool C was the “Middle Solves the Riddle,” and featured teams like The 5’s and the Hard Eights.
To come out of pool play, a team needed to place in the top 2 of the 4 teams in each pool. DUPR almost accurately predicted the teams to advance to bracket play, as:
- Pool A – The #1 and #2 rated teams advanced in BLQK and Florida Smash, respectively.
- Pool B – The top 2 teams in Pool B—the Ranchers and Mad Drops Pickleball Club—both advanced.
- Pool C – DUPR’s top 2 rated teams in Pool C fell short (which were The 5’s and ATX Pickleballers). Instead, it was the bottom 2 rated teams to advance in Team Clean and the Hard Eights.
The quarterfinals featured 4 teams looking for their first MLP championship. The Mad Drops Pickleball Club would face off against Team Clean, while the Florida Smash would play the Hard Eights and feature a brother-sister face-off between the Johnson siblings (brother JW and sister Jorja).
Both matches were so tight that they both had to be decided by MLP’s unique tiebreak called the Dreambreaker, where the pro players hit the court for singles play and where men and women can be in a position to battle against each other head-to-head. For instance, in the Florida Smash v. Hard Eights match, two male v. female singles battles were featured, as Cierra Gaytan-Leach faced off against JW Johnson (in what may have been a “sacrificial lamb” moment as noted by commentator Dominic Catalano, as Johnson is one of the best singles players in the world—but Gaytan-Leach was able to snag 1 crucial point off of Johnson (out of 12 points)) and Michelle Esquivel went head-to-head with Andrei Daescu.
But, it was Team Clean that would advance over Mad Drop Pickleball Club, and the Hard Eights that would best the Florida Smash (as the Hard Eights team overcame the strong singles performance from JW Johnson). Younger sister Jorja Johnson noted that it was her turn now, in reference to beating her big brother and one of the best players in the world, JW Johnson.
Both advancing teams—Team Clean and the Hard Eights—would now have to go through former MLP champions to make it to the finals, though.
In the first semi-final of the day, Team Clean would have to do something that has not been done before… defeat BLQK in a semi-final. BLQK is the only team to make it to every MLP championship match since MLP’s first event in October 2021.
BLQK came out in their usual fashion—playing fast, powerful, and full of energy. As a result, BLQK made quick work, winning the first 3 games to secure a spot in the finals.
On the other side of the bracket, the Hard Eights squared off against the previous MLP champions in the Ranchers. After splitting the gender doubles games, the first mixed doubles game heavily favored the Ranchers. In fact, DUPR predicted that the Hard Eights only had a 27% chance of Kyle Yates and Cierra Gaytan-Leach defeating DJ Young and Anna Bright. But, with nothing to lose, it was Yates and Gaytan-Leach that pulled off a definitive win, which ignited their teammates Andrei Daescu and Jorja Johnson to absolutely dominate the second mixed game (21-6) for the team victory.
Earlier in the event, Kyle Yates noted that the key to Major League Pickleball is to “Stay aggressive. MLP is no time to get nervous or get tight. Swing away.” And, swing away is exactly what the Hard Eights did, as they stayed aggressive and got “hot.” After the match, Kyle Yates noted that the win was meaningful to him as he is donating all of his prize money from Major League Pickleball to help with the recovery efforts from Hurricane Ian.
This set the stage for the Hard Eights to take on the familiar finals team of BLQK in the last MLP event of 2022.
The Finals – BLQK v. Hard Eights
The Major League Pickleball—Columbus finals were broadcast live on CBS Sports Network. However, the first half of the women’s doubles game was missed, as the previous broadcast of bull riding ran long, so fans were able to tune in a little late to the party.
On one side of the pickleball net, Irina Tereschenko, Parris Todd, Zane Navratil, and Rafa Hewett came together as BLQK. These 4 pro players have stayed constant since the initial MLP draft early in the year (which is rare, since there have been 2 opportunities for team owners to drop and trade players (*although Parris Todd had to sit out much of the Newport Beach event due to injury)). And, for good reason, as these 4 pro players have led BLQK to one championship and one runner-up finish in the 2022 season alone (not to mention another BLQK victory in the first-ever MLP event in 2021 with 3 out of 4 different players). These 4 pro players led BLQK to the #1 seed, and seem to have figured out the formula for success (Zane Navratil noted that “MLP is not about pickleball; it is about energy. And, we have the best energy”).
On the other side of the pickleball net, Jorja Johnson, Cierra Gaytan-Leach, Andrei Daescu, and Kyle Yates comprised the Hard Eights. Gaytan-Leach is a new face to MLP, as she was recently drafted to the Hard Eights prior to the Columbus event, and Yates is a new face to the Hard Eights, as he was traded from The Bus to the Hard Eights before Columbus, too. However, these 4 players worked hard to gel quickly, as they held a mini-training camp in Florida before the event to try to accelerate their chemistry and ability to work together on the court.
Starting with the women’s doubles, BLQK started strong with a tight victory 21-19. Turning to men’s doubles, BLQK’s strategy was to play fast, play aggressive, and target Kyle Yates, while the Hard Eight’s looked to target Rafa Hewett. This strategy seemed to overpower the Hard Eights (including one ace spin serve from Zane Navratil—to note, this may be the last MLP event with the spin serve, as the spin serve is likely to be outlawed in 2023), as BLQK took the victory 21-14.
Turning to mixed doubles with the score tied 1-1, Kyle Yates and Cierra Gaytan-Leach faced Rafa Hewett and Irina Tereschenko. In a close game, BLQK continued its powerful play and took the lead by winning the game 21-18. As a result, the Hard Eights had a must-win final mixed doubles match between Jorja Johnson and Andrei Daescu for the Hard Eights versus Parris Todd and Zane Navratil for BLQK. This final mixed doubles game came down to the last few points, as the game was tied as late as 18-18. However, BLQK cruised on the last few points to win 21-18.
BLQK used their energy and chemistry to propel them to yet another championship (and another $100,000). Further, BLQK team member Parris Todd rose above the rest to claim MVP for the event.
BLQK now seems to have solidified themselves as a dominant force in Major League Pickleball, winning 3 out of the last 4 MLP events.
Congrats to BLQK!
And, to quote MLP champion Zane Navratil again, “MLP… There is nothing else like it. Can’t wait until next year!”