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A Season of Change for the Brooklyn Aces

How new players and a renewed focus helped the Brooklyn Aces close out the first half of the Major League Pickleball season.

Boardroom brought you an exclusive behind-the-scenes look in February at how Major League Pickleball‘s Brooklyn Aces became a franchise.

It was the first piece in a series that included a March deep-dive on how the Aces roster was constructed and the results of the team’s first-ever tournament in Mesa, Arizona.

An April follow-up explored how the roster changed, how the ladies of the Aces took command of the team, and offered up a recap of MLP’s second event of the season in Daytona Beach.

In our next exploration, we’re here to provide an exclusive look at how the roster changed before the Aces’ third and final event of the season in MLP’s Challenger Division in San Clemente, California, and the four-player roster’s overall thoughts on their tenure with the team, as well as a look forward to a new beginning in the Premier Division for the season’s second half.

Changes Leading Into San Clemente

Following the Aces’ seventh-place finish in Daytona, Brooklyn was forced to replace the amazing Corrine Carr, who gave birth to a beautiful baby boy on May 7, Adam Christopher (AJ) Stone Jr. Carr withdrew from June 15-19 San Clemente tournament, leaving a women’s roster spot for the team to fill.

Shortly after Daytona Beach, teams in both the Premier and Challenger Levels had the opportunity to add and drop players via a waiver system set in reverse order based on league standings.

With the league’s No. 5 pick in the add/drop period, Brooklyn had the opportunity to bring in a player who would help propel the team to strong results in the final Challenger event before the Aces switch to Premier and draft an entirely new roster.

That player turned out to be Martina Frantova, a former college tennis star and assistant coach based in Florida.

“Martina didn’t have a ton of pro pickleball experience when we picked her up but came from a really strong tennis background given she played D1 tennis at N.C. State,” Samin Odhwani, 35V’s director of business operations, told Boardroom. “For our 3rd event, I thought it was important we continued to get more athletic as a team, and Martina fit that mold. Also given where we picked, there weren’t a ton of options in the waiver draft. So I felt like taking a swing on someone with strong past experience and some solid recent results would be good for our team.”

Frantova was told she was selected by the Aces two hours after a conversation with Odhwani discussing pickleball and her game, she said, calling everyone on the team warm and welcoming upon her arrival in San Clemente. It was a steep learning curve for Frantova to learn how to communicate with her new teammates on the fly heading into a crucial three-match group stage.

She ended up playing with Rob Nunnery in mixed doubles and Hurricane Tyra Black in women’s doubles after Hurricane’s stellar debut performance in Daytona Beach. Black said that she and Frantova are both very aggressive players and had to figure out how to navigate that dynamic on the court. Frantova said Latino reggaeton like Daddy Yankee pumps her up before a match, and the Aces needed her energy heading into the tournament.

“Martina’s got a lot of fire and energy as our latest pickup,” Nunnery told Boardroom, “So I was excited to get on the court with her and make a push. One of the challenges in getting a new player coming in is you have to adjust on the fly and gel and get used to their on-court style and try to mesh.”

After dropping the first three games of the group stage to D.C. Pickleball Team following a long Southern California rain delay, Nunnery and Frantova took the final game 21-9 to salvage some consolation from an opening match defeat.

A win from Nunnery and Greg Dow in men’s doubles against Dallas Pickleball Club was all the Aces would get in another 3-1 defeat in match two. Under the lights against the Orlando Squeeze, the Aces took both men’s and women’s doubles before Orlando forced a DreamBreaker which Brooklyn won 21-18 to win the match.

Going 1-2 in Group C was, however, not enough for the Aces to advance to the San Clemente playoffs.

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Learning Lessons from the First Half of the MLP Season

For the Aces’ four players, it was the end of the road after a five-month Challenger Division season.

While the team’s female players had to change because of Carr and Cierra Gaytan-Leach departing, Nunnery and Dow were on the team throughout. The biggest thing Nunnery learned as an Ace was that with all of MLP’s tiebreakers, every point matters.

“Even if we’re down in a match, keep fighting because it’s a big deal,” Nunnery said.

Nunnery knew there would be challenges on a changing roster and that he had to be the captain of a team for the first time since he was the varsity tennis captain in college. He had to adjust to being more aggressive and lead by example with his energy, which Nunnery admitted he didn’t do the best job of over the first two events. Part of Nunnery’s job was to coalesce with Dow, an unproven player drafted with the Aces’ final selection late in the fourth round.

“It was exciting to get drafted because I was definitely borderline,” Dow told Boardroom. “The biggest thing for me was just letting them do their thing and me covering my 30% of the court.”

Dow quickly learned that in MLP with the rally scoring format, anyone could win any given match. So even if you’re the better or worse player, you can win. Striking the line between confidence, and not overconfidence, quickly became key. He admitted his biggest weakness was being a better, mixed player while trying to maximize his height and length on the court. As Dow’s got more reps, he said he’s developed into a more well-rounded player, including in mixed doubles with Hurricane.

“Their styles matched up well together,” Nunnery said. “Greg’s known as a right-side specialist and Hurricane’s much better on the left. So in mixed, that’s a little unusual. You don’t usually see the guy on the right. They progressed a lot.”

From playing pro tennis in Turkey in February to being on the Aces in March, it was a steep learning curve for Black in MLP. But her abilities on the court were evident early on, immediately grabbing not just the attention of her teammates, but the entire league.

“Hurricane was maybe the best GM move of this year at MLP because she’s just such a stud,” Dow said.

Black said she loved MLP’s team atmosphere. She traveled solo during her tennis career and her favorite thing to do was playing doubles, so the Aces provided the best of both worlds in that regard. Balancing dealing with the Aces’ different personalities with being both patient and aggressive on the court helped Black by having a built-in support system.

Getting feedback from her teammates was especially important for a newer player like Hurricane with a ton of obvious natural pickleball ability. And that feedback needed to translate to adjustments immediately based on the high-pressure nature of the MLP format, which necessitated Black to improve really quickly on the fly.

An Exceptional Experience On and Off the Court

When it came to how the Aces treated its players off the court, Nunnery, Dow, and Black all agreed they were lucky to end up where they did. Dow heard of other teams where owners weren’t as accommodating to their players and teammates didn’t get along.

“MLP is interesting right now,” Nunnery said. “There’s not a set standard in terms of how to take care of players and what teams, owners, and GMs are meant to provide. The Aces did an amazing job taking care of us. They covered our lodging, our food when we’re at these events, and not everybody gets that. It’s been really nice having that support from the ownership in terms of  feeling like we’re pro athletes and at a pro event.”

Nunnery also liked how MLP gave players an opportunity to get more exposure for themselves and their teams.

“There’s always things that you look back in hindsight and want to change and wish you would’ve done differently,” he said. “I just don’t think we had the energy we needed to break through and compete. There were some unfortunate points and matches, but it’s been a good run. It’s been a lot of fun competing for the Aces, and it’s sad wrapping it up.”

Dow, Nunnery, Black, Frantova, and the rest of Major League Pickleball will now go back into draft pools for both the Premier and Challenger Divisions.

With the Aces moving into the top tier for the final three tournaments of the MLP season, the focus now shifts to the managerial side to prepare for a new draft and a run that will determine the franchise’s long-term fate.

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About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.