CHICAGO — Djordje Klasnic was all but unknown to even heavily invested Windy City AVP fans Friday when he stepped on Oak Street Beach. But with the first skyball he sent soaring into the warm morning air, heads started to turn.
Klasnic’s skyball looked as if it might reach the level of seventh- or eighth-floor balconies of high-rises on Lake Shore Drive that serve as a stunning urban backdrop to the strip of sand on Lake Michigan.
The buzz continued to grow on the outer courts as Klasnic kept launching Wilson AVP Optx volleyballs seemingly into near-earth orbit. Fans constantly chant, “Skyball, skyball, skyball,” at pro-beach players, but almost never do you see it in games, other than as a lark at the tail end of a lopsided match.
Klasnic used it as his regular serve, much to the delight of a growing crowd ringing Court 1 for the first-round match between the 28-year-old Serbian national and partner Sililia Tucker, seeded 14th in the 16-team men’s draw of the AVP Chicago Gold Series Open, and third-seeded Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander.
The Taylors were the freshly minted champions of the storied Manhattan Beach Open, the grandaddy of beach-volleyball tournaments. But Klasnic and Tucker unorthodox-ed Crabb and Sander off the court in a 21-18, 21-19 stunner that vividly displayed the value of tactics out of the ordinary.
If the love “ The Serbian Skyball Machine” received from fans at Oak Street is any indication — and if Klasnic can continue to climb up the seeding ladder — Djordje promises to become hugely popular in a hurry.
Although his Cinderella story took a left turn at Division later in the day when the underdogs were beaten in the second round, even that wasn’t a “bad loss.” Beach legend Phil Dalhausser, who has represented the USA in the last four Olympicss, and partner Avery Drost, the tourney’s No. 6 seeds, were pushed to three sets before prevailing 21-16, 18-21, 15-12 in 1 hour, 10 minutes.
And the fans at Oak will have at least one more opportunity to ooh and aah at Djordje’s majestic skyballs when he and Cook play on Saturday in the contenders bracket of the double-elimination event.
“I know people love that skyball. I love the skyball,” Klasnic said after knocking off the Taylors. “When I was a kid, I was serving the skyball for fun and all my friends were like, ‘You know, stop. You’re missing so many. You’re making fun of opponents.’ I was like, ‘It’s OK. It’s fun.’
“Slowly it became a weapon and, honestly, I believe I win more points with my skyball than with my float (serve). So why not?”
What percentage of skyballs does Klasnic normally get in?
“In practice, way more than the game,” he said with a laugh. “In real matches, it really varies. It varies on how I feel, if I’m loose or not. And it really varies if there is wind. If there’s wind, I score way more in the court. If there’s less wind, the ball tends to fly a little farther. Some matches it’s good, some matches it’s not, the same with jump serves, right”. So I’ve got to try it and see how it’s working.”
Klasnic admitted he doesn’t know precisely how high his skyball flies, saying, “I have this debate with friends that it’s higher than this building or higher than that building, but I have no idea. Sometimes it goes really, really high. I feel like if it goes over a certain height, it’s extremely hard to pass. If it’s below that height, it’s easy.”
Djordje said that he studied skyball masters such as Adrian Carambula, who represented Italy in the 2016 and 2021 Olympics and remains a podium threat on the FIVB Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour at age 35, and Floridian Dana Camacho.
“I watch a lot of tape on Carambula, who’s the best skyball player in the world,” he said. “I watch the slow motion trying to figure out how he hits it and try to copy it. Adrian is in the top 10 in the world, so there’s something in the skyball that definitely works.
“The players are just not used to it – it’s impossible to practice against it, right? There are only a couple of us in the world who serve skyballs, so how can you practice passing it?”
The analogy to the skyball from another sport would be the knuckleball pitcher, who has gone extinct in big-league baseball. Just as the late Phil Niekro, “Knucksie,” baffled batters with his soft flutter ball, Klasnic’s skyball, cracked violently with tremendous backspin, consternated the Taylors, leading to Djordje’s “best win ever. We had nothing to lose against the Taylors. We hit them with everything we got and it worked.
“I’ve never beaten a team that high seeded. I have huge respect for them — they’ve achieved so much and are great players. I would even say that we were lucky just to have a good game. Still it’s a big boost of confidence for the future.”
The Serbian Skyball Machine had slogged in the lower levels of the international and European tours, even at the Youth and Under Age levels, since 2012, representing his native country without gaining significant career traction. In an effort to get better training, he relocated to the Fort Lauderdale area in Florida in 2017, and four summers later, he moved to Southern California, settling eventually in Hermosa Beach. After establishing U.S. residency, Klasnic was granted his green card that allowed him to play on the domestic tour.
“It’s my first season on the AVP and I’m super-stoked,” he said. “I’m so stoked just to be allowed to play and I’m just enjoying so much playing in every match.”
This weekend’s Chicago tour stop, the final Gold Series event on the AVP schedule, was just the second tournament together for the somewhat unlikely team of Klasnic and Tucker. They partnered up before the Manhattan Beach Open two weeks ago and finished 13th in a 32-team field.
Klasnic, who stands 6-foot-4 but laughed that he is “a small jumper,” blocks for the pair, even though he is better suited as a defender. Tucker, 28, a 6-footer, scampers on “D.”
“We’re here to surprise people, playing ‘small ball,’ “ Djordje said. “We’re two small players running a technical, fast offense, moving a lot on defense, serving different spots. We play more on technique than physicality, just because we don’t have that high reach.”
With a confidence-building victory over the team that just won the MBO, that small ball –and skyball — paid off big.
The other significant upset Friday on the men’s side came when 12th-seeded Tim Bomgren and Paul Lotman worked overtime twice to bounce fifth-seeded Chaim Schalk and Tri Bourne 24-22, 28-26 in a one-hour slugfest. But Bomgren-Lotman could not consolidate their gain and were sent to the contenders bracket in a contentious tussle by the No. 4 seeds, Chase Budinger and Miles Evans, 23-21, 21-19.
Cody Caldwell went 1-1 in his return to Chicago with energetic partner Seain Cook. Caldwell and Cook were in fine form during an 8-9 battle against fellow MBO semifinalists Hagen Smith and Logan Webber 21-15, 23-21. On Stadium Court, with a crowd that pretty much filled the 16-row lakeside bleachers, a rarity for a Friday, top-seeded Miles Partain and Andy Benesh gained early separation in the third set for a 21-11, 17-21, 15-9 victory over Caldwell and Cook.
To start the third, Pertain and Benesh switched serving tactics to target Caldwell, who shanked three serves that led to real points, and was whistled for a hands violation as his team fell behind 7-2. That proved to be too wide of a margin to close.
“Well, we lost to the top seed in three,” a realistic Caldwell said, “and they’re one of the top teams in the world. It’s a double-elimination tournament so we’re not done yet. We’ll be ready against whoever we play tomorrow.”
Top women’s teams take care of business
The first two rounds of the AVP Chicago women’s draw saw the 1, 2, 3 and 4 seeds go unbeaten. Coming off their title in the MBO, fourth-seeded Betsi Flint and Julie Scoles survived a pair of three-set scares, weathering 13th-seeded Kimberley Hildreth and Teegan Van Gunst 21-16, 17-21, 24-22, and No. 6 seed Sarah Pavan and Geena Urango 14-21, 21-19, 15-11.
The highest-seed pair to be shuttled to the contenders bracket in the first round was No. 5 Corrine Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn, who were bounced by Pavan-Urango 21-16, 21-18.
No. 1 seeds Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss, the defending Chicago champions, put together workmanlike victories over No. 16 Devon Newberry and Katie Horton (21-12, 21-17) and No. 8 Hailey Harward and Kelley Kolinske (21-18, 21-18).
“We are so excited to be back in Chicago,” Nuss said. “We love the Chicago AVP and just hope to keep this momentum going. The talent on the AVP is among the best in the world and every match is a battle.”
The pairings for the winners bracket third round are Kloth-Nuss vs. Flint-Scoles and No. 2 Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes vs. No. 3 Melissa Humana-Parades and Brandie Wilkerson. All four teams rank in the top 11 in total points in qualifying on the world tour for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Competition on Saturday will begin at 8:30 a.m. Central with elimination matches in the first round of the contenders bracket. Oak Street Beach is expected to be just as sun-kissed as on opening day, with virtually no threat of rain and temperatures forecast to climb into the mid-80s by the time play winds up at roughly 5 p.m.
Click here for Friday’s results, Saturday’s schedule and the AVP brackets.