Editor’s note: This is the second story about Travis’ adventure to play in Doha. If you missed the first, and it was something, click here, and be sure to return and read on.
I have no ambition of one day playing in the Olympic Games.
Many who are on the outskirts of the beach volleyball world — and also many who are deep in it — don’t entirely understand the appeal of playing internationally. Why travel all this way, spend all this money, if the Olympics aren’t the end goal?
What am I doing traveling to Qatar?
There is an open window on Qatar Airlines, coasting above the Persian Gulf, a gigantic, glittering gemstone, that I’d like to show those who ask these questions.
It’s stunning, this view, similar to flying into Hawai’i. It’s just a bit less green, but the water, the type of beauty, is virtually the same: so clear you feel as if you can see all the way down to the sand at the bottom. I spend the final 40 or so minutes of our flight staring out the window, looking at the Gulf, knowing, unequivocally, that this was all worth it: the COVID circus, injury, delayed visas, hemming and hawing.
It’s a mighty big place, this world.
Beach volleyball is allowing me to see it.
If only, of course, Adam Roberts and I can leave our hotel room.
We are tested for COVID upon arrival at the Doha International Aiport, a $17 billion masterpiece that is more small city than it is airport. After a few hours of waiting, chatting with an equestrian rider from Ireland — did you know there’s an equestrian tour? — to pass the time, we’re picked up and taken to the Ezdan Hotel.
Our temperatures are checked, our bags disinfected by some kind of fog machine, and we are escorted to our hotel rooms, where we are to wait until the results of our COVID test come in. How we’ll receive those results, we have no idea, but the tournament director insists the CDC will give him a call.
We are told the results will come back in a maximum of 12 hours. It’ll leave us plenty of time to train on Sunday, which may or may not be one day before the qualifier, but to be honest, we really don’t know. We’ve asked three representatives when the qualifier begins, and have received different answers. Two say Monday, one says Tuesday.
Either way, there is little we can do about it now.
The waiting begins.
As far as hotel quarantines go, we might have hit the lotto. Our room is great, on the 34th floor. The view is marvelous, overlooking the city, where many of the buildings seem to have been taken straight off the set of Aladdin, with a modern, futuristic twist to it.
Our beds are comfortable, the room spacious enough to stretch and roll out. This is good news, because we’ll spend a lot of time in this room. The staff couldn’t be nicer. We call for food around 7 the next morning, a few hours after we stopped fighting for sleep and simply gave in, and they deliver eggs, sausage, coffee, tea, and fruit. I read, write. Adam plays chess. We watch movies: 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, Baywatch, Pacific Rim, Gone Girl. I FaceTime Delaney. We play more chess. Around 2, we head downstairs, to see if anybody has gotten word of our COVID tests. No dice.
Back to the room.
I’m a compulsive email checker, yet there are no emails to check, given that everyone I know is fast asleep. I lay on the floor and set to myself hundreds of times. Pass to myself. Pokies, tomahawks. I fidget constantly. I put on a few bands and get in a light workout. Adam naps. I fidget more, stretching, setting, passing.
I text the tournament director, ask if he’s heard of our COVID results. I also ask an official when the schedule will be released, whether we play on Monday or Tuesday. He says Monday. We’ve now asked four people when the qualifier is, and have a split result: two say Monday, two say Tuesday. Not that it really matters at the moment. We’re in this hotel either way.
Adam wakes from his nap. We mull around for another hour or so, looking longingly at the Doha skyline. We planned on training at 3 p.m. We’ve blown well past it.
We figure we may as well go down to the lobby, check if our results have come in. They haven’t, but we stay there anyway. It’s 6 p.m. now, 25 hours since we took the test, 13 more than the airport said it would take.
We just stay in the lobby to wait it out.
Dariq, the tournament director, senses our unease. He begins to make calls, then has someone else also making calls. Adam and I chat with Ahmed Atta and Atef Nassif, who just arrived from Egypt and are also awaiting their COVID results. We talk about the AVP, which they both follow. Ahmed even has a Wilson AVP bag. He invites us to Cairo to train with them, whenever we’d like.
I now have Egyptian friends.
I love this sport.
There’s some commotion at Dariq’s table. He looks over at us, excitedly pointing at his phone.
“Negative!” he says. “Negative!”
Our results are in! We’re negative!
We are cleared to do what we’ve come here to do.
I jump up and down. We fist bump every official and player there. Dariq is genuinely happy for us, smiling ear to ear.
“You train?” he asks, despite the training window having been closed, with the latest time slot ending at 8 p.m.
“Yes yes yes we’d love to train we’d love to train right now if we can if that’s OK.”
We thank him profusely.
“It is my job,” he says, smiling.
Amazing man, Dariq.
He calls the bus driver over, and the driver nods, waves us over. We are outside! We are moving! We are on our way to train to train to train! As we drive, the city, already stunning, suddenly has new light, a new flair. I stare out the windows as we drive. Adam and I hold tight onto our volleyballs, making jokes about not celebrating too early, about not dropping them on the 1-yard-line, as Tyreek Hill did in an NFL game this year.
We make that joke again when, 15 minutes later, the gates to the facility, a sprawling complex in Al Gharafa with dozens of soccer fields, a beautiful basketball arena, and a sizable beach volleyball stadium, are closed. We try a back alley on a dirt road that is, in retrospect, clearly a construction site. It’s a dead end. I look at Adam.
We hold tighter onto our volleyballs; we’re not dropping these things on the 1-yard line.
Our driver tries another route, taking us a few minutes past the complex, then around to the back entrance. And there we find it: An open gate. He drops us off.
We have one hour.
“One hour is great one hour is wonderful thank you thank you thank you so much.”
After 17 hours on planes, five in airports, and 26 in a hotel, it’s the best hour of my daggum life.
We don’t so much run as we leap, jump, skip, bound our way to the sand. It’s gorgeous, this site. Doha is, per capita, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and it spared no expense at this facility, nor, it seems, any building in the city. The sand is sugar white and deep as Hermosa, deeper, if you ask the locals, like Cherif Samba, Qatar’s supremely talented blocker who will soon be competing in his second Olympics. I abandon my usual, regimented warm-up routine of bands and stretching and just run run run around the sand.
I am alive. The colors are brighter. The air fresher. My eyes wider, clearer.
I love this game.
Later, around 11 p.m. Canadian Scott Hettermann, a friend of Adam’s, swings by. We talk about the marvel that is beach volleyball, the places it takes you, the people you meet.
Like Hettermann, for instance.
The guy’s lived here for 10 years and, for two of those years, was the personal trainer to the prime minister. He traveled the world, training the prime minister, regaling hysterical stories and also a few not so funny ones, like that time he found himself surrounded by a small army of cops in — if I remember correctly — Libya, AK 47s pointed at his chest, yelling at him in a language he didn’t know, so he panicked and tried to speak French, which he took in fourth grade. This did not work.
It wasn’t funny at the time, but now it’s quite uproarious, similar to how he’s competing for Canada yet is about as Canadian as I am Asian.
His mom was born in Canada and lived there for about a month, which made her a citizen. Seeing as he was living in the Middle East for an extended period of time, he figured it would be wiser to have a Canadian passport rather than a U.S. one. Because his mom was a Canadian citizen, he was able to secure a Canadian passport. When he told the Canadian federation that he was living in Doha, and that he’d love to represent Canada in whatever events were close, they gave him the green light to do so.
So here he is, a guy who grew up in Washington D.C., who went to a high school I covered when I worked for The Washington Post, who lived in Santa Monica and wants to move back to Hermosa soon, currently living in Doha, who once trained one of the more powerful individuals in the Middle East, who is buddies with one of the best teams on the planet, representing Canada in a beach volleyball event.
As inconvenient as this week-long quarantine bubble life will become at times, it’s also, as most things are, a blessing in disguise: Because of this bubble, I’ll get to learn more about the lives and livelihoods of more players — like Hettermann — in this event than I do most AVPs.
Hettermann becomes an immediate friend, just a guy who will stroll into room unannounced and hang with the boys.
When he rolls out around midnight, I read one or two pages of Wright Thompson’s book, The Cost of These Dreams, before my eyes get heavy. There is no more inner toil about this event, no more wondering if we made the right choice to come, if the universe was giving us some subtle, and some not so subtle, cues that we should stay home.
I have only peace, excitement, exhilaration. I knock out before Adam hits the lights.
I sleep as well as I have in weeks.
Monday, February 22
The beach volleyball world is a small one.
Traveling with Adam Roberts somehow makes it smaller. It was Roberts who knew Scott Hettermann, who will become an invaluable resource on this very strange trip of ours.
The only players I know in this event are Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan, the top-seeded Qataris, and I don’t actually know them. I just know of them, because they’re one of the best teams in the world and I’ve watched hours upon hours of them on YouTube.
Adam has scheduled us a practice with a Russian team, Dan Kuvichka and Anton Kislytsyn, who won gold at a one-star in Malaysia and silver at a one-star in Liechtenstein in 2019. They’re an excellent team, something Adam is familiar with because, well, he lived with the guy.
For two months, Kuvichka lived with Adam in Myrtle Beach. For six weeks after that, Adam lived with Kuvichka in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Kuvichka showed him around. Most importantly, he showed Adam how to drink vodka like the Russians do.
“You have no idea,” Adam says, in a voice that suggests he enjoyed his Russian experience, but likely wouldn’t go on a six-week vodka-fueled bender again.
At practice, we are smacked around, which is discouraging but also expected. It’s the first time Adam’s had a full jump in more than two weeks, and the first we’ve been on the court together since January of 2020. It’s a little concerning, but not an emergency by any means.
We’re not all too worried.
Neither, of course, is Cherif Samba, the top seed in the tournament who will go on to win without dropping a set, though there are very few things in this world that could rankle Cherif.
It’s hours later when Cherif unfolds himself into the chair across from me at dinner, a 6-foot-6 mess of limbs.
The first time I saw Cherif play beach volleyball was in 2016, when my partner at the time, DR Vander Meer, sent me a video of him winning his first event in Kish Island, Iran, stuffing Oleg Stoyanovskiy and Artem Yarzutkin to win a gold medal. At first, I thought it must have been a fluke.
Qatar winning a gold medal?
Cherif, and his somewhat startling success, is no fluke. Six months after that win in Iran, Cherif and his partner, Jefferson Santos Pereira, claimed ninth at the Rio Olympics, becoming the first Qatari beach volleyball team to compete in an Olympic Games.
Cherif is to Qatar beach volleyball as Karch Kiraly and Sinjin Smith are to the U.S., what Anders Mol and Christian Sorum are to Norway, Ricardo and Emanuel to Brazil. He’s a trailblazer. When Jefferson, a native of Rio who was recruited to play for Qatar, retired in 2018, it would have been easy to assume that Qatar would have taken a sizable step back. Brazil produces more high-level beach volleyball players than any country in the world, and Qatar just lost its Brazilian.
World-class beach volleyball players are not exactly jumping off the assembly line in Cherif’s hometown of Dakar, Senegal.
Yet it was Cherif who has proved to be the glue of the Qatari team.
Tijan, a Gambian who had been playing for an indoor team in Qatar, was plucked off the hardwood and moved to the sand. They took bronze in their third tournament, in Doha of 2018, beating Mol and Sorum, Poland’s Michal Bryl and Grzegorz Fijalek, and Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena for the medal.
It’s Lucena’s name that gets Cherif rolling at dinner.
He tells a little-known story about Lucena and Dalhausser, how, in 2004, Qatar recruited the two Floridians to play for the national team. They’d get paid travel, stipends with a livable wage, a shot at the Olympic Games. Dalhausser and Lucena hadn’t yet competed for the USA, so they had no federation obligations, nor had they made their breakthrough, one year away from their first victory, in Austin of 2005. They agreed to compete for Qatar, even got all the way to the airport when, upon arrival, they discovered that they didn’t have any tickets.
Four years later, Dalhausser won a gold medal.
To this day, every time Cherif sees Lucena, he jokes that he should be playing with him.
A gigantic goofball, Cherif. He’s amiable, joking in the gym, at the buffet, poking fun at his fellow Qataris, poking fun at everyone. A walking — and constantly talking — extrovert, Cherif’s the type who’s able to sit down at dinner with a few Americans he’s never met and talk about things deeper than volleyball. He chats about life with his new son, how it’s hard to be away from him with the bubble and all, but wow is he sleeping better. Or religion, and how Muslims allow multiple wives, but he doesn’t have any interest in marrying another, that he adores his wife, to whom he’s been married for a little more than a year now. We bond over our wedding anniversaries being just days off from one another.
He speaks in a lilting West African accent that sounds vaguely French and is a perfect match for his overall easygoing demeanor.
Tijan, Cherif’s partner for the previous two seasons, sits a few tables down. They’re the same age, both 25, from a similar corner of the world in West Africa. Yet they couldn’t be more different.
Imagine the team captain of your football team, the guy who was voted Homecoming King, who also earned a 4.0 and was beloved by every teacher and probably accumulated more community service hours than anyone in your school. That’s Tijan.
He’s serious, yet unfailingly polite. He will say good morning, give you a fist bump — no high-fives in this COVID bubble — every time you see him. He will thank the waitresses and staff profusely. He will smile wide and genuine. But he’s not here to mess around. He leaves the jokes, the fun times, to Cherif.
When Doha hosted the ANOC World Beach Games, Cherif and Hettermann took the Americans out to the bars and clubs, showed them a good time. Tijan stayed at home.
It’s a balance that works.
None of this is a concern of Cherif’s at the moment. He doesn’t know who is in front or ahead of him in the Olympic race, only that he has a tournament to win this weekend, and another up ahead with the upcoming four-star.
Adam and I, meanwhile, have no idea who is still in front or behind us in the qualifier. The entry list has been changing so fast, with teams dropping out at an alarming rate, that we have no clue who we play, or if we play at all.
I head down to the lobby to check for the latest updates. When I arrive, I’m greeted by Ahmed Atta, the Egyptian defender.
“Congratulations!” he says. “You’re in the main draw!”
We are. Kind of.
After a team in the main draw dropped out, Morocco was bumped in and Adam and I moved up to the top seed in the qualifier. But so many teams in the qualifier dropped out that there are only seven left, which gave us, the one seed, a double-bye.
I laugh at the craziness of it all: We began in the qualifier, moved into the main draw, then slid back into the qualifier, then back some more, then snuck all the way back up into the main draw.
It gives us one more much-needed day to train.
Tuesday, February 23
Groundhog’s Day in the bubble begins.
With no qualifier to play today, Tuesday becomes the exact same as Monday: We eat breakfast, return to the room for movies, reading, and writing. When the breakfast has settled, we hit the gym — core, front squats, stretch — grab lunch, and head to practice.
Because we found out so late that we were in the main draw, there is only one team left who doesn’t yet have training set up: Qatari’s Assam Mahmoud and Benlouaer Ziad. They’re indoor guys and don’t play much beach, but they’re huge, 6-foot-6 each, and it’ll be good to get some touches. They have little interest in getting focused reps.
“Play a set?” they ask.
We play three sets and win two. We’re still off. Adam’s feeling rusty from his 16-day hiatus, and I haven’t yet settled in. Everything — the movements in the deep sand, finding Adam’s set, him finding mine — is just not quite right. We’re close, but we still make dumb mistakes. We have little rhythm.
As we drive back to the Ezdan Hotel, I notice how easy it is to forget that we’re in a foreign country. The signs have English markings as well as Arabic. The roads are in fantastic shape. The buildings are tall and bright. The drivers are bad.
“Sorry boys,” Benlouaer says, “this is how we do it in Doha.”
We all laugh, and it’s only further convinced me that every citizen of every city in the world will claim to have both the worst traffic and the worst drivers.
But Doha is a marvel, truly. It seems as if the city popped up overnight, and in a way, it sort of has. Benlouaer, a native Tunisian, has been living here since he was 9. In 2000, he explains, Qatar wanted to put itself on the map. The easiest, most expedient ways of doing this, he says, are to erect a booming city, and compile elite sports teams, both to host sporting events — such as the upcoming 2022 World Cup — and to compete well elsewhere. It explains why all the buildings are modern, none of them fitting the cookie cutter mold you’ll see in the cities that arose in the early days in the States, like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Every building has its own flair and style; one has a honeycomb design, another resembles the Space Needle; another has a palace-like look to it before rising high into the sky, blue glass towering out of clay
To assemble elite sports teams, Qatar began recruiting athletes from other countries, like Dalhausser and Lucena. Many of these athletes are from nearby Africa. It’s how Cherif and Ahmed came to represent Qatar, and why only two of the eight Qatari athletes in this tournament are native Qataris and hold Qatari citizenship.
It is almost impossible to become a Qatari citizen. Josh Lichty, a Canadian player who will lose in the qualifier with Hettermann, recently had a child here in Doha. He laughed when I asked if his child had dual citizenship.
“Oh, no,” he said. “They take that serious.”
There are 2.6 million people living in Qatar, yet only 313,000 are actual citizens of the country; 88 percent of the population are foreigners, mostly Indian. The few Qatari citizens are showered with fairly lavish benefits: They do not pay taxes, are given plots of land and live off a relatively posh universal basic income. The tax burden falls on foreigners either visiting as tourists or living here as migrant workers.
With foreigners picking up the tax burden, and the country sitting on a gas and petroleum pot of gold that accounts for more than 70 percent of the government’s revenue, the city is now comparable to Dubai in terms of extravagance and wealth.
If there’s a place that can comfortably house and support of bubble of elite athletes, a city that will meet every COVID demand to host an Olympic sporting event, Doha, Qatar is high on that list.
Wednesday, February 24: Game Day
It is rare, when you get to really know the athletes against whom you compete on the World Tour. You’ll exchange pleasantries. Shake hands. Chat about nothing in the players tent, when you actually speak the same language. The Doha Bubble is different. We are all staying on the same floor. We eat at the same times. We take the same buses. There’s a sense of community among this eclectic group. COVID, the same unseen force that has divided us all in such extreme manners, is the same one that is bringing together athletes from Canada to Gambia, Qatar to Hermosa Beach, Egypt to Poland.
I eat breakfast with Gambian defender Mbye Jarra.
He’s 21, has been living in Doha since he was 17, when a club team recruited him to play beach there. This is the same manner in which Cherif, who is Senegalese, and Tijan, a Gambian, came to Doha. Mbye (pronounced em-bay) and his blocker, Sainey Jawo, a 6-foot-10 willow tree of a 21-year-old, were thought to be the potential successors of Cherif and Tijan, or at least the No. 2 Qatari team.
I’m not sure why they’re not competing for Qatar, but part of me also believes that Mbye likes it this way. It’s easy to see how much Mbye loves his home country. He wears a ring on his left ring finger, and when I ask if he’s married, he laughs and says no, that it’s common practice for Gambian sons to wear rings for their mothers. He likes Doha, but it’s no Gambia, and in any event, he and Sainey are just one tournament away from qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics via the African Cup, which is their version of NORCECA.
“To be an Olympian … ” he says, trailing off. He shakes his head. Like many of us, he cannot imagine himself realizing what most would label as an outsized dream. There were just four Gambian athletes to compete in Rio, and only two in London. To add to that number would be an honor beyond what Mbye can describe.
So he simply shakes his head, grins at the thought of it.
The look says more than any word could.
It is with Mbye that my day begins. It is with Mbye that it will end.
In our first round of pool, Adam and I beat a talented young Polish team that finished second at the U22 European Championships 21-19, 21-18. I’d say more about the match but, to be honest, it was pretty straightforward. We sided out some, earned a few here and there, won a close one. Standard volleyball.
Mbye and Sainey beat a Qatari team, pitting us against one another in a 7 p.m. match to decide who wins pool and gets a bye to the quarterfinals. All week, Scott Hettermann, who adores the Gambians, has been telling me how good they are. But I’ve seen teams like this before, the ones with all the raw and explosive talent in the world, who have titanic swings and big serves but don’t pass or set all that well.
They might dunk on you, but they won’t beat you; they’re just too inconsistent to maintain it. I’ve been there plenty of times, my entire basketball career, really, and basically every NORCECA.
Yet we are down, fast and early.
Mbye is digging everything. He’s quicksilver fast on defense, chasing down some of Adam’s best shots, and has strong hands that are scooping everything hard driven. Adam and I both stress the need to be patient. Our run will come, it will come, it will…
We lose the first set, 17-21. Sitting in our box at the technical timeout, we don’t really have an answer. Sainey is 6-foot-10, with a wingspan that’s north of 7 feet. Mbye has all the time in the world to chase down shots.
He does not need all the time in the world; he’d chase down shots with a 6-foot-2 blocker.
Our lack of answers becomes immediately evident when, at the technical timeout, we’re down 12-9. We stay down, all the way to 16-13.
We side out, and Sainey swings line a little too low.
To describe momentum in sports is to describe forces like the wind and gravity: Unseen, yet undeniably felt. She’s a fickle minx, Momentum; when you get her, it’s best to hold on tight.
We hold on tight.
Looking across the net at Sainey in serve receive, his eyes are wide as saucers. He hasn’t been entirely controlled all match, but he’s at least been calm, collected, confident. He is no longer any of those things.
We take the lead, up 19-18 and siding out. They don’t crumble, not immediately, anyway. They hang on, and Adam sides out and sides out and sides out, a 45-year-old machine. We do enough to survive, 27-25, in one of the wackiest sets of volleyball I’ve played.
It’s a basic rule of sports that the longer a match or game or season is played, the odds of the better team or player winning increase. It’s just the law of averages, nothing more. Adam and I have more reps than the Gambians. We’ve ridden out the storm. The third set is ours.
It begins as anything but.
In a blink, we go down 4-8. Mbye continues making absurd plays, extending rallies, the type that we won almost all of against Poland but none against Gambia. They’ve controlled 95 percent of this match.
Then they righten up again.
Closing out a match is a skill only experience can teach; their experience is limited. It begins to show. Sainey makes a few passing errors. Mbye hits a few out. Adam and I are scrapping, 6-9, 9-11. We tie it at 12-12, and Mbye hands us a gift at the switch, hitting a cut shot into the net to put us up 13-12.
It’s the first lead we’ve had all set. We win a long rally on the next point.
The game-winning block pinballs between my arms.
One side out to win the match, to earn a berth into the quarterfinals. I do not know the last time I’ve been served. They’ve kept it on Adam all match, and we’ve switched sides repeatedly, putting him on the left and right, allowing him to find where he is most comfortable.
I’m on the left now, Adam on the right. Mbye pops in a serve right to my lap, and I very nearly let it go, so used to setting I am over the past hour. I’m funky on the left. It’s rare, for whatever reason, to see a lefty over there ,and that funk comes in handy. I slap a cut shot down, catching Mbye leaning towards the line.
We win a match we have no business winning, a match we led for maybe 10 total points over the course of an hour and 10 minutes. We grinded, scrapped, allowed no give-up.
Afterwards, Mohamed Abicha, the Moroccan defender who has played in three World Championships, approaches me.
“Your game is very beach,” he says, giving me a thumbs up. “Very beach, very good.”
It’s the best compliment you can give me: Telling me I’m a beach volleyball player.
Thursday, February 25: Quarterfinals
Cue the music.
The circus is beginning again.
I’ve done my Groundhog’s Day routine: breakfast, read, write, gym, shower, nap. Now we’re off, every athlete who needs to fly out within the next two days, piling into buses bound for a COVID drive-thru testing center.
In Qatar, you cannot get on a plane without providing proof of a negative test. We get on the buses at 3 p.m. and arrive at the drive-thru testing facility around 3:20.
Then we sit.
The drive-thru is, evidently, not the most expedient option. Here I must give our FIVB representative an enormous amount of credit. He explains the urgency of the situation to someone at the testing center, that there are players on the buses who are playing at 6 p.m., and we’re running out of time. Suddenly there are chairs and tables popping up, and we’re all getting those sticks jabbed up our noses.
Still: It’s 4:30 by the time we leave, 4:50 when we get to the hotel, which is half an hour from the site.
This is where this tournament is so invaluable. We’re the guinea pigs. We know it. The FIVB knows it. It’s the reason there’s a one-star at all: We are the test event, the dry run, where all the issues will become evident, and solutions can be brainstormed before the four-star this week, a tournament roughly six times the size.
A representative from the FIVB will tell us all of this when we arrive at Al Gharafa. Already, new protocols are being put in place. The four-star was supposed to be played at Katara Beach; that’s being changed, to Al Gharafa, where they can keep everyone contained. They’re constructing a new practice area, rearranging a sand soccer field to become a beach volleyball court. The drive-thru COVID test will not be done again. Airport pickups will be smoother.
While few care about the results of this event, the rest of the FIVB season hinges upon it.
“If we cannot run a tournament in Doha,” the representative says, “then other promoters will say ‘We cannot run a tournament here.’”
A one-star is perfect: It’s small, with only 16 teams in the main draw and one gender competing. The flaws, then, are manageable. All things considered, the tournament is running remarkably smooth, given the hoops and hurdles everyone must jump through and over.
It’s cold, too.
I didn’t expect to need a sweatshirt, but I’m bundled, watching our play-in match, between a pair of young but talented Russian teams, where one, Pavel Shustrov and Alexey Gusev, are the clear favorites, the inevitable winners.
It’s windy, too, at Al Gharafa. Up to 25 mile-per-hour gusts. Makes for quite a mess of things in the Russian match, as Gusev and Shustrov pull away and win with relative and not surprising ease.
I love wind ball. It favors the ball-control teams, the crafty ones, the ones who don’t take enormous sets and rely on banging. It favors technique over physicality, touch over power.
Wind ball is my kind of ball.
We are going to win.
I know it from the second I step on the sand. My legs feel as good as ever. My shots are crisp, swings strong and deep. I pass well, even through the gusts. Any doubts I had about beating this Russian team — and I had many, as I watched Shustrov make plays at a world-class level — are gone. They looked beatable in their match against their fellow Russians. Shustrov, a 6-foot-3 blocker, gets snippy with Gusev, a 6-foot-2 defender.
Shustrov is a supreme talent, maybe the third best player in this tournament, behind Cherif and Tijan. But he’s young, 20 years old, as is Gusev. He might be able to jump as high as anyone I know, with an arm swing and demeanor as smooth and self-assured as Taylor Crabb, but mentally, he checks out. Gets in ruts.
We decide to go at him, something no other team has tried yet. I tell Adam I’ll take all the swings. He needs only run down the shots, of which I’ve seen them hit very little. They’re physical, like most international teams. Like most international matches, it’s a blocker’s match.
I block Shustrov on the second point of the match, and pick up a few more throughout: a line swing here, angle there, delaying to swat a shot there. Adam is an absolute rock in serve receive, passing nails through abrupt gusts that come and go with no real rhyme or reason. We win the first set, 21-18, controlling most of it.
A note about the Russian federation: They are deeply talented, and only getting deeper. Up to 2012, they had traditionally been excellent indoors, but average on the beach. Then they made the switch, recruiting 7-footer Konstantin Semenov to play with Viacheslav Krasilnikov. They became one of the best teams in the world, finishing fourth at the 2016 Olympics. Now Krasilnikov is a World Champion with Oleg Stoyanovskiy, and behind them is a lengthy roster of elite teams and players: Ilya Leshukov and Semenov, Nikita Liamin and Tara Myskiv, Valeriy Samoday, Igor Velichko.
Now these two, Shustrov and Gusev, who are coming out of their boxes for the second set. They’ve been playing together for four years, since they were 16. They’ve taken a silver at a one-star, in Belgium, and are the back-to-back Junior European Champions.
They do what high-level teams do: They shift. It surprises me, to be honest. I expected two 20-year-olds to do what most 20-year-olds would do: Swing harder. It’s what I want them to do.
It is not what they do.
They drop their egos in the box. They begin shooting around. They carve, hitting delicate shots to the line, to the cut, high angle, short line. They’ve adjusted.
By the time Adam and I readjust, we are down 14-7.
We’re going three.
It’s an even ball game. They’ve shown us their cards, we’ve shown them ours. They’re done swinging. They’ve found success shooting, and they’ll keep doing it until we stop it.
But before we do anything on defense, we have to side out. We begin on the bad side, though it isn’t necessarily terrible. It’s windy, yes, but it’s a crosswind, and since Adam is taking the majority of the serves, I just take the bad wind side and we never really have to deal with it.
I’m on the right, he’s on the left, and Shustrov and Gusev are back to the brilliant talents they appeared to be the day before, when they whacked Morocco and gave Cherif and Tijan a good run in pool play. Gusev is making digs he didn’t make in the first; Shustrov’s timing on the block is impeccable.
We go down 4-1.
Four to one is not a death sentence. Not in this wind. We’re on the good side now. My serve is on for the first time all weekend. Adam’s float is dancing. We push back, switching 4-6, then 6-9, 9-11. We chip. A dig here. Block there. It’s 11-12 now. We’re on the bad side but that minx we love so much, Momentum, is on our side.
In tight situations, at the end of matches, players go to what they know: They hit their best shot. We play the percentages. Adam doesn’t bother giving me blocking calls anymore. I simply take swing, he takes shots. He serves Gusev, who we’ve ignored most of this match. He barrels in. I know he’s swinging. Given that he hasn’t swung line yet in this match, and I haven’t seen him do it in this tournament, I figure he won’t now, at 11-12. He doesn’t. He swings exactly where I want him to: into the angle, where my left hand is planted. It goes down.
I’m celebrating, screaming at Adam.
Then the ball’s back up.
Shustrov covered it, somehow, someway. Then Gusev dives to save the cover, somehow, someway.
They lob it over to Adam.
We’re fine, perfectly in system.
Adam tries a line shot but Shustrov swats it. Adam covers and tries it again but Shustrov, who is damn springy, gets a finger on it, buying just enough time for Gusev to chase it down. Shustrov lobs it back to Adam.
And here is the part of this weekend that will haunt me a bit. For 45 minutes, I have been the best player on the court. I don’t think I am the best player overall — Shustrov gets my vote — but tonight, I am.
I have an opportunity to put the ball away.
It is these moments we think of when we’re playing made-up games in our backyards and driveways. We count down 3 … 2 … 1 … then hit the game-winning 3-pointer. We have the bases loaded, full count, bottom of the ninth, and hit a grand slam. We serve an ace at the Manhattan Beach Open, knock down a 12-foot snake at the Masters. Sure, this is just a one-star, a teeny, tiny tournament most haven’t heard of or care about, but it’s all the same type of moment: Here I can assert myself, take control, tie this match up at 12-12.
I set instead.
Adam swings hard angle and Gusev makes another dig. I soft block Gusev’s ensuing line shot directly into Shustrov’s lap, who makes the gutsy but genius call to run a shoot set to the other pin. I meet him there but his shot is too high, too perfect.
Momentum has left us. The air is out of the proverbial sails. We call time out, regroup, but Shustrov blocks the next.
The lead is 14-11.
We lose two points later, 15-12.
I’m dumbfounded. I replay that point, over and over and over again. Why didn’t I option? Why didn’t I take advantage of a perfect set from Adam, with the defense scrambling, with at least a 90 percent chance of it going down?
All off-season, my coach, Evie Matthews, has been telling me that he wants to see me become the American Janis Smedins, a 6-foot-4 Latvian lefty who is a master at ball control and all things craft. He options as well as anyone in the world.
I had my shot.
I didn’t take it.
Two hours later, sitting in the hotel restaurant, the Russian coach comes over, hands me a piece of cake.
“Good match,” she says, smiling. She pats my shoulder and walks away.
These are the matches we remember. It is the highest of highs when we win them, as we did against Gambia, and the lowest of lows when we lose them. It’s why we play this game, why we travel the world, why we get on a flight to the Middle East despite the conflict raging inside.
I won’t go to the Olympics, but I’ll have these moments, I’ll meet these people, from all over the world.
So I sit there, in this restaurant in a bubble, wallowing a bit, but also reveling, and I’ll eat my cake in silence, knowing I’d do it all over again.