In an “ordinary” Olympic year, the results of the European Championships this past weekend in Jurmala, Latvia — victories for the Norwegian men and Swiss women — would quite frankly not have much interest on this side of the Atlantic and would generate some raised eyebrows at best on the Continent.
But, as this is no ordinary year, the Euros would end up as THE most important and significant tournament in the world on the men’s side for 2020 and featured a Who’s Who of top global talent.
For instance, all three medalists from last year’s World Championships were in Jurmala. Five of the top eight, including the silver and bronze medalists from the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 were in attendance.
The Europeans could provide a referendum and a status update on the world-champion Russians, Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy. And also on the silver medalists, Germans Clemens Wickler and Julius Thole.
Were the latter one-hit wonders on home soil in Hamburg or the real deal? What about the Olympic silver medalists, the Italians, Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo? They seem to be a team that peaks every four years at the Games but are erratic in between. Meanwhile, what to make of the Dutch, Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, the Olympic bronze medalists and the 2013 World Champions? Are they over-the-hill? And what of the unheralded Swiss team, Florian Breer, just 21, and Marco Krattiger, 26, the winners of the King of the Court tournament in Utrecht, Netherlands, the week before the Euros.
But perhaps the biggest question marks rested with the Norwegian Wunderkinds, Anders Mol, still only 24, and his 23-year-old partner Christian Sorum.
From July, 2018 through early September, 2019, this precocious duo played 15 FIVB tournaments, winning a whopping 11 of them, with a second, two thirds and a fifth, the best run any team had experienced in at least a decade. All that being said, in the biggest and most important stage of 2019, the Worlds, they ran into the German buzzsaw of Thole and Wickler and their 12,500 partisan flag weaving, noise making fans. Mol and Sorum came away with the bronze, but the disappointment was clearly etched on their faces, and perhaps a question lingered whether the moment was too big for them at that stage of their career.
Losses in pool play for the third-seeded Germans, Thole and Wickler; the fifth-seeded Italians, Lupo and Nicolai, (a real head scratching, 21-11, 17-21, 12-15 loss to the 28th seeded Byelorussians Aliaksandr Dziadkou and Pavel Piatrushka) and the sixth seeded Dutch duo of Brouwer and Meeuwsen created some do-or-die matches in the single elimination first round where the Italians beat the Germans. The Dutch lost to the lowest seeded team in the tourney, 32nd-seeded Austrians Christoph Dressler and his 35-year-old 5-11 partner Alexander Huber (a favorite of American player Miles Partain) in a real shocker.
In the second round (loser gets ninth), the fourth-seeded home-country Latvians, Martins Plavins — the Olympic bronze medalist from back in 2012 — and Edgars Tocs fell in straight sets to Lupo and Nicolai, who were, as usual, the most unpredictable team in the tournament.
In the quarterfinals, perhaps the most intriguing match-up took place between the 11th-seeded Russians, Nikita Liamin and Taras Myskiv, and the 25th-seeded Breer and Krattiger. One of those unheralded teams would make the semis.
The 34-year-old Liamin was a superb indoor player before turning his attention to the beach in 2014. Only two years later he would make the Russian Olympic team, and playing with Dmitri Barsouk, ended up being the surprise of the tournament, taking home fifth,which included an elimination-round win over Brasil’s Evandro and Pedro playing on their home soil in Rio. A year after that, playing with Krasilnikov, the Russians took the bronze medal at the World Championships. Liamin’s new partner, the 24-year-old Myskiv, is another one of a plethora of European youngsters who are seemingly ready to contend for Olympic medals in Tokyo.
And in Jurmala, the Russians had no problem with the Swiss, advancing to the semis, where they played their countrymen, Liamin’s old partner, Krasilnikov, and Stoyanovskiy. Meanwhile, in the top quadrant of the draw, Mol and Sorum won in two squeaker sets over Nicolai and Lupo, 27-25 and 21-19.
The match-up everybody wanted was in place, the two top seeds, and what appeared to be, inarguably, the two best teams in the world, for a significant prize.
Krasilnikov, 29, as a defender has really come into his own ever since hooking up in 2019 with the imposing 6-9, 23-year-old Stoyanovskiy. They had instant success their first year together with two wins before their seminal victory at the Worlds in Hamburg, and only one big blemish, a ninth in Doha. Their record against Mol and Sorum was knotted up at two apiece. One of their matches was an instant classic in Warsaw in the summer of ’19 two weeks before the Worlds, where the Norwegians prevailed, 25-23, 19-21, 23-21.
So the anticipation for this final in Jurmala could not be any greater.
But, Mol and Sorum were not going to let another one get away on the big stage. They took it to the Russians, 21-19, 21-15, for the gold medal.
“To be honest, we didn’t have the best preparation,” Sorum told VolleyballMag.com shortly after the victory. “Anders has been injured for the last two months. We were ready to play King of the Court tournament last week but the injury got worse. And we were sooooo close from pulling out.
“We had a big discussion the day before. We even flew down another player that could step in for Anders. But we played better and better every match and ended up winning the whole tournament, and that’s just insane.”
When asked about the rivalry with the Russians, Sorum said, “It’s hard to tell because there are so many good teams out there. We have won some tournaments these last two years but it hasn’t been easy, sometimes lucky. But I guess it’s a reason why we are ranked one and two in the World.
“And when people talk about the perfect final they often say, Norway vs. Russia. That means a lot.”
The bronze-medal match had more drama to it with Nicolai and Lupo capping off a crazy week with a three-set win over Liamin and Myskiv.
The nexus of power on the women’s side remains in Brazil and the United States, so the Euros, although hotly contested, contained little of the intrigue that punctuated the men’s side of the draw.
To a large degree, it was expected to be a coronation of sorts for the defending champions, the Latvians’ own Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka. Graudina, just 22, and well known to USA beach fans as a two-time All-American at USC, won the Euros with Kravcenoka last year as the 20th seeds. This time out, as the fifth seed and playing on home soil, the path seemed to be a lot easier to navigate.
The first surprise in Jurmula was in pool play, where third-seeded Joana Heidrich and Anouk Verge-Depre of Switzerland lost to Germany’s Victoria Bieneck and Isabel Schneider in three and were the only one of the top eight seeds relegated to an extra round of single-elimination play.
It was in the second round (loser takes ninth) of the single elim where all hell broke loose in the draw.
Kim Behrens and Cinja Tillman of Germany, one of five teams from the deep German squad present in Jurmala, stunned the top seeds Tanja Huberli and Nina Betschart of Switzerland, 21-18, 21-15. The Swiss were the top European team at the Worlds placing fourth, but they had no answer for the 10th-seeded Germans, whose best finish as a partnership on the FIVB circuit was a 17th place.
But the biggest upset in that round was unleashed on the defending champion Latvians, who got thrashed by veterans Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi-Toth (her sister Reka plays beach at Loyola Marymount where she will be a junior) of Italy, 21-16, 21-13. And then Heidrich and Verge-Depre, moving their way through the bracket after the stunning pool-play loss, in turn stunned the Big Game Hunter herself, World and Olympic champion Laura Ludwig and her partner Maggie Kozuch, the No. 2 seeds, 17-21, 21-16 and 15-4 (!).
So, in one semi was Behrens and Tillman against the heavily favored fourth-seeded Nadezda Makroguzova and Svetlana Kholomina of Russia. The young Russians, 23 and 22, have had greatness predicted for them ever since a pair of second-place finishes at the FIVB Junior World Championships in 2016 and 2017 (losing to the Brazilian pair of Duda and Ana Patricia Silva each time). Then in Espinho, Portugal, in 2019 they won their first FIVB senior title and are expected to be the Continent’s best hope for an Olympic medal in 2021.
But Behrens and Tillman took the Russians down in straight sets to earn a place in the final.
In the other semi, Heidrich and Verge-Depre put the hammer down on the Czech sixth seeds, Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova, 21-11, 21-17. Thus, the final featured two teams that lost in pool play and made epic runs to the gold-medal match.
And, it was a grind-it-out affair in the final with the Swiss ultimately prevailing 18-21, 21-14, 18-16. For Heidrich and Verge-Depre, who have been partners since 2017, it was maybe their biggest win as a tandem, or at least equal to a title an FIVB World Tour stop in Moscow last August.
The Russians ended up taking the bronze, but of all the women’s teams in Europe they may be the ones to keep the closest eye on when the Olympic tournament commences July 24th of next year (fingers crossed).