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Perusic-Schweiner? We had our own version of beach volleyball March Madness in Doha

So who had the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner in their FIVB Doha office pool?

Like picking Norfolk State to win the NCAA men’s hoops tournament this month. It was that kind of week, where all kinds of interesting developments arose in the high heat, winds and desert sands of the capital city of Qatar.

By the way, I feel like Rip Van Winkle. In what alternate universe did Qatar become the beach volleyball capital of the world?

To wit, it was the last major tournament of the ill-fated 2019-2020 campaign (men only). Then it becomes the first event of the 2021 season and one of only six 4-star tournaments (three in Cancun alone) before the Olympic qualification cut-off. Where did those great Euro destinations go like Stavanger, Vienna/Klagenfurt, Porec, Espinho, the Hague and Hamburg?

Come back please!

And holding Gstaad just before the Games when all of the Olympic berths have already been decided. How many players show up for that when the Games start in Tokyo just two weeks later? Heck can we get a tournament in the USA?

But let’s not get picky. As Jake Gibb‘s and Taylor Crabb’s coach, Rich Lambourne, eloquently put it after his return from Doha, “Having the chance to compete internationally again was such a treat. Without getting political, having your freedoms and ability to work/compete taken away from you makes you realize just how much it means to you mentally, physically and emotionally.”

It sure looked that way for the Czech team.

The 6-foot-3 Perusic was nails all week long. And the 6-7 Schweiner was a force at the net and steady with his hand setting although he got the willies towards the end of the second set of the gold-medal match against Brazilians Evandro and Guto, who finally decided to serve him. The result was that Schweiner came unglued, hitting a few balls out and otherwise looking like he was holding on for dear life … When Perusic was served for some unknown reason when the score was 17-17, the Czechs righted the ship and returned to the “good” side to close the match out.

The Czech pair are both only 26 but they were, for the most part, an also-ran on the World Tour. Hence the reason they were seeded 16th in Doha. But their run last week was epic.

They won six of their seven matches in two sets. They not only beat Evandro and Guto but their more celebrated countryman, 2016 World and 2015 Olympic champion Alison, and his partner Alvaro Filho. And they also laid waste to the ’08 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in a 34-minute semifinal, where the service game of the Czechs was causing fits for Lucena.

“The ball was moving so much,” Lucena said. “It was our first match on Stadium (court) at night and it was windy. Both their serves were kind of moving and I was not passing the ball well.”

The biggest win, and it was a monster, 21-19, 21-17, for the Floridians was against the world-champion silver medalists, Clemens Wickler and Julius Thole, a duo that Phil and Nick had never beaten before.

“I thought it was a really high-level match, our best game of the tournament,” Lucena said. “It was our third game of the day and it was a reminder to myself that, yes, we can compete against these top teams because we had not competed against an international team in over a year.”

The Czechs are not necessarily overnight successes. Two years ago on home soil in Ostrava they finished second losing to Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum in the final … but not by much, falling 15-10 in the third. And this was amidst Mol and Sorum’s seven wins in nine tournaments epic run in 2019.

Speaking of Mol, should we be worried about that pesky hip injury that he has? Apparently, he was bothered by it at last September’s Euro Championships despite the fact that he and Sorum won that tournament over Russia’s World Champions Oleg Stoyanovskiy and Viacheslav Krasilnikov. And while we are at it, the Russian dynamos did not play all that well in each of their two tourneys in Qatar taking fifth both times. Last week, they lost both to Evandro/Guto and Jake Gibb/Taylor Crabb, certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but either the Russians are peaking for late July/early August or they have some things to work out. 

Gibb and Taylor Crabb were so impressive during their third place run in Doha and arguably should have beaten Evandro and Guto in an absolute nail biter, 24-26, 23-21, 11-15. They were the better team on the court but had some tough breaks.

A lot of talk in Doha was about the young jump setting 19-year-old Swedes, David Ahman and Jonatan Hellvig. These guys have been tearing up the junior circuit and then won four matches in Doha before giving Guto and Evandro fits but finally succumbing 16-14 in the third to finish a career-high ninth. What is going on in the sport when the best young talent in the world is coming from Sweden and Norway, and the most dependable tournament promoters are the Qataris! 

By the way beach volleyball and the tournament in Doha got some mainstream press, but it was for a controversial bikini ban, brought to light by Germany’s Karla Borger and Julia Sude. Then the FIVB got involved and quickly that policy was reversed, but that German team was still a no-show.

While the Olympics are forefront in our minds now that the coronavirus is getting more under control in most areas of the world, it was a bad week for Olympic champions in Doha.

Let’s start with Laura Ludwig, who has the misfortune of partnering with Maggie Kozuch. Ludwig is soooo good, still, a Hoover vacuum on defense, but Kozuch was really having difficulty in Doha especially with her ball control, and they struggled to a ninth-place finish. Ludwig is the ultimate big-game hunter, but whether Kozuch can raise her game enough in time for Tokyo is a big question mark.

Another ninth-place finisher was the three-time Olympic-champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner Brooke Sweat. They played without a doubt one of the most entertaining matches of the tournament in swirling wind conditions against Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman. They tussled back and forth so much it was like watching a yo-yo (kids still play with those things, right?) go up and down. Kolinske and Stockman even served Walsh Jennings a fair amount of the time with mixed results. 

If that were not enough Olympic champions taking it on the chin, then there is Alison, one of the most decorated players ever and still “only” 35 (10 years younger than Jake Gibb!). After all, the “Wooly Mammoth” can lay claim to both Olympic gold and silver as well as two Worlds golds and a silver. But he and partner Filho got worked over, finishing 17th with their ignominious exit punctuated by a 15-5 loss in the third set of their elimination match against Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak of Poland. Meanwhile, Alison’s 2016 Rio winning partner Bruno is recovering from the coronavirus and could not play in Doha. Hence his regular partner Evandro picking up Guto, fresh off a win on the Brazilian circuit (with Arthur Mariano), for this past week.

By the way I will never understand why Brazil has to pick their Olympic teams so early. This year it could bite them in the proverbial hind quarters.

Their top men’s team may just be 2017 World Champion Andre Loyola and the young 24-year-old George Wanderley who have been killing it on the Brazilian circuit winning three golds and one silver in the six events they have played. Also, one wonders what the potential upside is for the new team of Carolina Salgado and Olympic silver medalist and former World Champion Barbara Seixas. Finally, Carolina has found a defender who may provide her with more consistent top-drawer performances. In Doha they won their pool before succumbing to Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.

Claes and Sponcil played very well in Doha, although they had a real head scratcher in the qualifier when they almost lost to Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam, the Dutch team, seeded 16th among the qualifiers. The first two sets were absolute nail biters: 19-21, 22-20 before the Americans squeezed out the third, 15-12. Other than that their two losses were to the teams that placed 2-3, Melissa Humana-ParedesSarah Pavan and Agatha-Duda.

If there was a film title about the performance of the Canadian duo it would be called “The Tournament of Living Dangerously.” They played SEVEN sets over the course of the week that went to overtime, two each in their wins over Sponcil-Claes, Svetlana Kholomina-Nadezda Makroguzova of Russia and Agatha-Duda. In the final it caught up to them as they were on the business end of a 22-20 loss to April Ross and Alix Klineman in the first set before going down for good 18-21 in the second.

April Ross and Alix Klineman after winning in Doha/FIVB photo

It is amazing just how good the “AAA team” is, now that you add a coach whose first name also starts with A.

Klineman had a really rough time in the first set of the final, especially in her setting, but they still won that one against the top-ranked team in the World. Just imagine what they can do when they are hitting on all cylinders. There is still so much upside with April and Alix. When they can play less than their best and beat a team the caliber of the Canadians, that is something to behold.

Moreover, this was the first big tournament where their recently hired coach Angie Akers was involved.

“Biggest takeaway from the tournament is that we are on the right path,” Akers commented shortly after returning to the West Coast after a labyrinthine 30-hour trip back from Doha. “To compete again internationally was very exciting. Personally, I was very nervous, especially before our first match. It was intense from start to finish, but we welcome that.” 

Jake Gibb, left, and Taylor Crabb talk things over during a Doha timeout/FIVB photo

Finally, what more can you say about Jake Gibb?

He’s 45 years old and his last three FIVB tournaments have been a first, a fifth, and a third. Add in two seconds and a third from last summer’s AVP events and you have someone playing at a consistently high level.

“When we play OUR game, we can compete with any and everyone on the world tour,” Lambourne said.

Moreover, the Olympic timetable really plays into Gibb’s and Crabb’s strengths as well with one match just about every other day. If momentum keeps going in Jake’s way we may refer to Tom Brady as the “Jake Gibb of the NFL!”

Meanwhile, in the race for those coveted two USA Olympic spots, leave it to the most analytical and perceptive of all the American players, Lucena, to dope it out.

“Man I think it is going to come down to all five of those tournaments to tell you the truth. I have been in this position before where it came down to the last event for us (2011-2012 with Matt Fuerbringer, where they lost out to Gibb and Sean Rosenthal).

“Our mindset is that we are playing all five of those events and we are going to try to be the No. 1 U.S. team.”