Qualifying rounds start Wednesday at the FIVB Moscow three-star event, but action got under way Tuesday with country quota matches for the USA and Brazil.
On the USA side, Billy Allen and Stafford Slick defeated Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal 21-19, 21-18, while Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar defeated Caitlin Ledoux and Lane Carico 21-16, 21-15. Both teams will advance to the qualifying round.
For Brazil, Gustavo Carvalhaes and Pedro Solberg defeated Vitor Felipe and George Wanderley 21-16, 16-21, 15-11 and Maria Antonelli and Carolina Salgado defeated both Josemari Alves and Liliane Maestrini 21-15, 21-16 and Taiana Lima and Elize Maia 22-20, 21-19.
This tournament is significantly stronger than its three-star pedigree, as the $10,000/600 points first-place prize would suggest. The 600 points is half of what a first-place finish in a five-star event would provide. What’s more, European events are typically well-attended, and Moscow is no exception as teams jockey for qualification for the FIVB World Championships in Vienna, July 28-August 6.
The tournament marks the return of modified-pool-play, as in the Rio four-star. Think of it as a tournament within your pool. The No. 1-ranked team plays the No. 4 team, No. 2 plays No. 3, the winners play for a bye, the losers play, and the loser of that match goes home.
All of the top men’s players are in attendance, beginning with Olympic gold-medalists Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt of Brazil, who reestablished their dominance on home soil with a victory at the FIVB Rio two weeks ago after finishing fifth in Fort Lauderdale in Feburary.
The USA’s top team, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, return to international competition after winning AVP Austin two weeks ago. Their 2017 resume includes a bronze medal in Fort Lauderdale and two wins on this year’s AVP tour. They were the hottest team in the run-up to the Rio Olympics, where Brazilians Cerutti and Schmidt dealt with the heavy wind conditions far better.
Sweet-setting Italian Paolo Nicolai and parter Daniele Lupo bring their silver-medalist game to Moscow. They have finished fifth in Fort Lauderdale, second in Xiamen, China, and third in Rio. Their partnership dates to 2014, giving them a leg up on all of the new teams caused by post-Olympic partner swaps.
The Dutch pair of Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen have bronze-medal credentials, along with a first-place finish in Xiamen and a fifth in Rio, where their medal plans were interrupted by Americans Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson 18-21, 28-26, 15-13. The pair is one of the most consistent finishers on the world tour, with five medals last year in 11 tournaments.
Dark horses? If history is our guide, one or more teams will sneak out of the pack and into the medal round. Most of the field could be considered a dark horse. For example, Brazil’s Saymon Barbosa and Alvaro Filho came out of the qualifier to win Fort Lauderdale. Their finish in Rio was a respectable fifth place.
The USA’s Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson, seeded 13th in Rio, surprised more than a few teams and finished fourth. They have the firepower and size to compete on the world stage. They should improve as their experience together increases.
Speaking of the USA, Ryan Doherty and John Hyden are have started the year nicely, with a fourth in Fort Lauderdale and a fifth in Rio.
And what of the home team? Russians Nikita Liamin and Viacheslav Krasilnikov won this year’s three-star event in Kish, Iran, but have been unable to manage better than a ninth otherwise. Still, Russian teams are known to be large, physical, and tough outs. Given additional entries by virtue of hosting, you can count on a Russian team to finish fifth or better. The only question is whether it will be Liamin and Krasilnikov or a different team.
The women’s side of the tournament is similarly stacked. The only absence is USA star Kerri Walsh Jennings, who will make her debut in Porec. Click here for the VolleyballMag.com interview with her. Brazil has been exceptional thus far, and the biggest question is who and how many Brazilians will stand on the podium.
Brazil’s dominance is led by Agatha Bednarczuk and 18-year-old phenom Eduarda Lisboa, who finished gold in Rio and silver in Fort Lauderdale. They have played impressively this year, with the biggest question being what color of a medal they will take home.
Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca have largely sat atop the world rankings since their union in 2014. They were golden in Fort Lauderdale, but countrywomen Barbara Seixas and Fernanda Alves halted their progress in fifth place in Rio 21-19, 13-21, 15-12. Despite the fifth, they are still the most feared team in the draw.
Rio gold-medalists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst returned to competition in Rio following Ludwig’s shoulder surgery and finished fifth, falling to Canada’s Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes 21-17, 21-13. Based on Rio, they are not yet the team that won seven events in 2016, but continued rehabilitation will only improve their chances.
The USA’s April Ross returns to the fray, re-armed with partner Lauren Fendrick. The new partners look good together on paper and should contend. Ross won AVP Austin with Whitney Pavlik, with whom she played two tournaments.
Dark horses? As with the men, a team always sneaks into the medal round unannounced, whether it’s the USA’s Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross in Fort Lauderdale, or Canada’s Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes and the Czech Republic’s Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova in Rio.
Sweat and Ross have not competed since Fort Lauderdale, making it difficult to assess their progress as a team. Their skills and defensive capabilities should put them in medal contention.
Pavan has re-tooled with youthful 24-year-old Paredes. They were impressive in Rio, outperforming their No. 11 seed to finish silver. Their teamwork will continue to improve, but teams will continue to adjust to their style of play as well.
Last, and certainly not least, are the USA’s Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes. The team has seemingly unlimited potential They finished fifth in Rio after having to separate in Fort Lauderdale due to a points qualification issue. Now they are unencumbered by their college schedule and should continue to progress.