A preview of the all-important FIVB Beach World Championships that start Friday

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Norway's Christian Sørum, left, and Anders Mol are the pair to beat in Hamburg/FIVB photo

At 10 a.m.Friday in Hamburg, Germany, Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena will kick off the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships against Argentina’s Julian Azaad and Nicolas Capogrosso. 

It marks the start of THE beach competition of the year. 

The World Championships only happen every other year and it’s grown, with an expanded draw of 48 teams, up from the 32 of other FIVB four- and five-star events. 

And it features truly world-wide representation, with teams from all five zones: Africa, Asia and Oceania, North and Central America and Caribbean, South America, and Europe.

But most important is that it offers the first chance for a team to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. 

The respective men’s and women’s pairs who win need only complete the requisite 12 events during the Olympic qualification period, while their competitors will still have to scratch and claw and jet-set around the globe in an attempt to be one of the top 15 teams on June 15, 2020.

What’s more, if you’re a Brazilian, American, German, or Russian that has to contend with the rule of two — yes, only two teams per country are allowed in the Olympics, no matter how good you are — then a victory here is a preemptive strike. If you win, your compatriots have to battle for a single remaining spot. 

The points and prize money are a 2019-high — 1,600 points and $60,000 — with a total purse of $1 million. The big points come at a critical time, with five-star events like Gstaad (July 9-14) and Vienna (July 31-August 4) approaching. 

So understandably this is the event at which the players, coaches, and trainers are hoping to peak, and when the tournament ends on July 7 the 13,200 fans at the Am Rothenbaum tennis stadium will know who the first beach volleyball Olympic qualifiers are. It’s the second-biggest tournament in the beach volleyball universe, and unlike the Olympics, it has a prize purse.

On the men’s side, Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum are, simply put, kicking butt on the rest of the tour. The Beachvolley Vikings have won three gold medals in their last four events, with wins in Itapema, Jinjiang and Ostrava, settling for a more pedestrian silver in Poland to Brazil’s Evandro Goncalves and Bruno Oscar Schmidt.

Mol controls the net as well as any blocker on the planet, an impressive accomplishment for a 6-foot-7 blocker in a landscape populated with a lot of trees 6-9 and up.

Sorum is a consistent side-out threat, mentally tough and difficult to stop. Together they are a formidable team. Their own success is perhaps one of their biggest threats, as winning a number of back-to-back events, with the number of matches that comes with that kind of success, followed by scrambling to a different continent for the next event is tough on the body.

The rest of the field is more tightly packed. There might be a dozen teams with a legitimate chance to walk off with a gold medal. 

Poland’s Michal Bryl and Grzegorz Fijalek are one of the most consistent finishers on the FIVB tour. Although the pair has not yet taken the top step of the podium this year, they have found their way to the medal rounds in four of their six events, an envious record. Their worst finish of 2019? A mere ninth. 

Fijalek, a 6-1, two-time Olympian, is one of the most skilled defenders around, who frustrates blocks with speed and guile.

Bryl, a 6-6 blocker, stepped up his game in 2018 to join the world’s elite blockers. Together this team has scored four silver medals in 2018-19, and is hungry for that gold.

Russia’s Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy are one of the world’s most complete teams. The 6-5 Krasilnikov is arguably the best all-around defender in the world, who is a physical force that ably contends with the world’s biggest blockers, and yet plays superb defense.

Stoyanovskiy is one of the world’s biggest blockers at 6-9, and jumps well and moves well at his size.

The pair has played in eight events this year, winning in The Hague and Xiamen. They’ve only finished outside of the medal rounds in two of their events, so look for them in Hamburg’s medal rounds.

Let’s take a look at the USA men’s teams and their pools, and how the “drawing of lots” worked out for them. Each pool consists of four teams. The top two teams automatically advance to the 32-team elimination bracket with the four best third-place teams. There will be four “lucky loser” matches for the teams ranked fifth through 12th, with the winners advancing to elimination playoffs.

Stafford Slick and Billy Allen, pool E, with Russia’s Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov, Brazil’s Alison Cerutti and Alvaro Filho, Qatar’s Tamer Abdelrasoul and Assam Ahmed  Mahmoud.

Semenov and Leshukov are tough and physical, a tough team to side out against, with two golds and a bronze this year. 

Cerutti, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist, and the high-jumping southpaw Filho, haven’t yet fulfilled their promise save for a gold medal in the three-star in Kuala Lumpur.

Not much is known of Qatar’s Tamer and Mahmoud, although they did finish 25th in the FIVB four-star in Doha. 

Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, pool F, with The Netherlands’ Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, Canada’s Ben Saxton and Grant O’Gorman, Argentina’s Julian Azaad and Nicolas Capogrosso.

Phil and Nick are always in the hunt, but this is perhaps the toughest of the 12 pools. 

Brouwer and Meeuwsen are having a disappointing year, with their best finish a fourth in The Hague. Still, they’re a very physical team capable of catching fire. 

Saxton and O’Gorman are a solid team on the world tour with ninths in Itapema and Jinjiang. Saxton has 2016 Olympic experience, and are capable of catching any team not on their “A” game.

Argentinians Azaad and Capogrosso are likely the toughest No. 4 team. They’ve earned 25ths in Vegas an Itapema, 17th in Warsaw, and 41st in Ostrava. They played Dalhausser and Lucena previously in Warsaw, losing 17-21, 19-21, so they’re no slouches by any means.

Jake Gibb, Taylor Crabb, Pool G, with Poland’s Kantor and Losiak, Russia’s Maksim Hudyakov and Igor Velichko, and Uruguay’s Mauricio Vieyto and Marco Cairus.

Gibb and Crabb head their pool and have tough competition at the No. 2 spot. Kantor and Losiak are one of the most experienced and consistent teams on the tour, with two fourths, two fifths, and a ninth this year. They have played together since 2009, so their teamwork is next-level.

Hudyakov, 6-3, and Velichko, 6-2, are one of the smaller teams in Hamburg. Velichko earned 2018 FIVB Rookie of the Year awards while competing with Stoyanovskiy. This year the pair has only competed in two events, yielding a 25th in Jinjiang and a 41st in Ostrava. 

Vieyto and Cairus are unlikely to be a factor, only having competed in one event this year, failing to qualify in Itapema.

Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, Pool L, with Germany’s Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, Iran’s Bahman Saleminjehboroun and Arash Vakili, Rwandans Patrick Kavalo and Olivier Ntagengwa.

This could be the easiest pool in the competition, especially given the third and fourth spots. Thole and Wickler are seeded at the top of their pool due to being elevated as hosts. Still the youngsters (the 6-9 Thole is 22 and 6-3 Wickler is 24) have a promising future and big hops. They’ve finished second  in The Hague, they are definitely a team to watch.

Salemiinjehboroun and Vakili only competed in one four-star this year, failing to win a match in The Hague. Their best finish is a fifth place in the one-star in Satun.

Kavalo and Ntagengwa qualified through the African Nations BVB cup, finishing second. Not much is known about them as they have not competed on the world tour, but are unlikely to be any kind of a factor.

On the women’s side, Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda Duda are currently the top-ranked FIVB team. Bednarczuk has largely been on top of the world rankings since, well, the 2015 World Championships when she and Barbara Seixas sewed up that early Olympic spot. 

Duda, only 20, was the FIVB tour winner with Bednarczuk and has made steady improvement every year since coming out on tour in 2016. There’s plenty of parity in the women’s field, but Brazil’s skill, experience, and physicality is not to be ignored.

Next up is Australia’s Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho. The Aussies are coming off a high in Warsaw, defeating the USA’s Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman 22-20, 21-17 for gold. In their five events this year they’ve earned a full complement of medals plus a pair of ninths.

Clancy is lean and long with a brutal serve. Artacho is one of the quickest defenders on tour. The pair finished third in Hamburg last year, so the site is clearly to their liking.

The USA women’s pools:

Alix Klineman and April Ross, Pool E, with Germany’s Karla Borger and Julia Sude, China’s Chen Xue and Xinxin Wang, Nicaragua’s  Valeria Mendoza and Lolette Rodriguez.

This is a good balanced pool. Borger and Sude have come up with some solid results this year, including a bronze at the three-star in Kuala Lumpur. Sude is 6-1, Borger 5-11, and both are athletic and physical.

Xue and Wang are one of the more physical teams at 6-3 and 6-2. Xue is an experienced veteran, with a bronze medal in 2008. Xue has a tough floater, Wang a quick armswing. 

They’ve been up and down a bit this year, from fifths to 17th in four-star events, but are still one of the best third-ranked pool teams.

Mendoza and Rodriguez took the path to world through the NORCECA tour. They haven’t competed on the world tour and so aren’t expected to compete, especially against the level of teams in this pool.

Brooke Sweat and Kerri Walsh Jennings, Pool G, with Australia’s Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho, the Netherlands’ Marleen Van Iersel and Joy Stubbe, Mauritius’ Maita Cousin and Nathalie Letendrie.

Sweat and Walsh Jennings received a wild card into the event. Of course, they justified it with their victory in Jinjiang and fourth in Ostrava.

As mentioned, Clancy and Artacho are one of the top contenders for the title. 

Van Iersel and Stubbe have played in seven events this year, with a fourth-place finish in Itapema. They’ve played together since April 2018 and have the capability to do well in this pool.

Cousin, a 5-8, 38-year old, and Letendrie, a 5-7 30-year-old, reached the World Championships by finishing second in the African Nationals BVB cup, and have no previous experience on the world tour. They are not expected to be a factor in pool play.

Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, Pool I, with Canada’s Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes, Russia’s Evgeniya Ukolova and Ekaterina Birlova, Colombia’s Yuli Ayala and Diana Rios.

Pavan and Humana-Paredes top the pool but haven’t had the kind of year that this squad is accustomed to, but they have two silver medals in six events to show for it. Still, when on, they’re one of the toughest teams to side out against, with the length and penetration of Pavan, and the defensive prowess of Humana-Paredes.

Ukolova and Birlova aren’t perhaps the toughest team in the field, but neither are they an easy out, with best finishes of fourth (Qinzhou) and fifth (Yangzhou). Unusually, they’ve played together since 2011, making the Olympics in 2012 and 2016. Beware the combination of experience and synergy.

Ayala and Rios have only competed in one event on the World Tour, a fifth place finish in the one-star in Miguel Pereira. They are not expected to be competitive.

Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman, Pool J, with Brazil’s Maria Antonelli and Carolina Salgado, Germany’s Margareta Kozuch and Laura Ludwig, Nigeria’s Tochukwu Nnoruga and Francisca Ikhiede.

Ouch, this is a rough pool. Antonelli and Salgado are members of the top echelon of the world tour, with a bronze in Las Vegas and a fourth in Warsaw. They might not have the firepower of Pavan-Humana Paredes or Ross-Klineman, but they have that Brazilian ball control in spades.

Larsen and Stockman seem to be peaking at the right time, with their silver in Warsaw and their AVP Seattle win last Sunday.

Ludwig and Kozuch haven’t yet attained the heights that Ludwig —- out all last year after having a baby — reached with Kira Walkenhorst, but never count an Olympic gold medalist out.

Nnoruga and Ikhiede? Well, someone has to finish fourth in the pool.

Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, Pool K, with Russia’s Nadezda Makroguzova and Svetlana Kholomina, China’s Jinjin Zeng and Meimei Lin, Argentina’s Ana Gallay and Fernanda Pereyra.

This is a good pool for Hughes and Ross. Makroguzova and Kholomina have had sub-par results this year, with a pair of fifths and four 17ths. 

The youthful Zeng (18) and Lin (21) have been active, competing in nine events already this year. Their best results is a fourth, but they have failed to qualify at their last two events in Ostrava and Poland.

Gallay and Pereyra are a dangerous team for a fourth-ranked pool team. Gallay is a beach volleyball veteran at 33, with two Olympics in London and Rio under her belt. Pereyra is approaching her prime at 27. They have competed sparingly this year, with a best finish of 17th.

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