Looks familiar, doesn’t it, Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes winning beach volleyball matches? Finishing tournaments on top of podiums, as they have now done in their previous four tournaments, culminating in Sunday’s 21-18, 21-16 gold medal victory in Doha, Qatar, over Brazil’s Duda and Ana Patricia to claim the title of 2022 Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Finals champions.
For the better part of four years, the world was bereft of that sight, as Cheng and Hughes, after the most dynastic run in NCAA beach volleyball history, split to play and grow with different partners. So what do you call this phase of their new but familiar partnership? It’s the second coming of a honeymoon, of sorts, as Cheng and Hughes have reunited better, more mature, more lethal versions of the kids from USC who once won 103 consecutive matches. Four tournaments they’ve played now, and four tournaments they’ve won, beginning with an AVP Tour Series in Huntington Beach in November, which preceded dominant wins in Torquay, Australia.
But to do the same in Doha, Qatar, this weekend, against the stiffest field certainly of the season, potentially in beach volleyball history, is testament enough that this is no honeymoon phase. Cheng and Hughes are, simply, one of the best teams in the world.
What’s more, the victory paid them a whopping $150,000. Lisboa and Silva took home $80K.
“I’m speechless right now,” said Cheng, who topped the tournament in kills, leading second-place Katja Stam of the Netherlands by nearly 30.
If there were a single drawback, one subtle reservation, about Cheng and Hughes entering Doha, it was the fact that the three tournaments they won were relatively light. The AVP was only a Tour Series, and the Challenge and Elite 16 events in Torquay were notably bereft of some of the top teams in the world.
The Beach Pro Tour Finals, however, were bereft of no talent. It featured the top eight teams in the world and two additional wild cards — Cheng and Hughes, and Canadians Sarah Pavan and Sophie Bukovec. Their path to the finals required victories over Germans Svenja Muller and Cinja Tillman, owners of a bronze medal at the 2022 World Championship. It required two comeback wins over Dutch wunderkinds Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam, first in pool play, and again in the semifinals. It required a world’s worth of grit in a 19-21, 21-14, 24-22 quarterfinal win over Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth. And it required little shy of perfection in a gold medal match over the World Champs in Duda and Ana Patricia, the No. 1-ranked team in the world who were riding a 12-match win streak entering the finals.
“We’re so happy, that was such an amazing finish,” said Hughes, whose 12 aces finished second in the tournament, behind only Australia’s Taliqua Clancy, who finished fourth with Mariafe Artacho. “I’m just so proud of [Cheng], she played perfect. As a team we were very steady and we’re so excited to come out with a win and we’re looking forward to next week.”
Ah, yes, the two are already looking forward to next week, which marks the onset of Olympic qualification. They won’t have to travel anywhere — aside from a quick jaunt to the mall for some celebratory ice cream — for the 2023 season begins right at Aspire Park in Doha with the opening Elite 16. Hughes and Cheng are the two seed in the Elite, behind only Duda and Ana Patricia. Nuss and Kloth, meanwhile, with yet another fifth-place finish to their names in Doha, are seeded second in the qualifier, where they’ll be joined by Emily Stockman and Megan Kraft, and Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez, who slipped off the reserve list just two days ago. (full entry list for the Elite 16 can be found on Volleyball World)
Nuss and Kloth will, of course, be frustrated by their fifth fifth-place finish in their rookie season on the Beach Pro Tour. But they split $20,000 and it’s worth noting that their 2022 season began 15th on the reserve list — of a Futures event in March. Their climb from the doldrums to No. 8 in the world is virtually unprecedented, and the difference between fifth and competing for a medal was a white-knuckling third-set marathon with Cheng and Hughes.
“We’re gonna sleep for 12 hours tonight,” Cheng said. “I’m really proud of our team and we have another tournament next week so sleep, recover best we can, and come back out again next week.”
Mol, Sorum maintain beach title stranglehold
While American beach volleyball fans have long been accustomed to seeing Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes top the podiums, the world has become almost numb to seeing Anders Mol and Christian Sorum do the same at the world level. For four years now, the collective beach volleyball world has thrown its proverbial kitchen sink at the Norwegians.
A bigger sink will be needed.
Mol and Sorum swept their way through Doha, winning all six matches, including a 21-18, 21-18 final over Poland’s Bartosz Losiak and Michal Bryl in a tremendous display of beach volleyball.
“We’ve fought so many great teams,” said Mol, who led the tournament, as he usually does, in blocks with 38, four more than bronze medalist Paolo Nicolai of Italy. “The best of the best are here.”
“The difference,” Sorum added between Norway and the elite teams to which Mol referred, “is that I have Anders Mol by my side.”
Already, at just 25 years old, Mol is considered by many as one of the greatest players to ever play, and Mol and Sorum one of the great teams of all time. What they’ve done these past four years is, frankly, obscene. Twenty-two finals on the Beach Pro Tour have Mol and Sorum played since 2018, winning gold in all but two of them. They’ve added onto that a record four European Championships.
Sunday’s win was no easy feat, either. It required a three-set semifinal victory over Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, who, entering the tournament, was the only team on the planet to hold a winning record over the Norwegians. Now, no team can say they have the winning edge over Mol and Sorum. Losiak and Bryl, like Norway, hadn’t lost a match entering the final, and were tied with Mol and Sorum with four gold medals in 2022. In the end, per usual, it was Mol’s blocking that proved the difference. Eight times did he block Losiak and Bryl, a number that could have easily been 12 or 14 had it not been for some deft cover work from the Poles.
“This is amazing, another finals title is really, really, really cool,” Mol said. “We had a great year. Last year and it was amazing to end it like this in Doha.”