The Olympics beach volleyball podiums will look different this year.
Literally entirely different.
Three of the four men’s semifinalists — Norway, Qatar, Russia — are in the hunt for the first medal of their country’s history. Latvia, meanwhile, which won a bronze in 2012, is seeking its first Olympic final.
Wednesday all four men’s quarterfinals at the Tokyo Olympics ended in sweeps, as Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum beat Russia’s Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov, Latvia’s Plavins and Tocs upset Brazil’s Alison Cerutti and Alvaro Filho, ROC’s Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy knocked off Germans Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, and Qatar’s Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan beat Italians Paolo Nicolai and Danielle Lupo.
On the women’s end, both Latvia, which made history simply in qualifying for the Olympic Games, is in its first semifinal (then again, it’s in its first everything in Tokyo), as is Switzerland. Australia hasn’t won a medal since 2000, when Natalie Cook was running the show, yet very well could win gold again, behind the brilliant and creative play of Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy. The United States, it goes without saying, is not new to Olympic medals, having made every podium since 2004.
Thursday, Americans April Ross and Alix Klineman play the Swiss pair of Anouk Verge-Depre in the first semifinal at 8 a.m. Eastern, then Clancy and Artacho face Latvians Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka. Then, at 8 p.m. Eastern, Mol and Sorum face Plavins and Tocs, followed by Samba and Ahmed against Krasilnikov and Stoyanovskiy.
In a sport that prides itself on the longevity of its athletes, just one of the 16 competitors remaining has an Olympic medal from the previous Summer Olympics to her name.
“I’m not surprised at all with her success,” Klineman said after a quarterfinal win over Germany’s Laura Ludwig and Margareta Kozuch. “I train with her every day and am around her all the time. I just see how motivated and driven she is in all aspects of her life. Whether it’s reading some book about having a better mindset, or listening to some podcast about recovering better.
“She is always trying to be at her best, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that she’s been here three times. I have a lot of respect for her, she has taught me a lot on this journey. I am really grateful to be by her side.”
It was Ross who knocked out Ludwig, the final remaining competitor on the women’s side who had previously won an Olympic medal. Ludwig, who won gold in 2016 with Kira Walkenhorst, took down the reigning silver medalist, Brazil’s Agatha Bednarczuk, in the first round. Now, with Agatha and Ludwig both out, the semifinals are full of new faces, including Klineman, who is making her Olympic debut in Tokyo.
“The field is so strong and there have been a lot of upsets,” Ross said. “We just go into every match, ready to battle. I think you have to earn it every step of the way. It’s not like, ‘Oh I have a medal, I know how to do it,’ we have to fight really hard. The competition is so high. We are stoked to still be in, being in the semis is amazing.”
Mol, Sorum get vengeance against Russia
It wasn’t the shock that it would have been, say, a year ago, but it was nonetheless surprising when Russia’s Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov upset Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum in pool play. But winning when it matters most — the elimination phase — is an awfully important aspect of the Olympic Games. Nobody, as Jake Gibb told Tri Bourne, wins a gold medal in pool play.
In the men’s quarterfinals on Wednesday, Mol and Sorum extended their chase for gold, getting a little vengeance against the Russians, 21-17, 21-19 to push into the semifinals.
“We’re feeling amazing, really, really happy,” Mol said. “We played a really good game today, also the Russians played a really good game, and I just think we played even better than in the pool and that was the difference with less mistakes. So, fighting for the medals now in the Olympics is a dream come true, and we hope to bring some medals back to Norway.”
Did we just see Alison’s final Olympics?
When Ricardo Santos began to age, and Brazil thus needed to wonder who might be able to fill his gargantuan shoes, the answer wasn’t difficult to find: 6-foot-8 Alison Cerutti. The FIVB’s Most Improved Player in 2009, Cerutti would win silver in the 2012 Olympics and gold at home in Rio. In 2021, now with Alvaro Filho, Alison entered as the four seed and a medal favorite once more.
On Wednesday, his search for a third Olympic medal was ended by a scrappy Latvian team few would have expected to be the engineers of upsets over both Brazilian pairs. Just two days after defeating Evandro and Bruno, fourteenth-seeded Martins Plavins and Edgars Tocs stunned Alison and Alvaro, 21-16, 21-19, which could potentially mark the final Olympic match of Alison’s decorated career.
“Now it’s back home to see my family, my kids,” said Alison, who is 35 years old. “I don’t know about my future. At this moment, I’ll have two weeks in the home then I don’t know yet.”
Qataris stay hot with another sweep over Italy
Ahmed Tijan is an Olympic rookie who looks exactly nothing like an Olympic rookie. Over the last week and a half, he has made a convincing case as both the most improved player in the world and arguably its best. It’s a case that only grew stronger on Wednesday, when Tijan and Cherif Samba, who competed in the 2016 Olympic Games, knocked off Italy’s Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo, 21-17, 23-21.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling because we are out of the Olympic Games so, we cannot be happy but, we are feeling great,” Nicolai said. “We fought really well on the court and, we’ve played the Olympics in the right way. It’s not easy today but we are still proud of all the team and what we have done on the court.”
The Italians were the final 2016 Olympic medalists standing, having won silver in Rio. It guarantees that at least five of the medalists in 2021 will be completely new, with only Plavins having won a medal prior.
Russia’s Krasilnikov gets another shot at a medal
One of the best matches nobody has ever been able to watch again is the 2016 Rio Olympic quarterfinals between Russia and Cuba. Viacheslav Krasilnikov played very much the part of the man who would later be named the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year, playing one of his finest matches in a 22-20, 22-24, 18-16 victory over Nivaldo Diaz and Sergio Gonzalez. It earned him and Konstantin Semenov a spot in the semifinals and two cracks at a medal.
They fell short in both, losing 15-21, 21-16, 15-13 to Nicolai and Lupo, and 23-21, 22-20 in the bronze medal match to Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen.
Now, after sweeping Germany’s Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, 21-17, 21-19 in the quarterfinals in Tokyo, Krasilnikov has two more much-deserved shots at a medal. He and Oleg Stoyanovskiy will face white-hot Qatar on Friday morning in Tokyo, Thursday night in the States.
“I don’t actually feel any pressure,” Stoyanovskiy said. “Firstly, we represent ourselves as a team and then as a country.”