Walsh Jennings’ p1440 tour shakes it up with new formats, “all-star tournament”

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Taylor Crabb lays out for a dig in Top Gun action/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — p1440 is shaking things up by introducing new formats to players and fans.

That’s what’s happening here this weekend, starting with a Top Guns event, a throwback to the old “King of the Beach” events last held in Las Vegas in 2009. This time international stars have joined the domestic stars. There’s also a Young Guns event, which introduces the modified pool-play system introduced by the FIVB to a new set of largely domestic players.

In the Top Gun format, the tournament starts with 16 players in four pools, with each pool having two blockers and two defenders. The players play one game to 28 with each of the players in their pool, against the other two players in the pool. After they have played three matches, two players are eliminated. After three pools are completed, the top finisher gets to pick his or her partner for the finals, followed by the second-place finisher.

In the Young Guns format, there are six four-team pools. The top seeds play the fourth-seeded teams, and the second-seeded teams play the third-seeded teams. Next the winners play the winners and the losers play the losers. The losers of the losers’ match are eliminated. The winners of the losers match (third place in pool) may be eliminated (only the top four third-place teams advance).

“There’s four players in each pool, with four pools. Everybody plays with everybody,” p1440 tournament director Dane Selznick explained.

“First of all, we created the pool so you have two blockers and two defenders to start. We seeded the pools and tried to balance it out. The interesting part is, getting two defensive players to play against two blockers. You have players playing in roles they’re not accustomed to, and that’s what’s attractive.

“And you have some personalities playing with players they’ve never played with and can turn into either the best relationship on the court or maybe the worst, oil and water out there.

The all-time beach great admitted it’s fun to watch the different combinations..

“You have foreign players here also competing. You’ve got a Brazilian playing with an American, or a Czech player, and so on. It’s a potpourri of the best talent inter-mixing with new talent.

“I love the idea of seeing a blocker like Ricardo Santos playing with a defensive player like John Hyden and Sean Rosenthal, and this is totally new for him. If you’ve ever wondered what these combinations would be like, this is what this tournament is all about.”

The format puts a premium on points as there are only three matches in the pool. For example, Men’s Pool A (Miles Evans (USA), Aleksandrs Samoilovs (Latvia), Theo Brunner (USA), and Alexander Huber (Austria) had a three-way tie with Evans, Samoilovs, and Huber tying with a 2-1 record. All three matches went to deuce, so all three were tied in both games and points. Normally this would require an additional tiebreak series of matches, but 0-3 Theo Brunner had already left the venue after being eliminated. The tournament organizers decided to break the tie in an unusual manner; they will face off in a one-on-one series of matches at 10 a.m. Pacific Saturday to determine who will advance to playoffs at 11:30 a.m.

p1440 tour founder and three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings loves the format. Walsh Jennings won all three of her matches Friday to advance, 28-16 with Australian Becchara Palmer, 29-27 with Brazilian Carolina Salgado, and 28-19 with Brazilian Taiana Lima.

“It’s basically the King of the Beach format that we used to play on the AVP back in the day when Leonard Armato ran it,” Walsh Jennings said.

“It’s like the all-star tournament. You have 16 individuals, round robin, and to me, you have this in other sports. In the NBA, people come together from all different countries to have the all-star game, and we’ve never had that in beach volleyball. It’s country versus country or only domestic.

“For my husband (Casey Jennings) and I, we’ve wanted this for a long time. And the FIVB was so amazing, and they allowed us to have this format, and we ran with it. It needs to be a staple because it’s so refreshing. It’s so fun at the end of a long year. It’s fun.

“When you have this format, you expect to be nimble, and do what it takes, and everything is going to be weird, and you don’t let it get you down.

“I think it kind of takes the pressure off. We all want to win, and when it comes down to the last match of pool play, it gets pretty gnarly, because someone has to win and score points, you have to be quick and adaptive, which is the life of an athlete.”

In the old “King of the Beach” series, players had to worry about blocker or defender choices, and left-side or right-side choices. With the addition of the international component, it also introduces language and cultural differences as well.

“Language can be challenging for sure.” Walsh Jennings said. “Calls can be different, signals, but I think the fact that it’s windy today, kind of negates all of that because you play small ball and you keep it very simple, and you encourage your partner to be weird, and do what it takes to score points. Ultimately, in this format, it’s all about keeping things simple.

“When Carol (Salgado) and I played two defenders, and we thought, ‘Amazing. We’re going to bring things down and be really quick’, but that shrunk us, and we weren’t taking advantage of our height, we were trying to beat them with speed, but why would you try and beat speedsters with speed, we’re big, so it took us over half a game to figure that out, but we did, and that’s when things started to change a little bit.

Latvian Aleksandrs Samoilovs had a leg up on his competition as he split blocks with his normal partner Janis Smedins, alternating as a blocker and a defender.

“It is kind of an advantage. I’m not that good on defense, when I play with Janis, we’re better when I block. Janis has been injured for three months, and I’ve played p1440 and King of the Court, mostly blocking, so I’ve forgotten how to play defense.”

“It’s crazy. You need to adapt so fast to find the rhythm, because you’ve never played with these guys, and it’s also hard because you have to switch sides, for example when I played with Theo Brunner, we both are typically left side blockers, so we have to decide who would play right, and who would block and play defense. It’s fun, it’s a chance to communicate more with other players, so I hope I advance and have a chance to play more with other guys.”

Samoilovs hasn’t needed to adapt in a while, as he has partnered with Smedins for five years.

“I’m stable with partners, I’m not changing so often, I’ve played 13 years on the world tour and professionally, and I’ve played with only three partners, in three different Olympics with three different partners. When I play with Janis, we don’t have to speak with each other. With one signal, I know what he’s going to do, where he’s going to set or run, We understand each other. It makes it tough and changing partners every hour.”

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In Top Gun, blockers sometimes play with blockers, as well as blockers from other countries, as in Brazil’s Ricardo Santos and USA’s Billy Kolinske/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The Young Guns modified pool-play format, although ubiquitous on the FIVB world tour, is relatively rare in the United States. It was introduced by the FIVB and is used primarily in three- and four-star events as a method of reducing matches and expenses. It also assists in avoiding collusion, when a meaningless match for one team can have implications for others.

Falyn Fonoimoana had never experienced the modified pool play format before Friday. She and partner Molly Turner won their first match over Mexicans Martha Revuelta and Zaira Orellana 21-15, 21-6, and won their pool by defeating Kim Hildreth and Sara Schermerhorn 22-20, 19-21, 15-9.

“First of all,” Fonoimoana said, “it’s still about playing quality volleyball. Obviously we would like to play all of the teams in our pool, but as long as you win that first and that second, you get out with the result that you want.

“Here, we get the best in the world around us. We’re grateful that we’re here and considered one of the top Young Guns.”

Troy Field found that modified pool play added both pressure and complexity to the equation. Field and partner Kyle Friend began their day by defeating Chris Austin and Kris Johnson 21-15, 21-10, but were unable to win their pool after a 21-13, 21-13 loss to Germany’s Alexander Walkenhorst and Brazil’s Alvaro Filho.

“In double elimination you can see who you’re going to play,” explained Field. “You can see what’s ahead, and who you might match up with, but with modified pool play, if you win your first one, you know that you will advance to tomorrow, but if you lose that, then there’s a chance that you don’t.

“It’s tough, because you don’t know who you face, and there’s a lot of upsets in the seeding is different, so it’s definitely complicated for people that are new, but it’s what the FIVB has adopted. At times it’s beneficial, and at times you wish it was double-elimination, you can go one and one, but if you lost your first one, then it’s a bad one. If you won your first one, it’s a good one. It’s pretty confusing, but it’s a good thing that they’re bringing to p1440. I’m happy that they’re doing it.

“Seeding is critical, because it’s going to reward the teams that have done well in FIVB’s and everything like that. So you have a higher seeded team that should have a good chance of getting a win, so the other teams are hoping for an upset, but here you can’t sleep on anybody. You have to bring your ‘A’ game to the court. Seeding is crucial.”

“If you lose that first one, there’s a lot more pressure on your back. Then it can come down to points. It challenges the volleyball players, and we’re all just trying to be put to the test. It’s a fun challenge.”