When Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint announced their new partnership on January 27, they became, by points, the new No. 1-ranked beach volleyball team in the United States.
But that was the objective measure of the matter. The subjective debate of who was truly the No. 1 team in the U.S. after the Great Partner Shuffle that was the 2021-2022 off-season was still very much a matter of personal opinion.
On Thursday, Cheng and Flint dashed whatever debate may have remained.
In a magnificent debut for the new team, Cheng and Flint controlled every point of every set they played at the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Elite 16 event in Rosarito, Mexico. They dominated, from start to finish, in a 21-13, 21-15 win over Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich, who last summer became the first Swiss team to win an Olympic medal, when they claimed bronze in Tokyo. Then they did it again, in a night match against Brazil’s Maria Antonelli and Fernanda Alves, winning 21-15, 24-22 to guarantee a break from pool play and advancing to the quarterfinals.
But it wasn’t just that they won — which, to be sure, two seeps over two Elite 16 quality teams is a mighty fine start — it was how they won that was most impressive. Cheng and Flint picked up six aces against the Swiss and another four over Brazil. Neither were blocked a single time, against two imposing blockers in the 6-foot-3 Heidrich and the 6-foot-2 Alves. Meanwhile, Cheng had five alone against Brazil, the first line of a disruptive defense that begins with constant service pressure from the fast, flat floats of Flint and a hybrid from Cheng that routinely put teams out of system.
They were, in a word, dominant, in every facet of the game.
And, yes, it is but the honeymoon phase, and it is just a single day of a single tournament, but still: Their No. 1 ranking is no empty honorific, earned by virtue of two players with points becoming one team.
On Thursday, it showed that it has been very much earned.
Cheng and Flint, of course, were not the only new team enjoying success on Thursday. Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske, who emerged from Wednesday’s qualifier after a pair of three-set battles over Japan and Brazil, respectively, swept Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon, 21-17, 21-17, setting up yet another All-American match on Friday morning against April Ross and Emily Day.
Day and Ross beat the only non-American team in Pool B, edging Switzerland’s Nina Brunner — formerly Nina Betschart — and Tanja Huberli, 13-21, 21-19, 15-7.
Likewise, Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner played only one match on Thursday, losing to Italy’s Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi, 14-21, 14-21. While this was not a debut match for Carambula and Rossi, who made a scintillating run to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, it was their first under new coach, Ricardo Santos. And, sure enough, you could hear the two on the VolleyballTV livestream, occasionally tossing in Portuguese.
Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, too, were swept in their season-opener, falling to Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, 18-21, 18-21, before rebounding in a win over the new Italian duo of Paolo Nicolai and 23-year-old Sam Cottafava, 24-22, 21-18. Bourne and Crabb will need a win over the Netherlands’ Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, who stunned Mol and Sorum late Thursday night, to break pool.
Pool play, which is not conducted in the modified format, but the round robin, in which everyone plays everyone in their respective pools, will conclude on Friday. Playoffs begin with the quarterfinals and semifinals on Saturday, with the medal rounds to be played Sunday.