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SANDCAST: Olympic beach volleyball mailbag, could we see multiple American medals?

On Friday, July 23, the first Olympic beach volleyball match of these Tokyo Games began, between Japan’s Miki Ishii and Megumi Murakami and the Czech Republic’s Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova.

Not one ball was served.

Earlier in the Games, Slukova tested positive for COVID-19, as had their coach, as had their top men’s defender, Ondrej Perusic. An alternate was not flown in, as Tri Bourne was for the United States. The match was forfeited.

Before a ball was even passed or set or spiked, we knew that these would be no ordinary Games. For any sport.

Yet the Olympics have carried on, and in spite of the lack of fans in the gargantuan stadium at Shiokaze Park, the beach volleyball has been magnificent to watch, through rain and wind and an incoming typhoon.

We are almost at the midpoint of these Olympics, and out of respect for any non-Olympic guest we could have had on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter (and Savvy Simo), we decided to do a fan question, mid-Olympics beach volleyball report card for the 24 teams currently competing in Tokyo.

Here are some of the most notable storylines thus far:

Tri Bourne and Jake Gibb look like a real team

Yes, we must begin here. On the court, most matches have gone about as expected thus far in Tokyo. Qatar is, as of this writing, undefeated; Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum are undefeated (Editor’s note: the Norwegians lost this morning); Morocco and Japan and Kenya are winless. Little has been surprising.

Until you get to the thrown-together team of Tri Bourne and Jake Gibb, and coach Rich Lambourne and now virtual assistant coach/head of scouting, Taylor Crabb. You know the story by now. You know that Crabb tested positive for COVID, that Bourne took a call from Gibb while on a family vacation in Las Vegas, that he hopped on the first flight he could and began practicing with the guy who has been the biggest thorn in his side as a player for much of the past decade.

What we didn’t know is how they’d look. For all of his split-blocking reps, Bourne was the main blocker between him and Trevor Crabb. In seven tournaments in the 2021 season, he had 88 blocks compared to Crabb’s 31, and when matches were getting tight, it was Bourne who ran to the net. Yet in Tokyo, he’s playing — almost — full-time defense, a position he’d never before played.

Thus far, he has been, bias fully considered and totally transparent, spectacular. In the opening 21-18, 21-19 win over Italy’s Enrico Rossi and Adrian Carambula, he was the best player on the court. He sided out 22 of 26 attacks, served well, dug the balls he needed to, and set Gibb where Gibb needed it (not that it’s a complicated set; Gibb’s been taking the same high, outside set since Bourne was in middle school).

Then they followed it up with another win over Switzerland’s Mirco Gerson and Adrian Heidrich. It was a bit easier, against the Swiss, to tell that it was Gibb and Bourne’s second match together. There were a few plays in transition where Bourne and Gibb both stayed at the net, then one dropped late, standard miscommunications in any new partnership, especially one in which both players are primarily blockers. But to go 2-0, to break pool, and to look this smooth while doing it, in spite of all the adversity, in spite of Gibb’s weird semi-quarantine, is massively impressive.

Will we see an all-USA beach volleyball final, circa 2012?

The finals of the London Olympic Games were an American viewership dream, as Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor played April Ross and Jen Kessy for gold. It was a matchup made possible by Ross and Kessy’s stunning upset over the top-seeded Brazil team of Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta. It would be Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor, of course, who won gold, leaving silver for Ross and Kessy, but to have a pair of Americans atop the podium has only happened once before or since, in Atlanta in 1996.

Could we see it again in Tokyo?

It would require a lot of things to go precisely right, and much of it could have nothing to do with the on-court play of either Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes or April Ross and Alix Klineman. Much of how the bracket is seeded is, frankly, luck of the draw. There are six pools, which means there are six No. 1 seeds that emerge. Even if both teams win pool, which is more likely than not, they could very well meet each other in the quarterfinals, which is exactly what happened to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and Brazil’s Alison and Bruno in 2016 despite both teams being widely considered the top two in the world.

Ideally, for Americans, this type of draw won’t happen. Because if they do end up on opposite sides of the bracket, it’s not all that crazy to think that another all-American final could be played.

Sarah Sponcil-Tokyo Olympics
Sarah Sponcil digs in her first Olympic pool-play match/Ed Chan,

Melissa Humana-Paredes, Sarah Pavan have rediscovered their stride

For almost this entire Olympic qualification process, it seemed there was an inevitable gold-medal match to be played in Tokyo: April Ross and Alix Klineman vs. Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan.

Throughout the qualification period, they were, without question, the top two teams in the world, meeting in seven finals — four AVP, three FIVB — the most recent of which came in the first event of the 2021 season, in Doha. They entered Tokyo as the No. 1 and 2 seeds, and both are playing the dominant brand of beach volleyball the world has become accustomed to. Both teams have won two matches in four clean sets thus far in Tokyo.

If an all-American final isn’t to be had, a clash of this Olympic quad’s titans would be the next best thing.

Yes, we will see ‘Fired Up Phil Dalhausser’

There doesn’t seem to be any question that this is Phil Dalhausser’s last Olympic Games, and maybe his last international competition ever, World Tour Finals pending. He and Nick Lucena had a bit of a sluggish start against the Netherlands’ Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, but they responded well against Brazil’s Alison and Alvaro, winning a seesaw of a three-set match.

One of the questions we received on SANDCAST was if Phil will become Fired Up Phil or not.

I think that answer is yes.

Dalhausser loves winning. And he knows that the greats in sports are measured not by volume of wins, but by the magnitude of them: How many Super Bowls did you win? World Series? Stanley Cups? World Championships? Olympic medals?

He is, for example, 21-9 against Alison, but he thinks Alison’s resume is the better one, because Alison has two Olympic medals — one gold, one silver — and a 2015 World Championship victory. This is Dalhausser’s last shot at a legacy win.

With only one pool-play match to go, against an Argentinian team that is good, not great, Dalhausser and Lucena should break pool. From there, it’s onto the elimination phase.

From there, we’ll see Fired Up Phil.

FIVB Sochi 5/29/2021-Phil Dalhausser
Phil Dalhausser/FIVB photo

Keep an eye on…

  • Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov: While Bourne and Gibb have justifiably dominated our — and my — media coverage, and most see either Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum or Qatar as the heavy favorites to win gold in Tokyo, don’t snooze on Russia’s Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov. They began peaking at just the right time, improving steadily towards the end of this Olympic qualification process, and are, as of this writing, 2-0 in pool, with two smooth wins over Spain’s Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera and Australia’s Chris McHugh and Damien Schumann.
  • (Editor again: Semenov and Leshukov were the ones who beat the Norwegians)
  • Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka: Speaking of teams getting hot at the right time, Latvia’s first female Olympic beach team is playing absolutely phenomenal volleyball. Their three-set match against Claes and Sponcil to open these Games was one of the best yet, a 13-21, 21-16, 11-15 loss that was closer than the score indicates. They followed it up with an excellent win over Brazil’s Rebecca Cavalcanti and Ana Patricia Silva, which all but ensures that they’ll break pool and move on. They’re young, Graudina and Kravcenoka, but they’re consistently playing at the peak of their abilities, a dangerous team to see when the elimination phase begins.
  • Svetlana Kholomina and Nadezda Makroguzova: Similar to Graudina and Kravcenoka and Claes and Sponcil, Russia’s Svetlana Kholomina and Nadezda are young, just 23 and 24 years old, respectively. Similar to the Latvians and Americans, they can get hot at any given time, a brutal draw to see early in the elimination phases. The Russians are 2-0 thus far and will be advancing, with a final match against Australia’s Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho — they are also 2-0 and one of my picks to medal in Tokyo — to decide who wins pool.
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