Before we get to an analysis of the two Volleyball World tournaments that were held in Doha, which for some reason (starts with M and ends in Y) is the center of the beach volleyball universe for the sport these days, how about a side excursion, an ode to the recently retired Brazilian Bruno Oscar Schmidt of Brazil which also encapsulates one of the most bizarre tournaments in the history of this crazily delightful sport.
Bruno was a central figure in one of the most memorable matches I have ever seen (bear with me, please, as I tie in the past with the present) which occurred at the end of August 2010. He was 23 years old and playing with the mercurial Benjamin (you never knew which Benjamin would show up from day to day) in the Hague, Netherlands in the final of the tournament in that Dutch coastal city.
The opponents across the net were an unlikely team, the American duo of Kevin Wong and Casey Jennings, who were seeded only 21st. Not much was expected of them, to be sure. And, early in the tourney, true to form, in the final round of the qualifier, they lost to a journeyman Brazilian team, Rhooney Ferramenta and Neilton Santos, and seemingly on their long circuitous way back to the States.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the airport.
One of the teams scheduled to compete withdrew, allowing for a “lucky loser” to advance to the main draw. Jennings and Wong had a 1-in-8 chance of getting “lucky.” One of those eight teams were drawn first, but they were not present. So Wong and Jennings were still alive.
For the second pick, it just so happened that one of Jennings’ best friends, Brazilian Pedro Solberg, volunteered to pick. Lo and behold, it came up Jennings and Wong. And as Wong said, “It was a destiny-filled weekend that I will never forget. We played so freely because we were playing with the house’s money back from the dead.”
Given that new lease on life, Jennings and Wong then reeled off five straight wins in the main draw, advancing all the way to the final. Awaiting them for the second time in the tournament were Bruno and Benjamin.
Now, lets be clear, the end of August is still Northern Hemisphere summer, except in The Hague. It was a hurricane out there for the gold-medal match. 20-mile-per-hour winds with gusts up to 50. And sideways rain. Ice fishing weather maybe, but certainly not for beach volleyball.
And yet, the 23-year-old Bruno set just about every ball with his hands.
Who does that?
Not sure how he pulled that off with every set coming off cleanly despite a wet ball, spinning around with every brutal gust of wind and coming off damp and frozen hands. And his footwork was just exceptional to get himself into setting position. And while the Brazilians ultimately lost for the second time that weekend to the “Lucky Losers,” a star was born in Bruno Oscar Schmidt.
One final note on the diminutive Brazilian. He was as fine a sportsman as anyone I have ever seen in any athletic endeavor. Respectful of fellow players, referees and disarming with fans, but above all scrupulously honest. If an opponent’s ball was ruled out, but Bruno saw it in, he would override the official’s decision. He will be moving now onto the legal profession, which is comforting, knowing that his passion is for doing what is right. We will miss the 2016 Olympic gold medalist and certainly wish him well.
Bruno was preternaturally calm as a player, which brings us full circle.
Like Bruno, Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum are that same kind of calm. Eight of their 12 matches in the two Doha tournaments went to three sets. They won them all. None of those eight three-set matches were even in the final. No, in both championships the Volley Vikings swept in two. Their ability to close out matches is unparalleled.
That being said, the 21-year-old high-flying Swedish team of David Ahman and Jonatan Hellvig are advancing scarily fast and starting to tug on Supermen’s cape. Mol and Sorum hold a 3-1 advantage in their burgeoning rivalry, but every match has been a nailbiter. While the Vikings play a more “traditional” brand of volleyball, the Swedes are the Flying Wallendas of the Volleyball World Tour, with their jump setting, misdirection, and vertical leaps that are ridiculous.
It really should come down to Norway vs. Sweden in every tournament from now to Paris 2024. There simply is no other team out there on their level.
The Brazilians seem somewhat uninspired, Qatar’s Samba and Tijan have lost the plot, and everybody else is either too old and have peaked (Brouwer/Meeuwsen, Carambula/Ranghieri and Herrera/Gavira) or mercurial (Bryl/Losiak).
Herrera and Gavira have played 159 tournaments together since 2009. That’s 14 years together! It gets stale. Paris will likely be Herrera’s sixth Olympic Games. Aren’t there any other beach volleyball players in Spain?
Brouwer and Meeuwsen have played 143 tourneys together, with their first one together in 2008 (If you are wondering, Randy Stoklos and Sinjin Smith by comparison played 239 as a partnership in a far different era when there were minimum twice the number of tournaments as today).
The bottom line: Outside of the Swedes there is very little new blood on the men’s World Tour. This creates a HUGE opportunity.
Which brings me to Miles Partain.
Four years ago when I spoke with him for the first time, he was 17 and I asked who his favorite player on the Tour was. To say I was stunned is an understatement. He mentioned Alexander Huber, a journeyman Austrian. Miles was impressed that at 5-11 Huber could mix it up with the big boys, including taking down Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Well, four years later and Miles himself now is well on his way to being one of the Goliaths.
Partain. who this week left the UCLA indoor men’s team presumably to go all in on the beach, has it all. Smart, total student of the game, analytic, calm, unafraid and physically gifted. He is next level already and will get better. He is ready to seize the opportunity NOW. He is partnered with Andy Benesh, and that is about as good as it gets right now for USA big men. The world is weak beyond the Norwegians and Swedes. Giddy up Partain and Benesh.
While the men’s chase for a gold medal in Paris could be narrowing down to just a couple of teams with a realistic shot, the women are just the opposite. It’s a free for all at this point.
No better explanation of that is the result of the two Doha tourneys with substantially the same teams participating. The World Tour winners Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes were fifth the next week in the second Doha. Ana Patricia and Duda, the runners-up to Cheng and Hughes, also finished fifth a week later. The team that competed the best overall were the Dutch combo of Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam. They were third in the World Tour Final and won the Elite 16 event. However, can they get it done in the big ones? So far, not so good. They were 17th at the Tokyo Olympics and ninth at the World Championships last summer in Rome. Granted they are young — Schoon is 21, Stam 24 — but they are not yet the Big Game Hunters that they will need to be.
Meanwhile, If I did not know better, I would think that Ana Patricia and Duda don’t like each other very much. Their body language tells the whole story. Yes, there are some perfunctory in-game hand slaps, but the joy is missing from their game. Ana Patricia is really gifted. A hand setter, a great blocker, a potent hitter. Her challenge is the mental game. It seems as if she checks out sometimes.
A team that I think has some big upside is Julia Scoles and Betsi Flint. They are flying under the radar a bit. Scoles is a big hitter which is key on the international tour, and Flint never beats herself and is pretty wily. Watch out for these two. They didn’t play in Doha, so they start out a little bit behind their direct competitors. Flint will definitely need to take the next step in her career NOW. The opportunity is there.
I am concerned about Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss. Nuss could be the best 5-6 player ever, but her margin of error is so small. Her shot making has to be super precise in every match and that is a lot of pressure. She will of course receive every serve unless Kloth gets the odd ball and shanks it. A team you really want to root for, but the path to Paris is filled with potholes to be sure.
Canadian Sarah Pavan may have topped out. Theoretically, her partnership with Sophie Bukovec would seem promising, given Bukovec’s height, youth, hops and court coverage, but Pavan is not the player she was a few years ago.
The biggest mystery is how well will the other Canadian partnership of Brandie Wilkerson and Melissa Humana Paredes play out? MHP was such a great defender for so long. But has she lost a step? Brandie has a great vert and big block, but now there are bigger blocks out there. Katja Stam is 6-4, and so is Kloth. Tanja Huberli is 6-3, as is Joanna Heidrich. Kelly Cheng is 6-2. Brandie? 5-10. She is giving up a lot of verticality there.
The Olympics are certainly the most important and prominent tournament in a quadrennial. But the best? No way. There is a lot of riff-raff in the small-to-begin-with, 24-team Olympic tournament with a max allotment of just two teams per country.
The run up to Paris will be exciting, as it always is. And the World Championships, for my money, is infinitely tougher to win with a 48-team draw and a max allotment of four teams per nation.
If you want to see the best event on the planet it will be in Tlaxacala, Mexico, October 6-15.
Brandie is only 5’10”, but she’s more athletic than any of the other blockers you mentioned. Brandie and Mel should definitely be the better Canadian pair, but I don’t think either are strong contenders to win a lot of events.
Wow, I didn’t know losing to “lucky losers” casey and kevin would be launching someone’s career, but I do know casey comes up with the most unusual wins; besides this one, there’s winning the MBO with “coming of of retirement” feuby. casey’s such a nice guy; I had a long conversation with him when I recognized him on a non-tournament weekend while bicycling by the hermosa beach pier in 2005 and then ten years later took a selfie with him when we again crossed paths, a chance meeting in the manhattan village mall