Zana Muno was so close. Close to home. Close to a week off between the AVP Atlanta Gold Series and the Manhattan Beach Open. And then, laying over at the Denver airport on her return from Atlanta, just a two-and-a-half-hour flight from LAX, she got the news: She and Lauren Fendrick had just slipped off the reserve list and into the qualifier of this week’s Volleyball World Elite 16 event in Hamburg, Germany.
Within hours, she had a new itinerary. She was no longer going home. She was no longer taking that week off. She was no longer 150 minutes from the end of her journey. She was, rather, only beginning.
She was on her way to Germany.
That’s the whirlwind of a life balancing the AVP and Volleyball World tours. One must be ready to flip an itinerary from Los Angeles to Germany within minutes, or else lose your spot in the qualifier of the biggest international event of your career. Muno isn’t one to turn down opportunities; these are, in fact, exactly the type she has been holding out for since finishing second in a NORCECA in Aguascalientes, Mexico in April. She began embracing a mindset begat by Tim Hovland: With international travel as expensive as it is, she was holding out for the biggest events with the biggest points and the most to gain. She was becoming a Big Game Hunter.
On Wednesday in Hamburg — late Tuesday in Los Angeles — she’ll have her chance with Fendrick, her partner during the AVP Hermosa Beach Pro Series, as one of only two American teams in the event. They match up with Spain’s Sofia Gonzalez and Paula Soria in the first round of the qualifier.
The other American pair is Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint, seeded 10th in the main draw, which is headlined by local stars Cinja Tillmann and Svenja Muller, Germans who won the last Elite 16 in which they played — Ostrava in late May — and claimed a bronze medal at the World Championships in Rome.
The fourth seed is, while not American, a pair of familiar faces in Canadians Sophie Bukovec and Brandie Wilkerson, both of whom have been at the previous two AVP stops, in Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta. Wilkerson competed with Muno, finishing fifth and third, respectively, while Bukovec tagged along, training and cheering on her partner.
Fort Lauderdale champ Tina Graudina, reunited with her Latvian partner Anastasija Kravcenoka, is seeded ninth. There is not a single American team on the men’s side, which is highlighted by Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, and Brazilians George Wanderley and Andre Loyola, and Renato Lima and Vitor Felipe — the gold, bronze, and silver medalists at the World Championships, respectively.
Since 2016, Hamburg has put on one of the best events on the World Tour, annually packing the 10,000-seat Rothenbaum clay tennis venue, as it did during the 2019 World Championships. Seventy-two truckloads have hauled in upwards of 1,000 tons of sand to convert the tennis arena into one fit for a top-tier beach volleyball competition.