CUT SHOTS: CRUNCH TIME
By Tom Feuer
With top level talent gathering for only the second time since last August, one might have expected some major new developments in the beach volleyball world order in the penultimate (at least for Americans) Olympic qualifier in the Moscow Grand Prix. However, there was a lot of familiarity to the men’s and women’s finals.
First off, it was a treat to see the two best women’s teams in the world square off for only a third time. The deck seemed to be stacked against Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross going in. After all, Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes had never lost a final in twelve appearances. They had a 2-0 series lead over the Americans. But now after Sunday’s match, it appears as if KWJ and Ross are firmly, squarely in the heads of the Brasilians.
What else could explain a foot fault of all things by Talita, or a throw and multiple shanked passes by Larissa. The pressure KWJ and Ross placed on the Brasilians was immense. Larissa and Talita did not know whom to serve. They started on Walsh-Jennings, then went to Ross and back to KWJ and finally Ross again. Nothing was consistently working. Meanwhile, Kerri’s blocking and hitting, and April’s serving and digging were doing damage to the Brasilian’s psyche. The only thing they could not stop consistently was Larissa’s sublime line shot.
Meanwhile, Kerri and April unveiled low two and backsets to keep the Brasilians off their game. One major positive you do not see from Larissa and Talita when they are down, is the kind of bickering that characterized the relationship when Franca played with her old partner Juliana Felisberta Silva.
By the way, the medal matches of many FIVB tournaments can now be found on Universal HD. If you don’t have the channel already, there is an incremental cost to purchase but it is well worth it. Chris Marlowe and Dain Blanton were on Sunday’s call.
One other thing new this year is the “12 second rule.” For most sideouts, teams are required to put the ball in play within 12 seconds. This rule does not allow for many adjustments during the course of the game so getting and maintaining momentum becomes even more important. There is hardly much time even for televised replays.
On the men’s side, the final was a rematch of the World Championships gold medal slugfest featuring the reigning runners-up, 39-year-old Reinder Nummerdor and his Dutch partner Christiaan Varenhorst, up against gold medalists Bruno and Alison of Brasil. It had not been a particularly stellar year to date for the Dutch. In their four prior tournaments to Moscow, they finished fifth three times and seventeenth once. In pool play, in the Russian capital, they lost twice, to Adrian Gavira/Pablo Herrera of Spain and Vitor Felipe/Alvaro Filho of Brasil. Both matches were very tight. In fact they went three games apiece and the Dutch lost to Vitor Felipe/Alvaro 23-21 in the third in a match that went over an hour, a rarity these days with the new rules.
In the final, Alison was off his game and the Brasilians lost 17-15 in the third after winning the second game 21-7! However, this was just Bruno and Alison’s third tourney this year and as they peak for Rio they will undoubtedly prove to be a handful.
Meanwhile, on the U.S. front, Casey Patterson/Jake Gibb and Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena finally booked their passage to Rio, the former more impressively than the latter. In fact, Gibb and Patterson are really trending in the right direction. They started the season with three ninths on the FIVB circuit, followed consecutively by three fifths and now a fourth place finish. Add to that, a second and a first on the AVP Tour and this very experienced team may yet be a factor in Rio.
Dalhausser and Lucena on the other hand are a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in mystery. Just how bad is Nick Lucena’s shoulder? What about Phil’s calf, oblique, and shoulder? When they are healthy they can and should beat anyone not named Bruno and Alison. However, when dinged up they are vulnerable. Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo knocked Phil and Nick out in Moscow, and the Americans finished 17th. Nicolai views Dalhausser as his idol, but boy has he made his idol’s life miserable, knocking Phil and Todd Rogers out of the Olympics four years ago and then eliminating Phil and Nick on Sunday. Moscow has been a tough place for Phil to play of late as he hurt his oblique there last year finishing 25th.
While three of the four USA berths are locked in for Rio, the last one will probably be decided in the final qualifying tournament in Hamburg, Germany next week. Right now Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat (4470 points) are sitting on the last of the 15 automatic Olympic qualification berths with a lot of teams from a lot of countries within striking distance. Right now they are almost five hundred points (490) ahead of Jen Kessy, reigning Olympic silver medalist (with partner April Ross) and Emily Day. Fendrick and Sweat will receive 160 points just for making it into the main draw of the Hamburg Grand Slam which would at the very least increase their point total by 40 (only the top 12 finishes count from April 2015-June 12, 2016). Day and Kessy would need a top finish to eke into the top fifteen and get past Fendrick and Sweat.
Tom Feuer has been a close observer of the sport since 1976. He currently works as the Director of Arizona State’s Cronkite Sports Bureau in Santa Monica, CA and is a Professor of Practice. Prior to that, he was the Executive Producer for Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket in Los Angeles and has won three National Emmy Awards for his work in television.