CUT SHOTS: DRAWING LOTS
By Tom Feuer
With the first serve of the Olympic Games just a month away (!), and the drawing of lots this weekend in Gstaad, it is time to take a quick look at the men’s teams who are in best position at this point in the season to make a run at the medals. Keep in mind that only the Gstaad (5-10 July) and Klagenfurt (26-31 July) international tournaments and the domestic Manhattan Beach Open (14-17 July) remain.
There are four men’s teams that have what it takes to win a gold medal. At the top of the list are Brasil’s Alison and Bruno and Aleksandrs Samoilovs (the Lion King) and Janis Smedins of Latvia. The latter team is peaking at the right time, and Smedins is especially playing at a very high level. After knee surgery sidelined him for a good part of 2015, he is finally back to the playing form which really makes him one of the two-three best overall players in the world. He can split block with Samoilovs and he is back to his cat quickness on defense. As a left hander with a whip of an arm you pay for it if you serve him.
Both players are experienced Olympians. Samoilovs, playing with Martins Plavins, pulled off one of the great upsets in beach volleyball history, when the day after the Opening Ceremony in Beijing in 2008, they upset Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers in straight sets. That was the only blemish for the Americans as they went on to win the gold medal. Four years later, Plavins teamed up with Smedins to win the bronze medal in London. The latter are both only 6-3, which proves that it has not been necessary to be a “tree” to win medals at the Games. At the same time, Smedins in better than he was four years ago, and in Samoilovs, he has a more skillful partner.
Samoilovs and Smedins are also playing their best volleyball right now. Two wins, and a fourth among their last five tournaments attest to their high level at the moment.
Alison and Bruno seemed to have cleared away some of the communication problems they have had this season to date with a BIG win last weekend in a packed, sold out Porec Major. Make no mistake they are not playing as well as they did last year and Alison has had some real dreadful stretches, but their experience and performance on the biggest stages cannot be discounted. Together they won a World Championship last year. Separately, Alison won a gold medal in 2011 with Emanuel at an earlier Worlds, and a silver at the 2012 Olympics (which was lost on a very questionable “out” call on match point) attest to their ability to bring it when it matters the most. Bruno also won a 21-and-under World Championship with Pedro Solberg.
In 2013 Aleksandr Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen came out of nowhere to win the World Championship. Their previous finishes that season were four ninths and a fifth! They won’t catch anybody by surprise in Rio but they remain a very dangerous team. They have compiled two seconds and two thirds on the FIVB tour this season but they are coming off their worst finish of the season with a ninth in Porec. However, looking at their record they have had only one “bad” loss this season and they own a straight sets win over Alison and Bruno in…Rio…
If Brouwer and Meeuwsen were to face Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena they would probably be on the business end of that decision. The Americans have won three straight over the Dutch. The key for Phil and Nick will boil down to how well Lucena sides out because he will receive just about every serve in the tournament. This team will also need Dalhausser’s big serve to take the pressure off Lucena. I think they will benefit from the every other day schedule. They are the oldest (both are 36) team of the leading contenders and the days off will help them physically and mentally and allow them to scout and prepare for opponents.
They won’t win gold or silver but the Dutch number “two” team Reinder Nummerdor (39 years old), and Christian Varenhorst will be there at the end, guaranteed. Nummerdor, like Dalhausser and Lucena will benefit from the days off and he has a young stud blocker in Varenhorst, who can at times be an absolute monster at the net and is also quick enough to back off and make plays. Nummerdor with Richard Schuil was fifth in Beijing in ’08 and fourth in London in ’12. Nummerdor with Varenhorst in tow, lost a heartbreaking final at the World Championships last season to Alison and Bruno.
The most inconsistent team in the world is Italy’s Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai. Their last tournament in Hamburg (they did not play in Porec) they finished 25th. However, they are dangerous as evidenced by their fifth in London in the 2012 Olympics where they delivered the knockout punch to Rogers and Dalhausser (albeit both Americans were dinged up). This season has been the typical rollercoaster but when they are on (which means Lupo siding out and Nicolai blocking his brains out) they can be a tough out.
Up until Lars Fluggen’s knee injury, I thought that his unorthodox play (as well as his goofy hat) along with his German partner Marcus Bockermann might create problems for teams but don’t think they can make a difference.
Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson are very much in the mix. They have had a quietly terrific season and Patterson has been absolute sublime in transition plays on defense. They have been remarkably consistent with four fifths and two fourths in their last six international tournaments.
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.