CUT SHOTS: BACK FOR MORE
By Tom Feuer
Following a potentially soul crushing Olympic year, it could be expected that after three seasons together, Larissa Franca, 35, and Talita Antunes, 34, would part and go their separate ways. After all, there was the dispiriting loss in the bronze medal match at the Olympic Summer Games in Rio to Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross. Next came desultory fifth and fourth place finishes in the remaining FIVB events at the World Series in Long Beach and the World Tour Finals in Toronto. With a total of two wins in 11 FIVB events in 2016, it looked like hasta la vista for this decorated pairing of beach volleyball superstars, especially in light of a talent pool as deep as it has ever been in Brasil.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the dumpster. From the end of 2016 through the start of the 2017 season they have adjusted their game and now are as fearsome as they have ever been. Want proof? Consider the Brasilian domestic tour (in other words, that countries’ version of the AVP) where Larissa and Talita won a staggering seven of nine events that they played during the South American summer season. Big deal you say. Well, arguably four of the top six teams in the world wear the yellow and gold.
So far in 2017, Larissa and Talita have entered three FIVB tourneys with wins at Ft. Lauderdale and Moscow thus equaling their entire total from all of 2016. The only blemish, a fifth in Rio where they were knocked aside by countrywomen Fernanda Alves and Barbara Seixas (more on them later).
Now, the FIVB tour is headed to The Hague in the Netherlands this week where all of the top teams in the world are entered sans Kerri Walsh Jennings/Nicole Branagh and maybe (??) April Ross who was clearly in pain before, during and after her spectacular performance in the finals in New York City at the AVP event this past weekend.
While Larissa and Talita made it through the tough times, it was very odd that the silver medal winners in Rio (and gold medalists from the last World Championships in The Hague in 2015), Agatha Bednarczuk (33) and Barbara Seixas (29) split up. As personally close as we were led to believe they were, with husbands as coaches and trainers, something clearly was not clicking for them to dissolve a successful partnership at the height of their powers. As the roulette wheel turned, the biggest winner of any player in the world, male or female, from an offseason partner switch may have been Agatha.
The BIG prize? 18 year old Eduarda Santos Lisboa, otherwise known as “Duda” Inarguably, the greatest junior player ever, the six foot Duda has won two under-19 World Championships, one when she was 14 (!) and the other while celebrating her 16th birthday. In addition, she won the Youth Olympic Games in 2014, and each of those wins came with a different partner.
As soon as Agatha and Duda came together they clicked. In their first tournament at the end of January, they finished second in Joao Pessoa, losing a nail biter to Larissa and Talita that went to 16-14 in the third. Their other finishes on the CBBVP circuit were no less impressive including a win in the Super Praia, the culminating event on the domestic schedule.
So far in three 2017 FIVB events, Agatha and Duda have been spectacular together garnering all podium finishes. They won in Rio defeating Larissa and Talita in the final, and finished second in Fort Lauderdale to their rivals before a third in Moscow where again they lost to Larissa and Talita.
Meanwhile, the “other” Brasilian Rio silver medalist, Barbara Seixas is now partnering with Fernanda Alves and their results in FIVB events have been so-so at best. They won a watered-down three star event in Xiamen before finishing fourth in Rio (beating Larissa and Juliana/losing to Agatha and Duda) and a lackluster 17th in Moscow. Fernanda is a former top indoor player, and at 6-2 presents an imposing block, but she is wildly inconsistent. For instance, she won a silver medal at the last Worlds with Taina Lima, but since then has had more 9ths and 17ths than podium finishes.
With this plethora of great Brasilian talent, where does that leave the reigning Olympic champions from Germany? Laura Ludwig had post-season shoulder surgery and her comeback has been slow and measured. She recently spent a lot of time in Manhattan Beach with Kerri Walsh Jennings who knows a thing or two about shoulder injuries. Ludwig has a fifth and ninth with her young Olympic partner Kira Walkenhorst, but once she gains more confidence in her damaged limb she should still be formidable. Two other German teams will be headaches for opponents, Chantal Labourer and partner Julia Sude as well as Victoria Bieneck and Isabel Schneider.
It is this gauntlet from Brasil and Germany that the top USA teams of April Ross/Fendrick, Summer Ross/Brooke Sweat, Sara Hughes/Kelly Claes and KWJ and Nicole Branagh will have to wade through this summer. After The Hague event this week there are only four major events left (including the World Series in Long Beach July 13-16) before the World Championships convene in Vienna from July 28-August 6.
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.