Beach Volleyball Tournament Off to Exciting Start in Tokyo

Some teams have already claimed a place in the knockout tournament while other are clinging to life as Olympic beach volleyball tournament passed the halfway point of pool play in Tokyo. Some of the favorites are on track to realizing their Olympic dreams while others have had shaky starts. A few surprise teams may be sneaking onto the medal radar but everyone still has a lot to prove as teams position themselves for a medal run.

Oleg Stoyanovskiy gets far over the net to shut down Josue Gaxiola in a fierce Olympic battle. Photo by FIVB.

Checking on on the women’s gold medal favorites

Entering the Olympics, I thought four women’s teams would fight for gold. Canadians Sarah Pavan & Melissa Humana-Paredes and Americans Alix Klineman & April Ross have not dropped a set in their first two matches and are on track to win their pools. Any recent lapses in form seem to be in their rearview mirror as they focus on the biggest prize in beach volleyball.

Taliqua Clancy & Mariafe Artacho have only played one match but they were dominant over a dangerous team from Cuba. There are no easy pools in Tokyo, though, so they aren’t out of the woods yet.

That brings us to Agatha and Duda who seem to be deep in the woods after yesterday’s loss. They were shocked in their second match by Fan Wang & Xinyi Xia. They weren’t just beaten but pummeled 21-18, 21-14. The Chinese pair will almost certainly win pool C, sending Agatha and Duda into a random draw for placement in knockout tournament. Depending on when their name is pulled out of the hat, the path to the medal rounds may be very complicated for them and one of the other favorites.

Top men’s teams stumble but don’t fall

Before the tournament started, I thought three men’s teams had a very good shot at Olympic glory. Anders Mol and Christian Sorum have won both of their matches, but haven’t been convincing. Their struggles in recent months have continued in Tokyo. Damien Schumann & Chris McHugh of Australia nearly delivered a huge surprise in their opening match (21-18, 18-21, 15-13). The Beachvolley Vikings were also pushed hard by Spain’s Pablo Herrera & Adrián Gavira in their second match. Their biggest test of pool play still awaits, Russians Konstantin Semenov & Ilya Leshukov.

Viacheslav Krasilnikov & Oleg Stoyanovskiy are very fortunate to be in the win column after losing set one and giving up a huge advantage in the third set against Mexicans Josue Gaxiola & Jose Rubio. A controversial handling violation whistled against Gaxiola on the matches final point rescued the World Champs from a disastrous start in Tokyo 24-26, 21-15, 18-16.

The best men’s team of the year had the easiest start of all the favorites. Cherif Samba & Ahmed Tijan powered past Mirco Gerson & Adrian Heidrich 21-17, 21-16. The Swiss men were the most highly regarded team my three favorites had to face in the opening round, making the Qatari’s start even more impressive. Qata has the toughest group of the three, so they could still taste defeat in pool play. Remember that they lost a match in pool play every time they won a medal this year, so even if they do lose one of their next two it doesn’t make them any less likely to win gold.

Mol & Sorum and Cherif & Ahmed are both in action tomorrow. Norway finishes off pool play while Qatar has their second match.

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Coming onto the radar

Two Chinese teams are making noise in Tokyo. Fan Wang & Xinyi Xia’s huge win against the favored Brazilians wasn’t their only success in Tokyo. They also beat Canada’s Brandie Wilkerson & Heather Bansley in Tokyo. Wang and Xia were the third seed in Pool C, but they are going to win it.

Chen Xue played at the Beijing and London Olympics and made the semifinals both times. It looks like she has her sights set on another deep run in 2021. She and Xinxin Wang won the Continental Cup in impressive fashion but were not expected to get out of their strong pool. They started with a loss, but managed to score 19 points in set two against Alix and April. In their second match they announced themselves to the tournament. Sanne Keizer & Madelein Meppelink had high hopes for Tokyo, but the Chinese pair put those hopes on life support with an epic 21-19, 29-31,13-15 victory. They survived the pressure of six match points before wrestling control of the second set from the Dutch. They held their nerve down the stretch in a close third set, too. That calm under pressure is essential for Olympic success and they have got it in spades.

Chen Xue is returning to her best Olympic form in 2021.
Chen Xue is returning to her best Olympic form in 2021. Photo by FIVB.

Damien Schumann & Chris McHugh and Josue Gaxiola & Jose Rubio were both impressive in their matches against the heavyweights but moral victories don’t get you far in Tokyo. I still expect the Mexicans to win a few more matches in Tokyo and knock off a big team next time they get a chance.

Konstantin Semenov & Ilya Leshukov have been a very good team since they joined forces, so they were never off the radar. They are in this section because it is time to put them into clearer focus. The Russians have been rock solid in their opening two matches, a 2-0 win over Herrera and Gavira and a demolition of the Australians that almost beat Norway. Semenov & Leshukov close out Pool A against the Beachvolley Vikings and based on what we’ve seen so far, they may be the favorites. If they knock of the number 1 seeds, then they take the best position in the knockout bracket as Pool A winners and could still be playing on August 7th.

State of the nations

Seven countries qualified two women’s teams for the Olympics. The Swiss women are perfect in four matches and America’s women haven’t lost in three tries. Sarah Sponcil & Kelly Claes have a chance at matching Switzerland’s four wins on Thursday. Canada, China and Brazil are on their way to getting two teams into the knockout rounds, while Germany and The Netherlands are struggling.

The Dutch haven’t won a match yet. Keizer & Meppelink need a win over April and Alix to have a chance at advancing and Schoon & Stam haven’t won a set yet, but I’m still expecting the young Dutchies to finish third in their group and cause a big team serious problems in the next round. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they have at least two wins yet to come in Tokyo.

Anouk Vergé-Dépré sneaks a ball down the line against Karla Borger on the Olympic tournament's opening day.
Anouk Vergé-Dépré sneaks a ball down the line against Karla Borger on the Olympic tournament’s opening day. Photo by FIVB.

Two of Germany’s losses came at the hands of the undefeated Swiss on the first day of the tournament. Nina Betschart & Tanja Hüberli outlasted Maggie Kozuch & Laura Ludwig in a marathon three-setter an hour before Joana Heidrich & Anouk Vergé-Dépré beat Karla Borger & Julia Sude in a three-setter of their own. Joana & Anouk face Canadian favorites Sarah and Melissa in a match that will have a major impact on the knockout stage.

Russia’s men unbeaten

There are five countries that have two men’s teams playing in Tokyo. Russia is the only one that remains unbeaten with a 3-0 record. Poland and Brazil are each 3-1 wile the USA and Italy are 2-1. All five countries have a very good chance of having all their teams advance to the knockout stage.

Ondrej Perusic update

As of his last Instagram communication on July 27th in Tokyo, Ondrej Perusic has still not tested negative for COVID. The viral load is coming down, but he is still COVID positive and running out of time. He and David Schweiner are scheduled to face Mexico on the 29th and he must have two negative tests before he is cleared to play. They couldn’t be in a better position as far as their match schedule goes. The unbalanced Olympic program has their second match slated for after fourteen teams have completed pool play. Even so, time isn’t on their side. His situation in quarantine hasn’t been ideal for staying match fit, even if he gets to play. I’ll post an Instagram story as soon as I have any news about the status of the Czech/Mexico match.