Feuer: Proof that chemistry rules in pro beach volleyball, USA a “hot mess”

If nothing else, the just-concluded FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Rome showed us that the sport is about chemistry. And, in the case of the USA, a lack thereof.

To wit, go back three years. The last Beach Volleyball World Championships were in Hamburg, Germany, in the pre-COVID, halcyon, care-free summer of 2019.

It was a marvelous setting, with a vociferous, energetic and passionate nationalistic crowd, with everyone anticipating the Tokyo Olympics the next summer. That event also signified the turning point in the careers of what may, at this point, be considered the best TEAM in beach volleyball history, Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum.

But not in the way you might think.

In 2019, Mol was 22, Sorum 23, and they came into those Worlds on an historic run. From the Gstaad Major in July 2018, when, as the 15th seed, they won their first signifcant international competition, until those Hamburg Worlds, they won an astounding seven out of 10 events. It was an amazing run in this day and age where tournaments are all over the world and where there are 50+ countries now playing the sport (there were 54 different nations in the World Championships this year alone). 

But, in front of a packed center-court hometown crowd, they lost a dramatic and riveting semifinal to Germany’s own Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, a taut three-set affair, 15-12 in the third. The “Volley Vikings,” were, in a word, devastated. They may have been intimidated by 12,000-plus Hamburg faithful cheering on their home-country heroes. 

The hangover from that disappointment, and the bad taste lingered to the bronze-medal match less than 24 hours later. The young Norwegians’ body language was all wrong. They did not want to be there. They lost the first set, 21-19 to Americans Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

Then something dramatic happened.

Almost like a switch was flipped, the youngsters hit the reset button, shifted their mental energy in a positive direction, and took the final two sets and the bronze medal. They dealt with their attitudinal adversity and came out the other side. That match gave them a blueprint for the future, and every major obstacle they have encountered since they have hurdled cleanly.

That match three years ago paved the way for what we have seen since, which culminated this past weekend with a thoroughly dominating World Championships gold-medal performance at the Foro Italico in Rome (the only major event they had never won).

And with all great and due respect to the duos of Karch Kiraly-Kent Steffes, Randy Stoklos-Sinjin Smith, Emanuel Rego-Ricardo Santos, Tim Hovland-Mike Dodd, Jim Menges-Greg Lee, Karch-Sinjin and Ron Von Hagen-Ron Lang, Mol and Sorum belong with the greatest ever.

Which brings us to 2022

Consider for a moment the tournament that just concluded in Rome. The Volley Vikings won 16 of 17 sets and they did this with Sorum playing with KT Tape all over his back and clearly in distress at times. In the quarters, semis and finals, Mol-Sorum took on the three best Brazilian teams and easily disposed of them all.

Christian Sorum, left, and Anders Mol celebrate winning the World Championships/Volleyball World photo

In Tokyo, last summer at the Olympic Games — the ones delayed a year to 2021 — with Mol the one being injured at that time, they still waltzed their way to a gold medal with four straight set victories to conclude the tournament. They have won the European Championships four times. The only “major” they have never won is the Norwegian National Championships! 

If there had been no pandemic, who knows how many tournaments Mol and Sorum would have won by now. Moreover, in this day and age, with fewer major events to begin with, Mol and Sorum, having played together only since 2018, are already tied for eighth all-time in team victories and they are barely in their mid-20s.

Mol is the best athlete and blocker on tour. I have been a keen observer of top-flight beach volleyball since 1975, and he may be the most gifted player I have ever seen. Sorum sees the court better than any player I have witnessed since Sinjin Smith. They are the complete package. The Volley Vikings are also extremely charming, very personable, gracious and terrific with their legions of fans. How can you not like the Icelandic Clap followed by Mol’s backflip!

But there was a lot more to unpack from these Worlds than just that exquisite performance. Back to chemistry.

Consider Canada’s 29-year-old Brandie Wilkerson.

In 2018 she could have been considered one of the best players in the world. Wilkerson was certainly the best blocker on tour and would win any vertical-leap contest, her athleticism so pronounced. She and partner Heather Bansley made six FIVB podiums with three wins and it looked as if they had taken over the mantle from Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes as the best team from the Great White North.

But just like that, the magic was gone.

She stood on only one podium between the end of 2018 and Sunday. But in Rome, with a new partner in Sophie Bukovec, Brandie’s mojo was back. Instant chemistry created. The 20th-seeded team made it all the way to the World Championships final.

Consider Bukovec. In 2014, at age 19, she won the Under-21 World Championships with Tiadora Miric (Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes were third). She then moved on to USC, where she was twice an AVCA All-American. Yet, when one thinks of USC beach, Hughes, USA Olympian Cheng, and Latvian Olympian Tina Graudina come first to mind. Yet none of them have won an Olympic or World medal, while Bukovec has become the first USC beach player to do so (NCAA beach was not an option when Jen Kessy and April Ross were playing at USC). 

In order to combine effectively with Wilkerson, Bukovec had to transition to being a defender, and the 6-footer did a really admirable job. Meanwhile, receiving almost all of the serves in every match, Bukovec showed sublime poise and intensity as well as one heckuva heavy arm. And, by the way, I have never seen Brandie set so well and consistently as in this tournament.

Sophie Bukovec, left, and Brandie Wilkerson have the right chemistry/Volleyball World photo

In the women’s gold-medal match, Wilkerson-Bukovec ran into a buzzsaw that was the combo of Duda and Ana Patricia from Brazil. Greatness had been predicted for this team as soon as they cast off their long-time partners, Agatha and Rebecca, respectively, after the Olympic cycle last year. After all, in 2014, Duda, a precocious 15-year-old (!) and Ana Patricia, 16, won the Youth Olympic Games together. In 2016 when Duda was 17, and Ana Patricia was 18 they won the FIVB Under-21 Worlds. For good measure, they captured that title the next year as well. Three international championship tournaments played, and three gold medals. You can now make it three for three in World Championships as well, with their “senior” title over the weekend. Interestingly, it is their first win of any kind together on the senior circuit.

Wilkerson was not the only 2022 Worlds medalist who may have been written off before this season. More chemistry. Consider the career of 31-year-old Vitor Felipe of Brazil. A wunderkind, Felipe won the silver at the Under-21 Worlds in 2009 with Alvaro Filho. And then the pair did it again a year later. In his second season on the senior FIVB circuit, 2013, Felipe hooked up with the big bomber Evandro. They ended up winning a major in Berlin in August, and then in a crazy year of partner switches in Brazil, they broke up directly afterwards, and Vitor ended up with the reigning (at that time) Olympic silver medalist, Alison, the Wooly Mammoth. It seemed as if Vitor scored on that front, and made out on the partner switching like a bandit. Except it did not last, and Felipe found himself back with Evandro, as well as a succession of Brazilian big names over the years: Alvaro again, a very young George Wanderley, Guto, Pedro Solberg, with one commonality: mediocre results … 

Then chemistry happened. Vitor snared Renato Lima in 2021. After two 41st-place finishes (!) they started to click. A second in Itapema in November, and some decent finishes earlier this year, set up Vitor for the crowning achievement of his long and circuitous career, a silver medal in Rome. A podium finish which was partially made possible via one of the tourney’s best matches, a heart-thumping 11-21, 21-19, 15-13 win over the home crowd favorites, 2016 Olympic silver medalist Paolo Nicolai and his young (and promising) 23-year-old Italian partner Samuele Cottafava in the second round of the elimination bracket.

No young player impressed more than Vitor’s partner Lima over the 10 days. Mature beyond his years, and with an overall game to match, Renato, at 22, became one of the youngest to ever medal at Worlds, and like with Ana Patricia and Duda, he cut his teeth on the international “junior” circuit. Lima won the Under-19 Worlds when he was 16, and then the following year, 2017, won the Under-21 World Champs. In 2019, playing with his brother Rafael, Renato repeated, winning a third World Age Group title. “Smooth” is the word to describe Renato’s game. His demeanor and maturity remind one of Emanuel Rego, not a bad person to be compared with.

Which finally brings us to the USA

Well, it was a bit of a “hot mess.”

Let’s start with who wasn’t there: The two top American women’s teams.

In a kind of “WTF” decision, the FIVB did not grant a wild-card to Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss, no less than the fastest rising team on the Volleyball World Tour. They placed first and ninth in their first two Volleyball World Challenge Series events this year and then tied for fifth in the Elite 16 event in Latvia. Considering some of the flotsam and jetsam among the 48-team field in Rome, there was really no excuse for them not to be in the mix battling for medals.

The” other” missing team was Olympic gold-medalists April Ross, who turned 40 on Monday, and Alix Klineman, 32. Klineman is recovering from shoulder surgery and Ross, evidently, is recovering from injuries. You have to wonder if they will play in any beach tourney this year. Would they have won a gold medal at full strength in Rome? I suspect yes, but the world is getting better all the time. Nonetheless, taking the year off is probably a very good move as much for mental, as physical reasons.

Meanwhile, the four USA teams that DID play on the women’s side were underwhelming, to say the least.

Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske finished highest, tying for fifth, after being eliminated by the Olympic bronze medalists, Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich of Switzerland. That’s nothing at all to be ashamed of. However, the last time a USA contingent was led by such a low finish was in 2015, when Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat tied for fifth.

Terese Cannon and Sarah Sponcil could muster only a ninth at the Foro Italico, while the Emilys, Day and Stockman, took 17th, as did Cheng and Betsi Flint. I will be very surprised if these partnerships last beyond this summer.

On the men’s side, a super pleasant surprise was the performance of Theo Brunner and Chaim Schalk, both of whom seem to play out of their minds when it comes time for the World Championships.

Brunner and Nick Lucena took a spectacular and unlooked-for fourth in 2015. Schalk, a Canadian citizen at the time, took fifth in Stare Jablonki, Poland, as the No. 40 seed in 2013 with compatriot Ben Saxton. They notched a fifth again in ’17 as the 13th seed, knocking the Olympic champions from Rio — Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt — out of the tournament. Then they gave the eventual gold medalists, Evandro and Andre Loyola, all they could handle before losing 15-10 in the third. 

Five years later Loyola did it again. Playing with George Wanderley this time, the Brazilians took the measure of Schalk and Brunner in Rome’s bronze-medal match. All tournament Brunner, 37, and Schalk, 36, played as if their lives depended on it, making those hustle plays that can turn a match around and frequently did.

The rest of the USA men struggled, although in fairness, Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne were dealt a tough hand. They got in at the last minute, played well, and were poised to play Estonia’s Kusti Nolvak and Mart Tiisaar in the round of 16. But a positive COVID test knocked the American duo out and they had to settle for ninth after that fourth-place finish three years ago in Hamburg when they almost knocked out the Volley Vikings.

The Taylors, Trevor’s brother Taylor, with partner Taylor Sander, are still a work in progress.

The undersized new team finished 17th, knocked out by the even more undersized Philip Waller and Robin Seidl. The Austrians were the only team in the tournament to take a set from Mol and Sorum, an extremely worthy, if not all together surprising accomplishment.

In the end, it became the first time since 2015 that no team from the USA on either side medaled.

On the other hand, the USA’s equal historically rival in beach volleyball dominance, Brazil, had an absolute renaissance in Rome. They came away with a medal of every color after being shut out at the Olympics in Tokyo for the very first time.

Perhaps that should give the USA some hope and inspiration. 

More on what happened in Rome

Finally, a couple of other notes before we close the book on Rome. The quality of play was magnificent. The pandemic-caused lack of tournaments, and the ensuing financial haircut the players took, did not seem to affect performance. But what was really exciting was the variety of offenses being run by teams. Jump sets, quick sets, darts, a different variety of back sets. It was enthralling!

There are improvements that need to be made. The result of the player challenges must come faster. The athletes were waiting around forever. In tennis, the turnaround time is miniscule. The FIVB needs to focus on developing its own version of tennis’ HawkEye video review system. Also, there are still instances when the players’ uniform kit does not match their country colors. Why? In a World Championship this is a very important consideration. 

And then there’s the seeding system.

Any computation that has Mol and Sorum eighth, Heidrich-Verge-Depre 22nd, and Carambula/Rossi No. 1 while Guto/Alison are 13th is seriously flawed.

What’s more, it does not make a whole lot of sense having a tournament of this magnitude so early in the season. There is no real build-up, not for the players or the fans. It takes time to build season-long story lines with drama and rivalries.

The attendance for the most part in Foro Italico was very poor outside of the men’s and women’s finals. The video coverage of the event got better as the tournament went on, but there were way too many crowd shots (and often of the same group of fans). We thank our lucky stars that fans are back. But, I don’t know about you, I tune in to see the players, that is the raison d’etre. Hats off to Simon Golding who was terrific on play-by-play of the matches that he called. He really understands the nuances of the game.

There’s a year of pro beach volleyball in between, of course, but the Worlds will take place in 2023 in Mexico, an excellent choice by the FIVB, and a country very deserving of hosting the sport’s crown jewel event.

Before the world as a whole reunites again in the land of our southern neighbor, there are some very key storylines to examine:

First and foremost: Can the American women right the ship? Which USA women’s team can be a legit threat to medal in these critical next two summers other than Ross and Klineman, if they return? Is it going to be Kloth-Nuss or a team that has yet formed, that could include some combination of Megan Kraft, Sarah Sponcil, Sara Hughes, and Kelly Cheng or a player or players not yet on our radar. Look how fast Sponcil emerged on the world scene in the last quad and the meteoric rise just in the last 12 months of Kloth-Nuss. It can happen that fast with the high level of young talent in this country.

What can the USA men do? That is a much tougher question. With Miles Partain still playing indoors for UCLA, and two years of eligibility remaining at that, the “dream team” of Partain and Andy Benesh may be a while away from becoming a reality. As far as the rest of the USA men at the moment, from an international perspective, there appears to be no quick fixes.

Who responds? That one is pretty evident. Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam of the Netherlands, and the aforementioned Graudina, and her Latvian partner Anastasija Kravcenoka, laid an egg at the Foro Italico. Both teams placed ninth. I would bet a lot of coin that neither of these teams will see a finish that low in either of the big tournaments awaiting them the next two years. And in the case of the Latvians, they probably will do anything they can to avoid Heidrich and Verge-Depre who beat them twice in Rome, both in a very quick two sets.

On the men’s side, the pride of Qatar, Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan, a very consistent team under normal circumstances, and the Olympic bronze medalists, struggled again at the Worlds. They were 17th in Hamburg and ninth in Rome. Samba, with Jefferson Santos Pereira, had a fifth in 2015 and a ninth in 2017 in two prior Worlds. You would think he would be frothing at the mouth to get another global medal.

The good news for them, us and the sport as a whole is that there is no shortage of intrigue, and plenty to point to. Next up is one of the players’ very favorite stops on the Tour when they land in Gstaad, Switzerland, for a World Volleyball Elite 16 from July 6-10.

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