Thrills and Heartbreak in First Round of Olympic Tournament

There were sixteen first round matches at the Olympic beach volleyball tournament over the past two days in Tokyo. Eight teams from the women’s tournament and eight more from the men’s kept their Olympic dreams alive while sixteen teams are packing up their rooms in the Olympic village and preparing to go home.

In some cases loss meant the end of brilliant international careers, in others it was the crushing disappointment of young dreams. For everyone that lost it was painful and several couldn’t hold back the tears.

For those who won, there were some serious celebrations. The 16 teams still standing are just two wins away from Olympic medals and three away from gold.

Canada still at full strength

Seven nations sent two women’s teams to the Olympic tournament, but only Canada has both their teams remaining. Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes entered as the top seeds and they have been untouchable. Their unblemished 8-0 set record continued with their strongest performance yet in the first elimination round. They trounced Spain’s Elsa Baquerizo & Liliana Fernandez 21-13, 21-13. Elsa and Liliana won the lucky losers round, but maybe they would have preferred to return home a day earlier instead of facing the World Champs, who are clearly on a mission.

Sarah Pavan attacks on an empty net against Spain. That never ends well for Canada’s opponents. Photo by FIVB.

Heather Bansley & Brandie Wilkerson didn’t have it nearly as easy in their first round match. They lost the first set to American’s Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil and fell way behind early in the second. Down 6-1 at the side switch, they made a series of big plays to fight back and take the lead 15-14. Bansley and Wilkerson were steady throughout the tight third set and it was Brandie who ended it with a second ball option that had been the trademark of Kelly and Sarah’s remarkable 2021 run. 22-24, 21-18, 15-13.

Ludwig shines in bright lights

Laura Ludwig was made for the big stage. Olympic Gold, Youth World Championships, Senior World Championships, World Tour Finals, she has won them all and always rises to the big occasions. She has done it again in Tokyo. The last big tournament she and Maggie Kozuch won together was way back in 2019, at the World Tour Finals. They came out of nowhere and beat Agatha and Duda for gold. Laura also beat Agatha in the gold medal match in Rio 2016. Since then, the Brazilians have been the far superior team, but once again it was Laura shining on the big stage.

This one was a thriller, with set 1 and 2 finishing 21-19. Germany took the first and Brazil the second. Agatha had big blocks and Maggie got one of her own Laura made big digs and a trademark over on one, Duda hit some bombs. Brazil were clinging to their lead late and looked ready to go up 14-12 but Germany rescued the huge point. Kozuch got a block touch that Laura dove full stretch to keep alive. The only thing Maggie could do with it was try with a reverse bump cutty which she placed perfectly for the kill and a 13-13 tie. Brazil got to match point first at 14-13 and seemed like they had it won when Agatha’s serve to Kozuch put Germany out of system, Maggie’s pokie to the deep corner landed in. Duda, the best offensive player in the women’s game hit long and then Agatha’s set was too close to the net creating a fifty-fifty ball between Agatha and Maggie which the German won. The match swung so quickly that Duda couldn’t hold back the tears.

Maggie Kozuch smashes past Agatha in the first round match between Germany and Brazil.
Maggie Kozuch smashes past Agatha in the first round match between Germany and Brazil. Photo by FIVB.

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Australians back on track

Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho del Solar lost in their pool, but they took care of business against China’s Olympic veteran Chen Xue and Xinxin Wang. Xue and Wang were surprising second place finishers in Pool A, but couldn’t handle the Australians. They survived two match points in the first set before losing 22-20 and the second set was all Australia 21-13. The win sets up a huge quarterfinal clash with Canadians Pavan and Humana-Parades.

The A-team continues to roll

April Ross and Alix Klineman fell behind briefly in their first round match against Lidy Echeverria and Leila Martinez, but quickly got things under control. Under control is exactly what they have been in Tokyo. With so many matches leaving spectators with their hearts in their throats, April and Alix’s fans appreciate the stress free ride through the tournament so far.

Women’s pool winners bounced out

Fan Wang & Xinyi Xia surprised Brazil’s Agatha in Duda in pool play and found themselves facing another Brazilian team, Ana Patricia and Rebecca in the first round of the knockouts. They couldn’t repeat their success, dropping the first set badly and squandering a chance to force a third set, eventually falling 23-21 in the second. The top two teams from Pool C have been eliminated, but the third team, Brandie and Heather are still alive.

Pool D’s winners, Sarah Sponcil & Kelly Claes saw two teams they beat beat advance to the next round. Ana Patricia and Rebecca lost to the Americans but are still alive. Tina Graudina & Anastasija Kravcenoka of Latvia beat Pool E winners Nadezda Makroguzova & Svetlana Kholomina of Russia. The tangled web shows how quickly Pool success can quickly turn to dashed hopes at the Olympics.

Likewise, the first round battle between Swiss Pool F winners Nina Betschart & Tanja Hüberli and Pool A runner’s up Anouk Vergé-Dépré & Joana Heidrich went to the team that didn’t win their pool. Their battle was an epic three setter that went to 23-21 with each team earning five match points in the final set. This was written up on The Beach Volley Blog Instagram account, where you can find a Team of the Day and Match of the day description every day of the Olympics. Make sure you follow, so you don’t miss any of the Olympic highlights.

Farewell Jake and Phil

Two American legends went out in the first round of the men’s tournament. Jake Gibb and Phil Dalhausser are four time Olympians and Phil was a gold medal winner in Beijing. They have made it clear they are finished with international competition following the Olympics. Both blockers led teams that were underdogs in their first round matches, and both came out strong to win the first set before losing in three.

Phil Dalhausser roofs Cherif Samba in the first round in Tokyo.  Phil got seven blocks in what was probably his last international match.
Phil Dalhausser roofs Cherif Samba in the first round in Tokyo. Phil got seven blocks in what was probably his last international match. Photo by FIVB.

Phil and Nick Lucena battled Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Samba of Qatar. The Qataris emerged as gold medal contenders in 2021 and at this stage of the tournaments, they’d have to be considered gold medal favorites. Phil and Nick burst out to a commanding first set win 21-14 with Dalhausser picked up three blocks and forced Ahmed and Cherif into several hitting errors. Nick was error free, receiving most of the serves but Phil contributed to the side out success with some second ball kills. The second set was a back and forth affair that features several runs. Two late digs by Ahmed, one on Nick and one on Phil gave Qatar their final advantage. In the third set, more stellar defense from Ahmed and three blocks by Cherif were the difference in the 15-11 decider. Phil ended up with seven blocks on the match but it wasn’t enough to keep the Americans going in Tokyo.

Jake and Tri faced Germany’s Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler in the first round. Tri Bourne did everything he could to keep Jake’s career going with some great serving, defensive gems and big hits. Late in set 1 Tri hit two aces in a row and Jake got a huge block to swing the set in their favor. Set two was all Germany as they put on a ball control clinic, preventing the Americans from ever scoring two points in a row. Germany hit some key ace serves and the Americans had a couple of errors in the third set which finished 15-11. Jake took a minute leaning into the net with his eyes closed as he came to grips with what the loss meant. The loss ended one of the tournament’s feel good stories as Tri Bourne filled in very well for Taylor Crabb and allowed Gibb to thrill his fans on the international stage one last time.

Tri Bourne lays out to try to keep a point going in the first round clash between Germany and the American men.
Tri Bourne lays out to try to keep a point going in the first round clash between Germany and the American men. Photo by FIVB.

Plavins and Tocs end Bruno’s golden repeat hopes

Martins Plavins put on a defensive masterclass as he and Edgars Tocs shocked Evandro and Bruno with a 21-19, 21-18 win. The Latvians frustrated the heavily favored Brazilians throughout the match with Plavins making digs on their biggest swings and all the long points ending up in the Latvians score column. Bruno won’t be repeating as Olympic champion. Next up for Lativa is Bruno’s partner from 2016, Alison.

Mol & Sorum Beat Down of Bash Bros

The Norwegian’s faced their first ever Olympic elimination match and handled the pressure very well. They took on Dutch pair Alexander Brouwer & Robert Meeuwsen who entered the match in very good form. Mol had his best match of the tournament picking up six blocks an ace and converting on 20 of 27 kill opportunities.

Russian men march on

Like the Canadian women, Russia has both of their men’s teams remaining in Tokyo. Konstantin Semenov & Ilya Leshukov won Pool A and dispatched Chilean cousins Marco and Esteban Grimalt easily in the first round, 21-16, 21-16. Viacheslav Krasilnikov & Oleg Stoyanovskiy had a hiccup in the group stage but ultimately won Pool B. They started the knockouts with a two sets to zero victory over Spain’s Pablo Herrera & Adrián Gavira.

Rio silver medalists from Italy, Daniele Lupo & Paolo Nicolai, and Brazil’s Rio gold winner Alison Cerutti and partner Álvaro Filho won their first round matchups beating Grzegorz Fijalek & Michal Bryl and Josue Gaxiola & Jose Rubio respectively.

Replay confusion

The challenge system is only used at five-star tournaments and the world championships. We haven’t had any of those is a long time, so there was bound to be some confusion for players and fans when it took effect in Tokyo. Nobody wants to see a match won or lost because of a missed call and anyone that has stood in the referee’s stand or been a line judge knows how hard it is to get every call right. So, the replay system is very much appreciated at the Olympics. The system, as it is designed, has worked well and has correctly overturned or upheld numerous close calls.

That doesn’t mean the replay system has given us nothing to talk about. The highest profile incident was late in the third set of the Bansley & Wilkerson vs Claes & Sponcil match. Sarah Sponcil hit a serve that couldn’t have been closer to the line, but was ruled out by the line judge. The Americans used a challenge to have it looked at, and the replay official confirmed that it was out. However, the official hit the wrong button, sending the ‘ball in’ message to the huge stadium jumbotron before switching it to ‘ball out’. Sarah and Kelly saw the initial message, celebrated and ran to the service line to start the next play. When they realized the point was given to the Canadians they were obviously upset. An ace would have evened the score and given the Americans momentum heading into the final points of the match. The unfortunate thing wasn’t a missed call that lead to a bad outcome of a big match but a human error that put a young team through unnecessary emotional ups and downs. With the out serve, they had a big hole to dig out of, that they didn’t manage to do, but emotional turmoil couldn’t have helped their cause.

Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil pick up a yellow card after the initial communication about their challenge was reversed late in the third set.
Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil pick up a yellow card after the initial communication about their challenge was reversed late in the third set. Photo by FIVB.

What happened to Kelly and Sarah was unfortunate, but very uncommon. The majority of the confusion with the replays comes on what is and isn’t allowed to be challenged and when the challenge can happen. The only calls that can be challenged are Ball ‘in’ / ‘out’, Block Touch, Net Fault, Antenna Touch and Service Foot Fault. This makes sense because other calls like lifts or if an overhead pass was on a hard driven ball or not are very subjective and the referee has to make the call immediately in the moment. Even interference underneath the net can’t be challenged as Alix Klinemen discovered against Cuba.

The thing I don’t like about the challenge system is the rule for disputed calls that happen in the middle of an ongoing rally. Every player is taught to keep playing until the whistle, but challenge a call that doesn’t result in the end of a point, a player has to stop playing and signal for a challenge. After a play finishes, only the action that resulted in a point can be challenged.

Late in the third set between Qatar and USA, Cherif stopped playing because he wanted a challenge on an earlier incident. He thought Phil Dalhausser had tipped his attack, which was dug by Nick Lucena, followed by a Phil set and a Nick attack. If Phil had touched it, then it was four contacts and Qatar should have gotten the point. Cherif took too long to stop the play and Qatar were actually in control of the long point when Cherif stopped playing. There was further confusion as the replay official checked for a net touch violation on Phil that Cherif wasn’t even talking about. When Cherif tried to clarify, he was told he couldn’t challenge a play that had happened earlier in the point. If the Americans had come back to win, this would have been a decisive point. In the end Cherif and Ahmed went on to win, but if I were coaching a team at a major tournament, I would advise my team to never challenge when the point is ongoing.

Up next – women’s quarterfinals

The Olympic quarterfinals winners are guaranteed two more matches and a chance for gold. The losers of this round go home with a very respectable fifth place finish. The women play all their quarterfinals today while the men get a day off and play their quarters tomorrow.

The morning session’s first match features Rio gold medalist Laura Ludwig and her partner Maggie Kozuch against Rio bronze medalist and London silver medalist April Ross with her partner Alix Klineman. Both Maggie and Alix moved from successful indoor careers to join their countries best defender on the sand. The A-team has only dropped one set in Tokyo and were ranked much higher than the Germans coming in, but none of that matters now. This is a must watch match that is sure to be filled with heroic plays by Laura and April, but Kozuch’s ability to keep up with Alix’s play is likely to be the biggest factor in this one.

The second match of the Tokyo morning program is between Switzerland’s Anouk Vergé-Dépré & Joana Heidrich and Brazil’s Rebecca and Ana Patricia. The Swiss are the European champions and have showed some huge heart in Tokyo. They pulled off seven straight points with set point against them against the Dutch in pool play and survived five match points against them in the first round. The Brazilians were the best team in the world in 2019 but struggled when the world tour restarted in 2021. They dropped two sets in pool play, but Ana Patricia has more blocks than anyone else in Tokyo and Rebecca can unleash some big attacks of her own.

Ana Patricia gets a block against China
Ana Patricia has more blocks than any other women in Tokyo. She will need to add to that tally against Switzerland if she wants to continue her march towards gold. Photo by FIVB.

The evening session starts with Latvia’s never say die team of Tina Graudina & Anastasija Kravcenoka against Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson from Canada. Both of these teams scored what are considered upset wins in the first round and one of them is going to go even further. The Canadians were ranked number one in the world back in 2018 and the Latvians made two semifinals out of their three tournaments together in 2021. Of course it can’t happen, but I’d really like to see both teams to win.

The last of the quarterfinals is between the red hot Canadian World Champs, Sarah Pavan & Melissa Humana-Paredes and Australia’s Taliqua Clancy & Mariafe Artacho del Solar. These teams were two of my gold medal favorites before the tournament, but only one will survive the quarterfinals. Look for the Australians to apply serious service pressure on Canada and Taliqua to use the option frequently when Pavan serves and has to run in to block from the back line. Sarah Pavan has 22 blocks so far in Tokyo and can absolutely smother her opponents when she gets on a roll. Melissa is unflappable in side out, defense and transition. The Canadians are so strong, they just need to keep playing their game to win, but Australia has a way of taking teams out of ‘their game’. This is going to be a good one.