Women’s Pool F – Jockeying for Playoff Position

Three COVID cases at the Tokyo Olympics have hit the Beach Volleyball tournament. Of the teams effected, only Barbora Hermannová & Markéta Sluková have had to withdraw from the Olympic games without a replacement. The much loved Japanese pair of Megumi Murakami & Miki Ishii was scheduled to face the Czech women in the tournaments opening match today. Perhaps fittingly, the first result recorded in the 2021 Olympic games for beach volleyball will be a DNS (did not start) due to the pandemic that has defined the last 16 months.

Miki Ishii brings a knuckle shot across her body and back to the line against Maggie Kozuch in Cancun. Photo by FIVB.

Hermannová & Sluková’s inability to participate means that the remaining three teams will take the top three places in the pool and avoid early elimination. Murakami & Ishii, Nina Betschart & Tanja Hüberli and Laura Ludwig & Margareta Kozuch will each have two matches to determine placement into the knockout stage.

The home team has a unique style and the defending Olympic gold medalist in Laura Ludwig is always making jaw dropping plays. Teams may play a bit looser since they don’t have to worry about crashing out from pool play. Pool F will be a fun one to follow even though three of its matches won’t be played.

The following table shows wins and losses against the other teams in the group during the qualification period.

Miki & Megumi Nina & Tanja Barbora & Marketa Laura & Maggie
Miki & Megumi X 0-1 0-3 0-2
Nina & Tanja 1-0 X 3-1 3-0
Barbora & Marketa 3-0 1-3 X 0-1
Laura & Maggie 2-0 0-3 1-0 X

*Statistics in the graphics below include International and Continental events sanctioned by the FIVB between September 1, 2018 and June 30, 2021. This includes all rounds of the Continental Cups and the Olympic Qualification Tournament. Domestic tournaments are not included.

Megumi Murakami & Miki Ishii

Photo by FIVB

Megumi and Miki are not your typical beach volleyball team. The home town heroes are by far the smallest team playing at the Olympics. Miki Ishii is the blocker, but at 172 cm (5′ 8″) she is shorter than most team’s defenders. Megumi is only 165 cm (5′ 5″) tall, so they adapt by getting creative and doing what they are good. They are good at many things.

Serving is one of them and its essential for their success. They don’t rip tons of aces, but they give opponents enough trouble that they are often out of system enough to make hard swings impossible. They are quick to pull Miki’s block off the net, and the two of them cover the court as well as any team in Tokyo. They are quick and read opponents shots very well. Their style of play creates a lot of very long rallies and their great fitness wears bigger teams down as the ball crosses the net five or seven times per point. As matches drag out longer and longer frustration and exhaustion begins to take its toll on the opposition.

They are also very efficient siding out against blockers that are sometimes a full foot (30 cm) taller than they are. They do this with good passing, and well placed sets off the net to create angles around the block. Both of them have good court vision and communication allowing them to find the open shot. They aren’t going to fill highlight reals by bouncing the ball into the stands, but there are a lot of ways to score points in beach volleyball.

They have been the most active team on the world tour during the qualification period, entering 25 events. That means they know everyone. They also appear to be one of the most beloved by the beach community. Their Instagram stories are always full of shots with them and teams they are training with before tournaments start or at Manhattan Beach in California.

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Nina Betschart & Tanja Hüberli

Photo by FIVB

Nina and Tanja have been remarkably consistent throughout the last three years of qualification. They come to tournaments ready to play from the first serve, compiling a 13 – 1 record in pool play during 2021. Remarkably, Betschart & Hüberli were never eliminated from their pool once in 21 world tour stops this quad. All that success at the start of the tournament sets them up to make deep runs in the knockout stage. Their two best tournaments for ranking points came at 2019’s biggest events. Don’t mistake their consistency with a lack of passion. These two play with a lot of emotion.

They made the semifinals and finished fourth at the Hamburg World Championships and again a week later in Gstaad when it was a major five-star tournament. Last May in Sochi they earned their best four-star result with a silver medal. A few weeks ago in Gstaad they beat two very strong Olympic teams (Russia and Australia) before losing an extremely close three-setter to Agatha & Duda in the quarterfinals (21 – 18, 18 – 21, 15 – 13).

Nina’s quick start in tournaments correlates perfectly to the quick start she had to her career. She won two U21 World Championships back in 2011 and 2012. Those tournaments were won with both members of the other Swiss team at the Olympics, Joana Heidrich and Anouk Verge-Depre. She also won four gold medals one silver and a bronze at European Youth Championships in her early days. Tanja didn’t have the sparkling youth career that Nina did, but since hooking up in 2016 they have been looking forward, not back. Tokyo 2020 is certainly one of the things they have been looking forward to.

Laura Ludwig & Maggi Kozuch

Photo by FIVB

This is the fourth Olympics for Laura Ludwig. The third time was definitely the charm as she won gold in Rio five summers ago with Kira Walkenhorst. She has been a special player from the beginning, winning an age group world championship more than half a life time ago at the age of 17. She has a sixth sense that lets her know exactly where her opponents are on the court at all times. When she tracks down a shot, if both opponents are lingering near the net, she plays the ball directly to the back line on the first contact, a shot that is referred to as the Ludwig. Other players like Sarah Sponcil and Megumi Murakami have added the ‘Ludwig’ to their repertoire as well, but nobody does it like Laura.

After Rio, she took time off to become a mother. When she returned in 2019, Walkenhorst had retired, so she began playing with Maggi Kozuch. Kozuch was one of the best hitters in world and Germany’s best player during her very successful career on the hard court. Her move to the sand has taken time, but when she gets her footwork right, she can absolutely crush the ball.

Germany’s best indoor player and best beach player partnering up sounds like a match made in heaven. The results have not followed, however. Their partnership has been marked by underachievement, with one big exception, the 2019 World Tour finals. They started that tournament as the 20th seed, an indication of how mediocre their year had been. They dropped the first match with a loss to German rivals and Karla Borger and Julia Sude. Karla was Margareta’s first beach partner (playing in Tokyo’s Pool A). After their opening loss, they won six straight matches and the $40,000 prize. They haven’t come close to replicating those results, but that showed they perform best on the biggest stage. There is no stage bigger than the Olympic games and Laura has Olympic and World Championship success. Even if they lose today against Nina and Tanja, that doesn’t mean they won’t suddenly catch fire and end up on the podium in two weeks.

Marketa Slukova & Barbora Hermannova

Photo by FIVB

Nothing but sadness, heart break and many well wishes for these two. Marketa & Barbora will be missed during this tournament. Three times, starting today, a match with their names on it will show up on the Olympic schedule. Beach volleyball fans around the world can’t wait to see them back on the sand again soon.

Other Beach Volley Blog Olympic Previews

If you have missed the previews of the other pools playing in Tokyo, you can find them by following these links.