Olympic beach volleyball tourney pools drawn: Who has best shot for playoffs?

FIVB Doha 3/11/2021-April Ross-Alix Klineman
April Ross, left, and Alix Klineman will face the Netherlands, Spain, and China in Tokyo pool play/FIVB photo

The pools for the Tokyo Olympics beach volleyball tournament are set.

Amidst a ceremonial backdrop that had the feel of a 1960s-style game show, hosted incongruously by a country, Russia, that is in the midst of serving a four-year ban for doping in a years-long cheating scheme, the drawing of “lots” to populate the pools for Olympic beach volleyball were announced Monday.

Here is how the four USA teams, two women’s and two men’s, fared, including their respective world and Olympic rankings:

Women
Pool B
Alix Klineman/April Ross (USA; 3rd; 2nd)
Sanne Keizer/Madelein Meppelink (NED; 14th; 13th)
Liliana Fernandez Steiner/Elsa Baquerizo McMillan (ESP; 18th; 20th)
Xue Chen/Wang Xinxin (CHN; 26th; 31st)
Pool D
Ana Patricia Ramos/Rebecca Cavalcanti Barbosa Silva (BRA; 8th; 4th)
Kelly Claes/Sarah Sponcil (USA; 4th; 6th)
Anastasija Kravcenoka/Tina Graudina (LAT; 19th; 21st)
Gaudencia Makokha/Brackcides Khadambi (KEN; 99th; NR)
Men
Pool C
Cherif Younousse Samba/Ahmed Tijan Janko (QAT; 3rd; 3rd)
Taylor Crabb/Jake Gibb (USA; 5th; 11th)
Adrian Ignacio Carambula Raurich/Enrico Rossi (ITA; 18th; 18th)
Adrian Heidrich/Mirco Gerson (SUI; 19th; 23rd)
Pool D
Alison Conte Cerutti/Alvaro Magliano de Morais Filho (BRA; 2nd; 4th)
Alexander Brouwer/Robert Meeuwsen (NED; 6th; 6th)
Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena (USA; 8th; 12th)
Julian Amado Azaad/Nicolas Capogrosso (ARG; 37th; 53rd)

Beach volleyball begins July 24. To qualify for the Olympics, one team from the host country of the Games (Japan) is automatically in and so are the winners of the 2019 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships, the two winners of the Olympic Qualification Tournament, 15 teams from the Olympic Rankings and a further five from the Continental Cup Finals.

For each gender there are six pools with four teams apiece.

To advance to the single-elimination stage in the second week of the Olympics (the first week is strictly pool play with each team playing three matches) a team essentially has to finish in the top three of their pool, although half of the third-place teams will have to play an extra match in a “lucky losers” format. But that’s hardly a death sentence. Italians Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai advanced from the lucky losers in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 all the way to a silver medal.

For the four American qualifying teams, the results were decidedly mixed, the serpentine draw working for some and not others. The happiest of the bunch should be the overall second seeds, Alix Klineman and April Ross, who it would appear have the easiest road to the single elimination stage.

The next highest seeds in their Pool “B” are the Dutch, the 11th-ranked team of Sanne Keizer and Madelein Meppelink. Also in their group are the veteran Spaniards, Elsa Baquerizo and Liliana Fernandez (16th), as well as China’s Chen Xue and Xinxin Wang (Continental Cup Asian qualifiers). None of those teams on paper are medal threats, although ironically, this pool has more women’s Olympic experience than any other.

Ross, a two-time medalist (silver with Jen Kessy in 2012 and bronze with Kerri Walsh Jennings in 2016) is competing in her third Games, Keizer her second (2012), Meppelink her third, Baquerizo and Fernandez their third. Meanwhile, Chen Xue won a bronze in 2008 in her home country at the age of 19 and Tokyo will represent her third Olympics. But the last time she stood on a World Tour podium of significance was in 2016 in Cincinnati. This is the first Olympics for her partner Wang, 23.

Alix and April have played each of these teams at least once and surprisingly their record against them is not stellar: 1-2 against the Dutch, 0-1 versus the Spaniards and 1-0 against the Chinese team. But those results are to be taken with a grain of salt as they have not occurred in a setting like the Olympics, where teams play one match essentially every other day.

The “other” American women’s entry is essentially the hottest team in the world and their path into the knockout rounds should also be a relative breeze. Seventh-seeded Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil made it onto the USA team under extraordinary pressure winning the last two FIVB four-star tournaments in Sochi and Ostrava by going undefeated in both.

While they are riding a 12-match winning streak and their pool in Tokyo is a mixed bag, featuring one “layup,” with the Kenyan team of Gaudencia Makokha/Brackcides Khadambi, the African Continental Cup champions who have never played on the FIVB World Tour.

Sponcil and Claes should get a stiffer test from the 17th seeds, Latvia’s Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka. Graudina and Claes were almost teammates at USC, Claes graduating in 2017 and Graudina’s freshman campaign commencing the following year. Now they are opponents in Pool “D.” The Latvians are inconsistent, capable of high finishes and head scratchers in equal measure.

The highest seeded team in Pool D (fourth) are the Brazilians Ana Patricia Silva and Rebecca Cavalcanti. They are also a bit of a mysterious team. While they took third and first in the last two Brazilian tour stops in June, they have underwhelmed on the FIVB tour, taking fifths in Doha and Cancun I and then a 17th in Cancun II.

They elected to skip the third Cancun event as well as the European jaunt through Sochi and Ostrava. One of the stories circulating was that due to the previous COVID restrictions on the FIVB tour, the Brazilians were not allowed to bring their entourage of trainers and coaches…and that was contributing to their poor performances. It will be interesting to see how they perform in Gstaad, a major FIVB tournament this week, where they are entered … along with Sponcil and Claes.

It is not a stretch to believe that Team Slaes can win this pool. Their body of work against the teams in the pool is limited, 1-2 against the Brazilians and 0-1 versus the Latvians but these results were all before the Americans caught fire this summer.

One of the more controversial aspects of the draw was the “awarding” of the sixth seed to the home country outfits, the 66th-ranked Yosuke “Gottsu” Ishijima and Katsuhiro Shiratori and the 23rd ranked women Miki Ishii and Megumi Murakami. This practice of non-merit based high seeding has gone on in some way shape or form since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when the host country’s Julien Prosser and Lee Zahner were top seeded despite no discernible results to support.

Now, the 66th-ranked Gottsu and Shiratori have, in effect, pushed Americans 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena from a second-pool seed to a third-pool seed, which has had a deleterious effect on their draw for Tokyo.

They are now in a group with the reigning Olympic gold-medalist Alison Cerutti and his current partner, Alvaro Filho, as well as the defending Olympic bronze-medal Dutch team of Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, fresh off a win in the last FIVB tourney in Ostrava. Brouwer and Meeuwsen have played 127 tournaments together, one of which was the 2013 World Championships, where they won the gold from Filho and then partner Ricardo Santos. The Dutch also have a long-standing rivalry with 41-year-old, four-time Olympian Dalhausser and Lucena, with the Floridians having a 6-5 advantage.

The good news for Dalhausser and Lucena is that the fourth team in their group, Julian Azaad and Nicolas Capogrosso should not pose much of a threat. The Americans are 3-0 lifetime versus the Argentinians, whose best finish in a meaningful FIVB tournament is 13th. However, Dalhausser and Lucena must play better than their late May/early June swing through Europe when they finished ninth in Sochi and 25th in Ostrava.

On the men’s side, both American teams should advance to at least the lucky losers round, but it is going to be tough, especially for 45-year-old, four-time Olympian Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb. Their Pool “C” features two of the hottest teams in the World, the third-seeded Qataris Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Samba, as well as the Italian “don’t let the seeding fool you” 16th-ranked team of Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi. In addition, the Continental Cup Swiss qualifying team of Adrian Heidrich and Mirco Gerson has a decent chance to steal a win in the pool.

The overall third seeds, Samba and Tijan have everyone enthralled in the beach volleyball world after their scintillating performances of late. Among the finishes in their last seven tournaments are two firsts and two seconds. They are 4-0 lifetime against Gibb and Crabb. Carambula, one of the most electric players in the game, with his exceptional skyball and shot-making capabilities, has found perhaps his best partner in Rossi. They had a fifth and three consecutive fourths to start off the year and can be considered a very dangerous team.

Crabb and Gibb have a 3-0 advantage over the Swiss team, but the Americans have struggled on the World Tour this year after a strong start with a bronze in Doha. Since then, a procession of ninths, seventeenths and one 25th.

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