Heads were turned a little more than two years ago, at a four-star tournament in Ostrava, when a little-known team from the Czech Republic bruised its way through a fully-loaded field to the finals.
David Schweiner and Ondrej Perusic navigated one of the toughest elimination gauntlets of the year, beating Brazil’s Alison Cerutti and Alvaro Filho, Poland’s Grzegorz Fijalek and Michal Bryl, among other noteworthy pairs, to make the finals before taking the first set off Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum. There was little they could do wrong. Mol and Sorum would prevail in that final, as they almost always do, but still: the world had to take note of Schweiner and Perusic, a pair of then-24-year-olds who had slowly worked their way up the star system. The silver in Ostrava was their first four-star medal, adding to a pair of silvers in a one-star in Montpellier and a three-star in Mersin in 2018.
The next tournament in which they would make the medal rounds, they would win.
Perusic and Schweiner opened the 2021 season last week in Doha in the most dominant fashion possible, winning 12 of 13 sets, outscoring opponents 267-217. They won their first gold medal as a team, in an undefeated run that appeared, frankly, vaguely Norwegian. Only the hosts, Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan, were able to take a set off the Czechs.
Nobody else was close to winning a match.
Even Schweiner was caught off guard.
“We were not expecting this,” the blocker said after a 21-16, 21-19 victory over Brazilians Evandro and Guto in the finals. “I cannot really describe the emotions, the feelings we currently have. It was finally not up and down, it was just higher.”
He was speaking both for himself, and for his federation: the Czech Republic is only getting higher.
Other lessons learned from the season-opening event in Doha
The Brazilian formula to winning: play with Evandro
It is becoming almost an objective fact, rather than a subjective point of debate, that you could put Evandro Goncalves with anyone on the court – Pedro, Bruno, your dog – and he’ll find a way to win.
Guto Carvalhaes, of course, is not just anyone. He’s one of the finest, and potentially most underrated, defenders in the world. He was named the FIVB Rookie of the Year in 2016 and won the Porec Major in 2017 when he was just 23 years old. A stable partnership, however, has forever eluded Guto. He's bounced around from Saymon Barbosa to Pedro to Vitor Felipe to Ricardo, then back to Saymon, then to Thiago Santos Barbosa.
Due to COVID complications, Bruno Schmidt, Evandro's usual partner, was unable to compete in Doha. It made Guto an easy choice for Evandro to substitute for Bruno.
He chose well.
The two were better than anybody could have reasonably guessed, winning the most difficult pool with victories over Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak and Russian world champs Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy. They fended off the Swedish Jump Setters – more on them below – swept Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins, and battled with Americans Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb – also more on them below – before finally falling in the finals to Perusic and Schweiner.
It’s further proof – not that anybody needed it – that Evandro can win with anyone, a sublime talent who is revolutionizing what it means to serve tough. At just 30 years old, Evandro has been awarded the FIVB’s Best Server five consecutive years, and has won events with players of all types. He’s won with Vitor Felipe, Pedro, Andre Loyola, and Bruno, and he nearly did so in Doha with Guto.
Introducing the Swedish Jump Setters
It took exactly one big tournament for Swedish 19-year-olds David Ahman and Jonatan Helvig to earn a nickname on the World Tour: The Swedish Jump Setters. It’s a well-earned moniker. Rare is the play that the Swedes do not run some form of a jump-set. It’s a style of play that will make the old school types cringe, and every youth player – and highlight-dedicated Instagram account – drool. It’s new. Fun. A little bit insane. A bold style of play used with a startling volume, similar to how Poland’s Bartosz Losiak and Piotr Kantor took the fast, spreading, shooting offence to a new level.
It worked quite well. In their debut 4-star tournament, Ahman and Helvig qualified and more. After giving Alison Cerutti and Alvaro Filho all they could handle in the first round of pool – Brazil won 21-19, 21-16, though the Swedes jumped out to a huge lead in the first – Ahman and Helvig moved on with a win over Canadians Grant O’Gorman and Ben Saxton. Then they moved on again, pushing past Austrians Martin Ermacora and Moritz Pristauz-Telsnigg.
The climax came in the second round of elimination, against the never-before-seen Brazilian team of Evandro and Guto. A 21-18 win in the first gave the Swedes two sets to land the biggest upset of the tournament. It wouldn’t happen, as the teenagers lost 13-21, 14-16 in the final two sets, but the message was clear: the Swedish Jump Setters are here to stay.
Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb have leveled up
In November of 2019, Taylor Crabb won his first FIVB medal. It took a surprisingly long time for the then-29-year-old defender to do so, given his rapid success on the AVP Tour. The adjustment from the U.S. to a full international field can take some time, however, and he and partner Jake Gibb were always close, always knocking on the door.
In Chetumal in the fall of 2019, he and Gibb landed their first medal, making it gold in Mexico. It was a seminal moment for the two, and especially for Crabb, who has been quickly rising up the ranks of the World Tour defenders. It was just the beginning.
Last year in Doha, Crabb and Gibb took fifth, losing only to Italians and 2016 silver medalists Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo. This year, Crabb and Gibb put on a performance arguably even better than their gold medal run in Mexico. They swept their pool, knocking off Mirco Gerson and Adrian Heidrich, who won gold in Qinzhou in 2019. Then they fended off a finally-healthy Polish pair of Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak, controlling the entire match.
It set up a momentous bout with Russia’s Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy, the world champs and winners of the 2019 World Tour Finals.
Gibb and Crabb won, 24-22, 21-15. While they were not bestowed with a gold medal on their necks, that win is as big as any medal: It proved, beyond all doubt, that Crabb and Gibb can beat anyone on the planet.
Chetumal was a field that did not include Russia or Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum. Gibb and Crabb won gold without needing to go through either. In Doha, they took down the world champs.
Yes, they’d fall to Evandro and Guto in the semifinals, 24-26, 23-21, 11-15, but the message was clear: Crabb and Gibb have leveled up.
The Netherlands is getting deeper
Here in the United States, it was viewed as a bit of an upset and disappointment when Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger, reuniting after a year off as partners, lost in the qualifier to Ruben Penninga and Jasper Bouter. Here was a Dutch team that had been competing in mostly the lower star events, sweeping an American duo that had won one of the biggest AVPs in 2019.
It proved to be no upset.
Bouter and Penninga, who teamed up in January of 2019, would go on to beat fifth-seeded Martins Plavins and Edgars Tocs and then win pool over Austrians Martin Ermacora and Moritz Pristauz-Telsnigg. Their most convincing performance, however, ironically, may have been in their only loss of the tournament, a 22-24, 21-15, 8-15 loss to world champions Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy. It was a convincing performance from the Dutch duo, who were just one of three teams from the Netherlands to impress in Doha.
While, no, no medals were awarded to a Dutch team, Steven van de Velde and Christiaan Varenhorst took fifth, upsetting their own countrymen, Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, always a medal contender, to do so.
It’s just one tournament, yes, a small sample size, but it’s evidence enough that there are now three Dutch teams who can legitimately beat anyone in the world.
And it’s not really an upset when they do.
Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena pass Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb
They didn’t make it easy.
In fact, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena made it about as difficult as possible to finally pass Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb for the second spot in the United States Olympic race. Entering Doha with only 11 finishes, Dalhausser and Lucena, with a pair of 17ths and a 25th on their resume, needed a fourth to pass Bourne and Crabb, who lost in a country quota prior to the event.
After their first match, a fourth appeared near impossible. Dalhausser and Lucena opened the 2021 season with a loss to 23rd-seeded Quincy Aye and Arnaud Gauthier-Rat, 17-21, 24-22, 23-21. It put Dalhausser and Lucena in win-or-go-home scenarios every match thereafter.
They’d prevail, again and again and again. They’d knock out Austrians Alex Huber and Chris Dressler, Swiss Mirco Gerson and Arian Heidrich, Germans Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, and Dutch Steven van de Velde and Christiaan Varenhorst. While a win in the semifinals over the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner would have been ideal, it also wasn’t necessary: in reaching the semifinals, Dalhausser and Lucena had done what they came to Doha to do.
They passed Bourne and Crabb.
They'd fall in the semifinals to eventual gold medallists Perusic and Schweiner, and then again in the bronze medal match to fellow Americans Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, but their mission had been accomplished: they put themselves in the driver's seat for their Olympic spot.
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