Moments after a Zoom call with Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, Brouwer, the defender of the two, came to a funny realisation: in a little more than a month, it would be his and Meeuwsen’s 10-year anniversary as partners.
“Shoot,” he said. “I'll have to buy flowers.”
They have had a remarkable partnership, those two. One that has borne the fruits of a World Championship, an Olympic bronze, half a million in prize money, Red Bull sponsorships, enough medals and trinkets to retire now and still go down as one of the most decorated partnerships in Dutch history. But every great team in this sport can lay claim to big victories, lucrative sponsors, a lengthy resume of boast-worthy results.
How many teams can say they’ve competed together for 10 years?
That is not a rhetorical question. It’s a real one, with a real answer.
The answer is one.
In this series of the most influential and impactful teams of the previous decade, not a single one, other than Brouwer and Meeuwsen, has been together for the entirety of these 10 years. Four of the other teams on this list are on their third partner of the decade. Only Italians Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo come close, beginning in April of 2011, a few months after Brouwer and Meeuwsen.
They laugh about it now, recalling their first tournament, a country quota that took place on January 5. They lost in the final round, to Marco Daalmeijer and Richard Kogel, 11-15 in the third set.
They’ve come a long way from country quotas. In fact, they’ve only played in one since, a little more than one year later. Indeed, 2011 was quite some time ago for the two. Brouwer can still remember, at an FIVB event in 2011, their first year on tour together, standing in an elevator next to Phil Dalhausser, who was, at the time, the best player in the world.
“I was like ‘Ohhhh,’” Brouwer recalled, laughing. And it is funny, because two years later, he and Meeuwsen won a World Championship title that has marked their careers to date.
“It was almost like we got a head start with such a big result,” said Brouwer, who also noted that prior to that win, he and Meeuwsen hadn’t even made a semifinal together. What happened next, however, was somewhat predictable: they returned to earth. A sophomore slump, so to speak.
The 2014 season was one marked mostly by disappointment. No semifinals were reached, no medals won. In many countries, this is the type of season that breaks partnerships.
In the Netherlands, it was exactly what they needed.
“It’s the typical story of two guys maybe too young, winning a big title and relaxing a little bit and not being eager enough to keep performing at this really high level, but sitting back a little bit,” Brouwer said. “We needed that kick in the butt to wake us up.”
It is that very mindset that could explain why they’ve been able to do this so long. Setbacks don’t push them towards other partners; they push them together. Instead of wondering how good they could be elsewhere, they wonder how good they could be together if they reap the lessons from the losses and use them to grow.
“It’s one of our qualities that we usually come back pretty strong,” Meeuwsen said. “Sometimes it’s after a tournament we lose and sometimes it’s after a bad year.”
The next several years proved to be one gigantic rebound: 10 semifinals in 15 tournaments in 2015, with four medals, including a gold in Porec and a bronze in Gstaad. That bronze, too, is evidence of their ability to take adversity and spin it into, in this case, bronze. It came on the heels of a 17th at The Hague.
“We have these comebacks,” said Meeuwsen, the 32-year-old, 2.07m blocker. “It’s nice to know that after the worst results, we’re always able to come back and get better.”
There has never been a reason, then, for the two to split up. They simply continue to improve. And it is a bit comical how they’re doing so now. They’ve added Reinder Nummerdor, a former rival who is a three-time Olympian and perhaps the most well-known Dutch player, to their coaching staff.
“The rivalry was always so hard, it was weird at the start, but he was fully committed. You’re trying to make me better now?” Meeuwsen said, laughing.
“We were the guys ending his career sort of, winning the quarterfinal in the Olympic Games against him and Christiaan Varenhorst in Rio. It must be hard and strange for him to join our team as well,” Brouwer added. “Him and [Richard] Schuil paved the way for us in beach volleyball. They made the sport big, three-time European Champions. They were the reason why a lot of funding, attention came to beach volleyball. That’s why we had a promising start at the beginning of our beach volleyball careers: we had the perfect circumstances to grow and develop into a strong beach volleyball team.”
That role now falls upon Brouwer and Meeuwsen. They’ve taken the proverbial torch, practising with the next young generation of Dutch talent.
“We train daily with these guys and they’re beating us from time to time already, so we have to be really careful so they don’t pass us too quickly,” Brouwer said.
Rest assured, the title of Best Dutch Team will have to be wrangled from Brouwer and Meeuwsen, who even after all this time continue to add new elements to their game. Along with Nummerdor, they’ve brought on a new coach, Victor Anfiloff. Brouwer is adding a finesse element to his typically bruising style, adjusting to a new world of dominant blockers at the net.
“Being open to new ways offensively, especially for me, shooting more, having more vision on the other side, those are the things I’ve been working on for quite some time,” Brouwer said. “It’s also important for us to realise what is our strength, and how we can find this combination of Brouwer-Meeuwsen 2.1, how we can build on our solid base of being high and full of power.”
How they remain at the top, so 10 years from now, they’ll be buying flowers again, another decade in the books.
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