The third and final Cancun Bubble tournament was it: the golden opportunity. As one American beach volleyball player put it: “The Gods are gone.”
By Gods, he meant Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, winners of the first two Cancun Bubble events. The third Bubble event wasn’t only devoid of the world’s current beach volleyball deities, but it was also missing it’s second and third ranked teams (Russia’s Oleg Stoyanovskiy and Viacheslav Krasilnikov, Germany’s Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler), one of the hottest teams (Czech Republic’s Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner), a perpetual medal contender (Italy’s Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo), as well as the forever-mercurial No. 4-ranked team (Evandro and Bruno).
Left in that void was a magnificent opportunity: finally, a gold medal could be won, massive Olympic points could be grabbed, upward movement could be made.
The question remained, then: who wanted it?
Maybe the newest Gods of the bunch.
Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Younousse are certainly making a case to be considered the No. 2 team in the world as we inch closer towards the Tokyo Olympics. They would make the finals in all three tournaments in Cancun. Twice were they thwarted by the Norwegians for the gold medal; in the lone final match in which they met someone else, someone more human – Russia’s Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov on Sunday – they emerged victorious by a convincing margin, 21-15, 21-12.
It’s all new for Cherif and Ahmed. It was only two months ago that they made their first final together, at the Doha one-star. Now, in a span of just five tournaments, they’ve played for four gold medals, winning two.
“We trust the process,” Cherif said after the win over Russia. “We know it’s a long process, so we just tried to focus on our play each game and we are really thankful to be here with the gold. It’s been so long, three weeks, and we’re tired, but we just tried to keep our focus as high as we could.”
And the result was as high as it could get. Mol and Sorum were the only other team to win multiple medals in Cancun. Only Qatar won medals in all three.
“I feel so amazing about this,” Tijan said. “This is history. Three finals in three weeks and at the end, we get the gold, it’s unbelievable.”
Konstantin Semenov, Ilya Leshukov make surprising medal run
Close your eyes for just a moment. Imagine it’s April 15, the day prior to the onset of the Cancun Bubble. You have to pick one Russian team who you believe will win a medal over the next three tournaments.
We know your choice. It’s a perfectly logical one. You thought immediately of Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy, the second-ranked team in the world, the reigning world champions, the silver medallists at the European Championships, one of the only teams who can consistently contend with Mol and Sorum.
You would be wrong.
The only male Russian team who came away with hardware from Cancun was not the one with six medals in this Olympic qualification period, but one who just collected its third. It was fun, in a number of ways, to watch Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov make the finals in the third Cancun Bubble event. They were delighted, ecstatic after a 14-21, 21-15, 15-13 semifinal win over Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi put them in their first final in more than two years. They blew kisses to the small crowd on the beach, shaped their hands into hearts, screamed with the joy of a team making a breakthrough performance.
We’ve gotten so used to seeing Krasilnikov and Stoyonovskiy in finals that it made for fun viewing to see something a little different. It was a big stage for the world to see Leshukov push himself into the conversation as one of the world’s top defenders. It was a big stage for Semenov to prove that he’s still very much a formidable presence at the net, and will continue to be in Tokyo, his third Olympic Games.
Though they didn't need much insurance, that silver medal jumped them to No. 8 in the provisional Olympic rankings, ahead of both Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb and Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.
A gold medal may not have been won by Leshukov and Semenov, but an Olympic berth is all but guaranteed.
Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena: Are they back?
The question many Americans have enjoyed asking and debating over the past few years - ever since a quarterfinal exit in the Rio Olympics, really - has been this: are Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena back?
On the AVP Tour, their success has never been in doubt. To find their last finish outside of the top 10 on the AVP, you’d have to back track all the way to 2005, when they took a 17th in Tempe, Arizona. The FIVB is, of course, significantly deeper than the AVP, featuring the best in the world, not just the best in the United States; their finishes were uncharacteristically high for the team that entered Rio as a toss-up as the gold medal favourite. Prior to Cancun, they'd medalled just once in the Olympic qualification period.
That changed in the final event of the Cancun Bubble. Dalhausser and Lucena beat Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi, 21-19, 21-15, in one of the more entertaining matches of the Bubble, to win their first medal since the Doha four-star of 2019, where they took silver.
It isn’t just the medal, though: it’s the manner in which Dalhausser and Lucena won that made it so convincing. They won five matches without dropping a set; their only loss was to the most torrid and improved team in the world, Qatar’s Cherif and Ahmed. Dalhausser appeared very much to be one of the world’s most impactful forces at the net, up there with Anders Mol, Oleg Stoyanovskiy, Julius Thole, Alison Cerutti, and Cherif.
Lucena’s arm was lively, his defence as good as it has been in recent memory. So: are they fully back, or are they merely on their way back to the mountaintop? It’s impossible to say for sure, but two things do remain certain: they have made an enormous bound in the Olympic rankings, surpassing Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, even tying Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb at 7,40 points.
And they’re back on the podium, medals in hand.
Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi: no medals, but a boatload of Olympic points
There were nine medals awarded in Cancun. None of them were hung on the necks of Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi. But medals are the temporary goal, the short-term trinket for which to strive. There’s a bigger mission at play at this juncture of the beach volleyball schedule: the Olympic Games. And in that respect, the Italians may have been the biggest winners throughout the three-event Bubble.
They finished fifth, fourth, and fourth in Cancun, leaping one team after the next not only to cement themselves as contenders in this Olympic race, but firmly into the final qualifying position, ranked No. 16, ahead of Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins, who are now on the hot seat for Olympic qualifying.
“We need all the points in the world to have a chance, so every match for us is do or die,” Carambula said after the second event. “We’re trying to not look that much at points right now, our focus is on going as deep as we can in each tournament.”
They did exactly that, making Cancun the best three-tournament stretch of their partnership. Now, with just two events remaining in the Olympic qualification period, Carambula and Rossi are the owners of 6,120 points, 80 ahead of Samoilovs and Smedins, 180 over that of Poland's Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak, the current first team out of qualifying position.
While they did not win a medal in Cancun, they put themselves in a position to contend for one in the biggest event in beach volleyball: the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour
Olympic Games Tokyo 2020