Doha lessons: Beach volleyball's best rivalry adds another chapter

The Doha 4-star shows the way forward for the rest of the season

Where had we seen this final before? The Doha night match between April Ross and Alix Klineman and Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan?

Oh, just in Huntington Beach, Manhattan Beach, Waikiki, Itapema, Hamburg, and Long Beach, all in the span of a single year. In the 20 tournaments Pavan and Humana-Paredes have played in 2019, 2020 and last week’s 4-star in Doha - seven of these were AVPs - they have met Ross and Klineman in the finals in more than one third of them.

In a female field that is almost unanimously agreed to be the deepest ever, it becomes clearer and clearer with each event that two teams have set themselves apart at the top: Ross and Klineman, and Humana-Paredes and Pavan. The former have won medals in half of the FIVB events they’ve played in the Olympic qualification period; the latter have medaled in six of 13.

It would be wrong to say that all signs point towards a Ross-Klineman vs. Humana-Paredes-Pavan final come Tokyo. There is no predicting what the Olympic bracket will look like, much less how teams will perform on a stage upon which they’ve never competed. Any evidence you’d need can be found as early as 2000, the second Olympics in which beach volleyball was a sport, when the underdog American team Eric Fonoimoana and Dain Blanton won gold while second-seeded Brazilians Emanuel Rego and Jose Loiola were felled early. Virtually every Olympics thereafter has featured some strange twist of fate in the brackets.

So while it would be wrong to predict such an Olympic clash, it sure is fun to imagine. It’s the best rivalry in women’s beach volleyball at the moment, not all that different from Norway vs. Russia on the men’s side. And in the seven meetings the two have met in the finals, it’s as close as it can possibly get: Ross and Klineman have now won four, Humana-Paredes and Pavan three.

Never once have they had an underwhelming match. Their first finals meeting came in Huntington Beach in 2019, a match that went to 17-15 in the third set, in Ross and Klineman’s favour. The next, in Manhattan Beach, more than lived up to the billing, with the Canadians winning, 16-14 in the third set, becoming the first Canadian team to cement itself on the Manhattan Beach Pier.

Seven final matches in, nearly half have gone three sets, and every single match has featured a set that was decided by only two points.

It is at once the rivalry beach volleyball needs and deserves as we hurtle towards Tokyo, full steam ahead.

Ross and Klineman won the latest bout in Doha, 22-20, 21-18.

Chances are, we’ll see another in Cancun next month.

Russia rising through the ranks

Peruse the FIVB rankings on the women’s side, and what you’ll find is essentially a who's who of Brazil, America, and Canada. Populating the top 10 are three teams from Brazil, three from the United States, and another two from Canada.

There is, however, another country that could soon be breaking up those ranks of North and South American powers, albeit maybe not until the next Olympic quad: Russia. On display in Doha was the next wave of Russian talent, a wave that is young enough to produce momentum not just heading into Tokyo, but up through Paris of 2024 and even Los Angeles in 2028. Svetlana Kholomina and Nadezda Makroguzova, fifth-place finishers in Doha, are by no means a team that appeared from nowhere in Qatar last week. They’ve won a gold medal before, in Espinho of 2019. But inconsistent lows came with those gold medal highs. In the tournament succeeding Espinho, the Vienna Major, they lost both matches without winning a set.  

Those inconsistent days could be over, at 23 years old for both.

In September, they captured bronze at the European Championships, with all five of their wins coming in straight sets. In Doha as the eight seed, they finished fifth, pushing Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan in one of the most thrilling matches of the tournament, falling 20-22, 26-24, 9-15.  

Meanwhile, one of the most consistently thrilling teams to watch were countrywomen Mariia Bocharova and Aleksandra Ganenko. Playing in their first FIVB  tournament as a team, Bocharova, who is only 19 years old, and Genenko, just 21, beat Spanish veterans Angela Lobato and Amaranta Navarro in the final round of the qualifier. Then they engineered the upset of the tournament, stunning Brazil’s Agatha and Duda in the first round of pool, 21-19, 13-21, 15-10. They’d lose their next two matches, yes, but they went three in both, falling to Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske, 21-16, 19-21, 11-15 in pool, then to Canada’s Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson, 21-16, 19-21, 12-15.

They were the 30th-seeded team that proved seeding is just a number: They could beat anyone who lined up on the other side of the net. And at a combined 40 years old, they’re going to be around for a long, long time to come.

As will yet another Russian team, Daria Rudykh and Ksenia Dabizha. Rudykh is 24, Dabizha 26. They entered Doha as the No. 24 seed and left, like Kholomina and Makroguzova, with a fifth – a hard-earned fifth at that. Their route to the quarterfinals included a victory over European Champions Anouk Verge-Depre and Joana Heidrich, and had it not been for a wild third set comeback from Americans Stockman and Kolinske in the quarterfinals, they’d have been competing for a medal.

There may not have been any medals awarded to Russia in Doha, but it’s clear that there will be many to come – and they will be coming for a long time at that.

Russia's Svetlana Kholomina stretches to the extreme to reach the Mikasa

Brazil begins reloading with the debut of Barbara Seixas and Carolina Salgado

The only things we are certain of in life, the cliché saying goes, are death and taxes.

And Brazil being very, very good at beach volleyball.

Ever since the first FIVB tournament was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1987, Brazil has been at the forefront of the world’s powers in this sport. That has not changed.

Brazil operates differently than other countries, in more ways than we can enumerate here, but one is particularly relevant in the wake of Doha. While the rest of the world’s federations are giving their teams until the June qualification deadline to accumulate Olympic points, Brazil’s cutoff has already come and gone. Their Olympic teams are chosen, regardless of what happens from here until June. As such, what we were able to get a glimpse of in Doha was at once a look at Brazil’s present – Alison and Alvaro, Agatha and Duda, Rebecca Cavalcanti and Ana Patricia Silva – and future. Making its debut as a team in Doha was Carolina Salgado and Barbara Seixas, both of whom made admirable Olympic runs but fell short of qualifying.

Carolina's Tokyo run came alongside Maria Antonelli, and they were good enough to become ranked as high as No. 1 in the world at one point. Alas, this is simply how good Brazil is: even when you’re ranked No. 1 on the planet, there’s another Brazilian team close enough to overtake you. They finished ranked fifth in the world in the Olympic race; if there were no country quota limiting each country to just two teams per Olympics, Carolina and Maria Antonelli would be in. Alas, Rebecca Cavalcanti and Patricia Silva were ranked 3, and Agatha and Duda 4, leaving Carolina Salgado and Maria Antonelli as a top-five team in the world, but one that would not qualify.

Enter, then, Carolina Salgado and Barbara Seixas.

Barbara, like Carolina, fell just shy of qualifying for Tokyo, performing well with Fernanda Alves, finishing 14th in the Olympic race. Again, if there were no country quota in the Olympic Games, Barbara and Fernanda would be in. As the fourth-ranked Brazilian team, they’re out.

Barbara and Carolina made a strong debut in Doha, winning pool before falling to Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, who are in an Olympic fight of their own.

At the end of the tournament, of the four Brazilian teams in Doha, three finished in the top 10.

The Tokyo Olympics haven’t yet happened, but the next wave of Brazilian teams has already begun.  

Brazil's Carolina Salgado celebrates

American teams adding new wrinkles to their offences

There were no new names representing the United States last week in Doha. But there were certainly new looks to the same names we’ve seen for the past two years of this Olympic quad. We’ve seen plenty of Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske – though nobody outside of the United States had seen them play as they did in Doha. For the first three years of their partnership, Kolinske – formerly Kelley Larsen, for those who did not know she married Bill Kolinske in March of 2020 – played on the left, Stockman on the right. In the extended off-season provided by COVID, they switched, putting Stockman on the left and Kolinske on the right.

It worked well enough. Kolinske and Stockman finished fourth in Doha, their highest finish since a silver medal in Warsaw in June of 2019. It provided a huge boost in Olympic points in an airtight American race for the second Olympic berth that somehow only got tighter.

It was also just one new look from the American teams, almost all of whom debuted new wrinkles to their offensive schemes. 

Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil have always been a team that’s fond of the on-two option. With Sponcil’s magnetic ball control and Claes’ size (6-foot-2) and coordination, going on two has been a strength since they began playing together. But this past summer, at the AVP Champions Cup, they took it to a new level, with Claes optioning to the point that commentator Kevin Barnett wondered if it was really sustainable. They’ve sustained it, all right. Claes and Sponcil made a final, a semifinal, and finished fifth in the three Champions Cups, and in their first FIVB in 15 months, they took a fifth, ramping up the option attacks even further.

They weren’t the only ones.

April Ross and Alix Klineman have been one of the best offensive teams since they initially partnered at The Hague in 2018. Given that they won that first tournament, and immediately established themselves as the best American team thereafter, there hasn’t appeared to be much need to change things up offensively. In 16 AVP tournaments, they’ve won 10; in 20 FIVBs, they’ve medaled in 7. But this is Ross, one of the best Americans to ever play this game. And this is Klineman, one of the most competitive people you’ll meet, the type who’s won at every level at which she’s competed.

They could still add to an already-solid foundation.

They did.

They hired Angie Akers as their new coach, and in Doha, they added a layer to their offence, with both Klineman and Ross hitting options far more frequently than ever before. To be clear, they don’t attack on two with the frequency of Claes and Sponcil, but the result in Doha was telling: six matches won, zero matches lost, only one set dropped in a gold medal performance.

They might be officially the No. 1 ranked team in the provisional Olympic ranking now, but Ross and Klineman aren’t satisfied yet.

And, for that matter, neither are any of the American teams.  

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