It is far too early to claim that there is a sudden changing of the guard, that a new era is among the beach volleyball world. But you do not have to look all that close to see the signs that, indeed, the landscape of this sport is changing quickly, that new players will be deemed the best in the world, new teams the most formidable, new countries in the mix.
Look at the final from the second Cancun Bubble tournament: Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda 'Duda' Lisboa topping the Russians Svetlana Kholomina and Nadezda Makroguzova 21-15, 21-19. On the court were a 22-year-old (Duda), a 23-year-old (Kholomina) and a 24-year-old (Makroguzova), and, of course, the veteran Agatha, who is 37 years old and owns an Olympic silver medal.
There are many variables when it comes to longevity in athletics. Injuries, passion, personal matters can all change the trajectory of a career in a blink. But to see three players under the age of 25, beginning to move upwards into their primes, is evidence enough that there is a new class of talent prepared to take over as this Olympic quad comes to a close.
The rise of the Russians has been markedly different than that of Duda. Duda’s was meteoric, immediate. As a teenager, twice she was voted by her peers as the best player in the world, to go along with Best Offensive Player (2018, 2019), Best Hitter (2018), and Best Server (2019). The moment she stepped on the World Tour full time, in 2016, she was properly identified as transcendent.
Kholomina and Makroguzova, meanwhile, have been steadily climbing, quietly moving up the ranks: fifths here, ninths there. A win in Espinho, Portugal, in 2019, where they beat Duda in the semifinals, and young Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, was as clear a sign as one could ask that, yes, the Russians were contenders on this World Tour now. A third at the 2020 European Champs was further confirmation.
And now we’re here, in Cancun, and only three teams have managed to take a set off Kholomina and Makroguzova this season: world champions Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, Brazilian veterans Carol and Barbara, and Agatha and Duda. Americans April Ross and Alix Klineman, the new No. 1-ranked team in the world, couldn’t do it, falling in the semifinals to Kholomina and Makroguzova, 20-22, 18-21. Neither could a host of others, from virtually every country around the globe.
For most, the top two teams in the world remain, justifiably, Humana-Paredes and Pavan, and Ross and Klineman. They’ve combined to win 13 medals in the past two years. They’re ranked as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams on the planet.
Yet the next generation is coming, as inevitably as the next sunrise will come in the East. And that next generation is coming armed with one of the oldest weapons in beach volleyball.
Jump serving rules the world
To peruse the top teams from this second Cancun Bubble event is to peruse a list of the toughest serving teams in the world. Tough serves can come in all varieties, of course – the flat float serve mastered by so many, the Adrian Carambula skyball, the Daniele Lupo running float. But one, above all, is proving to be a commonality shared by the best: a cannon of a jump serve. On the men’s side, jump-serving is nothing new. It has been the norm for most teams since Carl Henkel nearly bombed his way with Sinjin Smith to an upset over Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes in the 1996 Olympic quarterfinals. But the women’s side has been slightly slower to adopt it en masse.
That is changing before our eyes in Cancun.
Duda, who has won 11 medals in the previous three years, was named the Best Server in 2019. Humana-Paredes, one half of the World Championship team, packs a mighty jump serve. Ross, an Olympic silver medallist, has been named the Best Server five times (2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017). Sarah Sponcil, after seeing the devastating effects of Duda’s jump serve first-hand in Doha, is now predominantly using a jump-serve. Madelein Meppelink, a two-time Olympian and fourth-place finisher in the second Cancun event, has used a hybrid float-jump serve with a tremendous impact. Makroguzova, too, is a major point scorer with her jump serve.
As teams somehow get both taller and faster, and offences evolve, the jump serve is becoming more and more valuable. All the evidence you’d need is the fact that six medals have been awarded in Cancun, and five have gone to jump-serving teams.
Isabel Schneider, Victoria Bieneck land huge ninth
On the surface, a ninth-place finish, to most teams, is not an incredibly significant one. You’re two wins away from a medal, and medals are the beach volleyball currency. Yet for Germans Isabel Schneider and Victoria Bieneck, their ninth in Cancun is worth the weight of gold, partly because it took seven matches to get there, partly because the 400 Olympic points are an enormous boost to their ranking.
Schneider and Bieneck, like Americans Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, began this tournament in the country quota. It took two wins simply to make it into the qualifier, where they needed another two just to make it into the main draw.
Once in the main draw, it took a win over Zaira Orellana and Martha Revuelta to break pool – then a momentous win over Brazilians Carol and Barbara to push into the ninth-place matches. They lost, to Kholomina and Makroguzova, 11-21, 18-21, but still: ninth was victory enough, as they added a finish that is tied for their third best of this Olympic quad. Those 400 points are a boost to their fight to catch countrywomen Laura Ludwig and Margareta Kozuch in the Olympic ranks. It will not be easy, of course. With only three events remaining -- Cancun, Sochi, Ostrava -- the gap between them and Ludwig and Kozuch is large, but still: it is a big finish for a team that was in need of one.
Equally big finishes were landed by Austrians Lena Plesiutschnig and Katharina Schutzenhofer, who rose from the No. 25 seed to finish fifth, making a big leap in the Olympic ranks; as well as the Czech Republic's Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova, whose ninth-place finish should all but assure them an Olympic spot in Tokyo.