Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 15, 2016 - On a warm, sunny June Saturday at the Rothenbaum Tennis Stadium in Hamburg, as many as 8,000 Beach Volleyball fans were ready to watch history unfold.
Playing the smart Major Hamburg semifinals were the world’s four top-ranked women’s teams and the natural anticipation was that spectators could be seeing a preview of the final four in the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Adding to the atmosphere in the Hamburg event was the fact that it was the last tournament on the FIVB World Tour where teams could qualify for the Olympics, and the drama truly kicked in when German teams Karla Borger and Britta Buthe plus Lars Fluggen and Markus Bockermann punched their tickets to Rio de Janeiro on homeland sand.
When the day’s dust settled, it was hometown Germans Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst outlasting Brazilians Barbara Seixas and Agatha Bednarczuk to capture the gold medal. The bronze went to Brazil’s Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes, who knocked off Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross of the United States.
Tomorrow, the same four teams stand poised for another playoff: Yes, that dream scenario final four of Hamburg materialized, though it is with different semifinal pairings on Copacabana Beach.
Larissa and Talita, ranked No. 1, square off against No. 4 Ludwig and Walkenhorst. Second-seeded Barbara and Agatha take on No. 3 Walsh Jennings and Ross.
What was apparent among the players now that the long, exhausting grind to qualify for the Olympics was over and win or lose in the star-studded final day in Hamburg was eye-opening to the players.
“We were confident and excited and confident to be here and do what we do best - that is focus on what we have to do inside the court despite the opponent,” Barbara said after the Hamburg gold medal match. “I think this worked and each game here was a pleasure for us to play and the energy was perfect also.”
In the Hamburg semifinals, Ludwig and Walkenhorst beat Ross and Walsh Jennings for the first time, scoring on match point with an ace to the back line by Ludwig. The Germans were just getting started in their run to become the hottest team on the planet in 2016. Gone were any doubts they might have had over the veteran Ludwig and the young star Walkenhorst meshing as a contending team.
“It’s good to have the feeling that my partner’s there for me and we give this to each other now,” Ludwig said. “Our communication gets better, our rhythm gets better, our energy gets better because we know each other better.”
Walkenhorst had to stop and take a breath during the proceedings to soak in the atmosphere in Hamburg.
“I’ll have to look a second time at the score to make sure we won,” she said after the Hamburg semifinal victory. “It’s amazing to win against them (Ross and Walsh Jennings). They are an amazing team, they have played for a long time and to beat them in Hamburg in our home place, it’s the best day.”
The three teams who did not win gold in Hamburg were undaunted.
“It happened we lost the semifinal, but it was a really good tournament for us,” Talita said. “We did our best but when sometimes you lose, you have to think about doing something different and we did it in this match and that’s important. Sometimes when you lose, it’s not the worst thing.”
Walsh Jennings and Ross, even with two defeats on that historic day, remained defiantly determined.
“When we win it’s in our hands, when we lose it’s in our hands and we respect everyone 1 to 32nd seeds,” Walsh Jennings said in Hamburg. “It’s all about us completely and totally. I don’t care how good they are, I don’t care any of it. It’s just take care of the ball, the ABCs of the game.”
To continue what has been an exhilarating tournament, the Olympic final four stage is set. The podium awaits. The first semifinal is Laura and Kira vs. Larissa and Talita. Kerri and April meet Agatha and Barbara later Tuesday.
They’ve all become so familiar, we’re comfortably on a first-name basis with the four teams. It’s now up to them to sort out which order we’ll see them in after the awards presentations.
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