Beach volleyball lights up the Copacabana
Generating excitement aplenty on the host city’s most famous beach, the Rio 2016 beach volleyball competitions left the local fans feeling mixed emotions. While Germany’s Kira Walkenhorst and Laura Ludwig beat Brazil’s Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas de Freitas to the women’s gold, home favourites Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt got the better of Italy’s Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo to win the men’s title.
Walkenhorst and Ludwig defeated their final opponents in straight sets to gave Germany their first ever Olympic women’s beach volleyball title, while three-time gold medallist Kerri Walsh Jennings of the USA won her fourth medal when she took the bronze with April Ross.
The German pair proved worthy winners, dropping just the one set in their seven matches en route to the gold (in their 2-1 first-round win over Italian pair Marta Menegatti and Laura Giombini) and accounting for Brazil’s world No1 pair Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes in straight sets in the semi-finals. Regarded as the finest player in Europe, the 30-year-old Ludwig has four continental crowns to her name and has been partnering Walkenhorst, five years her junior, since 2013. Together they have won a European title and a Grand Slam event in Shanghai.
Meanwhile, Bednarczuk and Seixas lost just one match in their pool, to Spain’s Elsa Baquerizo and Liliana Fernandez, but went on to win all their knockout games in straight sets, the most notable of those victories coming when they beat Walsh Jennings and Ross 22-20, 21-18 in the semi-finals. The reigning world champions, the Brazilian duo went into the final as favourites, but found it hard to make much headway against the Germans, who made the most of their extra height, with Walkenhorst in superlative form at the net.
A tight opening set was settled by a Walkenhorst smash and a Ludwig winner. The second set was less closely contested as mistakes began to creep into the Brazilian pair’s play, with the Germans’ blocking game proving as effective as ever. The gold was theirs when Seixas de Freitas hit a serve straight into the net at 20-14, one of five service errors committed by the Brazilians, who struggled to cope with the swirling wind, which began blowing just before the start of the final.
“It was very tough. The Brazilians were shouting a lot,” said Ludwig. “I had goose bumps and it felt very special. We stayed focused, though, and we worked hard to keep each other’s confidence up, which wasn’t easy with this crowd.” Explaining how the Germans, who served three aces, managed to cope with the gusty conditions, Ludwig added: “When things turned stormy, I said to myself: ‘Let’s use it and create a storm of our own’. We just focused on our passing and setting, and we were the better team in that respect. The key was serving well.”
“We fought so hard for this one medal,” said Bednarczuk, acknowledging how much she had wanted to win the country’s first women’s beach volleyball title since Atlanta 1996, in front of their home crowd. “We wanted gold, but also silver is a real achievement. It took a lot of work and there is no feeling of sadness. We are very happy.” Gracious in defeat, the Brazilian player added that they had lost to the better team: “The Germans definitely deserved the gold medal. It was an excellent game and we’ve seen in the world that there is a lot of quality and that the level of the sport has improved.”
Bednarczuk and Seixas de Freitas’ defeat was the second setback of the night for the home fans at the Copacabana, who had earlier seen Walsh Jennings and Ross beat Franca and Antunes 17-21, 21-17, 15-9 in the bronze medal match. The most decorated beach volleyball player in history, having won gold with former playing partner Misty May-Treanor in 2004, 2008 and 2012, Walsh Jennings bowed out of the Games having suffered just one defeat on the Olympic stage in 12 years: that semi-final loss to Bednarczuk and Seixas de Freitas.
After climbing onto an Olympic podium for a fourth time, the American legend said: “As an athlete, I swear this is the hardest match I’ve ever played in my life. It was all perseverance. April Ross is the champ of the world right now. She played unbelievably. She got going and I eventually caught up. It took me a little bit too long for my taste, but when she’s on it makes me better and she was on point all night.”
Home heroes Cerutti and Oscar are the toast of Rio
Roared on by a sell-out home crowd that made light of the driving rain, Cerutti and Oscar Schmidt scored a 2-0 win over Nicolai and Lupo, the reigning European champions, to land Brazil’s first Olympic gold in the sport in 12 years. The Brazilian pair made the final after registering two wins and a defeat to finish second in their pool and then going on to beat Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera of Spain in straight sets in the last 16, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena of the USA 2-1 in the quarters, and Dutch duo Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen by the same scoreline in the semis.
The route their Italian opponents took involved them finishing third in their group, with a solitary win to their name, and then edging out Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak 21-19, 15-21, 15-13 in a play-off. A straight-sets victory over compatriots Adrian Carambula and Alex Ranghieri followed in the last 16, after which Nicolai and Lupo disposed of Russian pairs Dmitri Barsouk and Nikita Liamin and Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Konstantin Semenov in the quarter- and semi-finals respectively.
The home favourites had to work hard for their victory in the final, however, with the Italians starting both sets strongly. Nicolai and Lupo took a 5-1 lead in the opener before Schmidt turned the tide with a smash. With Cerutti showcasing his power at the net and Oscar Schmidt conjuring up some deft spikes, the Brazilians eventually won the set 21-19.
Undeterred, the Italians made the early running again in the second, holding a 10-7 advantage at one stage before the home duo clawed it back once more, with Oscar Schmidt playing an inspired game, placing the ball all over the court, invariably out of reach of the diving Italians. A Lupo fault on match point gave the Brazilians the set 21-17 and with it the match, sparking wild celebrations in the stands at the Beach Volleyball Arena.
“The difference in this Olympics has been the crowd,” said an emotional Cerutti. “They’ve been at our side through difficult moments. Winning here on Copacabana is incredible. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he added, before explaining how much hard work and dedication went into their success: “You never win a gold medal by just sitting in your home and showing up for the match. The year 2014 was symbolic. We bought the land in 2014, in the year 2015 we built the house, and in the year 2016 we’ve painted the house.”
Paying tribute to his father’s part in his gold medal, Oscar Schmidt said: “[He] insisted three times in my life that I continue with my volleyball. I was often tired. My friends had graduated from school, but my father always said that nothing comes easy in life, you have to insist. The same thing has happened in the Olympics, and my father has backed me all the way.”