Porec, Croatia, June 23, 2017 - After Maria Antonelli and Carolina Salgado became the 24th team to advance from a FIVB World Tour qualifier to the top of an international podium at the same event last week in The Netherlands, one wonders if “lightning” can strike twice in the same season when preliminary rounds start here next week for the second of three SWATCH Major Series events on the 2017 Beach Volleyball calendar.
With the much-anticipated return of three-time Olympic and FIVB world champion Kerri Walsh Jennings to the international circuit with “new” partner Nicole Branagh, the US$600,000 Porec Major will “officially” begin Tuesday with qualification for both men and women to set the field for Wednesday’s opening Main Draw pool play rounds on five courts at three different sites in this Croatian coastal resort.
The side courts at the Porec Major feature qualifying and Main Draw action at Laguna (left) and Valamar.
With the “qualifying” feat of winning gold via a preliminary round start happening only 13 times for men and 12 times for women since the first internationally-sanctioned events by the FIVB in 1987 for men and 1992 for women, the 2016 Porec was the last site where the “magical” run occurred prior to Antonelli and Carolina’s feat last week at the Dela Beach Open in The Hague.
Of the 25 occurrences, Antonelli and Carolina’s run was only the third where a gold medal team had to win country quota matches. The first happen in Croatia when Marcio Araujo/Fábio Magalhaes of Brazil accomplish the feat at a June 2005 event in Zagreb followed by Jen Kessy/April Ross of the United States in Norway at a 2007 stop in Stavanger.
Maria Antonelli (left) and Carolina Salgado with their 2017 Dela Beach Open gold medals in The Hague
Of the 24 teams winning gold after qualifying for the Main Draw at the same event, Missy May-Treanor and Holly McPeak accomplished it twice in the same season at back-to-back FIVB World Tour events in July 2000 at stops in Chicago and Berlin.
After winning two Brazilian country quota matches in The Hague June 13, Antonelli and Carolina advanced through the 24-team qualifier and the 32-team Main Draw with seven more competition wins to become the first team to win a FIVB World Tour gold medal after starting their quest in the preliminary phases since the 2016 Porec Major where Chantal Laboureur and Julia Sude accomplished the feat.
While Antonelli and Carolina were “perfect” in their journey to gold, Laboureur and Sude stumbled once in 2016 Porec pool play before recovering to win six-straight matches highlighted by a quarter-final win over Antonelli and Liliane Maestrini 2-0 (21-12, 21-14) in 29 minutes and a 2-0 (21-19, 21-18) gold medal win in 38 minutes Heather Bansley/Sarah Pavan of Canada.
Chantal Laboureur (left) and Julia Sude of Germany with their 2016 Porec Major gold medals
What made Antonelli and Carolina’s feat so “special” was the route to the podium top in The Hague was launched with the pair’s two country wins over Josemari Alves/Liliane Maestrini and Taiana Lima/Elize Maia. And Antonelli/Carolina, Lima Elize Maia and Juliana Felisberta/Carol Horta will be back playing Brazilian country quota matches this coming Monday in Porec to gain a spot in the qualifier as will Walsh Jennings and Branagh in the American playoff.
A 2008 Olympian, Branagh will be playing in her first FIVB World Tour event since August 2015 while Walsh Jennings will be appearing on the international circuit for only the second-time this year after placing fifth with April Ross at the season-opening SWATCH Major Series stop in the United States for the Fort Lauderdale Major.
Kerri Walsh Jennings (left) and Nicole Branagh with their gold medals at the 2010 Phuket Open
Like the Brazilians, Walsh Jennings and Branagh’s journey in Porec starts with a possible American country quota match Monday with Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar, who have an 1-0 CQ record together after winning a spot in the qualifier last month at a FIVB World Tour stop in Moscow.
While Hochevar (12-11 country quota match mark), Branagh (3-5) and Day (1-3) have started FIVB events in an American playoff, Walsh Jennings has only played once in a World Tour qualifier where a Main Draw berth was at stake since starting her international career in 2001 with Olympic and world championship partner Misty May-Treanor.
On May 18, 2011 in Myslowice, Walsh Jennings and Hochevar defeated pairs from The Netherlands and China to advance to the Polish Main Draw where the Americans placed seventh after losing 2-0 (26-24, 21-19) to Sanne Keizer and Marleen van Iersel of The Netherlands in a contender's bracket match at the double-elimination bracket stop.
Walsh Jennings has never finished lower than 17th at a FIVB event in 118 World Tour appearances (740 matches) as both of those placements were “footnoted” due to injuries (Berlin 2004, May-Treanor abdominal strain and Moscow 2015, Walsh Jennings dislocated shoulder).
Only Brazilians Emanuel Rego (77), Larissa Franca (61) and Ricardo Santos (56) have won more FIVB World Tour gold medals than Walsh Jennings, who topped international podiums 55 times with four different partners, including two titles with Branagh (2008 Dubai and 2010 Phuket).
While the “money” rounds for the 2017 Porec Major do not start until Wednesday, the process to gain access to the “bank” begins Monday where the historians of Beach Volleyball will be tracking the competition where golden “dreams” can be hatched on the seaside courts at the Croatian coastal resort.
Center court at the 2016 Porec Major