The USA contingent on the Ostrava podium/Volleyball World photo

There was a word that once could have described Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes: boring.

They were fun to watch, of course, with their tempo sets and options and creativity. But so good were they throughout the 2023 Beach Pro Tour season that there was little sense in paying much attention to them in the early rounds of Elite16s. Those pool play matches were mostly devoid of tension. There was no clenching of the fists or holding of the breath. The feeling one had when watching Cheng and Hughes was reminiscent of Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers or Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. Until the quarterfinals, there just wasn’t much need to tune in.

That was the stratosphere in which Cheng and Hughes had entered.

Pool play? Why bother tuning in?

At no point in their nearly two-year-long rekindled partnership had they failed to advance into the playoff rounds. Of the nine Elite16s they’d played entering the 2024 season, they’d won pool in seven of them, earning a bye straight into the quarterfinals. Even when they didn’t, they still made it to the quarterfinals or beyond in all but one.

Better to keep an eye on the teams who were a little more unsteady, check back in on Cheng and Hughes during the quarterfinals.

That was then.

This is now.

As it can go with teams who vault straight to the top of the world, as Cheng and Hughes did when they won the first four tournaments they played together after reuniting as partners, Cheng and Hughes have been the ones with the proverbial target on their backs. Maybe there was an adjustment from teams or perhaps there was a slowdown that is inevitable to even the most dynastic of sports teams. Likely both.

Whatever the case, there was and has been a change in 2024.

In Tepic, the second event of the season, they took second in pool and lost in the first round of playoffs to Brazilians Taina Silva and Victoria Lopes, a team to which they’d never before lost. In the ensuing two Elites, in Brasilia and Espinho, they won just three matches and lost five.

In Espinho, for the first time of their partnership, they didn’t break pool.

Were they bad losses? No, not most of them, anyway. These were elite teams in Elite tournaments that were winning mostly close matches over Cheng and Hughes, matches the world had simply become accustomed to them winning.

The sense of inevitability around Cheng and Hughes had waned.

Boring, they were not.

And they certainly weren’t boring this week at the Ostrava Elite16. Their first match of pool play, against Switzerland’s Nina Brunner and Tanja Huberli, was a stunner, a 16-21, 11-21 thumping that portended nothing of the run to come.

Did anything change after that Thursday drubbing?

Cheng won’t say. Maybe after Paris, she said, she’d let the world know.

Whatever the secret, something certainly shifted. Because, overnight it seemed, Cheng and Hughes resumed the form that, last fall, led them to claiming the first USA World Championship since 2009. They swept, in succession, China’s Xinyi Xia and Chen Xue, themselves coming off a gold medal last week in Stare Jablonki, Poland, and Germany’s Laura Ludwig and Louisa Lippmann, who punched their ticket to the Paris Olympic Games. In the first round of playoffs, they swept peers Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles. They were out of the ninth-place rounds but far from out of the woods, with No. 11 Germans Svenja Muller and Cinja Tillmann looming in the quarters, a team that had just beaten them two weeks prior, 21-12, 21-16.

Looked like it was heading that way again, too, only even worse this time. A confounding 8-21 first-set was made only more puzzling by the scores that followed: 21-18, 17-15 wins for Cheng and Hughes.


Heavens, no.

They were nothing if not the most interesting team in the tournament, a riddle made even more enigmatic when viewing their semifinal matchup: World No. 1 Ana Patricia Silva and Duda Lisboa. In seven meetings with Brazil’s top team, Cheng and Hughes had won three, including the most significant of them all, a 21-16, 24-22 sweep in the finals of the World Championships.

Like Cheng and Hughes are now, Ana Patricia and Duda have long been one of the most vexing teams on the planet.

“Tortured geniuses,” is the phrase Rich Lambourne often uses when describing them on the broadcast of Volleyball TV.

They’ve won 10 medals in their last 15 tournaments, six of them gold. They are a near-unanimous selection as the best team in the world. Yet sometimes they’ll just… lose a set 12-21… and finding an explanation for it is as easy as bottling smoke. They’ll leave you as awestruck as they will dumbfounded, often in the same match, much less the same tournament.

So it is with Ana Patricia and Duda — so it is with Cheng and Hughes now.

Cheng and Hughes would win that semifinal, 21-19, 21-18, knotting the series at four wins apiece, keeping the best rivalry on the Beach Pro Tour as captivating as the teams within it.

But the job wasn’t done. Far from it. A meeting with Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson awaited in the finals. They’d been on a tour de force, those Canadians. Parlayed a win in Huntington Beach, where they knocked out Cheng and Hughes in the semifinals, into five straight sweeps in Ostrava, outscoring opponents by 43 points in 10 sets.

But then here came Cheng and Hughes, suddenly the most interesting team in the world, a team that had not been on as sure of a run as Humana-Paredes and Wilkerson, yet the team who was suddenly leaving no doubt in a 21-13 opening set win.

It portended the inevitable question: Was it sustainable?

No, because of course it wasn’t. Boring is no longer allowed in the Cheng and Hughes camp.

A blowout just wouldn’t do.

A sweep would elude Cheng and Hughes as they dropped the second set, 21-23, but the gold would not. They’d recover once more, as they had this entire tournament, as they did after that opening match roundhouse they took from Switzerland and the 8-21 egg they laid against Germany. They’d go on to win 15-12 in the third, claiming their first gold medal of the season, and their first since the World Championship last October.

What’s to come later this year, at their next scheduled stop, the Paris Olympic Games?

“Don’t count us out,” Hughes said. 

Whatever may come, it will certainly be a show worth watching.

Sara Hughes, left, and Kelly Cheng after winning in Ostrava/Volleyball World photo

“Dream come true:” Tina Graudina, Anastasija Samoilova win bronze

Tina Graudina had to laugh when the pools were released for the Ostrava Elite16. In her pool were Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles, Kim Hildreth and Teegan Van Gunst, and Ana Patricia Silva and Duda Lisboa.

Of course it would be Ana Patricia and Duda.

Fifteen times they’ve played the Brazilians in their short careers, and twice already in 2024, in pool play of back-to-back Elite16s in Brasilia and Espinho.

At this point, it just wouldn’t be right if pool play didn’t feature another bout between the two.

Four matches later, in the bronze medal match, who would Graudina and Samoilova meet again but Ana Patricia and Duda.

Entering the Ostrava Elite16, Graudina and Samoilova had beaten Brazil just twice. In the Czech Republic, they’d double that total, first with a win in pool (15-21, 21-18, 15-11) then with another for the bronze medal (21-18, 21-19).

“We’ve played against them so many times and they’re such a good team and we’ve struggled to beat them,” Graudina said. “To beat them in the same tournament twice is a dream come true.”

Anastasija Samoilova, left, and Tina Graudina/Volleyball World photo


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