It wasn’t an audition, per se. Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, after five years away from one another as partners, simply wanted competition reps as a new team before the onset of the 2023 season and, by extension, Olympic qualification. But their three-event, season-ending stretch, in Huntington Beach and twice in Torquay, Australia, for a Challenge and an Elite 16, were also a critical audition, a living, 17-match application for one of two wild cards into the 2022 Beach Pro Tour World Tour Finals.
Whatever the primary intent, it worked. Cheng and Hughes, who went 17-0 and didn’t drop a set in three straight tournament victories, were awarded one of two coveted wild cards into the World Tour Finals, which begins January 26 in Doha, Qatar. The other women’s wild card went to the new Canadian pairing of Sarah Pavan and Sophie Bukovec, who will be playing their first event together in the highest-paying tournament of the season, with an $800,000 purse and $150,000 to the winners.
“The best Christmas gift ever,” said Bukovec, who played the 2022 season with Brandie Wilkerson and finished second at the World Championships in Rome.
One of the two men’s wild cards also went to a new pairing in Italy’s Adrian Carambula and Alex Ranghieri. After splitting with Enrico Rossi following the two Challenge events in Dubai this fall, Carambula called up Ranghieri, his old partner from the 2016 Olympics, to gauge his interest. He was interested, all right, and in two events in Torquay, they won a bronze and a silver. It was the first time either had won consecutive medals.
The other wild card went to Brazil’s Renato Lima and Vitor Felipe. Like Bukovec, they won a silver medal at the World Championships, falling to Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum in the finals. It’s a fitting end to a brilliant rookie season for the 23-year-old Lima, who opened his year coming out of the qualifier in the Tlaxcala Challenge and promptly finished fourth.
Let the beach volleyball partnership carousel begin
The American men were expected to have a relatively quiet off-season in terms of partnership changes. And then Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk upended any notion of that when they announced their new pairing late last week.
No other teams have officially solidified, although Miles Partain and Andy Benesh appear to be a lock — Partain has turned down several offers from other blockers — as do Evan Cory and Logan Webber.
Trevor Crabb, who, alongside Theo Brunner, is arguably the highest free agent on the board, has, of course, already begun establishing what is expected to be a tremendous rivalry with Bourne. He won a golf match in Hawaii with coach Danny Alvarez, and wrote in his caption: “Definitely my best win of the year with my favorite partner.”
We expected nothing less from our favorite and most lovable villain.
There is a minor sense of urgency for the remaining Olympic hopefuls, as the first qualification event is expected to follow the World Tour Finals on the first weekend of February.
The partnership carousel has only just begun.
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