For two weeks, Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst hit the practice courts hard to prepare for the final tournament before the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Walkenhorst called it “fine-tuning,” but their training partners took a few notes themselves. And Nadine Zumkehr and Joana Heidrich proved to be more than just warm-up partners.
But on a hot, sunny day on the shores of Lake Worthersee, the top-seeded Ludwig and Walkenhorst prevailed in a tight championship match to score a 24-22, 14-21, 15-11 victory to claim the US$800,000 A1 Major Klagenfurt title before a standing-room only and typically raucous crowd in the world’s most popular Beach Volleyball tournament.
The SWATCH Major Series victory might have been a preview of what could unfold in the coming weeks in Rio de Janeiro, with Ludwig and Walkenhorst representing Germany and Zumkehr and Heidrich one of two teams from Switzerland.
And neither team chose to look past Klagenfurt, instead battling in the hot sun until in a tense third set, Walkenhorst delivered consecutive blocks that broke a 10-10 tie and enabled the Germans to capture their fifth gold medal of the FIVB World Tour season.
“Definitely we expected a tough match because we know each other really good,” said Ludwig, who will be making her third Olympic appearance. “We practiced the last two weeks a lot with them. Before this game we said it will be tough, it will be close, so we had to prepare for them.”
The fifth-seeded Zumkehr and Heidrich, seeking their second World Tour title of 2016, recorded their highest finish in a Major or Grand Slam event in a partnership that began in 2013 with an eye on Rio. They came close to making a Major statement on their way to Brazil.
“Right now we’re a little disappointed still because we were close,” said Zumkehr, who finished ninth in the London 2012 Olympics with Simone Kuhn. “We know how good they are and we were close to beating them in this final. I think in one or two hours or at the very least by tomorrow, we’re going to be happy and proud and take all of our confidence to Rio.”
The strength of the Swiss women’s program was on display in the stadium court. Not only did Zumkehr and Heidrich reach the final, but compatriots Nina Betschart and Tanja Huberli captured the bronze medal with a win over Argentina’s Ana Gallay and Georgina Klug. It was only the third time that the Swiss placed two teams on the podium in an FIVB World Tour event.
And Zumkehr and Heidrich were within a whisker of standing the tallest. They had a 19-18 lead in the first set they couldn’t hold and were up 10-9 in the third before Walkenhorst preceded her two key blocks with a hit to the backline.
“It’s nice to do this now, and we did it for a long week and a long season,” Walkenhorst said. “It’s really good we had two weeks of practice before, which we put to good use. Now we have eight days more to make some more fine-tuning and play our best.”
The Swiss duo will be in Pool E with Canada’s Sarah Pavan/Heather Bansley, Germany’s Karla Borger/Britta Buthe and the Netherlands’ Sophie Van Gestel/Jantine Van der Vlist.
“To play with this crowd in Klagenfurt is probably the best preparation for Rio,” Zumkehr said. “We got a feeling for the ambience now, we got a feeling for pressure in a good way and I really hope we take the confidence with us to Rio. It doesn’t change anything about our expectations but it gives us a lot of confidence for the start of the Games.”
The Germans have been the hottest team in the world since mid-May, when they captured the Antalya (Turkey) Open. That started a stretch of three wins in four events in addition to capturing the European Championships in Switzerland.
In Pool D in the Olympics, Ludwig/Walkenhorst will be joined by Italy’s Maria Menegatti/Viktoria Orsi Toth, Canada’s Kristina Valjas/Jamie Broder and Egypt’s Doaa Elghobashy/Nada Meawad.
“I’m sure everybody is putting pressure on themselves,” Ludwig said. “Sure, there is also a lot of questions coming about the medals but you also go there to fight for medals. For sure, having fun as well, but you want to fight for it, you want to win against everybody and play good and when we play good we can beat a lot of teams and if not, then it’s just the opponent is better.
“The pressure is just about yourself. If you put expectations high by yourself you also have to handle it. There is your armchair psychologist,” she added with a laugh.
Ludwig and Walkenhorst have also clinched a spot in the SWATCH Major Finals in Toronto in September. They placed second behind Brazil’s Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes in the 2015 Major Final in Fort Lauderdale, Fla