Seoul, Korea, June 3, 2007 - It has been six years, but Australian Natalie Cook returned to the top spot of a SWATCH-FIVB World Tour podium here Sunday as she teamed with new partner Tamsin Barnett to capture the US$200,000 Seoul Open by defeating the top-seeded team from China for the gold medal.
In claiming her fourth FIVB title since starting her international Beach Volleyball career 120 events ago in 1993, the 32-year old Cook and Barnett shared the $32,000 first-place prize after a 21-19 and 21-19 win over Jie Wang and Jia Tian in the 44-minute gold medal match at Han River Jamsil Citizen Park.
The inaugural Seoul Open was only the third start together for the Barnett-Cook partnership on the SWATCH-FIVB World Tour as the Aussies had finished seventh and ninth in their first two international starts in China and Singapore last month. In addition to earning her 26th FIVB medal, Cook was named the Seoul Open’s most outstanding player.
Wang and Tian are starting their second-season together and had reached their seventh FIVB finale in 16 SWATCH starts with three gold medals, including a title in the 2007 season-opening event in Shanghai followed by a silver medal last week in Singapore. The Chinese, who split $22,000 for second-place, have now medalled 11 times together.
With six-straight wins the last four days to improve their season match mark to 31-5, including 18-1 on the Australian domestic tour, Barnett and Cook Barnett defeated four of the top five-seeded teams in the Seoul Open. "In addition to our training with good coaching, I think Natalie's experience has really helped me," the 27-year old Barnett offered after the title match. Cook credited Barnett’s “blocking” as an important factor in winning the gold medal.
Barnett, who captured three of the four Australian domestic events earlier this year with Cook, also collected her biggest Beach Volleyball pay check as she had never finished higher than ninth in a SWATCH event in her previous two seasons of international competition.
A 21-19, 19-21 and 15-9 victory Thursday afternoon over third-seeded Talita Antunes and Renata Ribeiro provided confidence for Barnett and Cook as the Brazilians had captured the SWATCH-FIVB World Tour title four days earlier in Singapore by defeating Wang and Tian in the finals.
Barnett and Cook reached the Seoul Open semi-finals Friday afternoon by defeating second-seeded Juliana Felisberta Silva and Larissa Franca of Brazil 21-13 and 21-16 before advancing to the SWATCH finale Saturday afternoon with a 24-22 and 21-19 win over fifth-seeded Leila Barros and Ana Paula Connelly of Brazil.
Australia’s appearance in a FIVB “final four” was the first since 2004 when Cook missed her bid for a third-straight Olympic medal when she and Nicole Sanderson placed fourth at the Athens Olympic Games. Cook and Sanderson also earned Australia’s last SWATCH medal with a 2004 second-place finish in Osaka, Japan.
Julien Prosser and Lee Zahner captured Australia’s last international title in July 2001 in Berlin. Cook and her 2000 Olympic gold medal partner Kerri Pottharst validated their Sydney success on Bondi Beach by winning the 2001 SWATCH-FIVB World Tour season opener in Macau. Cook and Pottharst’s other FIVB title was immediately following their bronze medal effort at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games with a top podium placement in Osaka.
Barnett and Cook’s title also snapped a string of 27-straight SWATCH-FIVB World Tour events where a country outside of Brazil (14), China (5) and the United States (8) had captured the gold medal. The three countries have combined to win 146 of the 152 SWATCH titles since the start of the women’s tour in 1992. Vassiliki Arvaniti and Vasso Karadassiou were the last non-Big 3 country to win a FIVB gold medal when the Greek’s upset Juliana and Larissa for the SWATCH title at a July 2005 event in Stavanger, Norway.
The Seoul Open was also the third qualifying event for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games as the process runs through July 20, 2008 to determine the 24-team fields per gender. A team’s best eight finishes from SWATCH FIVB World Tour events and FIVB-recognized Continental Championship Finals will be counted.
After three-straight events in Asia, the women’s SWATCH-FIVB World Tour begins a stretch of 11 stops in the next 12 weeks in Europe starting Tuesday in Poland for the second annual GE Money Bank Warsaw Open at Agrykola Prak in Mysliwiecka. After a three-week break, the men’s FIVB circuit resumes play this coming week with the VIP Open in Zagreb, Croatia.
photos Janos Schmidt