Canada's Heather Bansley and Elizabeth Maloney led the way for the underdogs, with a pair of upsets including a win over the two-time defending champions of the US$190,000 Phuket Thailand Open powered by PTT.
Bansley and Maloney, seeded 26th after advancing from Wednesday's qualification tournament, started their day with a three-set win over seventh-seeded Jen Kessy and April Ross, 21-17, 15-21, 15-11. The Americans, the defending world champions and winners of the last two Phuket titles, suffered a first-round loss for just the third time in their careers, the other two occasions having resulted in fifth-place and 25th-place finishes. Kessy and Ross faced match point against the 23rd-seeded team from Belgium in the 25th-place match, but were able to prevail 16-14 in the third set.
The Canadians then followed that match with a win against the 10th-seeded team from the host country, on an outer court with four television cameras rolling and a street lined with Thai fans. Friday morning Bansley and Maloney will play second-seeded Sara Goller and Laura Ludwig from Germany, having already secured their career best finish of at least a ninth.
"It's pretty surreal to beat them; I'm speechless," Bansley said of the match against the USA. "We took ourselves by surprise but when we were playing we felt like we were right there with them. It was really windy this morning and we got a couple of lucky breaks."
"We stayed really patient,” Maloney added. “In the second set they served us off the court but we stuck with it.”
Spain’s Elsa Baquerizo and Liliana Fernandez Steiner are trying to repeat, if not improve on, their performance last year in Phuket. The duo set a career best here in 2009 by winning their first three main draw matches, including defeating Germany’s Goller and Ludwig, en route to a fifth-place finish. This year they have started out along a similar path, defeating fourth-seeded Nicole Branagh and Kerri Walsh of the USA 21-12, 21-18 in the second round. Their next best finishes on the SWATCH FIVB World Tour are three ninths, all of which have been accomplished in their last four outings. They have guaranteed themselves at least a ninth place finish in Phuket, and will play fifth-seeded Kristyna Kolocova and Marketa Slukova of the Czech Republic on Friday.
Top-seeded Chen Xue and Xi Zhang of China, who won last week in Sanya, China and have played in the finals of their last five tournaments on the SWATCH FIVB World Tour, recorded their eighth straight sweep with a pair of wins to open play in Phuket. The duo won the inaugural Phuket event in 2006 before placing 25th in 2007. Neither player competed here in 2008 and each played with different partners in 2009.
The second-seeded German team of Sara Goller and Laura Ludwig also went undefeated on Thursday. Goller and Ludwig won a silver medal last week after winning their first five matches to reach the gold medal contest. Joining them in the unbeaten ranks are Austrian sisters Doris and Stefanie Schwaiger. The third-seeded team in Phuket, they are in their eighth season and this marks the highest they have ever been seeded.
Kolocova and Slukova, who are coming off a career-tying best place finish of fifth in Sanya, managed to win their first two matches on Thursday join the unbeaten ranks, but their victories did not come easy. They lost the opening set against a qualifying team from Germany before bouncing back to win the next two sets. Then against the 12th-seeded team from Greece, Kolocova and Slukova again had to go to three sets, winning 25-23, 16-21, 15-12.
Brazilian sisters Carolina and Maria Clara Salgado swept both of their opponents Thursday and will play against Xue and Zhang on Friday morning. The eighth-seeded Salgados finished fifth in Phuket in both 2007 and 2008 before skipping last year’s tournament.
The Netherlands’ Roos Van der Hoeven and Jantine van der Vlist, seeded 27th, sent Americans Angie Akers and Tyra Turner, the sixth seeds, to the contender’s bracket in another big upset in the first round. However it was another team from the Netherlands, Sanne Keizer and Marleen Van Iersel, who reaped the rewards as the 11th-seeds won the meeting between the two Dutch teams. Keizer and Van Iersel will next play the Schwaiger sisters.
Brazilians Ana Paula Henkel and Tatiana Minello, seeded 32nd after becoming the oldest team to ever qualify on the SWATCH FIVB World Tour, lost both matches on Thursday to finish 25th. Tati indicated this may be her last event.
The United States lead all countries having won seven of the 12 medals in Phuket, including placing 1-2 in the last three Karon Beach finales. Kessy and Ross have won the last two events here, and no country besides China or the U.S. has played in any of the four title matches. The Americans have an uphill battle to repeat, as the top three seeded U.S. teams are now all in the same part of the contender’s bracket which will send one team to the semifinals.
FRANK UIJLENBROEK WORLDSPORTPICS