Phil Dalhausser

Phil Dalhausser, Todd Rogers shift with evolving beach volleyball

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Horse Guards Parade, a usual site of London’s Changing of the Guard, housed a sand shift at the 2012 Olympics.

Beach volleyball debuted at the Olympics in 1996, and the first four men’s gold medals were won by U.S. or Brazilian teams, the two dominant nations in the sport. Three of four silvers, too.

Americans Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers arrived at the central London venue playing for legacy two years ago, to become the first men to repeat as Olympic beach champions. They were seeded second, behind only a Brazilian duo, and went undefeated in group play to make the single-elimination round of 16.

Dalhausser and Rogers, two men separated by six years in age, seven inches in height and countless hair follicles, had become the perfect complements since teaming in 2006. Rogers, nicknamed “The Professor” for his ability to pick apart the game mentally, especially defensively, and Dalhausser, the younger, quieter, bald man they called “The Thin Beast” for his scary-good offensive play.

Their partnership pretty much ended on the night of Aug. 3, 2012.

The men’s round of 16 was not a showcase event around the London Games that evening. Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin were swimming their final individual events over at the Aquatics Centre. It was the first night of track and field at Olympic Stadium.

But at Horse Guards Parade, Dalhausser and Rogers were unceremoniously dethroned in straight sets by a 13th-seeded Italian team that had to win an extra match just to qualify for the round of 16.

“When you lose,” Dalhausser said that evening, “it smacks you right in the face the second the ball hits the sand.”

One month later, Dalhausser said on an Internet volleyball radio show that he would switch partners and team with another two-time Olympian, Sean Rosenthal, for the following season.

Rogers, at a seasoned 39, was to cut back on playing internationally, but his forecast would have changed had the Olympics been different.

“If Phil and I had played really well and won a gold … if we were still playing at a level where we were winning a lot of tournaments, we would have kept going,” Rogers said in a phone interview last week.

It started to go wrong a little over a year before the Olympics.

Dalhausser and Rogers won 13 of the 16 FIVB tournaments from late 2009 to early 2011. Then Rogers tweaked his knee, Dalhausser rolled his ankle before the 2011 World Championships (they finished ninth), Rogers tore his meniscus and had offseason surgery and Dalhausser was hospitalized with blood clots in his shoulder and arm one month before they were to defend their Olympic gold medal.

“I wonder what would have happened if the little injuries and things not happened and if we continued to roll,” Rogers said.

Instead, a German team won Olympic gold. Men’s beach volleyball took a turn. Dalhausser and Rogers, now separated, face more challenges internationally (for Dalhausser) and domestically (for Rogers) than in their heyday.

The new pair of Dalhausser and Rosenthal are inconsistent but among the world’s best, arguably No. 1 when at their peak. Rogers is playing with his third different partner in as many seasons, the last two being younger players transitioning to the beach.

But the game is global now, with championship roots across Europe two years before it’s going to be one of the showcase sports at the Rio Olympics.

A Dutch pair won the 2013 World Championship. A Latvian duo is the team to beat right now, Dalhausser said, early on in the international FIVB season that runs from April to December. The Italians who stunned Dalhausser and Rogers at the Olympics have won two of the first three tournaments.

“Once beach volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1996, people started taking it more seriously around the world,” said Rosenthal, who made the 2008 and 2012 Olympic quarterfinals with Jake Gibb. “We always did [take it seriously] here and Brazil did there, but it became a much bigger sport around the world. A lot of these countries are taking their indoor players and taking them out to the beach. They’re all 21 [years old] and 6-9 and 6-10. They’re getting good and getting good fast.”

The 6-foot-9 Dalhausser and 6-3 Rosenthal took three FIVB World Tour event titles last year, more than any other duo. But they didn’t make the semifinals of their five other tournaments. They lost in the round of 16 at the World Championships.

“Fifteen teams could probably win a tournament on any given weekend,” Dalhausser said.

Dalhausser and Rosenthal, who have switched sides on the sand this year (Dalhausser is back on his natural left; Rosenthal on his unnatural right), were bounced in the round of 16 and quarterfinals in their first two international tournaments this season in China. In both defeats, they squandered one-set-to-none leads.

“We couldn’t step on their throats, I guess, and finish them off,” Dalhausser said. “That’s something we need to work on.”

source: Getty Images
Beijing Olympic champion Todd Rogers (pictured) won his first tournament with new partner Theo Brunner at a lower-level event in the Cayman Islands in April. (Getty Images)

Rogers, who was largely credited with developing Dalhausser into a dominant force during their partnership, took on a project in 2013.

His partner last year was Ryan Doherty, a 7-foot former minor-league baseball pitcher with a puddle of domestic tour experience. They parted amicably after a disappointing international season and mixed results on the domestic AVP Tour.

Rogers picked up another new partner this season named Theo Brunner, a man he once recruited when he was an assistant college coach to play for UC-Santa Barbara’s indoor team. Brunner, at 29, is 11 years younger than Rogers.

Rogers said after he and Dalhausser lost in London he would never play another Olympic match, but he’s not completely ruling out a Rio run now.

At the same time, his focus is on boosting his partner’s ranking among American men via a points system that accumulates results over the course of a season. Rogers wants his former college pupil to have a shot at his first Olympics in case Rogers opts not to try for his third. A country can’t send more than two teams to an Olympics.

“Basically my No. 1 goal here is to put Theo in a position by the end of this year that he has enough points that he’s now a viable option for players to choose from if we’re not doing really, really well,” said Rogers, who with Brunner isn’t automatically qualified for the marquee FIVB Grand Slam main draws yet. “In that case, he shakes my hand, and I’m going off into the sunset of some kind.”

Dalhausser and Rosenthal and Rogers and Brunner are both scheduled to compete in the first event of the new AVP season in St. Petersburg, Fla., next week.

Dalhausser, Rosenthal and Rogers all have children now. That balances their futures in a sport with high travel mileage. Still, there’s that image of playing an Olympic final in a full, 12,000-seat stadium on Copacabana Beach in Brazil — where rowdy spectators are known to yell curse words at U.S. teams, in English.

“I think Rio will probably be my last Olympics,” said Dalhausser, 34, whose wife is expecting a girl, Sophia, in August, to pair with Sebastian, who turns 1 in June. “The travel wears on you. I don’t see myself playing until 40 [like Rogers]. Try to qualify for Rio, then hopefully medal there. Then maybe play another year and probably call it quits after that.

“But if I’m still winning tournaments when I’m 37, it’d be tough for me to walk away.”

First grass planted on Rio Olympic golf course

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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