Fifteen teams took various different paths to secure their Olympic berths via points
One of the most critical matches of the 2021 Olympic qualification process took place on an otherwise innocuous side court in Ostrava, Czech Republic. They were competing for ninth place.
They were competing for everything.
There were no fans on site. Unless you had been doing the points calculations and updating your spreadsheets, you’d have had no idea that the ninth place match between Latvia’s Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins, and Italy’s Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo, was perhaps the most important match in the entire tournament for a number of federations.
Whether you did, or did not know, the stakes of that match, it was still a thrilling affair, a 21-19, 30-28 seesaw of a battle that would have pleased any viewer.
And it especially pleased a team that wasn’t even involved: Chile’s Marco Grimalt and Esteban Grimalt.
Never before had a pair of Chilean cousins likely rooted so hard for Italy.
In Lupo and Nicolai’s victory, the Grimalts qualified for the 2021 Olympic Games.
Latvia is now forced into the Continental Cup, which they will have to win without the help of Edgars Tocs and Martins Plavins in order to qualify.
An hour later, a similar match, between Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb and Brazil’s Andre Loyola and George Wanderley, was held. Like Italy vs. Latvia, it was for ninth.
Like Italy vs. Latvia, it was for everything.
Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena had a little more rope than the Grimalts. In order for Bourne and Crabb to jump Dalhausser and Lucena in the Olympic race, they would have needed to win gold in Ostrava, to beat Andre and George -- and then Konstantin Semenov and Ilya Leshukov, Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, and Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner.
They’d fall to Andre and George, who played a flawless match.
Just like that, in the span of a few hours, in a pair of ninth-place matches, the Olympic race, held over the course of 33 long months, held over the course of a pandemic, was over.
For most, anyway.
There are still five continental cups to be held to decide the remaining five spots in the Olympic Games, but the 15 berths earned via points accrued over the previous 33 months are secured. They have been secured in ways far and wide.
Some teams, like Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, or Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy, have displayed a sustained brilliance that have them so far ahead in the race that it is almost comical. Others, like Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan, Perusic and Schweiner, and Semenov and Leshukov, made magnificent pushes towards the end of this race. Cherif and Ahmed and Perusic and Schweiner both entered the 2021 season precariously close to the cut line.
And then they combined to make seven finals in 2021 alone.
Now they’ll enter Tokyo as medal favourites both.
Then there are teams like the Grimalts, Poland’s Grzegorz Fijalek and Michal Bryl, Brouwer and Meeuwsen, and Brazil’s Evandro and Bruno, who began this race with a white-hot intensity before fading a touch, some more than others. The Grimalts won back-to-back events to begin this Olympic race. Bryl and Fijalek made five straight top-five finishes and padded on another in Vienna.
After that, they were good.
Brouwer and Meeuwsen and Evandro and Bruno’s resumes look similar, racking up medals in the middle of the 2019 season, building up a comfortable lead in the points race. Brouwer and Meeuwsen, of course, got hot at the very end, winning Ostrava, but their race was underscored with the same theme as the teams mentioned above: they didn’t need a push at the end to qualify.
Not like Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak did, anyway.
Kantor and Losiak, like Italy’s Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi, were on the outside looking in prior to the Cancun bubble. Then Carambula and Rossi used the wind and heat and skyballs and a varied, dizzying offence, to fly up the ranks. Kantor and Losiak stormed Sochi, winning their first gold medal in three years, to jump the Grimalts and all but secure their spot.
Most every team went about this race differently. Some, you could say, peaked too early – but that took much of the stress off of this race. Some are rising perhaps at the perfect time – Kantor and Losiak, Carambula and Rossi, Perusic and Schweiner, Cherif and Ahmed, Leshukov and Semenov.
Some, like Dalhausser and Lucena, never wavered. They entered the 2021 season without enough finishes to qualify for the Olympics. They entered trailing Bourne and Trevor Crabb, and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, as they had for the entirety of the race.
Yet this is Dalhausser and Lucena, consummate veterans.
Their poise showed, with a fourth in Doha that put them ahead for good. Eventually, they’d even tie Gibb and Crabb, who will be a delight to watch in Tokyo – one generation making his fourth and final Olympic appearance, the next making his first of likely many.
There is no proper way to run this race. Points will come how they will.
But if there is anything to learn, it may be this: Every match, even the ones for ninth, on an outer court with no fans, could mean the world.