The New York City Open was the first tournament in the new AVP Gold Series and had one of the deepest fields. The 35th seed in the qualifier was a team of two Olympians, Canadian Chaim Schalk and Brazilian legend Ricardo Santos. They would go on to qualify and upset the number 1 seeded team of Dalhausser/Lucena. Over on our end, Stafford and I lost our first match of the tournament to Ratledge/Zaun, 22-20, 18-21, 15-12. I didn’t play well, struggling to side-out from the windy side. I felt uncomfortable and wasn’t able to put much heat into my attacks. We were just coming off some solid play the week before in Moscow where we battled through multiple must-win games. New York felt like it was going to be a letdown tournament. This could be my worst finish in a couple years; the previous year I didn’t finish below 5th place in an AVP. From the way I felt after the match, it looked like that streak was over.
Sitting in our player box, defeated, my mind ran through a possible future…
If I played like this again, we’d likely lose our next match and be done a couple days early. Then we’d either kill time exploring New York or sitting in the hotel room sulking. We’d probably end up back at the tournament site. This is always a rough feeling: watching from the sidelines, games you should be playing, showered and in shoes; the guard allowing you in the player tent because of the pass around your neck instead of the usual sand covering your body.
I’d meet people around the site who’d ask, “When’s your next game?” or “Aren’t you playing?”
“No,” I’d answer. “We’re done. Lost early. I didn’t play very well.” Or I’d give the standard professional beach volleyball player response and blame it on my partner.
I’d talk about bouncing back and redeeming myself in next week’s tournament in The Hague, saying, “At least we’ll be fresh.” And I’d catch my Sunday flight and be sitting on the plane to Amsterdam for 7 hours, watching Logan or John Wick 2, but all the while my mind would drift to the lackluster performance in New York, those points I gave up, those few side-outs I didn’t come in hard, and I’d wonder if I should even still be playing this sport.
I let all these thoughts and regrets seep in, warming my will like simmering water about to bubble. If only I could go back in time and change that tournament. If only I had another chance. I’d play better, harder. Even if it was hot and my tired legs made it feel like I was running with two deflated tires, I’d chase after those errant balls I had no chance of digging and I’d hit until my shoulder fell off because how many more big swings do I get to take in my career?
…Then, I traveled back to the present where I was still sitting in the player’s box after our first round loss. I was still in New York with another game ahead of me. Another chance to play good volleyball.
Stafford and I went on to battle back, playing the most amount of matches possible, making it all the way through the
loser’s contender’s bracket. We played better. We beat good teams: Brunsting/Frishman, Loomis/Lorenz, Hyden/Doherty (only my 2nd time ever beating Hyden).
Then we got to face Ratledge/Zaun again, on stadium court for the last game of the day. It was another battle. After how I played in our first meeting, they kept it on me. Though my legs felt heavy during the quick warm-up, I was able to get it going in the match. I sided out great, moving the ball around and adding some shoot sets to give them different looks. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop them either. We tried both guys and they were swinging away like we weren’t even on the court. It was a side-out battle with very few points scored. In the third game, we didn’t score a real point until our last couple opportunities. At 14-12 and with the score frozen, I dug Ratledge’s line hit and pokey-ed a tight set over him to win. We were still alive, moving on to Sunday.
Sunday we were set to play Sean Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb in the semi-final match. If we won, we would play live on NBC. We’d also miss our flight to The Hague. Because we got a wildcard into the main draw of that event (more on that in another story) we had time to change our flight and get in a day later. But United would charge us $1700 each to change. Whatever. We’d figure that out if we had to.
My partner Stafford Slick (yes, that’s his real name) had been to six semi-finals in his career and if we won, he’d make his first ever finals. We’d played Rosenthal/Crabb at every AVP this year and once in the Moscow FIVB so we knew this would be a tough match. They also swept through the winner’s bracket in 6 straight sets where we had played 13. We continued our improved play and won the match 21-19, 21-15. It’s a different energy playing on stadium court and, as this was the only match going on, the stands were packed. But as the match gets going your nerves settle down and you start to play your normal game. I remember a point in the second game when we were losing our lead and the game was getting tighter, I looked under the net to Sean Rosenthal about to jump serve and thought how cool this was and just enjoyed the moment. I let a smile break out on my face, believing it could only help.
We were soon at match point and with the new freeze-scoring, we’d have to earn a point off serve to win. A few back and forth side-outs later, I dug Trevor’s angle hit 50 ft in the air, Stafford got around it and calmly bump-set me to the net and I finished with a left-side hit off Rosie for the win. Stafford threw his goggles into the sand in celebration. We were in the AVP finals.
A fun part about doing well in a tournament is checking your phone after a game and seeing it blown up with texts and social media posts and realizing how many people are following along and sharing the moment with you. Apart from the updates and congratulations from family, my favorite thing to look for is a long text thread between my group of friends known as the Creative Club (much more on that in another story). If John Mayer or I play a big match on the live stream we can be sure to find our phones filled with texts from the group, giving a play by play analysis and making fun of us or our opponents. After we made the finals I opened my phone to find my retired ex-partner Braidy Halverson saying, “I get NBC in my new trailer. I’ll be watching, drinking beer and assuming that I could still be doing that if I really wanted to.”
In the women’s final right before ours, Lauren Fendrick and April Ross won with April playing on a dislocated toe she injured in the semis. If I was April you’d get to hear about me overcoming that painful injury to win the tournament, despite switching sides and having to resort to a float serve rather than the point-scoring factory known as my jump serve. That would be a great story. But I’m Billy, so you have to read about my final instead.
We played Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb. Someone, either Stafford or Taylor, was going to win their first tournament. They are a great scoring team with Taylor earning last season’s AVP defensive player of the year and Jake being one of the top blockers in the world for the last 40 years. It was a different match-up than Trevor and Rosie, we would score a few points here and there but needed to side-out well to win.
They controlled the first game serving tough to our sidelines and with their strong Block/D. It felt like the only points we scored were when they hit out. We eventually got under control and settled in, playing better to start the 2nd game. We talked about having fun and making some hustle plays. We had an early lead in the game winning a few long rallies. One of which started with Taylor pounding a ball off Stafford’s head high and away from me to the back border—I chased after it doubting I could even touch it but going anyway when the wind blew it back and I almost overran it, hitting it awkwardly with one hand. Stafford sent it over and then the ball came back and forth a few times off Stafford’s blocks and covers before it finally ended on a bad set called on Taylor. Long scramble rallies like these are what makes beach volleyball fun to watch and it was cool to have a few moments like this in a televised final.
Game 2 was tight and went overtime. It ended finally on a Gibb block at 25-23. They won but it was a fun game.
A common phrase I hear repeated from fans and players alike is “I know it’s not what you wanted, but great tournament anyway.” Like all the players who post about their tournament need to add, “Came up short,” so you know they aren’t satisfied with anything short of winning. On top of this, there are famous stories of real winners like Karch Kiraly smashing his 2nd place trophy or Kerri Walsh refusing her rental car because it was silver instead of gold. I like the attitude of not being satisfied—that there is still more work to do to prepare for the next tournament—but I don’t think you should be disappointed just because you didn’t win everything. There were 61 men’s teams in this tournament and I don’t think 60 of them had a bad tourney. Stafford and I played well. We came back from a first-round loss to beat a lot of good teams to have a chance to win the tournament. We still have improvements to make, especially with me finding a more effective serve, but it was a great tournament for us—our best as a team. Maybe this attitude won’t make me a top level competitor like Michael Jordan throwing the board if he loses at monopoly, but I don’t feel like talking about this tournament needed any disclaimers.
If I could travel back in time and alter history, this is one tournament I wouldn’t mess with.