Tuesday, 23 April 2024

International Volleyball

Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes into semifinals at Doha Elite16

Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes into semifinals at Doha Elite16

Kelly Cheng hits against Tanja Huberli/Volleyball World photo

It was happening again.

Four times did the strangest of fits befall upon Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes in quarterfinal matches in 2023. Four times did they begin Elite16 tournaments in dominant fashion, winning pool, earning a coveted bye into the quarterfinals, only to slip into a malaise, one perhaps due to the bye, and settle for fifth.

Now here they were, at the season-opening event of the 2024 season, riding another 3-0 performance into a quarterfinal bye โ€” and getting subsequently smoked.

Nina Brunner and Tanja Huberli, tremendous rivals from Switzerland and one of the best defensive teams the world has to offer, walked over Cheng and Hughes for a 21-13 opening set win. The dominant sideout โ€” 68 percent for Hughes, 71 percent for Cheng โ€” that had led Americaโ€™s No. 2 team into the quarterfinals had betrayed them for the first time all tournament. Hughes finished the set without a kill, while Brunner and Huberli hit a whopping 14 of 20 as a team to go along with two blocks and two aces.

Switzerlandโ€™s top pair was positioned to knock out both of the USAโ€™s presumptive Olympic teams, after surviving the tournamentโ€™s wildest match against Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth earlier that morning (23-21, 19-21, 25-23).

But this wasnโ€™t unfamiliar ground for Cheng and Hughes. Not really. Theyโ€™d done this before, a little less than a year ago in Uberlandia, Brazil. Then, as they did Friday in Doha, they earned a bye into the quarterfinals and were summarily dismissed in the first set by Brunner and Huberli, 21-15. Then, as they did Friday in Doha, they rediscovered their World Championship winning form, taking the second, 21-13. Hughesโ€™ sideout and transition efficiency returned, killing four of seven attempts. Cheng continued her torrid streak that has her ranking tops in the world in hitting. The Swiss, perhaps fatigued by the 63-minute marathon against Nuss and Kloth earlier, gifted the USA seven errors and faded in side out, hitting just 39 percent, a number the Americans nearly doubled.

To three they went, as has become the norm between these teams. In five meetings now, theyโ€™ve gone the distance in four of them. Both resumed the top form that got them into the quarterfinals in the first place. With errors being limited, it would come down to which team would engineer the extra play or two.

As they did in Uberlandia, it was Cheng and Hughes who engineered that play. At 14-13, a Cheng…

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