International Volleyball

With Ostrava gold, Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes have become the World’s Most Interesting Team

With Ostrava gold, Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes have become the World's Most Interesting Team

The USA contingent on the Ostrava podium/Volleyball World photo

There was a word that once could have described Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes: boring.

They were fun to watch, of course, with their tempo sets and options and creativity. But so good were they throughout the 2023 Beach Pro Tour season that there was little sense in paying much attention to them in the early rounds of Elite16s. Those pool play matches were mostly devoid of tension. There was no clenching of the fists or holding of the breath. The feeling one had when watching Cheng and Hughes was reminiscent of Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers or Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. Until the quarterfinals, there just wasn’t much need to tune in.

That was the stratosphere in which Cheng and Hughes had entered.

Pool play? Why bother tuning in?

At no point in their nearly two-year-long rekindled partnership had they failed to advance into the playoff rounds. Of the nine Elite16s they’d played entering the 2024 season, they’d won pool in seven of them, earning a bye straight into the quarterfinals. Even when they didn’t, they still made it to the quarterfinals or beyond in all but one.

Better to keep an eye on the teams who were a little more unsteady, check back in on Cheng and Hughes during the quarterfinals.

That was then.

This is now.

As it can go with teams who vault straight to the top of the world, as Cheng and Hughes did when they won the first four tournaments they played together after reuniting as partners, Cheng and Hughes have been the ones with the proverbial target on their backs. Maybe there was an adjustment from teams or perhaps there was a slowdown that is inevitable to even the most dynastic of sports teams. Likely both.

Whatever the case, there was and has been a change in 2024.

In Tepic, the second event of the season, they took second in pool and lost in the first round of playoffs to Brazilians Taina Silva and Victoria Lopes, a team to which they’d never before lost. In the ensuing two Elites, in Brasilia and Espinho, they won just three matches and lost five.

In Espinho, for the first time of their partnership, they didn’t break pool.

Were they bad losses? No, not most of them, anyway. These were elite teams in Elite tournaments that were winning mostly close matches over Cheng and Hughes, matches the world had simply become accustomed to them winning.

The sense of inevitability around Cheng and Hughes had waned.

Boring, they were not.

And they certainly weren’t…

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