Ten years ago, the biggest concern top pro beach players had on Saturday mornings was how many aspirin they’d need to kill their hangovers. If they made the right choice, they stayed on their feet through the stiff competition. Then they eliminated the stiffs, and the real battle began on Sunday.
These days, if the top guys show up on Saturday morning wearing anything less than their game faces, there’s a decent chance they’ll get booted into the losers’ bracket. It happens. Did, anyway, at the Miller Lite Chicago Open in June. Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes arrived with a five-tournament winning streak and nine of 13 victories for the season and were dealt a right cross in the first round by the 32nd seeds, Daniel Cardenas and Chris Hannemann. By 10 a.m., word of what was probably the biggest upset of all time was spreading. Of course, not too many people were buying it. Particularly not the players. Kiraly-Steffes losing to a qualifier team? Yeah, sure. And gas just dropped 19 cents a gallon.
But it was no hoax. The days of the free lunch are over. Never, not thirty years ago or last year or any year, has the talent been this abundant or the tournaments this rigorous. As beach volleyball approaches its biggest tournament of the season, the Championships at Hermosa Beach, August 27-29, it is making the gradual transition to a new age, an age when the heroes of the past will begin to be overtaken by the heroes of the future.
As it happens, there is bound to be continued discussion of what role the ‘90s generation will play in future development of the sport. In the opinion of many of the veterans, the younger stars of the game need to dedicate more of their efforts to the area of promotions to prevent beach volleyball from reaching a plateau and stagnating.
“What got us this far were guys like Tim Hovland and myself and Sinjin going out Friday nights to six different bars until 12 o’clock and really, really putting a lot into this,” said Mike Dodd, taking a break after sweeping through the winners’ bracket with Mike Whitmarsh on the first day in Chicago. “And I see those guys taking a lot from this sport, and I don’t see them giving as much back.
“The sport has a long way to go, and there are still a lot of corporate outings and things that you have to do. And Kent will just say, ‘Well, I don’t want to do that.’ I’ve heard that he wouldn’t take a phone interview at his house for 15 minutes. And stuff like that is not good for our sport. We are not golf. We are not tennis. We are still like a little embryo, and there is so much potential and so much room for growth that you still need your stars.”
In less than two years, a span in which he has won 25 of 32 tournaments with Karch, Steffes has become a major star. He attracts the media like spilled soda pop attracts bees. Last year, he was featured in Sports Illustrated and People. This year, Outside magazine devoted eight pages to telling his life story.
On the court, Steffes has done just about everything that defines a great player: won two Manhattans (maybe three by the time you read this), the Cuervo Gold Crown five times and a U.S. championship. But what the veterans would like him to do next is take his fame and use it to become an ambassador for the sport. “When was the last time he did anything for a charity?” Randy Stoklos asks. “When was the last time he was in a golf tournament for something?”
In response, Steffes says: “Well, I’m on the (AVP) Board. That takes some time. So I’ve taken an active role in the way I see I can best be utilized. I’m not Sinjin Smith. I can’t go out and do six appearances a day for 10 years like he does.
“I feel I have an impact on the board. The board has an impact on the sport.”
Steffes has clear views about the direction the sport should take in the future, and he has never been shy about voicing them. “Kent can drive everyone up the wall at some of our board meetings with some of his philosophies and some of the ways he looks at things,” Dodd says. “But all in all, he’s very intelligent. He’s almost thinking too much.”
Of his role as an ambassador, Steffes defends himself by saying that it is time the methods of promotion change from the days when Sinjin, Stoklos, Dodd and Hovland first started spreading the word. What works for him is devoting most of his efforts to training so he can put forth a quality product on the court.
“Taking the sport to the next level is not to do the same things that they did,” Steffes says. “The things that they did were instrumental. There’s no question that without what they did the sport would not be where it is. But if we’re going to take it to the next level, we have to do different things.
“The sport has grown up through the mid ‘80s and the late ‘80s as a lifestyle sport and a lifestyle activity. And there was more emphasis put on the bikini contests, on the hospitality tent, on the party Saturday night. And they were basically selling California lifestyle. Well, they’ve hit the limit with how much they can sell the California lifestyle. And myself and some of the younger players, Adam Johnson specifically, are trying to take it past that, to make it an actual real-time sport. And you don’t go nuts in front of bikini contests, hang out in bars all night if you want to be taken seriously as an athlete.”
Which brings us back to that first round match in Chicago. A short time after the biggest upset anybody can remember, Hannemann was asked to identify himself and his partner.
“Who are we?” he said, cracking a grin. “Well, we’re the Cinderella story. First tournament together, first game we’ve ever played together. And he doesn’t speak English, so we’re just playing on instinct.”
Actually, that is a slight exaggeration. Cardenas, an import from Cuba, knows at least four words: line, angle and good serve. Okay, so it doesn’t cover every situation. But it’s a start. “It hurt us a couple of times where I didn’t know what the hell he was saying,” said Hannemann, who was the top player on the now-defunct Molson EVA Tour in 1991.
The alarm clock rang for The Upset Kids in the very next match. They were clobbered by Wes Welch and Andrew Smith 15-3. Hannemann told several fellow players that Cardenas has gotten a little overconfident after the first match. He was joking, of course. With this year’s draw, overconfidence is no more common than snow flurries in Hawaii.
“Hey,” Hovland says, “you gotta watch your butt out there.”
There are three big reasons the climb to the finals has become such a steep one: 1. Scott Ayakatubby; 2. Jose Loiola; 3. Eduardo “Anginho” Bacil. Ayakatubby finished eighth in 1991 but missed last season with a mysterious illness. This year, he is back at full strength. And Brazil’s Loiola and Bacil, in their first season on the tour, have been giving most everybody fits all season long.
Nine different teams had made it to the finals through the first 13 tournaments. Of the top players involved in the big Smith-Stoklos shake-up, four of six reached the finals in June: Dodd, Whitmarsh, Lewis and Stoklos. The other two, Hov and Sinjin, each managed a third. Hov was coming on strong with Ayakatubby toward the end of the season, but Sinjin, whose partnership with Hov dissolved by mutual consent after two tournaments (and two nineths), was still searching for the right partner. After a third with Dan Vrebalovich in New Jersey in mid-June, the pair stayed together in Chicago and finished 17th, the worst finish of Sinjin’s career. Nobody is counting him out yet, though. Stoklos said his former partner will win again if he finds the right teammate. And, considering his ball control is still nearly flawless, many expect he’ll be around for a long time. “He can play for another 10 years the way he plays the game,” says 12-year veteran John Hanley.
Maybe by that time somebody will figure a way to knock off Kiraly and Steffes, but get good odds if you’re betting. The No. 1s were just as strong as ever in the month of June. Even in Chicago, K&K impressed their peers by recovering from the upset and racing impatiently through the losers’ bracket. When asked late Saturday afternoon if he and Karch could achieve the remarkable and actually come back to win the tournament, Steffes answered affirmatively and added: “We’ve done some pretty remarkable thing, Karch and I. Just add it to the list.”
It almost happened, but finally, after they won a total of six matches in the losers’ bracket, they were stopped one victory short of the finals by Stoklos and Lewis. Afterward, Karch expressed disappointment that their streak of five had been snapped and said he would like to make another run for the record of 13 consecutive tournament victories that they share with Jim Menges and Greg Lee.
“Once you get beyond five, you think in the back of your mind that you’ve only got so many opportunities in your life to push that 13 barrier,” Karch said. “I guess that makes me think how remarkable that streak was.”
On this day, though, the final was to reflect the transformation beach volleyball has made this season. At the beginning of the summer, Kiraly-Steffes opened with a victory, Sinjin-Stoklos won the next tournament and Hovie-Dodd won the third. Exclude Steffes, and it might just as well been 1983 all over again.
But in Chicago, as the dark clouds menaced overheard, the championship was to be decided in a match pitting a Smith-less Stoklos against a Hovie-less Dodd. Stoklos was making his second final appearance with Brian Lewis, his Sinjin substitute. And Dodd was playing alongside Whitmarsh, a partnership that started with a 13th in San Diego but quickly picked up speed in June, producing three final appearances in four weeks.
Neither team was problem-free. The week before, in Seaside, New Jersey, Dodd-Whitmarsh won the winners’ bracket but then had to forfeit the first game of the final because Whitmarsh was suffering from dehydration. All summer, Whitmarsh has been chugging a sports drink to replenish his magnesium and prevent cramping. But that Sunday he took two times his usual amount and ended up with diarrhea. And when he and Dodd finally made it to the court for the second game to seven, they were no match for Kiraly and Steffes, who held them to a single point.
Lewis, meanwhile, didn’t appear to have his usual confidence through the early part of the month. That resulted in finishes of ninth and seventh on consecutive weekends. Lewis dismissed theories that he was feeling pressure from playing with the second winningest player in the sport’s history and, saying the only pressure he feels is the pressure he puts on himself. But Stoklos thought otherwise.
“It’s me putting the pressure on him and not knowing what he can handle and what he can’t,” Stoklos said. “And it got to the point where this week he kind of said that I was too edgy to practice with him because I’m pushing him. I’ve got to push him. You’ve got to practice how you play, and you’ve got to go hard. And you’ve got to be mentally into it each and every time.”
It paid off in Chicago. After numbing severe back pains with a few aspirin and a painkiller, Stoklos led the way to a 15-2 victory that got locals home in plenty of time to see their Bulls clinch the NBA championship. And Lewis played great, ripping big jump serve after big jump serve to keep Dodd and Whitmarsh at a high level of frustration. So dominant were Stoklos-Lewis that the actual match only filled half the live TV slot. NBC filled it with a tape of the women’s match.
A few minutes after the final, Stoklos talked about how this victory was the beginning of a new chapter in his career. He said it was special to achieve this with his close friend.
“We’ll be talking about it when we’re in our (wheel) chairs,” Stoklos said.
“But,” Lewis added, “we’re going to be talking about a lot of them, not just one.”
This was only Stoklos’ second victory with a partner other than Sinjin. His other, which was his first, came at Manhattan in 1981 with Jim Menges. In between, he won 114.
The subject of Sinjin came up at the end of the Chicago tournament, and Stoklos talked with a touch of emotion about what a storybook career he’d had with his former partner. Before things got too sentimental, somebody asked Lewis what he thought about taking Sinjin’s place. “Times are changing,” he said. “You can’t play the game forever.”
He paused for a second and smiled. “Joe DiMaggio, I’m sure, would love to still be playing baseball.”
Originally published in October 1993