Cheng-Flint seeking USA’s first Elite 16 gold medal


On Thursday afternoon, after a sweeping victory over Brazilians Rebecca Cavalcanti and Talita Antunes in the Volleyball World Hamburg Elite 16, Betsi Flint said she wanted the German crowd full and quiet. What she’s gotten since is even better: A German crowd that is full — and also vocally appreciative of the stellar play of Flint and Kelly Cheng thus far in the northern German city.

Theirs has been an undefeated run as the No. 10 seed, with five consecutive victories, including another two on Saturday afternoon, in the quarterifinals over 16th-seeded Spain’s Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno (28-26, 21-16) and in the semifinals over sixth-seeded Germany’s Karla Borger and Julia Sude (21-17, 21-18).

“They’re awesome and they cheer for good beach volleyball, too, so it was really fun,” Flint said of the atmosphere in the 10,000-seat Rothenbaum, which is typically devoted to tennis but is annually converted into a beach volleyball arena. “It’s not like they were dead quiet. We love playing here. It’s been fun so far and to have some USA fans has been awesome.”

Those fans will have one more opportunity to see Flint and Cheng. They play Switzerland’s Nina Brunner and Tanja Huberli in Sunday’s final at noon local, 3 a.m. Pacific/6 a.m. Eastern, which you can stream at Volleyball TV.

Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint celebrate a trip to the final at the Hamburg Elite 16/Volleyball World

It isn’t the first time Cheng has seen that duo in a final. A little more than a year ago, Cheng, alongside Sarah Sponcil, beat Brunner and Huberli for gold in Sochi, Russia, all but assuring them of the berth in the Tokyo Olympics that established Cheng and Sponcil as the youngest Olympic team in United States history. With that win in Sochi, Cheng extended her winning streak against Brunner and Huberli to five, although they have not yet played in 2022.

“It’s super exciting for us. It’s something that we have been working towards,” Cheng said after the semifinal win over Borger and Sude, the team that knocked them out of the World Championships in Rome two months ago.

“We want to do well internationally. It’s been fun making finals domestically but our eyes are set on the Olympics so you have to be able to medal and play well against the best in the world. That’s what we’re hoping to do tomorrow.”

Already, Cheng and Flint are assured of bringing home the first American medal in an Elite 16 event this season. They almost became the first to do so in March in the opening Elite 16 of 2022, in Rosarito, Mexico. They settled for fourth after narrow losses to the Netherlands’ Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam — whom they beat in pool play in Hamburg — and Antunes and Cavalcanti. In Hamburg, they’ve avenged both of those losses en route to the finals, a route that has included just a single set dropped.

“It’s nice to see all the hard work that we’ve been doing paying off,” Cheng said. “We’re excited to get to compete another day and try to put all the pieces together again tomorrow.”

Betsi Flint-Julia Sude-Hamburg Elite 16
Betsi Flint slides the ball past the block of Julia Sude/Volleyball World photo

Cheng and Flint are the final North American team remaining, after Canadians Sophie Bukovec and Brandie Wilkerson were swept by Brazilians and current world No. 1 Barbara Seixas and Carol Salgado, 21-16, 21-13.

Worse than the loss itself is an injury to the right hand of Bukovec. Down 11-7 in the first set, Bukovec swung on a tight set and bent her wrist backwards on a block from Salgado. Aside from float serving, Bukovec played the majority of the remainder of the match using her left — and opposite — hand, which, to her credit, worked surprisingly well.

“You have to be impressed,” color commentator Lewie Lett said, “with how good that left-handed swing is.”

Of course, it’s difficult enough to beat Seixas and Salgado, winners of four medals already this season, with your dominant hand, much less your opposite.

Sophie Bukovec-Brandie Wilkerson-Hamburg Elite 16
Sophie Bukovec cradles her right hand at the Hamburg Elite 16/Volleyball World photo

The good news for Bukovec and Wilkerson, who tied for fifth for the second straight Volleyball World tournament, is that they have more than a month off until their next competition, an Elite 16 in Paris, France, at the end of September. Wilkerson will next be headed to Manhattan Beach, where she will be competing in the AVP Gold Series alongside Zana Muno, with whom she finished third in Atlanta a week ago.

Cheng and Flint, meanwhile, still have business to take care of, in front of a crowd and city that Flint has quickly come to adore in her first trip to Hamburg.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Cheng said of the opportunity to win gold. “We want to go home with a first.”

In the men’s final, ninth-seeded Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen of the Netherlands play 14th-seeded Michal Bryl and Bartosz Losiak of Poland, who came out of the qualifier.

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