Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Sept. 17, 2016 - A year ago, Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst played for US$100,000 in the SWATCH World Tour Final and missed their chance at that record paycheck.
“I don’t want to think about the money,” Ludwig said, laughing. “Last time I was thinking more about the money.”
And the Germans lost that grand prize final to Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes of Brazil. But as we’ve seen in 2016, the Ludwig/Walkenhorst duo has learned exactly how to channel their attention to detail, and they brought their Rio 2016 Olympic gold medals to Toronto to prove it.
It will be an emotional championship match on Sunday when they meet Switzerland’s Nadine Zumkehr and Joana Heidrich for the top prize. It will be the final match of Zumkehr’s career in her 12 th season on the FIVB World Tour.
“The tears are coming up again. It’s amazing. It’s like a dream,” Zumkeher said, her smile beaming. “I think every single player would end their career in a nice way. To end it in a World Tour Final, I don’t have any words to describe it. I’ll just enjoy every single point tomorrow, fight to make it even better to get that gold home.”
Ludwig and Walkenhorst advanced Saturday with a 21-19, 21-19 victory over - naturally - Talita and Larissa, the team the Germans beat in the Olympic semifinals.
In the hard-fought match, the Brazilians started strong in both sets, but the Germans remained steady and once they took the lead, they never surrendered it.
“It was definitely good teamwork,” Ludwig said. “We started really good with good serving. Our siding out was really bad at first but in the end we finished with an ace, so I was happy and lucky.
“In the second they came out better. Talita was doing a good job siding out, our serving wasn’t as good.”
Yet their serving proved to be the difference. Ludwig and Walkenhorst each had three aces, and their accuracy on the first contact pinned Larissa and Talita back and forced some difficult sideout chances.
“I think they served better than us,” Talita saId. “The game was close and they did three aces I think in each set.”
It will be the fourth meeting between Ludwig/Walkenhorst and Zumkehr/Heidrich, who hold a 2-1 edge in their meetings. It will also be their second matchup in this tournament following a 10-21, 21-16, 15-8 win by the Swiss duo in pool play on Thursday.
The teams also met in the A1 Major Klagenfurt in July, with the Germans scoring a 24-22, 14-21, 15-11 victory just before both teams flew to Brazil for the Olympics.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ludwig said of the matchup.” It’s amazing that they came out here really strong in this tournament. I love having fun with Nadine, we’ve had lots of dinners together, we have trained together, so I will definitely miss her on tour.”
The all-Swiss semifinal on the other side of the bracket was also a tough matchup. Zumkehr and Heidrich scored a 14-21, 21-15, 15-10 victory in the morning’s first match on the stadium court.
Zumkehr/Heidrich recovered after a slow start not by switching strategies, but by sticking to their game plan. In the end, Heidrich’s four blocks over the final two sets were the difference. The victory over Forre/Verge-Depre was their fourth in seven meetings between the compatriots.
“We discussed (changes) but I think the first set was not too bad, but I was too much with my head because my sideout was not so good,” Heidrich said. “I was not focusing so good on the block. I was feeling not good and I wanted to change, but then Nadine said, ‘No, you’re right, you have to do the same,’ and it was working in the second and the third.”
The final stop on the FIVB World Tour is beginning to reflect a shift in the balance of power in the world. In the last four FIVB World Tour events, six of the eight finalists have been from European countries, including the Toronto tournament.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“I guess maybe that the Europeans changed a little bit the philosophy, going for more technique, and athletic-wise they improved a lot and the individual teams are really strong,” Ludwig said. “It’s improved in the last two or three years a lot. The Brazilians and the Americans love playing on the beach, they grew up there. The Americans have this great mentality, a fighting, competitive mentality and we had to kind of learn in a different way.
“We are doing it way more professionally and also statistic-wise and scouting and coaches, a lot of cameras.”