Klagenfurt, Austria, July 25, 2016 - The legend of Klagenfurt in the beach volleyball world grows year by year. Since the tournament’s debut on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour in 1997, players have called it their favourite event of the year.
That includes the Americans, even those who grew up in or close to Manhattan Beach, which holds the legendary Manhattan Beach Open every year. Of course, when they relate their opinion of Klagenfurt, they always seem to add the qualifier that “Manhattan is Manhattan.”
In the same vein, there is nothing like Klagenfurt. While the place to be before, during and after three days of the Manhattan Open is Shellback Tavern, this sleepy village turns into a massive Shellback-type party starting at the campground next to the stadium, which is full a week before the players even arrive for the tournament.
The city of about 95,000 residents is nestled in the hills on the eastern shore of Lake Wörthersee (apologies to the redundancy police; “see” in German translates to “lake” in English), a body of clear, inviting water with a spectrum of blue hues.
One observer said the area has a hint of Northern California wine country to it, though in this case you can substitute grape vines for the occasional cornfield.
It’s the natural beauty that grabs your attention immediately, so there’s your first impression. That will last a lifetime. Next you’re treated to a sensory overload of PARTY for a week, but that portion of the charm may have some memories missing, or at least not as clear as the first impression.
In the end, it’s about beach volleyball, and in late July every year, this is the place to be.
Germany’s Karla Borger, who played here for the first time in 2009, explained the popularity of the event as she arrived on Monday.
“It’s crazy, the whole country knows about the tournament,” said Borger, who will be playing in her fifth Klagenfurt tournament before joining partner Britta Buthe in the Rio 2016 Olympics. “We just crossed the border and the officer, he knew about the tournament and asked for tickets and what time he has to be there to still get a spot. It’s amazing so many people know this tournament and it’s amazing how long it’s been here now.”
Karla Borger (left) celebrates a 2014 Klagenfurt point with German partner Britta Buthe
What’s behind that popularity? It’s the creation of famed promoter Hannes Jagerhofer, who doesn’t miss a detail in organisation and crowd-pleasing. Jagerhofer is also the creator of the Swatch Majors Series, which enabled the United States to get a taste of Klagenfurt in 2015 when he held the World Tour Finals in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (He also shipped in a contingent of Austrians to add a little fanaticism to the proceedings).
Four times, Klagenfurt has been the last stop on the FIVB World Tour before the Olympics, but only once has the champ in the Austrian event captured the Olympic gold medal the same year - when Emanuel Rego and Ricardo Santos pulled off the sweep in 2004.
Even early in the week, you can sense a little extra bounce in the step of the players as they arrive. Olympic spots have already been determined, but teams are still scrambling in the Major Series points race leading to this year’s World Tour Finals in Toronto in September, where the men’s and women’s winners will take home $100,000.
That only adds to the incentive, yet at the same time, being a part of the legend of Klagenfurt is its own reward for the players.
The initial reward is seeing the place for the first time.
“I just saw the (lake) and the player’s area and I was just amazed by it,” Borger said, recalling her 2009 visit. “It was beautiful with the mountains in the background, it was just a beautiful place.”
And leave it to the players to add to the experience. There aren’t many who haven’t resisted the temptation to step onto the dock and jump into the Wörthersee.
“Yeah, all the time,” Borger said, smiling. “But actually there are some years it’s raining so much, so it’s not that nice but in general the weather is fine.”
Monday’s dawn came on the heels of an overnight thunderstorm, but the day was warm and sunny. Until the next round of thunder and rain in the late afternoon. None of that inclement weather, though, will dampen the spirits of anyone here.
Beach volleyball in Austria? It’s been a capital idea.