While playing “Smart” in Hamburg, Argentineans & Canadians eye European championships

Hamburg, Germany, June 4, 2016 - With the start of the US$800,000 Hamburg Major looming, the FIVB World Tour teams of Ana Gallay/Georgina Klug of Argentina and Ben Saxton/Chaim Schalk of Canada got an early start in playing at the Am Rothenbaum stadium here Saturday by winning their opening matches in the Smart Super Cup.

In addition to serving as a tournament on the German domestic tour, the Smart Super Cup serves as a “test” event for next week’s FIVB World Tour stop that will be the final qualifying event for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games as 15 of the 24 men’s and women’s teams that earn a ticket to the Copacabana quadrennial stop come from the international circuit.

While both teams are using this weekend’s matches to prepare for the Hamburg Major at the Am Rothenbaum stadium, both the Argentineans and Canadians are closely following the action at this week’s European Championships in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland where their closest rivals in the Olympic standings are playing.

"Yes, we are following the action," said Saxton before his second match Saturday.  "We are glad to be playing in this event this weekend as it gives us three or more matches in a competitive setting."

Klug is also interested in the happenings in Switzerland.  "Right now, we are interested in playing in this event," Klug.  "But we are following what is happening at the European Championships.  This event is about getting ready for next week where it will be down to the wire with the Russians."

The “eye” on the Swiss event is especially important for Gallay and Klug, who have amassed 4,100 Rio qualifying point since April for their best 12 finishes on the FIVB World Tour and continental championships to rank No. 15 and last on the “chase for Copacabana” standings.  Gallay and Klug’s closest competitors for the No. 15 spot are Ekaterina Birlova/Evgeniya Ukolova of Russia.

The Russians, who trail Gallay and Klug by 150 points (3,950) entering the European Championships where a team can use one of their two finishes for the Olympic ranking, need to win the gold medal at the Biel/Bienne event to add 50 points to their total and enter Hamburg with only a 100-point deficit.

Birlova and Ukolova have advanced to Saturday evening’s European semi-finals where the Russians will meet reigning continental champions Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany.  The match will be the sixth FIVB/CEV meeting between the two teams with the Germans leading 3-2 after defeating Birlova and Ukolova 2-0 (21-18, 21-18) in the 36-minute European Championship gold medal match last August 1 in Klagenfurt, Austria.

If the Russians claim gold in Switzerland Sunday, they (Birlova and Ukolova) could pass the Argentineans with a ninth-place finish in Hamburg provided Gallay and Klug place 17th or lower.  If Gallay and Klug place ninth, the Russians need a fifth-place at the Hamburg Major to pass the Argentineans.

The other women’s semi-final in Biel has Karla Borger/Britta Buthe of Germany against Marketa Slukova/Barbora Hermannova of the Czech Republic.  Borger and Buthe posted one of their biggest wins of their partnership by ousting compatriots Katrin Holtwick and Ilka Semmler 2-1 (21-18, 20-22, 15-13) in 50 minutes.

The match was important for Holtwick and Semmler (4,770 points) as the London 2012 Olympic participants trailed Borger and Buthe (5,100) by 330 points in a “chase to Copacabana” for the No. 2 women’s team from Germany at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.  The Borger and Buthe win added another 50 to their Rio total with an additional 150 available if the Germans win the 2016 Europe Championships.  A gold medal finish would clinch the No. 2 spot for Germany in Rio.

While the Canadians appear safe in finishing among the top 15 men’s team on the Rio qualifying list, excluding Brazilians and a maximum of two per country, Saxton and Schalk dropped from No. 12 to No. 13 on the Copacabana list as Russians Viacheslav Krasilnikov/Konstantin Semenov benefitted from two forfeits from teams from France and Poland to improve their Olympic standing.
Russians Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Konstantin Semenov

Entering this week, Saxton and Schalk have 4,820 points for their best 12 finishes during the qualifying period while Krasilnikov and Semenov had 4,790 points.  Germans Marcus Bockermann/Lars Fluggen and Jonathan Erdmann/Kay Matysik occupy the last two spots with 4,610 points each with Mexico’s Lombardo Ontiveros/Juan Virgen (4,430 points) and Canadians Josh Binstock/Sam Schachter (4,250) on the “outside looking in” for Rio at the moment.

With both German pairs failing to improve their point totals at the European Championships this weekend, the Hamburg Major will provide the last opportunity for the Mexicans and Canadians to catch the Germans.  Ninth-place or higher finishes in Hamburg will add at least 120 points to each team’s score.

But for Ontiveros/Virgen and Binstock/Schachter to surpass the Germans, Bockermann/Fluggen and Erdmann/Matysik must not finish higher than 17th with the Mexicans needing a quarter-final placement or higher and the Canadians must reach the podium.

Now for the “tune-up” matches in Hamburg Saturday, Gallay and Klug won three of four matches to advance to Sunday's schedule with an opening contender's bracket quarter-final match.  Saxton and Schalk won two of three matches before forfeiting their final match due to injury.  The double-elimination Smart Super Cup finals will be played Sunday at the Am Rothenbaum stadium.

The Hamburg Major, the third of nine “big” events on the 2015-2016 FIVB World Tour calendar, starts Tuesday (June 7) at Am Rothenbaum stadium with qualifying where eight men’s and eight women’s teams will advance to Main Draws where pool play will be featured Wednesday and Thursday.  The women’s semi-finals and medal matches will be June 11 and the men’s “final four” contests June 12.  The winning teams will share the $57,000 first-place prizes.


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