On a Friday night, Copacabana Beach is hopping. A craft market springs up out of the ether just across Avenida Atlântica, and the little bars that sell orange juice and fresh-cut coconut in the mornings are doing a brisk business of caipirinhas and cervejas in the evening. We walked the length of its stylized Portuguese pavement sidewalk down to the temporary beach volleyball arena that rises straight up out of the sand to give spectators a top-down look at the action.
First up were two pair of Italian men in their baggy shorts and T-shirts, competing to see which ones would get to represent their country in the quarterfinals. The crowd was cheering for the blue pair, I think mostly because Adrian Carambula employed a sky-high serve that went level with the cheap seats before dropping into his opponent’s court. But Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai in white were clearly the better team and closed the match out in two sets despite a late run from Carambula and his partner Alex Ranghieri (21-12, 23-21).
But it was the women we came here to see—Kerri Walsh-Jennings and April Ross, the dynamic duo who played against each other for gold in London. They won all their matches in the group stage, but this is the knockout stage where one bad match will send you home empty handed, and the Italian team of Marta Menegatti and Laura Giombini did everything they could to make it difficult.
Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones was there, loudly cheering on the Americans, along with a respectable number of fans decked out in red, white and blue. And Walsh-Jennings and Ross towered over their opponents as they took to the sand court, opting for something a little warmer than the controversial bikinis on this slightly chilly winter night in Rio.
Team USA was just unstoppable at the net, and the Italians looked unsure of whether to try to block or hang back, but neither worked in the first set, which was over quickly. They showed more spark in set number two, but faded towards the end (21-10, 21-16). It’s still early, but Ross looks ready for another gold medal match. And this time, the now-three-time winner Walsh-Jennings will be on her side of the net.