March 15, 2022, Treasure Island, FL – You almost have to feel bad for the Swiss guys.
Marco Krattiger and Florian Breer were on the final weekend of their pre-season training camp, tuning up for the upcoming Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Challenger event this week in Tlaxcala, Mexico. They'd never played a Sunshine State Outdoor Volleyball Association (SSOVA) tournament before. Had never slugged through the 20-plus mile-per-hour winds for which Florida is so known.
And they certainly had never come across a man named Justin Phipps.
That's an odd thing in United States' beach volleyball circles. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single beach or facility in the U.S. in which Phipps has not played a tournament. It's probable that the 43-year-old has played in more beach volleyball tournaments than any active player.
"I'm pretty sure I have that record," Phipps said, laughing. "I probably have that record and the most partners of all time."
With all of those tournaments, come thousands upon thousands upon thousands of repetitions. Repetitions in the wind, in the rain, in the beating sun, and the freezing cold. Repetitions against good teams and bad. Repetitions that are valuable when you need points in the wildest of conditions. The guy just finds ways to score.
Krattiger and Breer, the No. 1 team in Switzerland and currently No. 14 in the world, had no idea. Had no idea that when they met Phipps and his young partner, Joseph Reysen, in the quarterfinals, and the wind was howling, and the crowd was rowdy, that they may as well have been playing one of the world's elite.
In those conditions, few are better than Phipps.
He proved as much, beating Krattiger and Breer in the quarterfinals, then nearly doing so again in the semifinals, proving that first victory was no fluke – he and Reysen were just playing that well.
"That's probably one of the bigger wins, yeah," Phipps said. "I'm feeling good. Got healthy, quit smoking cigs, training a lot, playing a lot. Even over the winter I was playing co-ed and running up to block just to get in shape. I know the game, it's just a matter of fitness. I always got tired before and now I'm not getting tired in tournaments."
Phipps and Reysen have now played in four tournaments this year and finished in the top three in all four. At Treasure Island, they tied for third with Dylan Zacca and Ryan Lehman, while the finals were an all-international affair in which Krattiger and Breer fell to England’s Harry Jones and Niko Gleed.
"Everything they do, the ball's not hitting the sand," Phipps said of Jones and Gleed. "Their ball control is phenomenal, they're super athletic and they just ball control them to death. They just pick up a ball, perfect set, every time. They were just flawless with their game there."
That's one of the beautiful aspects of these pre-season tournaments: Diamonds in the rough, little-known players like Reysen and Gleed and Jones are discovered. Up-and-comers polish their games, get accustomed to winning.
Such was the case on the women's side, in which Lydia Smith and Aurora Davis won yet again, their fourth victory since November of 2021. They beat Katie Lindstrom and Jessica Wilson in the finals, while Jade Race and Tiffany Creamer, and Violeta Slabakova and Aleksandra Wachowicz each claimed third.
The weekend, and the most noteworthy result, however, must go to the 43-year-old and the 19-year-old who stunned the Swiss team who helped earn their countrymen a berth into the Olympic Games, who won the King of the Court in the Netherlands, who are on their way to earning a top-10 ranking in the world.
"I truly believe he is going to be a superstar," Phipps said of Reysen. "He's 19 years old and his confidence and his game and his capabilities are just through the roof. I don’t know if I've seen that kind of talent in a long time. He wants it and he’s going for it. He hits the hardest balls I've ever seen, he served the hardest ball I've seen in 20 years last tournament. I couldn't even believe it."
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew