BAWDEN AND CLANCY DARE TO DREAM OF COPACABANA BEACH

There was a pause at the other end of the phone, followed by a sigh, and then mock exasperation.

“It sat on the damn tape, and if that tape hadn’t been so new it would have gone over!”

It was Australian beach volleyballer and two-time Olympian, Louise Bawden, reliving the heartbreaking serve she had on match point at this year’s World Championships that could have put her and Taliqua  Clancy into the semi-finals.

“We knew that we could have won that match, and for me that was definitely the part that stung the most,” 34-year-old Bawden said this week.

“I had the serve on match point, and I won’t forget that. It sat on the damn tape, and if the tape hadn’t been so new that ball would have gone over!”

“It was ridiculously tight,” Clancy chimes in.

The Australians went on to lose the match, against Brazil’s Lima and Fernanda, 21-15, 16-21, 16-18. The Brazilians went on to win the silver medal, while Bawden and Clancy had to settle for fifth.

TEAM PROGRESS

But it says a lot about the progress of Bawden and Clancy that they were disappointed with the result.

They only came together after the London Olympics, and had reasonable but not outstanding 2013 and 2014 international seasons.

I’m speaking to Bawden while she waits at Los Angeles Airport to fly back to Europe for this week’s Olsztyn Grand Slam.

Her and Clancy have just finished fourth at the Long Beach Grand Slam in California, their second top four result for the year.

But Bawden is disappointed.

“We had to cop a fourth, but we’re definitely pleased to make the final four,” she said.

“The aim is always to win that round three match and get into the pointy end of the competition. But we didn’t quite capitalise this week, so that was a bit of a shame.

“It’s not particularly pleasant to go through two losses and feel like we haven’t performed the way we would have liked to.”

Bawden agrees that 12 months ago she would have been stoked with a top four finish, and that it’s a good sign that she’s now down on herself.

“Yes, you don’t want to get too down about a fourth, and feel like we’ve failed,” she said.

“But our plans on the domestic tour revolve around the expectation we will be playing on the final day, and we want to build the same sort of mindset on the World Tour.

“The lifting of expectations can’t become a measuring stick for the measuring of the experience. It’s part of the evolution of the team.”

OLYMPIC QUALIFICATION

That evolution has propelled Bawden and Clancy into a top five ranking in the race for Olympic berths next year. The top 15, as of June 2016, will earn their country starting gigs in Rio.

Put simply, things would have to go very, very bad for Bawden and Clancy to fail to qualify from here.

But Louise Bawden is one of the world’s most focused athletes, driven and with a steely resolve to succeed.

She can’t deny the healthy position she and 23-year-old Clancy find themselves in, but you have to push her to acknowledge life as an aspiring Rio Olympian is pretty good.

“It’s exciting,” she said.

“It puts us in a position where we are actually taking steps towards the ultimate dream, where we are putting ourselves in a position where we are testing ourselves against the best teams in the world.

“We can now start to focus on positively influencing our potential Olympic seeding.”

And even though she would prefer not to, preparing for next year’s Olympics is going to require replaying her experience at the World Championships, and that shattering failed serve.

“The World Championships was an opportunity to go through an experience most similar to the Olympic Games,” she said.

“The format, the experience, the way everything is run. It was like our Olympics for this year, it was important for more than just our team, but also for Volleyball Australia. So there was a reasonable amount riding on it.

“Losing that quarter final, it wasn’t the only thing, but it’s the sort of thing that sticks in our brain.”

ANOTHER TOP FOUR FINISH FOR BAWDEN AND CLANCY ON WORLD TOUR

Australia’s top female beach volleyball combination, Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy, continue to impress with another top four finish at a World Tour event.

Bawden and Clancy will battle for bronze early Monday morning at the Long Beach Grand Slam in California.

The Australians are currently sitting fifth on the Olympic qualification table, with the top 15 as at June next year automatically qualifying for Rio.

Bawden and Clancy came together after the 2012 London Olympics, and after solid but unspectacular 2013 and 2014 seasons, have become one of the world’s most consistent teams this year.

They finished fifth at this year’s World Championships, losing to the eventual silver medalists.

Their best performance this year was a bronze medal at the Porec Grand Slam, but they have had an additional four top five finishes before this weekend.

Bawden and Clancy will take on Germany’s Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst for the bronze in California early Monday morning.

WOMEN’S GRAND PRIX HEADING DOWN UNDER AGAIN

Australia will host the opening leg of the women’s volleyball World Grand Prix next year, with former world powerhouses Cuba confirmed as one of the teams who will be heading Down Under.

The announcement by volleyball’s world governing body, the FIVB, brings to three the number of major international volleyball events Australia will host in June 2016.

Australia will host the opening weekend of the group three Grand Prix competition, with Cuba, Colombia and Croatia making up the round robin quartet.

The following weekend Australia will take on Mexico, Kazakhstan and Colombia again, in Mexico, before the group three finals.

Earlier this week it was announced Australia would also be hosting in June the opening round of the men’s group one World League, with current World League champions, France, and Olympic bronze medalists, Italy, taking part.

And in late June an Australian beach will host the Asian qualifying tournament for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

2016 will be Australia’s third year in the World Grand Prix, with the team still chasing their first victory.

Last month Canberra hosted the 2015 group three final, the first time the Australian women’s volleyball team had played in Australia since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Volleyball Australia will seek expressions of interest from Australian cities interested in hosting any of the three major events next year.

WORLD LEAGUE VOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONS COMING TO AUSTRALIA IN 2016

Australia will host 2015 World League champions France and 2012 Olympic bronze medalists Italy when the world’s biggest men’s volleyball competition returns to our shores in 2016.

Volleyball’s world governing body, the FIVB, announced on Tuesday Group One of next year’s World League will be expanded from eight to 12 teams, with Australia hosting three other teams on the opening weekend at a venue yet to be announced.

Along with the two European volleyball powerhouses, Australia will also host Belgium in the round-robin format.

The following weekend the Volleyroos will head to Italy, where they will once again take on Italy and Belgium, as well as the United States.

The World League preliminaries will wrap up on the first weekend in July in the United States, where Australia will match up against the US, Russia and Bulgaria.

The new format will begin on the weekend of June 17-19.

It will be Australia’s second year in Group One of World League, after winning promotion in 2014.

Australia beat France in a thrilling Group Two final in Sydney to book their ticket into Group One.

This year France won Group Two and then defeated the best teams in Group One to win the World League title.

ASIAN CHAMPIONSHIPS SET NEW CHALLENGES FOR VOLLEYROOS

The Australian men’s volleyball team begins its Asian Championships campaign later today determined to confirm their status as one of the powerhouse teams of the region.

Australia goes into the event ranked second behind host nation, Iran, and with a current world ranking of 13.

India will be Australia’s toughest opponent in pool play, with a world ranking of 39, with Qatar (45) and Turkmenistan (141) the other two teams in the group.

A change in the Olympic qualification process has removed some of the pressure on the Volleyroos in Tehran, but coach Roberto Santilli says his team needs to make a statement.

“I’m feeling confident, and I think the team is feeling confident,” Santilli said.

“If you think we have less pressure because of the change in rules, that is not correct. We add pressure to the guys because from the beginning of this preparation we have said we want to go to Tehran for a big result.

“We want to go there with the idea we can be competitive for first place. If we want to build the mentality of the group to fight at high level we have to go there and fight for first place.”

Initially Australia had to finish top three next week to qualify for the Olympic qualification tournament, but with the emphasis now on current Asian rankings, the Volleyroos are already through to the qualifiers.

Australia will be expected to perform strongly in Iran after its first season in the top division of World League.

But Santilli said the experience of playing in the best competition in the world will throw up extra challenges.

“The most difficult game will be the first game (against Qatar), because we come from a different level,” he said.

“World League is the best volleyball you can play, so we have to adjust to a new rhythm and style.”

Australia will welcome back experienced opposite, Paul Carroll, after a knee injury which sidelined him from the World League campaign.

“He is so important, absolutely important,” Santilli said.

“He’s physically okay, and with his return the level of the competition in the team lifts. And he is an experienced player, and this is a young group of players so absolutely, he is a very important player for us.”

The Volleyroos take on Qater late Friday night, followed by Turkmenistan on Saturday evening and India on Sunday night.