It was some time ago when I competed in one of my most memorable tournaments, a sand doubles volleyball tournament with a “King of the Beach” format. The peculiarity of this particular format is that a player does not play with his own partner. Instead, his partner changes with every game. Ultimately, the single best player, not the top team, wins the coveted title King of the Beach. Each individual’s record is used to set the rankings. For instance, if a pool of four is formed, a player plays with each of the other three during the course of three consecutive games. Partners are rotated with each game. In the end, the person with the best record, in terms of wins and losses, places first and advances to the next bracket. If two players tie, the total number of points earned throughout the three games is used to establish a winner. As the players advance, they get to play with other bracket winners until eventually advancing to the finals where the best four compete for first and second place.
There are several aspects I like about a tournament of the sort. The idea of competing as an individual athlete in a sport that is necessarily team-oriented appeals to me. It forces a player to work on every facet of the game. One cannot rely on a partner to compensate for one’s own shortcomings. I also enjoy meeting and playing with other dedicated players not to mention the thrill of the challenge in it of itself.
This tournament in particular was held sometime in May, I think, in the middle of the brutal Texas heat. It started in the morning, somewhere around ten o’clock, and lasted all day. I was placed in a pool of four players. The brackets were such that the top two competitors from each pool advanced. Additionally, two wild cards also advanced. The wild cards are the next best two players among all the existing pools. The ranking is based, of course, on the player’s performance through the first pool. I do not remember how many pools there were but my focus, at the time, was simply to play each game as it came without regards to the other players and their respective games. I was pumped and psyched to play and compete. This was my first sand volleyball tournament of the season.
The skill level of the players in my specific pool was pretty much even excepting one player. He was more of a B-player than an A-player, relatively speaking. As it might be guessed, whoever played with this guy lost the match. As a result, the other two players and I had two wins and one loss each. Imagine, a three-way tie! Unfortunately, when it came to total points won, I placed third and only the first two qualified. That meant I did not automatically advance. I had to wait until all the other pools finished their respective games to allow the official to determine the identity of the wild cards.
The pools finished and I approached the official table, or I should say the official bench, to ascertain my ranking. At this point, I did not really want to stop playing and I found myself obsessing over the results and the final standings. Awaiting my fate while others played was a test to my patience and waiting longer became unbearable. As numbers were crunched and names were tossed, I started to realize that I had a fighting chance. Finally, I was told I was the first wild card to make it. Great news, I thought. I barely advanced but I did do it nonetheless.
Well, another pool was assembled and a court was assigned. I played with a new set of players in a pool of four. By now, the sun was working overtime while the clouds were apparently taking a long nap. We were to play on Court Three. Among us there was a skilled player who tended to place the ball well around the court and right on the lines. He did not spike much but he really did not have the need to do it. The other two and I were competitively even. Based on the results of the previous pool, I would have expected, perhaps, that whoever played with the trickster would win since he was good. The scenario certainly started to fulfill its prophecy. The trickster won the first two games. The third game, however, did not turn out quite the same way. The trickster lost by two points. Luckily, I was a member of the opposing team. The trickster placed first but we had a two-way tie for second. Alas, we ran into a minor problem. A guy and I tied in games and in points!
We were told to dual it out in a one-on-one game to seven points, winning by at least two points. The court would be divided in two and each player would bump, set, and spike all by himself. How weird! The size of the court ended up being approximately four and half by eighteen meters. It was still a lot of ground to cover for just one measly player. Off we went though. Serving to a court half wide with an unsteady wind is difficult enough but to realize that the game decided our fate made the task nerve racking and, quite frankly, somewhat stressful. At this point, of course, I had a thick layer of sand all over my body from diving on the court. The sand stuck to my skin like spandex. The thick mix of sweat and suntan lotion created the perfect sand trap.
I tried to play one point at a time and forget about the ultimate implications of each serve, pass, set, and spike. I won with a score of something like seven/five. What a relief! Strike that, what a glorious conclusion. I, again, barely advanced by the mere skin off my teeth. This time I legitimately advanced to the loser’s bracket. Whoever placed first in their pool, at this stage of the tournament, made it to the winner’s bracket, which meant that they had a bye. The folks in the loser’s bracket, like myself, had to play and advance once more before they could play in the finals. The players in the winner’s bracket, on the other hand, automatically made it to the finals.
It was now about two o’clock in the afternoon. Normally, I do not like to eat much throughout a tournament because the food tends to weigh heavily in my stomach. I eat light snacks and drink plenty of liquids to keep hydrated. Much to my dismay though, I already finished, perhaps even sweated out, my gallon’s worth of refreshing tea. A fellow player shared his sports drink with me. My body was definitely grateful for his sportsmanship. Anyway, we started to play our next set of games. Mental and physical conditioning certainly started to play a bigger role in the games. We were getting tired and the sun continued to glow and swarm us with intense and unadulterated heat. Games one, two, and three came and went and I managed, somehow, to end up second in the pool. I could not believe it. I did not have to dual out another tie to advance. I made it to the finals!
Among the four finalists, I played the most games since I consistently advanced in last place and even played a tiebreaker game. I was beginning to feel my thighs and calves tingle from exhaustion. But, as there is never time to waste, we started to play our final three games. As may be expected, I felt shocks of electricity flow through my tiring arms and back as they threatened to ignite muscle cramps in a domino-like fashion. The condition climaxed during my first game of the finals when my right calf momentarily cramped while jumping for a spike. Each time I would jump thereafter it would cramp again. I communicated this to my partner, my partner for that match that is, saying that I should not receive the ball first since doing so would force me to spike. Letting my partner pass and spike the ball would allow me to simply set, which is decisively less strenuous on the calves. Unfortunately, we lost that match.
Since cramps, for the most part, result from dehydration and lack of potassium, I usually bring bananas in my bag to supplement me with potassium. I normally use it as a preventive measure. This time, however, I needed it for its curing powers. If my condition persisted, my last partner, now my adversary, would have most likely exploited my weakness. After swallowing down half a banana in a single chug I felt better. In fact, I could actually jump again, or so it seemed!
As it turns out, there was a player that was obviously better than the rest of us. From the little that I had now seen and heard, he easily advanced within the winner’s bracket all day. Anyone who played with him won the game. The challenge was to accumulate more points than the remaining two finalists to be able to end up in second place. Well, I did not play with him on either the first or the second game, which meant that I lost both. On the third game, I played with him and by now I could figure out how many points it would take for the opposing team to displace me from second place. I could not allow them to win more than three points for me to finish second or more than four points for me to tie for second.
Points came and went before the score momentarily settled to nine/three. I was already at the brink of losing. A point, unfortunately, slipped from my grasp and the score became nine/four. Talk about a mental challenge! I was disappointed but I still had a chance. I do not know how but my partner and I pulled it off and won without letting them get any additional points. He was gracious enough to go all out even after being tired and knowing in fact that he would win first place regardless of the score and much less the margin.
The crusade did not end here. Now we had a first place winner and a tie for second. Unfortunately, only two prices were available so second place had to be determined. Guess what! Another tiebreaker game had to be played. Like before, this would be one-on-one and on half a court. It was now past four o’clock and the sun, of course, gleamed with infinite radiance. I gulped down the other half of my last banana to prepare myself but its effectiveness was diminishing with each passing minute. I could not allow us to wait too long because my muscles would certainly cramp up otherwise. This game was my fourteenth! Wow! I wanted to win it badly too. After such a long day, I could almost smell the sweet odor of victory. My body, by now, was basically running on fumes. After what seemed to be a very long game, I miraculously won the game! My muscles twitched in disbelieve as my very essence remained in shock. I placed second in the tournament.
I am not a professional player nor am I an Olympic-caliber athlete by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I have a day job that provides me with a good income and playing volleyball is simply entertainment and exercise. However, I cannot convey how much the fifteen-dollar gift certificate, the ultimate price for first and second place, meant and still means to me. I am almost justified in claiming that I became a professional player that day. After all, I actually earned money for playing volleyball, fifteen bucks for a day’s work!