|Fortaleza, Brazil, March 04, 2004 - A mixture of mountainous sand dunes, palm trees and Atlantic Ocean breakers will greet more than 60 women's Beach Volleyball teams from 23 countries when they gather next week for the opening tournament of the 2004 SWATCH-FIVB World Tour, the US$180,000 Brazilian Open in Fortaleza, which starts on Tuesday.
In what is a crucial opening event to a season highlighted by the 2004 Olympic Games, Fortaleza (March 9-14) continues the Olympic qualifying process, which started last June in Greece and concludes July 11 when the 24 teams are determined for the August 14-24 Olympics in Athens.
With 13 of the 16 top-ranked women's teams from the 2003 season expected in competition, a two-day qualification tournament starts on Tuesday to determine the final eight entries in the 32-team main draw. Main Draw double elimination play will start Thursday, allowing teams to afford one defeat and still remain in the competition. Semifinals will be contested on Saturday followed by Sunday's medal matches where the gold medal team wins the $22,000 first-place prize.
Brazil's Ana Paula Connolly and Sandra Pires, the latter a two-time Olympic medalist, lead the entries having captured the 2003 SWATCH-FIVB World Tour points title after winning four of 10 events last season. But world champions Misty May, who captured the first women's FIVB event in Fortaleza in 2000 with Holly McPeak, and Kerri Walsh from the United States will start as joint favourites after netting five SWATCH-FIVB World Tour titles in eight starts last season, including their last four on the trot.
The most successful team on the SWATCH-FIVB World Tour with 29 titles, Brazil's Shelda Bede and Adriana Behar return to where they claimed the 2001 Fortaleza title after defeating McPeak and Walsh in the final. Bede and Behar did not win an event last year for the first time since forming their partnership in 1995 but will still be one of the teams to beat.
The Fortaleza stop is the first of 12 on the women's SWATCH-FIVB World Tour. Competition resumes May 19-23 in Rhodes, Greece followed by other Olympic qualifying events in China, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Norway and Canada. The tour will then continue in France and Austria before moving to Italy and Brazil after the Olympic Games.
The men's SWATCH-FIVB World Tour takes in 15 events starting March 16-21 in Salvador, Brazil followed by an event in Cape Town, South Africa March 24-28. Other Olympic qualifying events for men will be in China, Serbia and Montenegro, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Germany, Norway and Canada before the men's tour continues in France, Poland and Austria and then after the Olympics in Spain and Brazil.