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Birlova & Ukolova seeking a 100-point improvement in Sochi

Russian Olympians Evgeniya Ukolova (left) and Ekaterina Birlova chasing dreams of playing on Copacabana via the FIVB World Tour starting with their opening pool play matches Wednesday in the Sochi Open.
Sochi, Russia, May 1, 2016 - As London 2012 Olympians Ekaterina Birlova and Evgeniya Ukolova bid for another berth in the 2016 quadrennial event to be held in less than 100 days on iconic Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, the Russian pair needs to erase a past finish on the FIVB World Tour with a medal performance this week at the US$150,000 Sochi Open.

With eight Russian women’s pairs entered in the event led by Birlova and Ukolova, the Sochi Open has attracted 103 women’s and men’s teams from 35 countries for the second annual event to be held on the “Sport Inn” courts.  The Black Sea coastal resort tournament is the first of two events in the Eurasian country this month with Moscow staging a Grand Slam May 24-29.


With the FIVB World Tour returning to the Black Sea coastal resort for the second-time in the last eight months, Birlova and Ukolova are hoping for a better finish this time after placing ninth at the September Sochi stop where the Russians won their pool, but dropped their opening elimination match to Finland’s Riikka Lehtonen and Taru Lahti 2-1 (21-16, 15-21, 13-15) in a 60-minute match on the Sport Inn center court.

Entering Sochi after placing ninth in their last FIVB World Tour stop in China where all three of their Fuzhou losses were to higher-rated teams on the international circuit, Birlova and Ukolova are listed 16th (3,830 points for their 12 best qualifying finishes) on the Rio 2016 provisional Olympic ranking grid.  The Russians trail Ana Gallay/Georgina Klug and Argentina (3,930 points) by 100 points.


Birlova and Ukolova are also within striking distance of No. 13 Joana Heidrich/Nadine Zumkehr of Switzerland (4,120 points) and No. 14 Fan Wang/Yuan Yue of China (4,090).  All three of the Russian’s rivals will be in Sochi this week as each team has to reach the quarter-finals to improve their qualifying point total by erasing their worst placement among their 12 counted finishes.

“We had very tough and close matches in Fuzhou,” said the 26-year old Ukolova, who has been a regular on the FIVB World Tour since 2008.  “Right now, our coaches feel our game is very unstable this season.  And one of the reason is that everyone expects from us to qualify for the Rio Olympic via World Tour. I hope that on our home sand that the pressure will go somewhere and we will be able to show the real level of our game.  I think we have been improving our game from week to week so hope that Sochi and Moscow will be happy for us.”


With only 15 of the 24 berths for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games being earned via the FIVB World Tour, Birlova and Ukolova will also have an opportunity to qualify for the Copacabana event via the European and Continental Cup Finals competition if they fail in their bid for a quadrennial spot via the international circuit.

For their appearance in the London 2012 Olympics, Birlova and Ukolova earned a spot Summer Games by winning the European Continental Cup finals.  In London, the Russian pair placed ninth by winning two of three pool play matches before being eliminated by eventual fourth-place finishers Chen Xue and Xi Zhang of China.

“The upcoming events in Russia will be the crucial ones in the term of qualification to Rio via world tour,” said Ukolova.  “We need to place at least fifth in Sochi and ninth at the Moscow Grand Slam.  We also need to show good results at next week’s stop in Turkey (Antalya) and the final qualifying event in Germany (Hamburg) next month.  This is our goal.  We want to get a ticket to Rio through the world tour.  We are looking forward to great support from the local crowds in both Sochi and Moscow.  We have had strong preparations and are eager to start play Wednesday in the Main Draw.”


The Sochi Open begins Tuesday with qualifying for the final eight spots in both the women’s and men’s 32-team Main Draws.  The “money rounds” will start with pool play Wednesday and Thursday followed by elimination matches beginning Friday.  The semi-finals will be played Saturday with the medal matches Sunday where the winning men’s and women’s pairs will each share the $11,000 first-place prizes.

With five FIVB World Tour events left on qualifying schedule for the Rio 2016 Olympics along with the European championships at the start of June in Switzerland, Birlova and Ukolova will only miss the stop in the United States as the Cincinnati event will be held between Antalya and Moscow events.


If Birlova and Ukolova can’t catch the teams from Switzerland, China and Argentina for one of the last three berths to Rio via the FIVB World Tour, the Russians will then defend their European Continental Cup championship from 2012 next month (June 22-26) in Stavanger, Norway.  If that fails and Russia finishes second or third in Stavanger, Birlova and Ukolova will have a final chance by securing a Rio berth via the Continental Cup Finals to be held July 6-10 in Sochi where the pairs from the Asian, African, NORCECA and South American confederations will be also competing for the final two Summer Games’ spots. 

“For us now,” Ukolova offer, “our main goal is to qualify for Rio Games via the world tour.  We are concentrated on this path to Copacabana.  It’s very important to get this ticket to Rio instead of qualifying via the Continental Cup process which is very nerve-wrecking.”


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