Schwaiger sisters rock in Klagenfurt with European gold
Going into the final match, Doris and Stefanie wanted to improve on what their compatriots Barbara Hansel and Sara Montagnolli had achieved two years ago in Kristiansand as they had settled for silver. On the other side of the net, Spain’s Liliana/Baquerizo were also likely to write history for they had already gone beyond last year’s bronze in The Hague, their country’s sole medal so far in the competition. The start of the final game was preceded by an aerobatics show while 8,000 Austrian supporters were waving their national flag for a breath-taking red-and-white choreography. Reinhard Fendrich sang what people here call Austria’s unofficial national anthem, “I am from Austria”, and everything was set for a great party as the loudspeakers did also play some excerpts of the “Blue Danube” waltz by Johan Strauss. So it was up to Stefanie and Doris to add the icing on the cake on what the fans had already christened “the best Saturday ever” with temperatures up to 40° in the capital of Carinthia, the world’s Beach Volleyball “Mecca”.
The Schwaiger sisters got off to a flying start (5:2) and slowly but surely widened their lead that reached 6 points by the time the score stood at 14:8. This margin was maintained all the way through with Elsa serving long to see the Austrian fans celebrate the provisional 1:0 lead for their heroines (21-15). The Spaniards finally found their way into the game starting out strong in the second set (7:3) and their lead was widened to five points (13:8) halfway through. The Schwaigers did not let it go too quickly and fired back to reduce the gap to the slimmest margin (17:16) before they finally drew level at 19 all. Liliana and Elsa did not lose composure and even though the failed to cash their first opportunity to call for the tie-break, they did not miss on the second and wrapped it up at 22-20. They stretched momentum to the early phases of the third set (2:0) but suddenly things turned around with Stefanie Schwaiger blocking regularly at the net (8:5) and that small cushion was maintained up to the end to fire up the party on the centre court for no Austrian pair had ever won in Klagenfurt before. That was a fabulous end of a campaign that had turned into an uphill climb for the Austrian siblings as on Tuesday they had lost their opening game in pool play to Russia’s Maria Prokopieva and Svetlana Popova before surviving to five match balls for Ekaterina Khomyakova and Evgenia Ukolova in the 1/4 finals.
Laura Ludwig added a sixth medal to her collection from the European Championship, this time alongside 23-year old Kira Walkenhorst. Ludwig has medalled uninterruptedly since she won silver in 2007, with the only exception being last year where she failed to make the semis in The Hague with long-time partner Sara Goller. After a very disappointing performance in the semi against the Schwaiger sisters, Ludwig and Walkenhorst regrouped and played a superb game to edge first-seeded Katrin Holtwick/Ilka Semmler 21-17, 21-18. “We were extremely disappointed but also angry after the semi-final for we simply had not found our way into the game” commented Ludwig after crowning her European campaign with bronze. “Of course the Schwaiger sisters played good but we simply did not stand a chance right from the start”. Kira Walkenhorst was more than happy with her first European medal: “After the semi-final we just went for a break and we did reset our minds completely. We found it difficult to find our way into the game and of course with thousands of fans on their side the Schwaiger sisters were extra motivated to play their best. We just decided to clean up our minds and pulled together again for we wanted to finish what has been a very good week for us with a medal. I am evidently overwhelmed with joy; I want to celebrate this bronze medal first and then will cheer from the stands on my brother Alexander who plays the 1/4 finals later this afternoon together with his partner Lars Flüggen”.
Actually the game did not start that good for Ludwig and Walkenhorst who trailed 4:8 in the opening set but then fought back to even the score at 11. They first went to the front at 14:13 as Ludwig displayed great actions in defence and finalized some good points to take her young partner by the hand and cruise all the way through the final 21-17. After a close opening phase (5:5), Ludwig and Walkenhorst dictated the tempo of the game also in the second set breaking away after the technical time-out (15:12) and standing a late comeback by their countrywomen who failed to claim their second European medal after winning silver three years ago in Berlin. This is Germany’s sixteenth medal since the women’s European Championship was introduced back in 1994, with Ludwig having chiefly contributed to this tally with two gold (2008 and 2010), plus two silver (2007, 2009) and two bronze (2011 and 2013) on her resume.