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Double Dutch delight

Jon Stiekema (right) receives the Mikasa during a pool play match in Gstaad on Thursday as Dutch partner Christiaan Varenhorst prepares for the pass.

Gstaad, Switzerland, July 10, 2014 - While all eyes this season have been focused on 2013 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Champions Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, the Netherlands has produced another team which has quietly made its way into the list of top pairs on the 2014 FIVB World Tour.

With wins over pairs from Germany and Canada, Jon Stiekema and Christiaan Varenhorst joined Brouwer and Meeuwsen in posting perfect match marks here Thursday in the 15th annual Gstaad Grand Slam. The Brouwer and Meeuwsen partnership entered this week’s event as the 26th-ranked on the 2014 FIVB World Tour, while the Stiekema and Varenhorst tandem started the tournament listed 11th in the international standings.

Stiekema and Varenhorst are competing in their sixth FIVB event this season. The pair has posted a 19-10 match mark this season after their two wins Thursday. They now enter their final Gstaad pool play match Friday morning on the centre court against Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai of Italy, the No. 2-ranked team on the international circuit. Stiekema and Varenhorst boast three top nine placements in 2014, including a bronze medal finish in the season opener in Fuzhou, China.

"We are fairly happy with our season to date," said the 26-year-old Stiekema. "The Fuzhou medal was something we were aiming for this season and to reach that during the first tournament was quite astonishing. After that, the results have been a bit disappointing, but we have been playing better in the last couple of tournaments. We are hoping to continue that trend."

As for the rest of the season, Stiekema said his team is "aiming to improve each week.  The tournaments are so stacked with great teams that it is extremely hard to get to compete for the podium spots, but seeing we finished third in Fuzhou and how good it felt, we would love to repeat that success again this year."

Brouwer and Meeuwsen opened with wins over teams from Australia and Italy on Thursday. They will play fourth-ranked Emanuel Rego and Pedro Salgado of Brazil with the winner in position to capture their Gstaad pool and advance to the elimination format with a first-round “bye”. The Dutch pair has four top nine finishes this season highlighted by a fifth in Fuzhou.

The $800,000 event in the Swiss Alps village is also being used as a "prelude" event for both Dutch teams as they prepare for next week’s FIVB World Tour Grand Slam stop in the Netherlands.

The Transavia Grand Slam will be played July 15-20 with a unique arrangement of playing in three different cities in the Netherlands - The Hague, Amsterdam and Apeldoorn. The Netherlands’ Volleyball Federation (NEVOBO) and the promotional company of TIG Sports will use this year’s Transavia Grand Slam to prepare for the 2015 FIVB World Championships, the sport’s most prestigious event outside of the Olympic Games.

Home comforts

"We are really excited to be playing in this year’s event," said Stiekema, who has been playing on the FIVB World Tour since 2009. "We are so glad that The Hague and the other cities managed to get such a big Grand Slam for our country. It is going to be the first time that this is happening. Logistically it might be really different, but it feels really special and I like that. They do this kind of stuff a lot in other bigger sports and so for me, it really feels like a step into getting beach volleyball to be bigger as a sport.”

Stiekema, who is currently ranked 11th on the 2014 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour with the towering 2.10m Varenhorst, said that the Dutch teams "have been playing on the Dam in Amsterdam during our national tour and that is always a special location.  It is one of the most crowded places in our country so as an athlete that is great, since playing in front of lots of people is really special. It is going to be in the center so it will be quite different than The Hague where it tends to be windy, because it is by the sea. Apeldoorn is going to be a surprise for me since I have never played there, but this will also be less windy than The Hague."

With a $1-million purse for the sixth of nine Grand Slam stops on the 2014 FIVB World Tour, Stiekema said the Transavia Grand Slam will have a "special" feel, especially in promoting Beach Volleyball in the Netherlands.

"Yes, absolutely this event will be special for all the players," said Stiekema, who earned his first FIVB medal early this season with Varenhorst in Fuzhou, China.  "Playing at sites in the middle of two cities is unique. Playing for the biggest purse of the year really makes it grander."

As for the pressure of playing for the host country, Stiekema feels "there is more pressure.  But just being at home, playing at sites you have practiced at before is quite relaxing.  Being in a hotel is not bad, but it is not home. These things for me make it that I love playing as a host country team. Also, since we are abroad so much, our loved ones cannot really see us that much, so although it gives a bit more pressure, it is nice to show your family and friends what you actually do and train so hard for."

Stiekema feels the Dutch teams will have “an advantage, just as every other host country team always has an advantage. Having the crowd behind you and being able to go home and prepare in the relaxed location of your own environment is just so much easier."

As such, the 2014 Transavia Grand Slam will not be a typical event on the FIVB World Tour.  In addition to being a "prelude" to the 2015 FIVB World Championships in the Netherlands, it will provide more exposure to beach volleyball in the European country with competition at three sites. Along with the $1-million purse, the event will showcase the skills of the Dutch teams, especially the pairs of Stiekema/Varenhorst and Brouwer/Meeuwsen.

NEVOBO and TIG Sports are confident that their innovative format of a multi-site design for both the 2014 Transavia Grand Slam and the 2015 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships will produce a delightful alternative for Dutch sporting fans.

"Beach Volleyball is really an attractive sport to watch," said Stiekema, "so the biggest issue is getting it to the public.  With all these great events and innovations, it looks like it is heading in the right direction."


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