When Beijing gold medalist Phil Dalhausser teamed up with Nick Lucena less than one year ago for a longshot run at the Olympics, it was more out of friendship – and a lack of alternatives – than anything else.
Dalhausser was coming off two straight seasons with injuries. Lucena had never been to the Olympics, struggling to find a partnership that worked.
“We were playing with the house’s money,” Dalhausser said Monday after losing in three sets to Brazilian world champions Alison and Bruno in the quarterfinals on Copacabana beach.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Dalhausser added. “I couldn’t have done it without him. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.”
At 6-foot-9 and already an Olympic champion, Dalhausser is one of the most feared players in the sport. He won his gold medal with Todd Rogers in 2008, and the pair returned to the London Games, finishing ninth.
But last August, already a year into the two-year qualification cycle, his partnership with two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal had stalled – in part because of Dalhausser’s abdominal and calf injuries. So he went back to Lucena, his partner for a couple of dozen events when they were first starting out.
“I’m pretty fortunate to play with him,” Lucena said after the 21-14, 12-21, 15-9 loss to Brazil left them in fifth place. “He’s one of the best players in the world. I wanted to win this for him.”
Lucena and Dalhausser first teamed up in 2003, a time when they were travelling all night to play in domestic tournaments and sleeping on the beach outside the gates to save money. After they split in 2005, Lucena played with four different partners that year; Dalhausser went on to become a world and Olympic champion.
But Dalhausser’s injuries left him with little chance of making it back to the Olympics – or so he thought.
“Nobody gave us a chance to qualify,” he has repeated often.
“I gave us a chance,” Lucena interrupted playfully, just hours after their Olympic elimination. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
The two played their way to No. 3 in the international standings and a spot on Copacabana beach with a whirlwind of 13 tournaments in 12 months – just one event above the minimum. They cruised through Olympic pool play with a 3-0 record.
And that was the problem.
When Alison and Bruno lost in the preliminary round, they wound up second in their group. The blind draw lined them up with the Americans in the quarterfinals in a match that could have easily been the final.
In the second quarterfinal match, the Dutch team of Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen advanced with a 25-23, 21-17 victory over countrymen Reinder Nummerdor and Christiaan Varenhorst.
Fans waving Brazilian flags had to struggle to hold onto them in a stiff breeze that began just as play began on Monday. The Brazil and Olympic flags on the poles ringing the top of the stadium came partially loose and fluttered wildly while the poles shook in the wind.
Trash swirled around the arena.
The Brazilians dominated the first set against the United States and then – just as decisively – struggled in the second. The Americans fell behind 12-6 in the third, and then the 6-foot-8 Alison and the crowd took over.
With a block to force match point and then a spike off Dalhausser for the winner, the man known as the “Mammoth” moved within one win of a second-straight Olympic medal.
The fifth-place finish, combined with the 19th-place finish by Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson, ties with Athens for the worst finish by the U.S. men in an Olympics.
“I have learned so much from the Americans. They are good friends outside of the court,” Alison said. “There’s respect for them, and they must be celebrated.”