There was Sean Rosenthal, digging off the chest, digging off his right arm, his left arm, a scoop, a platform, his “fanny pack,” as Rich Lambourne described it on the livestream of the AVP Manhattan Beach Open finals.
“Is there any part of his body,” Lambourne wondered, “that Rosenthal has not dug a ball with?”
Probably not, to be honest. And there was Rosenthal, transitioning, picking up aces. Peak Rosenthal – SportsCenter Rosenthal, nearly every point. And there was his partner, Trevor Crabb, running quick backsets, running outside lobs, running quicks to the middle, siding out, siding out, siding out.
Remarkable consistency, given the opponent: Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.
It wasn’t enough.
The best of Rosenthal and the best of Crabb was not enough to top the ordinary, everyday play of Dalhausser and Lucena.
It makes one wonder: Is anything ever enough?
To watch Phil Dalhausser play beach volleyball is to witness an extraordinary paradox, one in which the game of volleyball speeds up to unfathomable levels, while simultaneously slowing down to the point where one might wonder what’s so difficult about beach volleyball anyway.
I noticed this while watching Dalhausser and Nick Lucena play Billy Allen and Stafford Slick on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the AVP Manhattan Beach Open.
When on defense, it seemed as if the hits were coming in maybe half-speed, the shots loopy enough for Lucena to take an easy stroll, set up camp, maybe nap for a moment, then dig the ball. And then Dalhausser would slide on over, smooth as water, set Lucena – and then off to warp speed the game went, leaving the unfortunate opponent scrambling, or just frozen, knowing there was no way they were going to touch the ball.
Before you could blink the score was 10-1.
It’s not unusual to see Dalhausser and Lucena to wreak this type of havoc on the high seed, qualifier-type teams. Those guys will never see a blocker like Dalhausser. Then again, as Tri Bourne repeatedly pointed out on the livestream, there is no beach volleyball player on the planet right now who can claim to be Dalhausser’s equal.
Nobody at any level sees a blocker like Dalhausser.
There may be players who are offensively as capable (Alison, perhaps). There may be players who can set like Dalhausser (Taylor Crabb, maybe). And there may be players who can put up a block nearly as imposing (Paolo Nicolai, possibly, and I wouldn’t hesitate to throw Theo Brunner into that discussion either).
But there is no man on Earth who combines all three skills at such an elite level, and when American fans are given the rare opportunity to watch Dalhausser live, not on YouTube or on a livestream from somewhere overseas, it truly is a spectacle.
And what makes this such a unique type of spectacle is that Dalhausser and Lucena make it look so unspectacular, so normal. Those hits are not coming in at half-speed, and those shots are not as loopy as Lucena makes them look.
Dalhausser and Lucena are just that good.
One of the hallmarks of a phenomenal athlete, in my mind, is the ability to make something look easy, to put the brakes on a blindingly fast game and slow it down. Lucena made digging Slick, one of the most physical players on Tour, look easy, as if that swing that wouldn’t normally bounce over any defender not named Rosenthal or Taylor Crabb. Lucena would simply lip it up, and Dalhausser would either casually – or, at least, he made it look awfully casual – turn and swat it to open court, or set with that signature sauce, and Lucena would put it away, easy as a Sunday morning.
Nothing about digging Slick or Allen is easy. Nothing about scoring on Slick and Allen is easy. It’s why they’ve won an AVP this year and made two other finals.
And yet Dalhausser and Lucena make everything look slow, easy, casual, effortless – while simultaneously producing the opposite effect on the other side of the net, where both blocker and defender are constantly scrambling, diving, grinding just to keep up.
One team is exhausted.
The other may not have broken a sweat.
“Nick may as well break out a lounge chair,” Bourne said midway through Dalhausser and Lucena’s eventual 21-11, 21-15 win over Allen and Slick.
Allen said he felt like a kindergartener.
That’s coming from the guy who has had arguably the best AVP season of anybody, Dalhausser included.
There’s a reason Dalhausser and Lucena are currently the third ranked team in the world. The only defender who has seemed to have a solution, if an ephemeral one, to Dalhausser is Russia’s Viacheslav Krasilnikov.
It’s no coincidence that Krasilnikov is the No. 1-ranked defender on the planet.
Yes, it’s possible that defenders not ranked No. 1 in the world can hang with Dalhausser. Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner pushed Dalhausser and Lucena to three sets in the semifinal. Crabb and Rosenthal did the same in an unforgettable final, which might be the match of the year thus far.
But there’s a reason that Dalhausser and Lucena have only lost two three-set matches since reuniting in 2015, one of those teams being Ricardo Santos and Chaim Schalk, with a combined five Olympics of experience between them.
It’s nearly impossible for teams to sustain the level of play to beat Dalhausser for three full sets. While they play their normal, easy-looking volleyball, you must play to the absolute brink of your abilities, no margin for error, to simply build a one-, maybe two-point lead. And then you must maintain that level of play for an hour, if not more. There is no room for human lapses of concentration – an error here, missed serve there.
To beat Dalhausser and Lucena requires, for at least an hour or so, one to be as close to flawless as an athlete can get.
“The Phil Factor” is what Rich Lambourne dubbed it on the livestream during the finals.
Only one team has that factor, which explains why in three of the past four years, you will see the same name dotting the Manhattan Beach pier: Phil Dalhausser.