LONDON, July 31 (Reuters) - Like tennis great Pete Sampras at his very best, Bulgarian volleyball player Tsvetan Sokolov has turned the serve into a viciously potent weapon which helped destroy Poland 3-1 in a shock pool defeat at the Olympics on Tuesday.
Poland’s build-up to the men’s competition in London had been almost perfect with victory in the World League earlier this month, cementing their place as gold medal hopefuls.
Bulgaria’s preparations had been nothing short of farcical with their coach and best player quitting immediately after Olympic qualification in a row with federation bosses.
Yet with Poland virtually playing as a home team in front a fervent flag-waving 15,000 fans at Earl’s Court in west London, which boasts a large Polish community, unfancied Bulgaria turned the tables on their east European rivals.
Poland won their Pool A opener against Italy on Sunday and should still easily make the last eight with the top four in each six-team group going through, but the defeat was a blow to their belief and pride with three preliminary games left.
Despite a cacophony of boos every time he took the ball, the towering Sokolov jumped high into the air and boomed down a series of high-powered slapped serves that would not have looked totally out of place on the lawns of Wimbledon.
In all Bulgaria, now with two wins from two, served nine aces to Poland’s seven but the statistics do not tell the whole story with Sokolov causing chaos within the Polish ranks almost every time he had the ball in hand.
The vague similarities between volleyball and tennis were further underlined by the closeness of the sets with Bulgaria prevailing 29-27 in the second after a period of drama reminiscent of the deuce-advantage system in the racquet sport.
Serbia earlier beat Tunisia 3-1 to notch up their first win in Pool B.
World champions Brazil against 2008 Olympic bronze medallists Russia is the highlight later in the day with four matches due. (Editing by Ed Osmond)