LONDON U.S. men's beach volleyball pair Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb produced an aggressive display of unstoppable spikes to beat a strong Latvian pair on Wednesday, jumping to the top of their group and regaining confidence after losing to a Polish pair.
In the women's event, Brazilian favorites Juliana Felisberta and Larissa Franca of Brazil beat Czech pair Hana Klapalova and Lenka Hajeckova by two sets to nil to finish the pool phase top of their group without dropping a set.
Gibb and Rosenthal, who came fifth in Beijing in 2008 and built up to the London Games with a string of trophies, were out to make a point against Latvia's Aleksandr Samoilovs and Ruslans Sorokins, who had won their first two matches of the Games.
"We wanted to prove it to ourselves, that we still know how to play this game," Gibb told reporters after the Americans won by two sets to nil (21-10, 21-16) on the hottest and sunniest day of the tournament so far.
Samoilovs, known as the Lion King for his unruly mane of blond curls, is one of the most popular players at Horse Guards Parade, the Olympic venue with stunning views of Big Ben, the London Eye Ferris wheel and the central London skyline.
"The Lion King roars," shouted the commentator after one impressive spike from the Latvian, to huge cheers.
The 15,000 spectators were loving the combination of sport, sunshine, great views, thumping music and a dance troupe in retro beachwear performing during technical time-outs.
American fans were out in force wearing patriotic red, blue and white and waving "GO USA" banners. One particularly exuberant group in matching blue t-shirts and silver wigs had developed their own dance routine in the stands.
"Nothing quite like this. This is amazing," said Gibb.
A natural showman, the muscular Samoilovs won over the crowd during the Latvian pair's first two matches, falling to his knees after good points and pumping his fists to huge cheers.
But there was little the Latvians could do against Gibb and Rosenthal, and instead of roars of triumph the frustrated Samoilovs was reduced to thumping the sand with his fist.
"I'm quite an emotional person, I'm not thinking about what I'm doing, I'm just going from my heart," said Samoilovs, although he soon recovered his good spirits and was seen playfully punching Rosenthal and calling him "a superman".
The home fans were disappointed to see British men's pair Steve Grotowski and John Garcia-Thompson exit from the tournament after losing for the third time. The host nation's hopes now rest with the women's pair, Shauna Mullin and Zara Dampney, who play their last pool match on Thursday.
Juliana and Larissa were on imperious form against the Czechs, beating them by two sets to nil (21-12, 21-18) with both Brazilians finding impossible angles to land their spikes.
Juliana, who like Samoilovs enjoys putting on a show for the fans, was gesturing at the stands after her own best points to demand cheers, which were duly delivered.
With concentration flagging during the second set, the Brazilians briefly fell behind in the score and could be seen remonstrating with each other and making annoyed hand movements.
"Me and Larissa, we're always like this. It looks like a fight but it's not a fight. She always gets my best and I always get her best," said Juliana, adding that the lapse was helpful.
"It's very good because you step back and you go back to the match ... I lost three or four points because I did not play hard. After the match I said to Larissa I cannot do that again. From now on we have to play hard all the time," she said.
That is ominous news for the Brazilians' rivals, who include China's Zhang Xi and Xue Chen, bronze medalists in Beijing.
The pair got off to a poor start in London with a surprising loss against a Russian pair, but they won both of their following matches to qualify for the knockout phase which starts on Friday.
(Editing by Nigel Hunt)