LONDON (Reuters) - A pair of Russian newcomers upset Beijing bronze medalists Zhang Xi and Xue Chen of China in a close Olympic women’s beach volleyball opener on Saturday that set pulses racing.
The surprise result spiced up the first day of competition, in which the top attraction will be a clash between double gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh of the United States and Australians Natalie Cook and Tamsin Hinchley.
Low-ranked Anastasia Vasina and Anna Vozakova beat the Chinese pair, who are among the favorites to win gold in London, in three sets.
“We won’t look back on this match. I wear a lucky jade necklace but it wasn’t lucky for me today,” said Zhang.
The Chinese still have a chance for a medal as the tournament starts with a pool stage before progressing to a knock-out one.
Beach volleyball is scored using a best-of-three-sets system. The first two sets are played to 21 points and if each team wins one, a third set is played to 15. All sets require a two-point advantage to win.
Vasina and Vozakova beat Zhang and Xue 2-1 (18-21, 21-14, 16-14).
Later in the day, the home crowd suffered disappointment when Britain’s first ever entrants in Olympic men’s beach volleyball, Steve Grotowski and John Garcia-Thompson, lost their match to Canada’s Martin Reader and Josh Binstock.
Pumped up by pop music blaring from loudspeakers in between points, the crowd cheered the Britons who put up a determined fight in the first set, which they lost narrowly after a long rally went the Canadians’ way.
After that turning point, Reader and Binstock dominated, winning the match 2-0 (21-19, 21-13). But the Britons, who have set themselves the goal of making it to the knock-out phase, were nevertheless thrilled with their Olympic debut.
“What I was expecting was probably about 30 notches lower. It was amazing,” Grotowski told reporters.
“To walk out there and just see seas of people and everybody cheering and getting behind us, it was a really special experience.”
The Olympic beach volleyball event is being staged at Horse Guards Parade, a vast esplanade in the heart of London’s government district of Whitehall.
The venue is right next to Number 10 Downing Street, official residence of British prime ministers, and a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.
From the 15,000-seat stadium, the biggest in Olympic beach volleyball history, spectators enjoy a stunning view including the tip of the Big Ben clocktower and the London Eye Ferris wheel gently spinning by the Thames river.
As the sunset neared, Brazil’s women’s world champions Juliana Felisberta and Larissa Franca made fast work of Natacha Rigobert and Elodie Li Yuk Lo, a relatively inexperienced team from Mauritius, beating them 2-0 (21-5, 21-10).
The Brazilian pair have won every prestigious trophy in their sport except for an Olympic medal after Felisberta had to pull out of Beijing with a knee injury.
Beach volleyball is a popular sport in Brazil and a small but very loud contingent of fans from the Latin American country sang and cheered for their champions, while the British crowd, always fond of an underdog, took sides with the Africans.
After dark, the focus will be on the showdown between May-Treanor and Walsh, who won gold in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, and Cook and Hinchley, which is scheduled for 11:00 p.m. (2200 GMT).
Cook, the first Australian woman athlete to compete in five Olympic Games, won bronze in Atlanta in 1996 and gold in Sydney in 2000 with her then team mate, Kerri Pottharst.
Editing by Matt Falloon and Alison Wildey