TOKYO, Japan — April Ross and Alix Klineman put away a Cuban team they had never played before.
Next up for the Americans is one of the most familiar faces in all of beach volleyball: Four-time Olympian — and defending gold medalist — Laura Ludwig.
Ross and Klineman beat Cuba in straight sets, 21-17, 21-15 in their knockout round opener on Monday to reach the quarterfinals, where they will meet the German and her current partner, Maggie Kozuch.
Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst won it all in Rio de Janeiro, where Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings took bronze. With Kozuch, Ludwig advanced to the round of eight by beating Brazil's Agatha and Duda on Sunday in three sets.
“We have a lot of respect for them and, obviously, Laura’s success,” said Klineman, who also played against Kozuch on the Italian indoor volleyball tour. “We know they’re going to come out motivated. As are we.”
Asked how many times she had played against the 35-year-old Ludwig over the years, Ross said “a lot. A lot.” According to the Beach Volleyball Database, Ross and her partners are 20-8 over the years against Ludwig and hers; they did not meet in London or Rio.
One day after two U.S. teams were eliminated in the round of 16, Ross and Klineman beat Lidy Echeverria and Leila Martinez to keep the Americans' best medal hopes alive.
After losing the first set, Cuba scored the first four points of the second and still led 9-5 when the Americans cut the deficit to two. Then, at 9-7, Echeverria landed under the net after chasing a ball, and Klineman landed on top of her.
Cuba was initially awarded the point, but the Americans complained to chair referee Rui Carvalho that there was interference; he conferred with second referee Mariko Satomi, and they gave the point to the Americans.
“It’s just people going for the ball, and she came under,” Klineman said. “We got the point, and I got a little fired up and we used that for some momentum going forward. But, you know, no hard feelings. I think we’re both just trying to make a play.”
Instead of a 10-7 Cuban lead, it was 9-8.
And Echeverria was slow to get up. After a few minutes on the sand with her partner tending to her, she got up and tested her knee.
“Once we knew that she was a little bit hurt, we were trying to allow her to gather herself,” Ross said.
The match continued, but not for much longer.
“Obviously, I don’t want to see anybody injured,” Klineman said, “especially at the Olympics."
In other matches Monday, No. 1 seed Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes of Canada beat Spain in straight sets. They will face Australia, which beat the Chinese pair of Wang Xinxin and Xue Chen 2-0.
Brazilians Ana Patricia and Rebecca took out China's Wang Fan and Xia Xinyi 21-14, 23-21 and earned the right to face Switzerland's Joana Heidrich and Anouk Verge-Depre; they won an all-Swiss matchup with Nina Betschart and Tanja Huberli 21-12, 19-21, 23-21.
Latvia advanced with a three-set win over Russia and will play the Canadian team of Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson. They knocked out Americans Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes on Sunday.
Canada is the only nation that has two teams still in the quarterfinals,” Humana-Paredes said. “Normally at this stage, you see two Americans, two Brazilians. Here, you’re seeing two Canadians now, and I think that says a lot about our program and our federation. And I think as a country, we should be really proud of where we are in beach volleyball."