Player(s) profile: Larissa & Juliana

Larissa & Juliana
Here they are, as they often are, with some hardware.

These two have been basically joined at the hip for the last eight years or so, so no point in profiling them separately. Commonly in beach volleyball even ‘regular’ partnerships don’t involve playing with the same partner every single tournament, but these two talented ladies are perhaps an exception to that rule. Were it not for Misty May and Kerri Walsh, Larissa and Juliana would be the A-1 worldbeating duo of perhaps all-time in women’s beach volleyball, and certainly of the last several years.

Larissa França and Juliana Felisberta da Silva (you’re liking those Brazilian mononyms now, aren’t ya?) have been a regular tandem since 2004. Larissa briefly teamed with Ana Richa Medeiros in 2003, winning the bronze medal at the Pan-American Games, but a 16-year age difference there meant that partnership was never a long-term arrangement. Likewise, Juliana very briefly had a different partner in 2003 (and also for one tournament in 2002), former Olympic and world champion Jackie Silva (no relation).

The two joined forces in 2004, still at very early points in their career (Larissa was 21, Juliana only 20), and haven’t looked back. They’re a somewhat atypical partnership, as both are shorter than you’d expect an elite beach volleyball player to be (neither reaches 6 feet tall — Juliana is the slightly taller of the two). This probably works to their advantage, though, as opposing teams can never be quite sure how to approach them. Where for most  teams there’s a pretty clear separation of who does serve receive, back-row defense, and most of the hitting, and who does setting and front-line blocking, that’s really not the case with Larissa and Juliana. This is perhaps best evidenced by Larissa winning both Best Setter and Best Hitter for the 2008 season. Strategy against them often has to be conditional (i.e. serve the one who doesn’t seem to be hitting as crisply that day, and there’s not a lot of teams who can change it up on the fly like that.

They served notice in that 2004 season. Barely past their teen years, the duo took the third spot on the podium at the season-opening Fortaleza Open in their homeland. They repeated that level of success at the Marseille Grand Slam and the Rio Open to close the season, but they also stood on the top step of the podium once, at the Mallorca Open in Spain. It was the first of many times we were to see them there.

Their 2005 season was plainly ridiculous, appearing on the podium 14 times in the season’s 16 tournaments (six victories). One of the other two was a tournament they didn’t even play, and the other, they finished in 5th place. This quite obviously was sufficient to make them FIVB tour points champions, a position in which they would get quite comfortable. Their 2006 season was just as ridiculous, with seven wins among 13 podium finishes in 15 total tournaments. No one won more, and no one was in position to win more, and it quite obviously got them their second tour points championship. They had “only” five wins (the fact that I’m even saying that speaks volumes) in 2007, and were surely disappointed to finish third at the world championships, but nonetheless won the overall points title a third year running.

2008 was probably the tandem’s low point, and it was the result of the only thing that could bring them down — the injury bug. They of course qualified as one of the top teams for the Olympic tournament, but Juliana was forced withdraw due to a knee injury. You can’t blame Larissa one bit for going forward with the opportunity to play in the Olympic Games, doing so with Ana Paula, a bronze medalist from the inaugural Olympic tournament 12 years prior. And they did admirably for a team with no partnership history, losing one match in pool play but still qualifying for the knockout stage. They ran into May and Walsh in the quarterfinals of the knockout stage and thus lost the chance to play for a medal. A friendlier draw, who knows, they could have brought home some hardware. Juliana’s injury ended her season. Larissa played a further two tournaments and did win one of them, but they collectively fell short of the season points title for so far the only time in their careers together.

They played something of a light schedule in 2009, though Juliana was fully recovered from her injury. Playing in 13 of the season’s 16 tournaments, they took top honors an incredible (even for them) eight times, with three more podium placings. The numbers were basically the same in both 2010 and 2011, with 12 tournaments played each year. They won the season points title and were the top money earners on tour each of those years.

This season’s been a bit up-and-down. They entered every tournament at the beginning of the year, getting a silver and a bronze from the first three, but they didn’t stand atop the podium until the Beijing Grand Slam. This was the first time in three seasons that they had entered three straight tournaments without winning any of them (which is kinda ridiculous, actually). They’ve picked up two more wins since, including at one of their favorite tour stops Stare Jablonki, Poland (as I covered here), but on the whole the season’s medal table has quite a few more, and different, flags on it this year than in seasons past. The team holds a narrow lead in the points standings, over a Chinese pair, with one tournament remaining.

With May and Walsh showing a few cracks in their armor, Larissa and Juliana were hot picks to win the Olympic tournament this year. Countrywoman Sandra Pires, the inaugural Olympic champion with the aforementioned Jackie Silva, threw her support behind them. And indeed, they were given the #1 overall seed. They sailed through pool play, never dropping a set, but they came a cropper a bit in their quarterfinal match against Germany. Juliana, who speaks much better English than Larissa, said that she had played horribly in the second set of their (21-10, 21-19) win, but that it was nonetheless encouraging to get a win even when she had played, by her standards, not well. Things started off well in the semifinals for them, taking the first set against Jen Kessy and April Ross by a pretty solid 21-15 score. But they dropped the second, 21-19, and lost the race to 15 to cap it off, which set the stage for the much-ballyhooed all-USA gold medal final. It looked like Larissa and Juliana might even leave London without a medal at all, as they dropped the first set of the bronze medal final to the Chinese team by an ugly 21-11 score, but they rallied back to win in three.

I can’t wait for the Olympics in Rio to see how well these two do there. With the May/Walsh partnership dissolved, the only real competition these ladies will have will be from their compatriots, perhaps a team like Talita and Maria. It’s gonna be fun watching them the next few years.

FIVB World Tour honors:

Larissa: Best Defensive Player (2009), Best Hitter (2008, 2010), Best Setter (2006, 2007, 2008 {shared with Vasso Karadassiou}, 2009, 2010, 2011), Most Outstanding (2006)

Juliana: Best Blocker (2009, 2010), Best Offensive Player (2006, 2010), Most Outstanding (2009, 2010, 2011), Best Sportsperson (2011)

The tandem has won Team of the Year every year of that award’s existence (since 2005) except for 2008 when Juliana’s season was cut short by injury.

Most FIVB tour titles in history as a team (45) and individually (46, shared — they each have one win with a different partner)

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