24.06.2019 - Hamburg
What a year it’s been for Clemens Wickler and Julius Thole.
Bursting onto the beach volleyball scene last season saw them jump to the dizzying heights of the top 20 in the world rankings and end it with a fourth place finish at the World Tour Finals in Hamburg where they won the hearts of the home fans.
Finally, they had made it to the big time.
However, all of that could be a distant memory over the next few weeks – because it could get even better.
The young duo – Clemens is 24, Julius, just 22 – go into their first World Championships with a realistic chance of lifting the golden trophy, following in the footsteps of compatriots Julius Brink and Jonas Reckermann, who won the world title in 2009.
Their journey to this point – to be one of the top seeds at their home World Championships in Hamburg – is the result of hard work and some harsh reminders of how cruel beach volleyball can be to young players learning their trade on the World Tour.
“At the beginning of last season it was very hard,” explains defender Clemens. “We began around 60th or 70th in the world. We had to play a lot of country quota matches and qualification games. We lost a few.”
Time was, however, on their side.
“Our development at the start was very slow steps,” adds Thole, who stands an intimidating 6ft 9in (206cm) tall at the net. “We’d make a qualification, lose, make another one and lose. It was frustrating but we kept going.”
And then it clicked.
“In Ostrava we had a really tough qualification match against Belgians Dries Koekelkoren and Tom van Walle,” says Wickler. “It was the kind of game we would normally lose but we won 19-17 in the tie-break. At this point we knew we could now beat these good teams. From this moment we felt more comfortable in ourselves as individuals and as a team. It was a key moment for us.”
It really was.
The duo went on to reach the Ostrava quarter-finals, beating Dutch stars Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, Cubans Nivaldo Diaz and Sergio Gonzalez and Martins Plavins and Edgars Tocs of Latvia.
A ninth place in Warsaw followed in the next tournament before the pair’s brilliant run to bronze at the four-star event in Espinho, Portugal, where they beat some of the biggest names in beach volleyball.
Clemens and Julius reeled of victories against household names like Alison Cerutti and Andre Loyola, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, Anders Mol and Christian Sørum and Vitor Felipe and Evandro Gonçalves.
No longer were the duo the unknown quantity from Germany. They had well and truly arrived on the world stage, deservingly beating the best in the business.
This season has been just as impressive: a silver medal in The Hague has been followed by one fifth and three top-10 finishes, meaning they go into the World Championships as the 12th best team in the world. Not bad for a couple of 20-somethings from Germany.
“We started beating teams like Brouwer/Meeuwsen and it just kept getting better,” says Julius. “It all happened so quickly the important thing was to keep calm. It wasn’t easy because these results were so good.
“We wanted that to continue. We didn’t and we don’t think about pressure, we want to continue to do our thing and trust the process of what we do and how our coach wants us to play. That makes us believe in our game and I think that philosophy has been most important to our success.”
Whisper it quietly, but in the last two World Championships a team from the host country has reached the men’s final. Reinder Nummerdor and Christiaan Varenhorst did so in 2015 in the Netherlands before Clemens Doppler and Alex Horst’s fairytale run to the final two years ago in Austria.
With 10,000 fans behind them in the Red Bull Beach Arena, surely nobody could rule out Clemens and Julius of adding to that sequence.
It’s a dream that felt out of reach last year but has all of a sudden become a possibility their upturn in fortunes.
Yet, quite rightly, the duo are keeping their feet, and expectations, firmly on the ground.
“You look at results in tournaments and there are so many close matches,” says Julius. “I think all of the top 20 teams can win against each other. There are two points in so many games. There are so many small margins.
“It depends on who can keep calm at the business end of matches. In Hamburg we will have the fans with us. We did at the World Tour Finals last year. It gave us so much strength. Without the fans we couldn’t have made the semi-finals.
“The fans will be for sure be important for us at the World Championships. We need to embrace it and be relaxed. We can’t feel as though we’re under pressure, as playing in front of your home fans can also work in the opposite direction.”
Clemens and Julius are no longer underdogs – they are dreaming of becoming the top dogs. Imagine the sight of them on top of the podium inside a packed, partisan Rothenbaum.
From the depths of the world rankings to number 12 in the world… All of a sudden that dream doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it?