Americans Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser, gold medalists in the men's beach volleyball in Beijing in 2008, were knocked out of the London Olympics by a low-ranked Italian pair on Friday in the biggest upset of the tournament so far.
Rogers, 38, and Dalhausser, 32, were considered strong medal contenders and had won all three of their pool matches, dropping just one set along the way.
In contrast, Italians Daniele Lupo, 21, and Paolo Nicolai, 23, had lost two out of their three pool matches, finishing third of their group. They scraped into the round-of-16 by winning a lucky loser match late on Thursday.
But the inspired Italians played the match of their lives on Friday, landing one unstoppable spike after another and relentlessly blocking the Americans' usually powerful attacks.
Rogers and Dalhausser were defeated by two sets to nil on the score of 21-17, 21-19.
The Californians, who maintain a calm and relaxed demeanor both on and off the court, were remarkably philosophical about their loss just minutes later.
"I've realized over the last eight years that the Olympics are cool, and it's really cool to win a gold medal, believe me, I know, but in light of what's important to me, personally, my relationship with my wife, my kids, my faith, that Olympic loss or win pales in comparison," said Rogers.
The Italians had beaten Rogers and Dalhausser twice this year, but their relatively poor performance during the pool phase, compared with three comfortable wins by the Americans, meant that Friday's result came as a big surprise to most.
The Italians seemed almost dazed by their own performance.
"We've won against them before, but every time it's a battle. They've been idols for me and it's strange to beat them," said Nicolai.
The Americans did not seem as surprised as everyone else.
"They're a very, very good team. They're younger. The tall guy is like Phil, the little guy is like me, just 10 or 20 years younger, so," said Rogers with a chuckle.
Tall and small, as defined by beach volleyball players, are relative concepts.
Nicolai is 2.03 metres tall while Lupo measures 1.95 metres tall. Lupo is presumably the "little guy" referred to by Rogers, a diminutive 1.87 metres next to Dalhausser, who towers over his team mate at 2.06 metres.
Earlier, American women's pair Jennifer Kessy and April Ross, former world champions, had a two-sets-to-nil win over Swiss pair Simone Kuhn and Nadine Zumkehr.
Kessy and Ross have spent much of their career in the shadow of compatriots Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, the only pair to have won Olympic gold in beach volleyball twice.
May-Treanor and Walsh are again in the limelight in London as they bid for a third consecutive gold, but Kessy and Ross have been looking strong and may well pose a serious challenge to their U.S. rivals at a later stage.
May-Treanor and Walsh play their first match of the knock-out phase against a Dutch team on Saturday night.
But the favorites in the women's event are reigning world champions Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta of Brazil, who thumped their way into the quarter finals on Friday by beating Dutch pair Madelein Meppelink and Sophie van Gestel.
Larissa and Juliana have dominated the women's world tour for several years but they missed out on the Beijing Olympics in 2008 after Juliana had to pull out with a knee injury. Olympic gold is the only trophy they are missing and they want it badly.
The Brazilians won on Friday by two sets to nil on the score of 21-10, 21-17, but the Dutch pair captured the crowd's hearts with some heroic defensive diving.
When the teams were level in the second set at 15-15, the four women played one of the best points seen in the tournament so far, earning a deafening ovation from the 15,000 spectators.
With the Brazilians on the attack, the Dutch sprinted across the sand and flung themselves on the ground to successfully save three powerful spikes, regaining the offensive only for the Brazilians to pull off an improbable save and win the point.
"SANDSTORM!" said the screens in the corners of the court.
The Dutch were left splayed on the sand in exhaustion and the Brazilians fell into each other's arms for a bear hug. The crowd cheered and stamped their feet, punch drunk from pop music, exuberant commentary and sunshine.
The Brazilians sealed the set and the match by 21-17, but the gracious Dutch seemed pleased to have put on a good show.
"We tried, we tried, I crossed the whole court, we were just running, and it was a shame that we didn't make the point. But we made the crowd happy with a nice rally," said Meppelink in a classic example of understatement.
(Editing by Nigel Hunt)