When the London Summer Olympics beach volleyball competitions begin in July 2012, they will once again be the hottest tickets in town. Ever since the two-person team sport became an official event for both men and women in 1996 in Atlanta, it's been one of the most popular draws.
Maybe it's because the athletes who play have seriously hard bodies and are clad only in shorts or bikinis. Or maybe it's the raucous, music-filled atmosphere that electrifies the sun-drenched sand-filled outdoor stadiums, which have usually been created just for the tournament. Or maybe it's just that beach volleyball is a hard-fought, fast-paced, seriously exciting game. But whatever it is, the combination has been a big winner ever since it was accepted into the games.
So whether you're actually at the Horse Guards Parade venue in London as the competitions begin or you're at home, glued to the television while cheering on your favorite duo, here are the basic rules of the game you need to know:
Teams: Teams consist of only two players. There are no substitutions, nor replacement of players. If injury occurs, the team must forfeit the match.
Scoring: The team that reaches 21 points first wins the set (game); a match is won by taking two out of three sets. Points are scored on every serve over the net, regardless of which team served. The team that wins the rally wins the point. A rally ends when the ball hits the ground, or if the referee calls an infraction. If the match goes to a third game, it is to 15 points, instead of 21. A team must win by 2 points, so scoring continues past 21 (or 15) until that happens.
Antennae, the net and the court: The sand court is a rectangle that measures 16 x 8 meters, bisected by a net. The net height is 2.43 meters (approximately 8 feet) for men and 2.24 meters (7.4 feet) for women. Two antennas extend upward on each side of the net, in line with the court lines, and as the ball goes over the net it must pass inside those antennae to be legal. Players are not allowed to touch the net in the action of playing the ball, but incidental net touches are not a fault.
Changing sides: Teams switch sides every time 7 points are scored, because the outdoor conditions like sun and wind can be very different depending on the side. By switching sides, neither team has an undue advantage. In the third 15-point set, sides are switched every 5 points. No pause (for rest or drinking) is allowed on the side change; however, each team has one timeout per set.
Serving: Play begins with the ball being served from behind the back line of the court, over the net and into the opponent's side. The server may serve from anywhere along the back line, and a serve that hits the net and falls into the opponent's side is in play. The server cannot touch the back line before the serve leaves his/her hand, or it is considered a "foot fault," and a loss of the serve. Only one attempt at the serve is allowed.
Number of hits: A team is allowed three hits on their side, generally a "pass" of the serve (or a "dig" of a "spike"), a "set" that puts the ball in the air, allowing for the "hit" (or "spike") into the opponent's court. One or two hits and over is also allowed, but four or more hits on a side are not. A player cannot hit the ball twice consecutively, unless it is touched during a block.
Hard-driven balls: A hard-driven first attack (the spike) may contact more than one part of the defender's body, but is still considered a single "hit," with two more allowed before the ball has to go back to the other side.
Blocking: As the team on the offensive goes to spike the ball into the defender's court, the defense is allowed to jump and block the ball, trying to stop it from coming over the net. The blocker is allowed to reach high over the net, and is also allowed to "penetrate" the airspace on the spiker's side of the net. But the blocker cannot actually touch the ball until it has actually been hit by the spiker. If a blocker touches the ball after it is spiked, that touch counts as one hit, and the blocker is allowed to immediately touch it again. But then there are only two more hits allowed on his/her side, before the ball must go over the net.
Interference: A player cannot interfere with the opposing team's ability to play the ball, either under the net or when blocking (by reaching over into their side of the court). But a player can cross under the net to the opposition's side to play the ball, as long as there is no contact or interference with the opposing team.
Last touch: If a ball ends up hitting the ground outside of the court, the last person to touch the ball is responsible. So if a spiker hits the ball into a blocker's hands and the ball goes out, the blocker is at fault, and the spiker's team is awarded the point. The obverse is also true; if the blocker knocks the ball back into the spiker and it goes out, then the blocker's team is awarded the point.
Jenny Peters has played and coached beach volleyball since 1980, on both coasts of the United States -- and beyond. She was a rated beach player for many years in Southern California, and has happily been a spectator cheering courtside for the U.S. men's and women's teams at the Summer Olympics Beach Volleyball events in Atlanta, Sydney and Beijing.