Many players have grown so accustomed to the random coupling that goes on at the beach that a certain capaciousness often carries over into their selection of volleyball partners. Sometimes playing partnerships are formed and then dissolved in the space of a week.
"Everybody's looking for that perfect combination," says 31-year-old Christopher (Sinjin) Smith. "But you can't go switching partners every week and expect to win." Even among the very best players the pace of these mating dances can be dizzying. "A lot of these guys are worse than married couples," says one volleyballologist. "Leaving one man for another, divorcing each other, then making up."
"It is a marriage," says Randy Stoklos, 27, who with Smith makes up the top-ranked team on the circuit. "I see Sinjin every week. I sleep with him, I eat with him. There are only two of us out there, and if something goes wrong, it's either his fault or mine." Or as Hovland, the ultimate beach boy, puts it, "There's no hiding, man. You can't get out of the sandbox once you're stuck in there."
One of the best teams in the sandbox for a period of six years was Jon Stevenson, 29, and John Hanley, 28, but they finished second in far more tournaments than they won and soon began to blame each other. "I think the pressure of finishing second and wanting to do better hurt us," Stevenson says. "Winning begets winning, and losing makes you go out and look for somebody else."
When the pair finally split up earlier last season—with all the hard feelings that typically attend the breakup of a marriage—Stevenson teamed with ex-Olympian Pat Powers and in May the pair won a $100,000 tournament in Clearwater, Fla. Three weeks later, however, after losing badly at Seal Beach, Calif., the 30-year-old Powers became disenchanted with his new partner and dropped him for—of all people—Hanley. That left Stevenson, who had been weakened by a virus at Seal Beach, no choice but to join forces with Hanley's partner, Dan Vrebalovich, 26. "It's the crudest cut for me," said Stevenson, after he and Vrebalovich were eliminated at the Hawaii Open. "I'm in my prime, but there are really only a few guys I can win with. Now I've had this one happy experience with him, so I'm wanting to grovel to work things out. But Pat didn't want it. I've been through the same thing with girls. You can always say there are other girls you can go out with, but I don't want to go out with them, and I don't want to play with anybody else. I want to win. Unfortunately, this guy, who is by no means the greatest player in the world, makes a decision over which I have absolutely no control."
Powers, meanwhile, felt like the prettiest girl at the dance, courted by all the boys in the stag line. "It's a lottery for me," he said in Hawaii. He has had three partners this season, and had eight last season. "I'm just a volleyball whore, let's face it. Have gun, will travel. You can switch around with no problem. I've done it to guys, and it's happened to me. I like playing with new guys, and with Jon I was getting frustrated."
But after returning to California, Powers once again had a change of heart and called Stevenson to ask if he would take him back. The following weekend, Powers and Stevenson reunited to win a tournament in Laguna Beach on June 19, then on successive weekends they won the $100,000 Cuervo Gold Crown tournament in Boulder, and a $40,000 event in Providence, defeating Smith and Stoklos 15-11 in the final.
It is hardly a coincidence that Smith and Stoklos, who have played together longer than any other pair, have also been the most successful team in the sport's history. They joined forces eight years ago, when Smith was already an established player and Stoklos just a promising newcomer, and together they have won 67 championships. This year they had won six of the first nine tournaments before Smith began having problems with his right shoulder, probably due to the accumulated wear of almost 25 years of spiking. "Sinjin and I are expected to win," Stoklos says, "and when we don't the people who follow us want to know what happened."
"Sinjin" is actually the British pronunciation of St. John, which is Smith's middle name. For a long time he spelled it "Singin," leading a lot of people to the misapprehension that he had been so named because of a tendency to burst into song in the middle of a match. Stoklos has become so firmly convinced that Sinjin gets more publicity than he does because of his name rather than his game that he has thought—although perhaps not as hard as he should—about going by Piermont, which is his middle name.
Smith is far and away the best-known beach volleyball player outside Southern California, a fact that grates on many players. Obradovich calls Smith "a self-promoter who never seems to win the big tournaments," and others are equally unkind. "He gets a lot of that attention because he's got a publicist," says Hovland. "A lot of what he gets he deserves, but not all of it."