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Eight Ends: Swiss reign resumes at world women’s curling championship

Eight Ends is your source for news, notes, insight and analysis from around the curling world. This edition features takeaways from the world women’s curling championship and the final event in the Calgary curling bubble.

First End: Switzerland’s Team Silvana Tirinzoni are still the world women’s curling champions after successfully defending the gold with a 4-2 victory over RCF’s Team Alina Kovaleva in Sunday’s final to wrap up the bubble at Calgary’s WinSport Arena.

The Swiss hardly missed during a dominant week as they posted a nearly perfect 14-1 overall record and all four members — Tirinzoni, fourth Alina Pätz, second Esther Neuenschwander and lead Melanie Barbezat — finished at the top of the percentages at their respective positions. They also made history scoring the tournament’s first eight-ender in their round-robin game against Denmark.

Switzerland has now won six of the past nine world women’s curling championships with Pätz capturing four of them. That’s a lot of cheddar.

Team Tirinzoni also had a strong run through the two Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events last month, finishing runners-up in the Humpty’s Champions Cup and reaching the semifinals in the Princess Auto Players’ Championship. Tirinzoni, who throws third while calling the game, ended both tournaments losing to Team Rachel Homan and was probably feeling fortunate the Ottawa club wasn’t representing Canada at the women’s worlds.

The back-to-back wins for Team Tirinzoni almost didn’t come to be as they lost in the Swiss final last year to Team Elena Stern, however, the 2020 world women’s curling championship was cancelled at the last minute right when the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up. Tirinzoni took the national title back this year to kick off the quest for the repeat.

Second End: It was fitting to see RCF and Switzerland face off in the final as both teams were at the top of the standings through the whole week. RCF went 11-2 through round-robin play and scored four in the fourth end during an 8-7 victory over Sweden’s Team Anna Hasselborg in Saturday’s semifinals to reach the gold-medal game.

While RCF was a surprise fourth-place finisher on the men’s side, the women’s teams have performed quite well in recent years, finishing on the podium five straight times from 2014-18. Kovaleva’s team should have been a contender if last year’s event had taken place, too.

Galina Arsenkina might be the most underrated second as she made the all-star team at the women’s worlds in 2018 and 2019 and finished second in the percentages to Neuenschwander this year. Third Julia Portunova was also a bit of a secret weapon coming on board this season and gelled with the team’s touch style of cluttering up the house and frustrating the likes of Hasselborg and Canada’s Team Kerri Einarson.

Third End: Team Tabitha Peterson of the United States rounded out the podium with a 9-5 decision over Hasselborg in Sunday’s bronze-medal game. Like Kovaleva, Peterson was looking like a threat in 2020 after two strong Grand Slam performances and a spirited run through the USA curling national championships but didn’t get the chance to shine on the world stage. Peterson played remarkably well as interim skip while Nina Roth was away on maternity leave. It was a huge question how things would work out once Roth returned and slotted in at third.

Although they looked out of sorts in the Grand Slam events posting a combined 1-8 record, it turned out they were just fine once they ironed out the kinks and found their form.

Not only was it the first bronze medal for the United States at the women’s worlds but also its first medal since grabbing silver in 2006.

Fourth End: It has to be a tough turnaround for a team to get up — physically and mentally — for an early Sunday morning bronze-medal game after the disappointment of a late Saturday night semifinal loss. Such was the case for Hasselborg, the reigning Olympic gold medallist, who missed out on the podium here.

Although Hasselborg started the bronze game with the hammer, there was perhaps a slight advantage for the United States, which had more time to regroup and refocus. Sweden rarely missed all week but when they did, lo and behold the U.S. had a short raise takeout to score a late five-ender, channelling compatriot John Shuster’s victory over Sweden’s Niklas Edin from the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Fifth End: All right, let’s talk about Canada. Team Einarson had the most front-loaded schedule of all front-loaded schedules facing the four teams that went on to reach the semifinals during their first five round-robin games. The result: An early 1-4 record with that win coming against the Czech Republic. An upset loss to the short-handed German team made it 1-5 and Canada was in the danger zone. Yes, the back half of their schedule was lighter but it still took a valiant effort to flip the script and finish at 7-6 to squeeze into the sixth and final playoff spot, especially when the likes of South Korea and Scotland were also in similar situations needing to qualify.

Canada’s run came to an end in the qualification round, falling 8-3 to Sweden. Was Team Einarson tired from bubble fatigue? If they were, they weren’t using it as an excuse.

“Honestly, I feel great,” Einarson said in her post-game Zoom interview. “We’ve been getting lots of treatment and mentally, physically, I felt very, very good. Definitely not even going to blame it on that because that’s not what it is. Just some execution, that’s what it was.”

Simply put, Team Hasselborg out-curled Team Einarson up and down the lineup with the Swedish squad shooting in the 90s. The only notable misfire from Hasselborg came right in the first end when a hit for two points rolled out and resulted in just a single. The Swedes maintained control through the rest of the match, converting for deuces when they had to and forcing Einarson to singles like right out of the curling textbook. There’s no shame in losing to the reigning Olympic gold medallists in an elimination game; it’s just unfortunate for Canada it came during the qualification round and not the final.

Sixth End: Canada also bowed out in the qualification round in the men’s worlds with Team Brendan Bottcher losing to Scotland’s Team Bruce Mouat. That made it the first year Canada missed the podium in both tournaments although there’s still the world mixed doubles championship later this month with Einarson teaming up with Brad Gushue.

What went wrong? Absolutely nothing. This isn’t the year to think about reinventing the wheel of how Canadian teams are selected. Nobody questioned Bottcher nor Einarson when they won the Tim Hortons Brier and Scotties Tournament of Hearts, respectively. Einarson also entered the women’s worlds having just won the Princess Auto Players’ Championship days earlier. Like with Einarson, Bottcher ran into a hot team in the qualification round as Mouat went on to earn silver and sweep both Grand Slam men’s titles.

More preparation time would have been ideal and that would have been the case in a typical year but there’s nothing typical about a bubble with everything jammed into a compact schedule. When Einarson won the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, her team didn’t even know there was going to be a women’s worlds. The tournament was originally slated for Switzerland in March until that was cancelled with only a few weeks to go and tacked onto the end of the bubble schedule as a sudden Plan B.

Seventh End: The consolation prize with Bottcher and Einarson qualifying for the playoffs is Canada has Olympic berths in men’s and women’s curling. Both should be seen as the early front-runners to represent Canada in the 2022 Beijing Winter Games although they’ll have to earn their way through the trials scheduled to take place at the end of November in Saskatoon, Sask.

Einarson, Homan, Team Jennifer Jones and Team Tracy Fleury have secured their spots in the women’s division with Bottcher, Gushue, Team John Epping, Team Kevin Koe and Team Brad Jacobs locked in on the men’s side. The remaining places in the nine-team fields are still up for grabs. Any of those aforementioned teams have a good shot at winning it and doing well in the Winter Olympics, which speaks volumes to Canada’s depth.

Eighth End: Missing the playoffs was a double whammy for some countries as it also means having to take the long road at the end of the year in an extra event to qualify for the Beijing Winter Games.

South Korea’s Team Eun-Jung Kim, silver medallists on home ice at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, finished with a 7-6 round-robin record identical to the U.S. and Canada but lucked out with no tiebreaker games. An inferior head-to-head record slotted South Korea in seventh place and outside the playoff picture.

Scotland, Japan and Germany are other notables that will have to play in a qualification event for the final three Olympic women’s spots. Germany’s Team Daniela Jentsch gave it a good try despite two players testing positive for COVID-19 upon arrival and having to compete in the tournament short-handed as a trio.

Extra End: Although play is finished in the bubble, the curling season continues across the pond with the world mixed doubles championship running May 17-23 in Aberdeen, Scotland. As mentioned, Einarson and Gushue will represent Canada. Other teams to keep an eye on are the hosts Scotland (Mouat and Jennifer Dodds), the United States (Peterson and Joe Polo), Sweden (Almida de Val and reigning champion Oskar Eriksson), Switzerland (2018 Olympic silver medallists Jenny Perret and Martin Rios) and Japan (Yurika Yoshida and Yuta Matsumura).