LONDON -- Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal left Beijing with a fifth-place finish and a good feeling about how they performed in their first Olympic beach volleyball tournament.
When they were eliminated from the London Games on Monday night, they didn't have the consolation of exceeding their expectations.
"It's 100 times worse," Gibb said after the Americans squandered a victory in the first set to lose 19-21, 21-18, 15-11 to Latvia in the Olympic quarterfinals and match their 2008 finish. "That was our first time and we lost to the defending gold medalists. I'm not saying we were supposed to lose that time or win this time, but it's different.
"I really felt like we were going to win a medal."
Gibb and Rosenthal qualified for the Olympics as the second American team, earning a fourth seed in London, but they were playing so well this summer that they had risen to No. 1 in the world rankings. The Latvian team of Beijing veteran Martins Plavins and new partner Janis Smedins was seeded 17th in the 24-team bracket. (Plavins' former partner was also in London, losing in the round of 16.)
"It's just amazing," Smedins said. "We are a small country and we had two teams: One had ninth place, and one is still playing."
The Latvians will play top-seeded Emanuel and Alison, who advanced earlier Monday after fighting off a match point against Poland to win 21-17, 16-21, 17-15.
The reigning world champions trailed Mariusz Prudel and Grzegorz Fijalek 14-13 in the third and wasted one match point of their own before Alison spiked the ball to the sand for the winner, then ran off the court celebrating. He pointed at the crowd, pointed at the sky and then ran back to the net to give his partner a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"It is a great match, and a great Olympic tournament," said Emanuel, who won the gold medal in Athens and a bronze in Beijing. "I think all the best teams are here."
In the other quarterfinal matches, Germany beat the second Brazilian team and the Netherlands beat Italy. That means Europe has three spots in the men's final four and a minimum of two medals for a continent that had only won three total -- men's and women's -- in the previous four Olympics.
"Now I think the Europeans are able to beat the Brazilians and the Americans," Germany's Jonas Reckermann said. "It's good to mix it up a little bit."
Reckermann and Julius Brink beat Brazil's Ricardo and Pedro Cunha 21-15, 21-19, sending home only three-time medalist in Olympic beach volleyball history. Ricardo won silver in Sydney, gold in Athens and bronze in Beijing -- the latter two with Emanuel as his partner.
"(Ricardo) will always be one of the biggest in our sport," Reckermann said. "I have all the respect for him and his achievements."
Reinder Nummerdor and Rich Schuil of the Netherlands beat Italy's Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo 21-16, 21-18 to secure the last semifinal berth.
"European beach volleyball is getting bigger and bigger," Nummerdor said.
The other American men's team, Beijing gold medalists Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser, lost in the round of 16.
The United States is already guaranteed a medal in the women's bracket, with two-time gold medalists Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor in the semifinals along with April Ross and Jennifer Kessy. So the nation that invented volleyball and brought it to the beach will not go home empty-handed.
The Americans have won at least one beach volleyball medal in every Olympics, and they have combined with Brazil to win 16 of a possible 24 medals since the event became a recognized sport in 1996.
The U.S. has won three of the four men's gold medals, but will miss the podium completely this time.
"It happens out here," Rosenthal said. "Everybody beats everybody."
Gibb and Rosenthal almost missed the London Games after Gibb found out he had testicular cancer at the end of 2010. He was able to rush back to the sand so he and Rosenthal could play in the tournaments necessary to qualify, and it wasn't until the last event of the two-year qualification period that they finally edged out the other U.S. team for the second of two spots allowed for each country.
They were at their best heading into the games, winning back-to-back events -- and beating Emanuel and Alison each time -- before losing to the Brazilian pair in the final of the Beijing event on July 14.
"We've been playing really well lately. To come up short on what our goal was, it's a hard loss," Rosenthal said. "It was a tough loss -- the toughest loss of our careers."