Holly McPeak has chiseled biceps, strong and shapely legs, and a rear end that would make a baseball power-pitcher proud. Her cutting-board stomach is the only flat thing about her body. She’s the most beautiful female athlete in the world. Yet–please don’t laugh–her most beautiful asset is her mind.

McPeak is the Greg Maddux of beach volleyball–she knows all the angles of her sport. She’s run through a series of tall, athletic partners over the years, but while they’ve inevitably seen their fortunes fade after the split, McPeak just keeps winning–63 tournaments in all, placing her second all-time behind Karolyn Kirby. The two-person teams are usually Mutt and Jeff pairings, with the smaller player setting the ball for the taller one to spike at the net; this produces predictable tactics of the other team trying to hit the ball to the smaller player, so that player has to take the first and third shots of the sport’s dig-set-spike rhythm (a save of a low shot, another shot to the net, and a roundhouse punch that sends the ball low into the opponents’ court). Yet McPeak, at five-seven, is such an adept setter that she can dig and set even a vicious jump serve with a single shot, giving her teammate a chance for a quick kill, and even when that fails and the roles are reversed, she can rush the net and put the ball away, with either a spike into the corner or a deceptive dink (a well-placed change-up) down the line. She throws her arms back to leap, and for a moment her hands flutter behind her–the only feminine gesture in her entire arsenal. Then she explodes into the air and smacks the ball between opponents. Watching her play is like watching Maddux pitch.

Last Friday I finally got to see McPeak in the flesh, as the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour came to North Avenue Beach for the U.S. Open Championships. The tour has diminished in popularity since the early and mid-90s, suffering from overexposure and a prudish backlash in the sports sections. Chicago was a key stop, a foray from the hedonistic coastal beaches into the straitlaced heartland but nevertheless an appropriate setting, given the popularity of the sport here–the courts set up between North and Fullerton are filled every day–and the backdrop of the city. The day before the tournament torrential rain had forced city officials to empty the sewers into the Chicago River and close the beaches through the weekend. Friday morning, as I walked through Lincoln Park Zoo to the beach, a persistent mist fell, a dull breeze wafted the scent of dying alewives, and I was almost on top of the bleachers for the stadium court, set up in front of the luxury-liner beach house, before I could even make them out in the deep fog enveloping the lakefront. The only question I had was “Are there rain delays in beach volleyball?”

There aren’t, only lightning stoppages as in golf, so players were not only on the main court but on several smaller courts beyond, as the competitors were winnowed down to single champions in the men’s and women’s divisions. I arrived moments before McPeak and her new partner, Elaine Youngs, were to play their quarterfinal match against Ali Wood and Danalee Bragado. Warming up on the sideline while a men’s match finished up on the stadium court, Youngs hit a sharp overhand serve about 20 feet to McPeak, who deflected it high in the air. Youngs returned it equally high so that McPeak could spike it at her, forcing her to dig it out, and so it went, back and forth, until they were disrupted by one of the men during a break in the game. A low-ranked team was playing against second-ranked Karch Kiraly and Brent Doble, and one of the underdogs asked Youngs to take a picture of them while they played. She obliged with a smile, and he pulled a disposable camera from his beach bag. She took some action shots, concentrating on getting a few players at the net, went back to warming up with McPeak, and took a few more photos before the favorites put the underdogs out of their misery in straight games.

Only after McPeak and Youngs took the court did I realize something I hadn’t before in watching the sport on television, something too few fans or even players recognize: McPeak and Youngs–who is taller and thinner but no less attractive–use their beauty to intimidate their opponents. Warming up, Youngs had been wearing a floppy yellow sweatshirt that covered her bikini bottoms, while McPeak had been wearing a plain white T-shirt and ugly brown shorts. Courtside they stripped down to a matching set of blue bikinis. Their opponents, Wood and Bragado, were wearing bikini tops and blue tights, which they peeled off to reveal a matching set of unflattering bottoms. They were athletic and solidly built–two-person beach volleyball doesn’t allow for any John Kruks, as the players have to cover eight square meters in sand that impedes not just running but leaping–but their legs were thick and their bellies bounced slightly when they walked. It didn’t seem fair that the sport’s great beauties should also be better players, but remember how Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen used to project the same sort of swagger when they were among the first midsize basketball players to build up their shoulders and biceps. Like Muhammad Ali, they not only beat their opponents, they seemed to glory in how much better looking they were. Imagine the same dynamic in a sport played in bikinis.

The first game of their best-of-three match was even early, but then McPeak and Youngs began to pull away. Wood saved one ball with a high, arcing shot over the net, but then Youngs deadened it; it dropped to McPeak, squatting below her, who set it perfectly for a Youngs spike. Moments later Youngs returned the favor, and McPeak rose up for an apparent spike, which she then dinked long over the rising blockers. They won the first game easily, 21-12. The second game was even at eight before the favorites pulled away again. Youngs put together a blistering set of spikes; her playing style was all sharp angles and elbows, which made for a whiplash arm motion. She unleashed a screwball jump serve for an ace that made it 11-9, and from then on they were in control. On match point Youngs made a nice dig save that sent the ball to the bottom of the net, where McPeak got it and set it straight up as if teeing a golf ball. Youngs drove it home for a 21-15 game, and the match.

It would take a team secure in themselves–in their playing ability and their body image–to compete with Youngs and McPeak. They arrived in the form of a couple of new mothers on the comeback trail after taking a year off to have babies: Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson Jordan. Two weeks earlier, in Manhattan Beach, California, they’d upset Youngs and McPeak in the finals, and as the second-ranked team in Chicago they were headed for another showdown. I waited around for their quarterfinal match against Katy Eldridge and Jennifer Meredith. Davis was gawky around the net, but she could nail a spike and had a terrific jump serve. Jordan was smaller and more lithe; with long strides she covered the court from back to front and side to side, and she could set or spike with equal dexterity. Between them, they had a nice array of backward sets and other misdirection plays, and when Jordan went up for a spike, elbows flying, she was a sight to see. They won the first game 21-18, the second 21-16. Toward the end of the second game Jordan raced back to save a long shot, then reversed direction and reached the net in time to get Davis’s set, which she drilled for a winner.

There were only a hundred or so fans in the stands for the women; the men’s matches seemed to attract larger crowds. In fact the men’s final was broadcast live on NBC on Sunday, followed by the women’s final on tape. Fortunately, both were graced by clear weather and a packed stadium.

In general the men play a power game with fewer long rallies. The women play strategically and cover the court, while the men tend to blast away. Many people say that in sports shared by both sexes, women tend to play a better team game. Some basketball aficionados claim to prefer women’s hoops, because the players are more fundamentally sound. Yet the women lack the aerial game that makes men’s basketball so beautiful. In soccer, where the aerial game is relatively slight, the women’s precision and teamwork make up for their slower speed. In beach volleyball women provide the best of both worlds, playing an aerial game as intricate as the men’s (the net is lowered about six inches for them) while deploying more tactics and better teamwork, which makes for longer rallies. Not to sound sexist–and at this point, how can I possibly worry about that?–but I’ll take their beauty over the men’s power any day.

That doesn’t mean the men weren’t worth watching. I made a point of catching top-ranked Dax Holdren and Eric Fonoimoana in a match on the court just south of the stadium court. They were in a tough three-set match, and rain began to fall during the third game. Holdren looked like someone named Dax: like a surfer dude, with spiky blond hair, a shallow chest, and Gary Busey buckteeth, but a powerful flat waist made for leaping (he has a reputation as one of the best blockers on the tour). Fonoimoana was cut, all muscles and six-pack abs. There was no announcer for their match, and even as they began to pull away from their opponents, fans were befuddled. During one break in play someone shouted out, “Score?” “Ten-five,” Holdren said with disdain as he straightened the sideline tape with his foot. They won the third game 15-11 (the clinching game is played to 15, the first two to 21) and advanced to Sunday’s finals, beating Brazilians Frederico Souza and Anjinho in two straight games.

Their match had nothing on the women’s final, which found the moms, Davis and Jordan, in matching bikinis that revealed Jordan’s rippling abs. McPeak and Youngs won the first game 21-19, and led the second game early before Jordan and Davis pulled even at 8. They kept hitting the ball to McPeak, and while she sometimes succeeded in her instant sets, she also had to spike, and she showed a persistent reluctance to drill the ball. I don’t know if she feared Davis’s blocking or was injured, but she kept hitting high, soft shots at the net, and Jordan proved fully prepared, ranging back and forth across the back line. Davis got hot and unleashed a series of jump-serve aces to turn the momentum, and they squared the match 21-16.

The third game was one of the best sporting events I’ve seen all year, though that might be damning with faint praise here in Chicago. McPeak and Youngs were up 8-4, halfway to a victory, when their opponents called time-out. That seemed to quash their momentum, and soon the game was tied at 11. They traded points back and forth; twice McPeak had the opportunity to spike the ball at the net but hit it soft, going for direction over power, and Jordan ran it down, finally converting on a smash of her own to capture the lead, 14-13. The score went back and forth until Davis and Jordan were serving for the match at 16-15. They hit the ball down the sideline, but McPeak made a stabbing one-handed save, Youngs set it, and McPeak made it back to the net in time to score, tying the game again. Davis and Jordan won the next point, and Davis tossed up her jump serve for the match. McPeak and Youngs got it back and hit a hard spike that sent Jordan sprawling backward when she dug it out. Yet somehow she popped right up and raced to the net, getting there in time to spike Davis’s set and clinch the match, 18-16.

There should be no need to defend a sport that produces a dramatic, physical, psychologically complex match like that. If bluestockings take issue with a sport played in bikinis and board shorts, that’s their problem. I understand the difference between beach volleyball and mud wrestling, though as I walked back to my car Friday through Lincoln Park, even the statue of Ulysses S. Grant seemed to be staring at the players on the beach.