Volleyball stars trying to align
It came as no surprise that three-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and her brand-new partner, London silver medalist April Ross, sailed right through their first AVP tournament together without losing a single set. As the newest American power team laughed and hugged and sprayed champagne, it felt like a scene fans may be seeing a lot more of in the coming years.
With the win in the AVP Santa Barbara Open, Ross and Walsh Jennings officially began their journey toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro amid very high expectations. Over the next two and a half years, the two veteran players will work to build a partnership after competing against each other for nearly a decade.
"It's a totally different game when we're on the same side of the court," Ross said. "We're still figuring out what that is but it's coming along pretty fast."
Walsh Jennings and Ross decided to pair up more than a year ago, even before they faced each other in the gold-medal match in London. Knowing their partners were set to retire, it only made sense that the best two players in the country join forces to try to bring home a fourth straight gold medal.
With only five practices together before they competed last weekend, Walsh Jennings and Ross had to learn as they went. They found out that they have more similarities than differences.
"I've never played with anyone with as much energy as April has," Walsh Jennings said. "It's like looking in a mirror out there. I think we're really similar in the way we play and the way we feel about playing. I don't think I would have guessed that really. I'm still getting to know her."
Whether the similar energy will work for or against them is unclear. Both their previous partners complemented their energy in a different way. Ross brought the energy in her seven-year partnership with Jen Kessy, and Walsh Jennings provided it with Misty May-Treanor.
"I feel like Jen and I were yin and yang as far as energy," Ross said. "But I really like how Kerri and I start a match with the same energy and push through the whole time. It is awesome and it makes the game easier."
Successful partnerships in beach volleyball can be difficult to predict because they tend to hinge on much more than just skill.
"There is an intimacy level that you need to be great," Walsh Jennings said. "I think why we had so much success with our former partners is because we had that in spades. We took it really seriously and it's a beautiful thing when you have a great partnership."
Ross and Walsh Jennings both know what it's like to build and maintain long and successful partnerships, but they say they'll never make comparisons to the past.
"We want our own chemistry and we want to be better than we were before," Walsh Jennings said. "Not for one second will I ever compare April and I to Misty and I. It's just not possible. It's not fair and it's looking back as far as I'm concerned."
With the best blocker in the world and the best server in the world on the same side of the net, Walsh Jennings and Ross are already a force on the domestic tour. Their real test will come with the international tour. They'll compete in their first FIVB Grand Slam against the world's best teams in Brazil and China starting next week.
"I'm looking forward to that making us better," Ross said. After the Olympics I felt like the target on me and Jen got a lot bigger, and I got a little bit used to it then. It's going to be even bigger now. So I am looking forward to that challenge."
For now they are focused one match at a time and taking care of what they can control on their own side of the net. But the big picture -- gold in Rio -- is never far from their minds.
"We have a big goal and we're in it together," Walsh Jennings said. "I think both of us are so excited about the potential. We're striving for one of the most prestigious things in sports. We have all the tools it's going to take to accomplish our goal. That's the exciting thing and also the scary thing because we know it's in our hands."