The record says Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross won twice and lost three times against Brazil’s top competition in an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro last week.
But Walsh Jennings and Ross did not think defeat when reflecting on the U.S. vs. Brazil event — Melhores do Mundo — on Copacabana Beach, site of the 2016 Olympic tournament.
“Everything has been confirmed as far as the fact that we have the potential to be the best in the world, without a doubt,” Walsh Jennings said in a phone interview Sunday.
Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, and Ross, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist, were arguably the best in the world last season. They won four FIVB World Tour events in 10 starts in their first full year together.
Walsh Jennings’ three-time Olympic teammate, Misty May-Treanor, retired after the 2012 Olympics. Ross’ London Olympic teammate, Jennifer Kessy, missed last season to have a child and is back with new partner Emily Day.
The most anticipated matchup on Copacabana last week was between Walsh Jennings and Ross and the Brazilians Larissa and Talita on Friday.
Larissa and Talita also won four FIVB World Tour titles last season. Theirs came in just six starts, after they partnered midway through the year.
But Larissa and Talita and Walsh Jennings and Ross never faced off last season. Their first meeting was Friday in Walsh Jennings and Ross’ first tournament in more than five months. The score matched the hype.
In a one-set exhibition to 21 points, both pairs had match points before the Brazilians prevailed 26-24.
“It wasn’t a match; it was a game,” Ross said. “It’s hard to put very much stock in it. … I would love to have two more games [in a traditional best-of-three] to adjust a little bit.”
Ross said she and Walsh Jennings learned plenty about Larissa and Talita in the 50 points, but she would not divulge details.
“I was very surprised at how calm I felt,” said Walsh Jennings, who said firmly in January that she and Ross were the best team in the world. “I thought the nerves would be a lot bigger than they were. But I feel at home here.”
Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor were clear favorites for gold at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and perhaps only trailed Larissa and Juliana going into 2012.
Walsh Jennings believes that, at 17 months out from Rio 2016, this path to a potential fourth gold will be the toughest of all.
“Every quadrennial the teams have gotten deeper and deeper,” said Walsh Jennings, a mother of three who will turn 38 years old during the Rio Games. “The great teams are not necessarily better [this Olympic cycle], but the amount of great teams.”
Multiple Czech and German teams won FIVB World Tour events last season. The reigning World champions are Chinese.
Walsh Jennings and Ross will next play the season-opening FIVB World Tour event in China in April. The every-other-year World Championships are in June and July in the Netherlands.
One more experience in Rio that Walsh Jennings will take with her was a breakfast with Brazilian legend Shelda.
Shelda and her longtime partner Adriana were the world’s best team before Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor took over leading into the 2004 Olympics. (In 2016, Walsh Jennings will look to break Adriana’s record as oldest Olympic women’s beach volleyball medalist, by 2 1/2 years)
You’ll notice a key difference for Walsh Jennings in matches with Ross, contrasted to ones with May-Treanor, such as their 2004 Olympic gold-medal match against Shelda and Adriana.
Walsh Jennings has switched from the left side to the right side of the sand playing with Ross. That was Shelda’s side.
So Walsh Jennings used her coach, Marcio Sicoli, as a translator at breakfast, as she picked Shelda’s brain about playing on the right.
“Very simple and profound things to think about,” Walsh Jennings said. “Best conversation I ever had with Shelda.”