Three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings said last week her recovery from a dislocated right shoulder went so well that suffering the injury May 27 felt like a lifetime ago, but a Brazilian pair has earned the favorite label going into the World Championships.
Walsh Jennings is set to return to competition for the first time in a month at the World Championships in the Netherlands on Saturday. She and partner Olympic silver medalist April Ross open pool play against a Dutch pair at 3 p.m. ET. The knockout rounds start Tuesday, with the medal matches July 3-4.
It’s the biggest tournament for both Walsh Jennings and Ross since the London Olympics, when they were on opposite sides of the net in an all-American gold-medal match.
Walsh Jennings’ partner at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Misty May-Treanor, retired following London. Walsh Jennings planted the seed to continue on with Ross as her new partner immediately after the Olympic final, and they teamed up full time after Walsh Jennings gave birth to daughter Scout on April 6, 2013.
Walsh Jennings, a 36-year-old mother of three, and Ross were strong but inconsistent in their first full season together in 2014. They won four FIVB World Tour events, tying Brazilians Larissa and Talita for the most by one pair.
This season has not gone according to plan. Walsh Jennings and Ross were beaten by Larissa and Talita in a one-set exhibition in Rio de Janeiro in February, the pairs’ first meeting.
Walsh Jennings and Ross finished third in their first international event in China in April, followed the next month by Walsh Jennings’ injury in Moscow that forced the pair to withdraw.
Walsh Jennings suffered the injury diving for a ball.
“The athlete hit a cut shot, I dug it, laid-out flat, something I’ve done a million times before,” Walsh Jennings, who had four shoulder surgeries but did not require an operation for this injury, said last week. “It was just a fluke. The ground is really hard, and it happens really fast. I think I kind of misjudged the level of everything.
“It definitely hurt. It was just more a really raw feeling. The pain was manageable. I knew I didn’t tear anything.”
“My doctor just said I got the crap kicked out of my shoulder.”
Meanwhile, the Brazilians Larissa and Talita have just about picked up from where they left off in 2014, when they paired midway through the year and won their final four FIVB World Tour events.
This season, Larissa and Talita won their first two FIVB World Tour starts before missing a Norway event due to Talita’s leg injury and being upset in the round of 16 in St. Petersburg, Fla., last week.
At the World Championships, Larissa and Talita are seeded ahead of Walsh Jennings and Ross. Walsh Jennings said the Brazilians deserve to be the favorites.
“They’re very beatable” she said. “They’re very similar to a lot of teams on tour, but their consistency is what separates them. They’re a stereotypical Brazilian beach volleyball team — two very good athletes who come together and complement each other very well.
“My money’s on us, all things being equal, but we have to prove ourselves. We’re unproven. That’s something that drove us crazy last year, the consistency.”
Walsh Jennings won three straight World Championships with May-Treanor in 2003, 2005 and 2007, but she didn’t start putting much stock into the prestige of the event until 2011.
That’s when Larissa and her former partner, Juliana, beat Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor in the Poland final and celebrated with screams and group hugs and by autographing video cameras like tennis players.
“Over the top,” May-Treanor called it.
“That pissed me off,” Walsh Jennings said of that defeat last week.
Walsh Jennings missed the 2013 World Championships, where Ross played with Whitney Pavlik and finished fourth. China’s Xue Chen and Zhang Xi took the title. Zhang hasn’t played since 2013, and Xue isn’t entered in the Netherlands.
The top men’s seed at Worlds was to be Americans Phil Dalhausser (2008 Olympic champion) and Sean Rosenthal (two-time Olympian), but they’re out due to Dalhausser’s muscle tear, also suffered in Moscow, and Rosenthal’s knee tendonitis, according to the FIVB.
Their absence opens up an already deep field of pairs that could take gold. Pairs from 10 different nations won FIVB World Tour events last season, and the first six events this year have been won by pairs from six different nations.
The U.S. pairs at Worlds are former minor-league pitcher and 7-footer Ryan Doherty and John Mayer, 42-year-old 1996 and 2000 indoor volleyball Olympian John Hyden and Tri Bourne, Rosenthal’s 2008 and 2012 Olympic partner Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson and Nick Lucena and Theo Brunner.
Gibb and Patterson won the FIVB World Tour Grand Slam in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Saturday, their second FIVB World Tour title since pairing for the start of the 2013 season.
The World Championships field also includes defending champions from host Netherlands — Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen — and Brazilian legends Ricardo and Emanuel, at least one of whom earned a medal at each of the last four Olympics, together or separately.
In 2003 and 2007, both men’s and women’s World champions went on to take Olympic gold the following year. In 2011, the World champions, both from Brazil, did not capture Olympic titles the next year.