April Ross hasn’t won an individual FIVB annual award since 2012, but her play late this season merits accolades.
While three-time Olympic champion partner Kerri Walsh Jennings earned plenty of praise for returning twice from right shoulder dislocations, it was Ross who stepped up her game the most.
Walsh Jennings was effusive in interviews at the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, Calif., in August, saying Ross was playing the best that Walsh Jennings had ever seen.
The duo, with Walsh Jennings primarily serving underhand and swinging with her left arm and Ross taking on more offensive responsibility, lost in the final in Long Beach and then played two more tournaments before Walsh Jennings ended her season to have a fifth right shoulder surgery.
But Ross kept on playing and will finish her campaign at the FIVB World Tour Finals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in two weeks, teaming with Lauren Fendrick while Walsh Jennings is out. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will broadcast the finals live on Oct. 4 at 2:30 p.m. ET.
“It’s for sure tough, and it feels awkward,” Ross said in a phone interview of having a revolving door of partners this season. “I would obviously love to play with Kerri non-stop.”
Domestically, Ross won four AVP tournaments this year while using three partners — Walsh Jennings, then Jennifer Fopma for two titles and finally Fendrick in the AVP Championships in Huntington Beach, Calif., last week.
In Fort Lauderdale, Ross has her last chance at a first international tournament victory of 2015. She’s won at least one international title every full year she’s been on tour, since she was FIVB Rookie of the Year in 2007.
Ross said she will not play the remaining international events this fall and return to international play next season, either in late winter or early spring when the schedule starts up (depending on when Walsh Jennings is able to return).
Ross and Walsh Jennings’ challenges in the Olympic year are two-fold. One, qualifying for Rio.
They must play five FIVB World Tour events by June 12 to be eligible. There were six tournaments before that date on the 2015 schedule, so they will have little room for error and, more importantly, injuries next spring.
Second, winning in Rio. As of now, the favorites are Brazilians Larissa and Talita, who are also entered in the World Tour Finals and are 2-0 against Ross and Walsh Jennings.
Their first meeting was a preseason February one-set exhibition when Walsh Jennings and Ross weren’t in in-season form. The second, in the Long Beach final, came with Walsh Jennings playing with one good arm.
Larissa and Talita have won 10 of the 15 international events they’ve played since debuting in July 2014, a stretch of dominance reminiscent of Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor in past Olympic cycles.
Of course, Ross knows the challenge of both the Brazilian power pair and Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor.
She and Jennifer Kessy lost to Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor in May-Treanor’s final international match, the 2012 Olympic final.
Which is the tougher opponent — Larissa and Talita going into Rio, or Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor four years ago?
“They’re different beasts,” Ross said. “I think Misty and Kerri were definitely more formidable. I just don’t think we’ve had a good look at Larissa and Talita yet. … It’s weird how it’s shaping up. You would have totally thought we would’ve seen them a bunch, and we definitely haven’t.”