FIVB

Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross return to action, map out next years

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Kerri Walsh Jennings went into the post-Rio offseason thinking she needed a new partner, with April Ross hoping to get pregnant.

So when Ross reached out to say that she had changed her mind and would return for 2017, Walsh Jennings struggled to contain her excitement.

“I was prepared for anything, but I really love playing with April,” Walsh Jennings said Tuesday.

After claiming bronze in Rio, Ross planned on taking time to decompress from the 2016 season and then try to get pregnant. She took a trip to Las Vegas to see The Chainsmokers, and snowboarded with her family in Montana.

But after a couple of weeks away from training, her first true break in years, Ross started itching to return to the sand.

“I thought I was going to be ready to stop and work on having a family, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t ready to stop,” Ross said.

Starting a family is still very much a priority for Ross, 34. She is now hoping to get pregnant after the 2017 season, and sit out in 2018.

2018 is the only year in the upcoming quadrennial without a major global championship. World championships will take place in 2017 and 2019, and 2020 is an Olympic year.

“It aligns perfectly that way,” Ross said.

Ross and Walsh Jennings are competing at the season-opening Fort Lauderdale Major on the FIVB World Tour this week. The most notable difference is that they switched sides, with Walsh Jennings now playing on the left.

“If you keep doing the same thing, you are going to keep getting the same results,” Walsh Jennings said. “We had an amazing year last year, but we always want more and better from ourselves.”

Their short-term focus is on the world championships, which begin July 28 in Vienna, Austria. Ross was the world champion in 2009 with Jennifer Kessy; Walsh Jennings won the 2003, 2005 and 2007 titles with Misty May-Treanor. But they’ve been shut out, separately and then together, since.

“It’s the biggest event of the year,” Walsh Jennings said. “That is goal for the year, but we want to win a lot before that, and a lot after that.”

Their long-term focus is on the 2020 Olympics. Both reiterated that they are committed to attempting to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Walsh Jennings, who is trying for a sixth Olympics at age 41, believes 2020 will be her final season.

“In my head, I’m thinking I’ve got four years, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it,” Walsh Jennings said. “And if that changes, it changes, and if it doesn’t, yay.”

Besides Ross and Walsh Jennings, none of the other U.S. teams are established. Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat, the other U.S. pair at the Rio Games, split this offseason. Of the eight other U.S. women in the Fort Lauderdale Major main draw, half are 24 years old or younger.

But Walsh Jennings will not spend this season scouting potential partners for 2018.

“If I start doing that, I’ll be in trouble with April, because I need to focus on us,” Walsh Jennings said. “And things change. Things obviously changed for her this year, and she decided to come back.

“I’m going to take things as they come. I know that whatever happens, I’ll make the best of it, and I’ll have great options.”

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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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TIMELINE: Russia’s recent history of sports doping