Kerri Walsh Jennings
FIVB

Kerri Walsh Jennings, after her longest break, eyes last Olympic run

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Kerri Walsh Jennings cried.

In early March, she shed tears after jumping from the sand and slapping a ball in practice for the first time in more than six months, ending the longest break between hits in a career that’s included three Olympic gold medals and three childbirths.

“Since then, it’s just been back to basics,” Walsh Jennings, who has had longer breaks between tournaments, said last week. “It’s gnarly, man, this job of ours. You know, when you want something so bad and you believe, but there are just unknowns.”

Walsh Jennings and Nicole Branagh, who partnered last year, return to competition at an FIVB World Tour event in Xiamen, China, next week. Branagh has two children of her own. Both women are 39 years old.

They last played together in a tournament on July 22. That’s when Walsh Jennings dislocated her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder. They were 14-all in the third set. Walsh Jennings lunged into the sand for a dig, and it popped out.

She needed a sixth right shoulder surgery. It would end her season.

“I don’t have arthritis in my shoulder,” she said. “[My doctor was] like, your shoulder’s in remarkably good condition. But he also told me that when he was in surgery for my sixth one, his assistant in there was like, that doesn’t look like a shoulder anymore.”

Walsh Jennings tacked on another surgery. This is where the unknown comes in. Her right ankle was bothersome since before the Rio Olympics and exacerbated in 2017. She likened it to trying to walk in quicksand.

“I blew out my ankle 30 days before my first Olympics,” as an indoor player in 2000, Walsh Jennings said, noting that she walked in a boot in the Opening Ceremony in Sydney, before moving to the more forgiving beach sand. “Fast forward 20 years, after not addressing that significant injury, I had major issues.”

Walsh Jennings, usually towering at the net at 6 feet, 3 inches, was held up by crutches for two weeks after surgery. She spent at least another week or two wheeling around on a scooter.

She returned to the Southern California sand for practice with Branagh on March 8.

“I’m at a frustrating transitional discomfort, getting the capability of my body, but I know it will lead to better things,” she said. “I have to work through all this newness and connect the dots, because I feel a bit disconnected.”

Walsh Jennings and Branagh rekindle their partnership again (they also partnered briefly in 2010 during Misty May-Treanor‘s break). They plan to play the two remaining five-star FIVB events this season (the sport’s “majors”), plus the majority of the eight remaining four-star events.

Walsh Jennings is also starting her own beach volleyball series called p1440 (inspired by the number of minutes in one day). The schedule of eight tournaments for the 2018-19 season should be announced later this month.

Their goal is to become the top American team by the end of the season. And to go to Tokyo, when they will be older than every previous Olympic beach volleyball player.

Walsh Jennings is firm in two commitments, that she and Branagh will not break up their partnership before then and that they will be her final Games.

“No doubt, as an athlete for sure,” she said. “I will support for the rest of my days.”

Every other notable U.S. woman changed partners since Walsh Jennings’ injury.

Her Olympic bronze-medal partner, April Ross, is now with Alix KlinemanSara Hughes, a promising 23-year-old courted by Walsh Jennings last year, split from USC teammate Kelly Claes. Hughes paired with Summer Ross. Claes is entered in Xiamen with Brittany Hochevar.

Lauren Fendrick and April Ross earned silver at worlds last year, but after Ross went to Klineman, Fendrick is now reunited with her 2016 Olympic teammate, Brooke Sweat, in next month’s Huntington Beach Open.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh are now the longest-running partnership among the top U.S. teams. They intend to keep it that way.

“We’re committed. We’re partners,” Walsh Jennings said. “All that stuff [the other teams changing] is fun to think about, but it really is not impactful toward us at all. The focus is still with us, and that’s how it should be.”

Walsh Jennings wouldn’t mind one more milestone, but it’s in the distance. She has 133 tournament wins combining domestic and international events, according to BVBInfo.com. Karch Kiraly holds the U.S. record of 148 wins.

“For a while, that was the focus,” Walsh Jennings said of Kiraly, who was passed by Brazilian legend Emanuel (who retired with 151 wins, according to the International Volleyball Hall of Fame). “Then I got hurt and was like, I’m just happy to play.”

Walsh Jennings won 11 times in 2014 and eight times in 2016 but has zero since August 2016. A victory next week in China won’t necessarily mean finishing first.

“It has to be a stepping stone,” Walsh Jennings said. “I’m not anywhere near where I need to be or where I will be to compete for a gold medal.”

MORE: Top U.S. men’s team wins season’s first beach volleyball major

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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff
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Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff will meet in the third round of a second straight Grand Slam, this time at the Australian Open on Friday.

Osaka, the defending champion and world No. 4, and Gauff, the 15-year-old American phenom, each won second-round matches in Melbourne to reach the final 32.

Osaka swept Chinese Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4 on a windy Wednesday afternoon. Later, Gauff followed her first-round win over Venus Williams by eliminating Romanian veteran Sorana Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

Osaka beat Gauff 6-3, 6-0 in the U.S. Open third round on Aug. 31. In the most memorable moment of that night, Osaka urged Gauff to share the on-court victor’s interview at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“It’s better than going into the showers and crying,” Osaka told Gauff in front of a packed crowd. “Let these people know how you feel.”

Gauff obliged after at first declining.

“I’m not the type of person who wants to cry in front of everyone,” she said later. “I didn’t want to take that moment away from [Osaka], as well.”

Gauff, ranked No. 684 at this time last year, is now No. 67. She broke through by beating Williams in the Wimbledon first round, then reaching the round of 16.

Gauff won a lower-level WTA Tour event in October and now ranks fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying. The top four after the French Open qualify for the Tokyo Games, though Gauff has fewer than half the points as No. 4 Alison Riske.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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John Isner leaning toward skipping Olympics again

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John Isner, the highest-ranked U.S. male singles tennis player, is considering skipping the Olympics for a second straight time.

“I haven’t put a ton of thought into it, but as of right now, I think I’m leaning towards not playing,” the 19th-ranked player said at the Australian Open on Tuesday. “It’s about scheduling. I know the Olympics, it’s a fantastic honor. There’s no doubt about that. … Right now, at this stage in my career, it’s not a huge priority for me. So that’s probably the main reason I won’t be going. I certainly love playing in the summer in America, and I’m going to focus on that.”

The Tokyo Games take place the same week as a lower-level ATP Tour event in Atlanta that Isner, a former University of Georgia star, has won five times.

Other notable male players already said they will pass on Tokyo, including Sam Querrey, the top American in Olympic qualifying standings.

Austrian Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open finalist, is prioritizing an ATP event in Kitzbühel the week of the Olympics. The U.S. doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan are not planning to play the Olympics in their final season before retirement, their manager said in November.

“The Olympics is very tough on the schedule … especially with Davis Cup,” Isner said in 2016, according to USA Today. “I think the fact that they have no [ATP ranking] points [at the Olympics], to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well. Obviously the Olympics is not about the money, but no points I think hindered me a bit.”

Isner, who turns 35 on April 26, is likely giving up his last chance to play Olympic singles. In his only Olympic participation, he reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Games, plus lost an opening-round doubles match there with Andy Roddick.

The top four U.S. men qualify for Tokyo, assuming they are among the top 60 overall qualifiers (maximum four per country) after this spring’s French Open.

Taylor FritzReilly Opelka, Steve Johnson and Tommy Paul are the U.S. men currently in Olympic qualifying position if excluding Querrey and Isner.

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