Kerri Walsh Jennings confirms plan to retire, narrows partner list

Kerri Walsh Jennings
AP
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ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — Kerri Walsh Jennings will call it a career in beach volleyball after the Tokyo Olympics in two years.

She has big plans before her days on the sand are done, and for improving the long-term health and growth of the sport well into the future by creating new playing opportunities in the U.S.

The three-time Olympic gold medalist absolutely expects to go out with another gold around her neck from the 2020 Games after she and partner April Ross wound up with bronze at Rio in 2016, a heartbreaking disappointment that still stings for Walsh Jennings yet fuels her at the same time.

“I haven’t shouted it from the mountaintops,” Walsh Jennings said Thursday of her career timeline in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.

It may sound like a daunting task ahead: Walsh Jennings will turn 42 during the next Olympics. She has yet to settle on a partner, after she and Nicole Branagh split last month, though she has narrowed down her choice to two women. She is also coming off a pair of surgeries last year on her right shoulder and left ankle.

Just three weeks ago she began using the shoulder to hit the ball with her usual power and motion.

“I have no partner. I just came off two surgeries, and I know I’m going to win gold in Tokyo,” she said emphatically of her Olympic hurrah despite her share of lows in recent years. “… It makes this one and this journey that much more meaningful.”

Back home in the Bay Area to promote her upcoming beach volleyball extravaganza — “it’s a movement” she says — to be held at the San Jose Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium in late September.

The “p1440” event featuring volleyball, health and wellness resources and opportunities, music, kids’ experiences and much more will go Sept. 28-30. Tickets went on sale Thursday, and additional events are scheduled for Las Vegas, San Diego and Huntington Beach this year and four more cities in 2019.

Walsh Jennings and husband Casey are committed to living each day to the fullest, all 1,440 minutes, inspiring the name.

“It’s all about living in the moment,” she said. “I certainly need to practice what I preach. It’s knowing what I want in life.”

They have long wanted to have their own academy, and now p1440 will combine a competition environment with opportunities for personal development no matter someone’s fitness level or physical challenge with the support of sports psychology and a technology platform and educational tools.

Walsh Jennings is striving to be her best every day and is driven to “live in my strengths,” whether that means being present for her husband and three children, dealing with her failures as well as her triumphs, or remembering to take a moment each morning and night to remind herself what she is most grateful for in her life.

After failing to win gold in Rio, Walsh Jennings struggled to find her top form because she was “living in fear on the court.” Even after earning bronze in ’16, she carried the weight of her defeat with her for months and years. That had never happened before.

Now, at last, she has come through that. With help from those close to her each step of the way, of course.

“We are pure positivity,” she said. “I really do believe happiness is a choice. I really believe staying positive is a choice.”

She had a falling out with the Association of Volleyball Professionals at the end of 2016 and has since ventured out on her own by taking on the formation of p1440 with huge aspirations of making it stick as a viable option for professionals.

Walsh Jennings insists volleyball can be a sport that has a far greater reach than just the every-four-years Olympic chase when people tend to tune in to see one of the Games’ most popular events.

That’s why Walsh Jennings believes she still has so much to give in beach volleyball and far beyond.

“I think I would have retired if we won gold in Rio,” said Walsh Jennings, who first hinted at one more Olympic run in December 2016, then said in April that 2020 would be her final Games. “This is my platform. I’m not done with my platform. That loss is going to serve me in so many different ways.”

Losing in Rio while “performing terribly” has changed Walsh Jennings. She has learned from it and become better for it.

“It’s so liberating when your weaknesses are exposed,” she said, “when you live your worst nightmare and survive.”

MORE: 20 U.S. athletes to watch, 2 years out from Tokyo 2020

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Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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