CUTS SHOTS: RUSSIAN REDEMPTION
By Tom Feuer
It was exactly one year ago when disaster struck Kerri Walsh-Jennings in pool play at the Moscow Grand Slam. Her shoulder, the unfortunate recipient of four separate surgeries, came unhinged again, and she and partner April Ross were forced to withdraw.
The season was a series of fits and spurts from that point forward. The shoulder popped out again in Gstaad in July and then Kerri sliced and diced her way to a remarkable second place finish in Long Beach in August serving underhanded and unveiling a varied arsenal of precise shot making to compensate for power lost. Why? Because she needed enough tournaments (12 between January 1st, 2015 to June 12, 2016) to qualify for the Olympics and the 2016 schedule had yet to be released. A fifth surgery in September followed.
Since then Kerri and April have been nails, winning three times, finishing second and third once apiece. And, after Cincinnati, they have the minimum twelve tournaments played to be Olympic eligible.
But now we hit the stretch of schedule which is the main course to the 2016 season. Six Majors or Grand Slams before the Olympic Games featuring full fields and teams very hungry to either solidify their spot for Rio or get themselves a better seeding in the 24 team field.
For the American teams the wear and tear has been significantly greater than for two of their chief competitors, the Brasilians and Dutch. An example of how tough it can be for teams trying to qualify was a back-to-back stretch from Fuzhou, China to Fortaleza, Brasil to Sochi, Russia in late April/early May. Insane! Then came the last couple of weeks in Antalya, Turkey, Cincinnati and now Moscow. Alison/Bruno, Evandro/Pedro and the Dutch duos of Nummerdor/Varenhorst and Brouwer/Meeuswen have been very selective in their schedules, looking to peak in Rio. Same situation with the chief women’s competitors, Larissa/Talita, Agatha/Barbara (both of Brasil), Meppelink/Van Iersel (Dutch), and Ludwig/Walkenhorst (Germany).
For KWJ and April there have been no red flags thus far in 2016. Their two losses have come at the hands of Stefanie Schwaiger/Barbara Hansel of Austria and Talita and Larissa. Interestingly enough the only game, not match, that Kerri and Misty May ever lost at an Olympics was to Schwaiger and her sister Doris back in London, 2012. Meanwhile, the loss to Talita and Larissa was tight, 22-20, 21-19 in games that could have easily gone either way.
If you have watched April and Kerri lately they are probably a better team than you might imagine when one of the players is coming off a major surgery. A large part is because Kerri has become more comfortable on the right side, and April’s aggressiveness has increased. It can/could be intimidating playing with the three-time Olympic gold medalist but I think those kinks have been worked out.
Still, both Brasil entrants for the Olympics, Talita and Larissa as well as Agatha and Barbara, are tough outs and they are rested. In addition to the home country’s qualified squads, both teams that make it to the Games from Germany and Switzerland will also be formidable.
The battle for the two German Olympic spots is as heated as the USA men’s competition. While Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst appear to have a lock on one berth, former World silver medalists Karla Borger/Britta Buthe, as well as Katrin Holtwick/Ilke Semmler and Chantel Laboureur/Julia Sude are in a pitched battle to get that coveted second ticket punched to Rio. There are actually three tournaments left for the Euros in the qualifying process as their Continental Championships are from June 1-5 in Biel, Switzerland and could be a huge decider.
The most intriguing race on the men’s side is certainly the one playing out between Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson, Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena, and John Hyden/Tri Bourne. Moscow will be the 12th tournament for the Dalhausser/Lucena tandem and the other two teams are all within reach of one another. However, with only two events before Olympic qualifying closes it would take a Hail Mary by Hyden/Bourne to make it to Rio. More on this next week.
Tom Feuer has been a close observer of the sport since 1976. He currently works as the Director of Arizona State’s Cronkite Sports Bureau in Santa Monica, CA and is a Professor of Practice. Prior to that, he was the Executive Producer for Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket in Los Angeles and has won three National Emmy Awards for his work in television.