The 2017 season has been a whirlwind for women’s beach volleyball, with old pairings ending and new pairings starting. That includes two of the best beach players in the world, and the two biggest stars of the American scene, splitting up their partnership in early May – April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings.
The pair were named the 2016 USA Beach Team of the Year after winning bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, won five FIVB World Tour events and Ross was named the AVP Tour MVP after winning all three stops that the two entered as a team. Ross did enter the championship tournament of the AVP Tour with Kelly Reeves, as Walsh Jennings boycotted the event due to rule changes.
This was the beginning of the end.
The pair began the year together, competing at the Fort Lauderdale Major to kick off the season. At this tournament, the duo made a switch on the court, trading sides, making it the first time that Ross had played on the right side in her career. This change proved to be successful as the pair finished in fifth place.
This was the last time that the pair really played on the sand together up until their split.
Walsh Jennings has had a feud with the AVP, as she sued the operator for not paying her all the wages she was owed. This was the kick in the sand for the pair, as Ross signed with the AVP Tour for the 2017 season.
Now, both players have new partners and are trying to rebuild themselves to prepare for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Ross is now partnered with Lauren Fendrick, a familiar face on the sand – not only as a competitor but as a teammate. The same goes for Walsh Jennings in picking Nicole Branagh to finish the season with. Walsh Jennings and Branagh paired up in 2010 when Misty May-Treanor was uncertain about continuing her run for the 2012 London Games.
So far, since the break-up, Ross has seen more action in the sand than Walsh Jennings has, but this could stem from a flare-up of a pre-existing injury in Walsh Jennings’ hitting shoulder. Recently, Walsh Jennings was forced to pull out of the FIVB Beach World Championships in Vienna, Austria due to dislocating her shoulder a week prior in a tournament in Poland. The injury for Walsh Jennings could impede on the remainder of her 2017 season, which has been fairly limited thus far. With Walsh Jennings at 100%, her and Branagh could do some serious damage on the sand. Branagh and Emily Day proved their worth this weekend at the World Championships, finishing tied for 17th place after having never previously playing together.
Ross/Fendrick has shown their strength as a pair this season, having three top-ten finishes in the World Tour, with their most recent being a second place finish at the Vienna Beach World Championships. To start off the competition, Ross/Fendrick went 3-0 in Pool K, dropping just one set to China’s XinXin Wang and Chen Xue. From there the pairing met Day/Branagh, which could have been another meeting for Walsh Jennings and Ross, had the injury not stopped Walsh Jennings from playing. Ross/Fendrick dropped the first set badly but recovered in the second to send the match into a deciding set. Here Ross/Fendrick took the wheel of the match, eliminating their American counterparts. The Round of 16 met another three-set match against Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova of the Czech Republic, once again dropping the third but recovering in the final two for a win.
The quarterfinals were a breeze for the Americans as they flew past Brandie Wilkerson and Heather Bansley in straight sets. The semifinals saw Ross/Fendrick against another strong Canadian duo in Sarah Pavan/Melissa Humana-Paredes. The Americans were able to hold on to face 2016 Olympic champions Kira Walkenhorst/Laura Ludwig in the finals. Here, they were unable to keep their streak going, dropping the match in three.
Their run at the World Championships shows how dominant of a team they are and will continue to be in they choose to partner through to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. With the way they are rolling through the competition right now, they would be doing a huge disservice to themselves in the future of their careers. Their run now could be an indicator of how their next few years could go, leading into 2020 – where they will be a well-seasoned team come Olympic year.
Now, the question has to be asked, are Ross/Fendrick the new American super duo?
This success as a pair this season clearly puts the two ahead of Walsh Jennings/Branagh, while also meeting at the Long Beach President’s Cup, winning in two. Though, they won there, with both Walsh-Jennings and Branagh in contention together and having more matches under their belts could prove to be a more powerful duo over Ross/Fendrick.
Right now, Ross/Fendrick have the upper hand as the best American women’s duo in beach volleyball, but they are highly contested by not only Walsh Jennings/Branagh but Summer Ross/Brooke Sweat and Kelly Claes/Sara Hughes – as each of these duos have begun to emerge this season into high caliber squads in both the AVP and the FIVB World Tour.
The future looks bright at this moment for Ross/Fendrick but they will meet challenges along the way to becoming the next American super duo.