LONDON -- It seems incongruous to say the least. In a very British setting, a short walk from the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street and close enough to Buckingham Palace that the public address announcer jokes about the crowd noise disturbing the Queen's rest, a pair of American teams will battle on the sand for the Olympic gold medal in women's beach volleyball on Wednesday (4:00 p.m. ET). One is a pair that always seems to be on hand when the gold is handed out -- Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, who beat Chinese pair Xue Chen and Zhang Xi, 22-20 in both sets. The other is a surprising duo that turned it into a red-white-and-blue final -- Jennifer Kessy and April Ross, who shocked defending world champion Brazil in three sets, 15-21, 21-19, 15-12.
And so May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings get a final that will be memorable for more reasons than they imagined. The days are dwindling and the end is near for the duo, who have become beach volleyball royalty. They will be friends forever, but teammates for only one match longer. As they push toward what they hope will be their third straight Olympic gold medal, before May-Treanor, 35, heads off into retirement, it seems that the emotion of the endgame is as formidable an opponent as anyone they face across the net.
With, that is, the possible exception of their American counterparts. What the two U.S. teams have cannot be called a rivalry, not with May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings being so much more decorated than Kessy/Ross. But there is some edge to the relationship. Kessy and Ross have watched May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings get far more media attention than they have, or any other team for that matter, and though they can't argue that it is undeserved, they would like to serve notice that there is another women's team worth everyone's notice.
"On Team USA we're obviously all pulling for each other to do well, but within that, we're individual teams who are trying to come out on top," May-Treanor said. "I think our relationship with them [Kessy/Ross] is good. We don't train together or anything, because there is that competitive aspect."
May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings are the rulers of the sport, but they are also the hunted. Kessy and Ross proved they are armed and dangerous by defeating the Brazilians, Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta Silva, who were also the top seed in this tournament. After losing the first set decisively, it seemed that Kessy/Ross would go down without much resistance, but they battled back to win the second set and hung on to turn the Brazilians away in the third. With the Americans up 13-10, a Ross spike that hit the net and trickled over, setting up match point, was the killing blow for Brazil.
Having their fellow Americans in the final may help focus May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings on the task rather than their impending breakup, which seems to distract them at times. They dug themselves a scary little hole in the sand against China in the semifinals Tuesday night, falling behind the talented Xue Chen and Zhang Xi 13-8 in the first set before rallying to win the match, 22-20 in both sets. It took the early deficit, which is becoming familiar to them, to get the American pair to pull their heads out of their you-know-what, according to Walsh Jennings. "But we never panicked," she said. "I think that's what champions do. Misty and I are really good at that -- not panicking. In this tournament even, we've started with big deficits and we've come back. To do it against that team is insane because that doesn't happen. They're too good. That just means we're tougher than we think and we have it in us."
It was the 20th consecutive victory in the Olympics for the pair, but they aren't coming quite as decisively as they once did. May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings lost their first set in Olympic competition to Austria in the preliminaries last week before coming back to win. Now this. They acknowledge approaching the end of an 11-year partnership has something to do with their slow starts.
"I want to win so badly for this fantastic friend and teammate over here," Walsh Jennings said, pointing to May-Treanor. "We were holding on too tight and we wanted it so bad, and that tightened us instead of inspired us. So we had to figure out why we were allowing it to hinder us and we did that."
From that point on, they were fine, although Xue and Zhang did not go easily. The Chinese duo is young and athletic, the second ranked team in the world this year (May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings are third), and they built their early lead by eschewing their usual style, going with less velocity and more placement shots. After the Americans adjusted and climbed back to 13-13 in the first set with Walsh Jennings blocking nearly everything at the net, the match was incredibly even the rest of the way. Neither team led by more than two points for the remainder of the first set, but at 20-20, the Americans finally managed to put two points together when May-Treanor put a well-placed shot just inside the endline and Walsh Jennings ended it with a block at the net.
The mostly pro-USA crowd, which had been quieter than usual in the first set because of the Americans' early problems, perked up in the second set when it seemed like May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings were going in for the kill, moving out to an 8-4 lead. But this time it was Xue and Zhang who refused to crack, recovering to get to 16-16, and the back-and-forth battle was on again. The Chinese team led 19-18 when the Americans came up with the play that turned things.
Xue and Zhang appeared to be headed for match point when a dig by May-Treanor caromed out of bounds toward the stands. But she raced over and saved it, batting it blindly back toward the net, where Walsh Jennings dove desperately and somehow managed to nudge it over for a spectacular point. Asked how she was able to contort her body and still get the shot over, Walsh Jennings said, "I've been inspired by the U.S. women's gymnastics team." Then she added, "It's just about being aware and aggressive and knowing where you are on the court. And I think there's a little luck involved."
There has been almost nothing but good fortune for them ever since they first teamed up in 2001. The two gold medals. The three world championships. The stretch of 112 straight victories. But win or lose, the May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings train pulls into the station for good after the gold medal match on Wednesday. May-Treanor insists that even though the duo might still have enough left to stay at or near the top for a while longer, there is no chance she will change her mind about retirement. "I'm ready," she said. "I'm 100 percent ready. Maybe if this meant I wasn't going to see Kerri anymore it would be different, but I'll probably see more of her after I'm done than I do now. We can actually go have coffee and hang out together. It's going to be fine. No second thoughts."
Still, it might be a good idea to check back with her after the gold medal match. Win or lose, it promises to be the most heart-wrenching moment of the May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings dynasty.
"We have one more match," Walsh said. "Knowing it's coming to an end heightens everything."
For Kessy and Ross, knowing that it could be the beginning heightens everything. Two American teams, both with so much emotion tied up in one match. A crowd of what is sure to be raucous U.S. fans. The general party atmosphere of beach volleyball.
The Queen better put her ear plugs in. It's about to get loud.