No longer unbeatable, Walsh and May-Treanor still own the sand

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LONDON -- With all due respect to the other teams who compete in beach volleyball for the United States, the American scene on the sand looks like this: there is the duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, and there is everybody else. At the Olympics, the list of everybody else is dwindling. The U.S. lost another pair Monday night in the men's competition, when the team of Jacob Gibb and Sean Rosenthal were eliminated in three sets by Latvia in the quarterfinals at the wonderfully named Horse Guards Parade. The Americans won the first set 21-19, but lost the next two to Martins Plavins and Janis Smedins, 18-21 and 11-15.

The crowd was its usual raucous, beach volleyball self, even more so with the presence of the Brazilian fans, who are always a party unto themselves. After seeing their men's pair of Alison Cerutti and Emanuel Rego win their quarterfinal match, many of the Brazilian fans stuck around and seemed to gravitate to Gibb and Rosenthal, but even their enthusiasm couldn't pull the Americans through as they faded against the Latvians in the third set.

The loss means that, as the British announcers like to say, there will be no further participation on the men's side for the U.S., since the more highly regarded American men's pair, Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, were upset by Italy in the round of 16. The U.S. is assured of at least one medal on the women's side, however, since the semifinals will include both the April Ross-Jen Kessy pair and, of course, May-Treanor and Walsh, the dynastic duo who are pursuing their third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

May-Treanor and Walsh, who will face Xue Chen and Xi Zhang of China on Tuesday, are so clearly the queens of the sport that it was news when they lost a set to Austria in the preliminaries last week. It was the first time they had ever done that in Olympic competition, and they were not pleased. "I was furious," May-Treanor told reporters after they had rallied to win the next two sets. "It's still with me. I want to go to the practice court and fix it."

That's how accustomed they are to domination. In addition to the two golds, May-Treanor and Walsh won 112 straight matches and 19 straight tournaments in 2008. Some of their opponents regard them as legends. When they crushed Italy 21-13, 21-13 earlier in the tournament, they brought the Italians' 21-year-old Marta Menegatti to tears, which Menegatti later said was in part because May-Treanor was her idol. With all the attention they've drawn, now there is another storyline, since May-Treanor, 35, intends to retire after these Games.

But before that happens, she and Walsh will continue to soak up the lion's share of the beach volleyball ink. They do their post-match interviews in a large portable conference room filled with reporters, while teams like Kessy and Ross, who will face the defending world champions from Brazil, Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta Silva, on Tuesday, usually chat with a handful of reporters in the mixed zone. "That's just the way it is, they've earned it," Kessy says. "When you have a couple of gold medals and God knows how many world championships [the pair has three], it's no surprise when you get the most attention. It's nothing to get irritated about. Everyone knows that they're the faces of the sport."

The only things that have challenged May-Treanor and Walsh, 33, have been issues from within, not without. May-Treanor ruptured her Achilles tendon while appearing on Dancing with the Stars in 2008, and Walsh spent time away from competition to give birth twice. They had more second-place finishes than first in 2011, prompting Walsh to call it "a gross year." They finished third in the Olympic qualification rankings, low by their standards.

They have appeared to be at least closer to top form in London, losing just that one set in five matches so far, but they should get a strong challenge from China, which is seeded second in the tournament. In terms of their performance over the past year, there is not much to separate the two duos. The 23-year-old Xue, who's 6-foot-7, and Xi, who's 27 and 6-0, have the youth and size to match up well with the Americans. (May-Treanor is 5-10, Walsh 6-3.) The Chinese pair won the bronze in Beijing in 2008 and finished third last year in the world championship in Rome, where May-Treanor/Walsh were second.

May-Treanor has said more than once that they want to "crush everybody" on this last go-round together. The rest of the U.S. teams would merely like to get somewhere close to the kind of dominance she and Walsh have enjoyed. For Gibb and Rosenthal, for instance, the quarterfinal departure was exactly equal to their finish in Beijing. The fourth-seeded Kessy and Ross would dearly love to make it an all American final, but they will be longshots against the top-seeded Brazilians, whom they have beaten only four times in 23 tries.

It's more likely that the American story in beach volleyball will continue to have May-Treanor and Walsh as the main characters, with everyone else as bit players for one last Olympics. The only question is whether the final chapter will have a golden ending.