Last August at the Manhattan Beach Open, Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross cruised to their fourth consecutive victory at an AVP event, and Sean Rosenthal and Phil Dalhausser got their only domestic tour victory of the season.
This year, a series of injuries and partner changes have guaranteed that there will be two new sets of winners considered by some players as the most prestigious beach volleyball venue in the United States.
Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, will not play as she continues to recover from a dislocated shoulder. She hopes to return for the World Series of Volleyball, which begins August 18.
"It's literally devastating, but it's just too soon," Walsh Jennings said. "It's not a reasonable thing to ask of my body. And I want to go out and win, not go out and play afraid."
Walsh Jennings' injury forced Ross to team with Jennifer Fopma. After some early bumps they won the Seattle Open last weekend. Walsh Jennings and Ross had a record-breaking 2014, winning all seven AVP events. They also won the 2015 opener in New Orleans before Walsh Jennings was injured.
"This has been a pretty weird season so far," Ross said. "Obviously, I'd love to play it with [Walsh Jennings], so it's going to be a little bit tougher jumping in there with somebody else. But my goal is still to win it. I think I still have a shot, but it'll definitely be very different. And it sucks not having her be a part of the AVP for iconic events like that."
Unlike most events on the AVP tour, the Manhattan Beach tournament has a larger-than-normal 32-team main draw each for men and women. Ross's main competition probably will come from two teams — Emily Day and Jennifer Kessy, who lead the AVP in points, and Angela Bensend and Geena Urango.
On the men's side, Rosenthal and Dalhausser started the season together, but have since switched partners after Dalhausser suffered an oblique injury. He has recovered and says he feels healthy.
"Mentally, yeah, I'm worried about it," Dalhausser, 35, said. "It takes forever for [oblique injuries] to heal. I missed a large chunk of the season, so I don't want to have to do that again."
Dalhausser is satisfied with the cohesiveness between himself and Nick Lucena, particularly after a second-place finish in Seattle.
"There's so many little nuances to the game and a lot of those things kind of take time to develop in a partnership," Dalhausser said. "Nick and I played together like 10 years ago, but that's when we were just in our early 20s and we were just playing volleyball, we weren't thinking about it. We would just react to everything and there was no thought behind it. So now there's a little more thought."
Rosenthal, 35, paired with Theo Brunner in Seattle, finishing fifth after a two-set loss to third-place finishers Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson.
"We've been doing well," Rosenthal said. "We've only played five matches together. All in all, I'm excited. The more matches we get, the better we're going to get."
Rosenthal made his AVP debut at Manhattan Beach nearly 20 years ago, when he had to play in qualifiers.
"I remember a lot of it, it was my first one, I was 16 and still in high school," Rosenthal said. "I went to qualifying not really expecting to make it in, just kind of to get some play in against some good teams, and then we made it and it turned into a great weekend."
Rosenthal says there are five men's teams with a chance to win the event, though "there's always an outside shot for anybody."
The biggest adjustment for players is beach conditions.
"Manhattan has really deep sand, really soft sand," Dalhausser said. "I'm comfortable in that type of sand, but not everybody is."
Ross has high praise for the venue.
"I think Manhattan Beach is the most idyllic place to play in the entire world, honestly," Ross said. "It's the best place to play."
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