Put them in Long Beach. Put them in Huntington Beach. Put them in Itapema or Manhattan Beach or Waikiki or Hamburg. The setting, the country, it seems, hardly appears to matter: April Ross and Alix Klineman will find a way to meet Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes in the finals.
They did so in Doha on Friday night, for the first time in history that women have been able to compete there, with Ross and Klineman claiming a golden piece of that history, winning 22-20, 21-18. Friday marked the seventh time since 2019 the Americans and Canadians have played one another in a final. Ross and Klineman now have that tiebreak, leading the Canadians 4-3 in matches in which they meet in the final.
“Oh my gosh, it means so much, we are so grateful to be here, we feel so welcomed here,” Ross said. “To come out on top, especially with it being the first event in so long we worked really hard and we are so excited.”
It was the fourth straight tournament win for Ross and Klineman, and their first under new coach Angie Akers. Despite the long COVID break, and working with a new coach, Ross and Klineman were close to perfect as a team could reasonably ask throughout the tournament. They dropped just a single set, in pool play to fellow Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat. Other than that, they won in the elimination rounds by scores of 21-14, 21-18; 21-17, 21-19; and 21-15, 21-16 in the semifinals over Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske. Their errors were minimal, mistakes few.
To earn a point was no small feat.
In the finals, it proved, once more, to be no small feat, as Ross and Klineman fought through gusty winds and small deficits in both sets. Down 12-9 at the technical timeout in the first, Ross and Klineman tied it at 14-14, never allowing themselves to go down more than 1 for the remainder of the match.
Humana-Paredes and Pavan took a similar, though more nerve-inducing, route to the finals, receiving challenges every step of the way. Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes pushed them in pool play, to a 16-14 third set win. So did Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson where, again, Pavan and Humana-Paredes prevailed, 15-9 in the third. The third set was no problem in the ensuing match either, a quarterfinal against Russia’s Svetlana Kholomina and Nadezda Makroguzova, where the Canadians won, 15-9.
Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda Duda would not take them to three, though it may as well have, with both sets being decided in extra points, 24-22, 26-24. The final being similarly tight was almost an inevitability.
Doha is simply the latest chapter in a growing series of excellent matches between the Canadians and Americans. In 12 of the 13 total matches they’ve played against one another, there has been at least one set decided by only two points. Six have gone to a third set.
With the women’s field as deep as it is, and only getting deeper, it would be unreasonable to claim that this is the inevitable gold medal match come Tokyo, though all signs are certainly pointing that direction.
“We worked as hard as we could work,” Klineman said of the extended off-season. “We still feel as if there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
Women’s Olympic rankings
- April Ross-Alix Klineman: 9,080
- Brooke Sweat-Kerri Walsh Jennings: 6,960
- Sarah Sponcil-Kelly Claes: 6,720
- Emily Stockman-Kelley Kolinske: 6,320
Jake Gibb, Taylor Crabb rising at the right time
It’s now taken them three events to win two.
“This is a huge win for us, our second medal,” Crabb said. “I feel like we’re building on every tournament and that’s what we want.”
Indeed, Crabb and Gibb’s rise, planned or not, is coming at a perfect time. The teams that had long stumped them in the first two years of their partnership, the Europeans ranked in the top five or so in the world, are being knocked off, one by one. In Chetumal in November of 2019, Crabb and Gibb felled Poland’s Michal Bryl and Grzegorz Fijalek, the No. 3 ranked team in the Olympic race. In the gold medal match, they beat Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen for the first time in their partnership.
In Doha, the first event of what is looking to be a full 2021 season, Crabb and Gibb were playing on an even higher plane. Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak, the former world No. 1-ranked team for two years after the Rio Olympics, proved to be of no consequence, as Gibb and Crabb won, 21-17, 21-16. Then came Russia’s Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy, the 2019 victors of both World Championships and the World Tour Finals. Down the Russians went, 24-22, 21-15, in a match that was controlled from start to finish by the Americans.
It was another first, another team against whom Gibb and Crabb could finally claim victory.
Then came Dalhausser and Lucena for bronze. They lead Dalhausser and Lucena in the Olympic race, yes, but three consecutive times did they play them in the AVP Champions Cup, and three consecutive times did they lose.
In the bronze medal match, where it mattered most, Gibb and Crabb flipped the script, in a score that more resembled the 2019 AVP Chicago final (21-19, 21-10) than any of the more recent bouts.
“It’s just always weird playing other Americans to be honest with you,” Gibb said. “It’s always weird. I love those guys.”
And Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb must have some love for Gibb and Crabb. Bourne and Crabb were absent from the tournament, having lost a country quota match to Theo Brunner and Chaim Schalk, who were eliminated in the qualifier. Dalhausser and Lucena required a fourth or better in Doha to pass Bourne and Crabb in the Olympic race, though a third would have been an additional 80 points to the effort.
With the fourth-place finish, Dalhausser and Lucena are now officially the No. 2-ranked team in the American race with 6,400 points; Bourne and Crabb are third, with 6,360; it’s the first time they’ve slid out of the top two.
The next event will be a three-tournament series in Cancun, on back-to-back-to-back weekends, beginning April 16 and stretching to May 2.
“What the FIVB did and what Qatar did to get the tournament going, it’s fantastic,” Taylor Crabb said. “We’re just stoked to be back.”
Men’s Olympic rankings
- Jake Gibb-Taylor Crabb: 7,000
- Phil Dalhausser-Nick Lucena: 6,400
- Tri Bourne-Trevor Crabb: 6,360