For the third FIVB World Tour tournament in a row, April Ross and Alix Klineman will be playing for a gold medal.
The No. 1 seeded American pair won three elimination round matches at the FIVB Tokyo four-star on Saturday to set up a meeting with Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda “Duda” Lisboa in Sunday’s final.
A win in the gold-medal match would be the cherry on top of an incredible month of July for Ross and Klineman.
“(This month has) been amazing. One of the most amazing, if not the most amazing month of my career,” Ross said, a statement that carries some weight coming from the two-time Olympic medalist with 25 FIVB gold medals to her name. “To get second at World Champs, win a huge five star and then be in the finals of the test event, a four star — I can’t say anything else other than amazing.”
Ross and Klineman got plenty of volleyball in on Saturday. Their first-round match versus Fan Wang and Xinyi Xia of China went to three (21-16, 23-25, 15-8), then they beat world champions Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan of Canada 21-18, 21-19, before going to extra points in both sets of the semifinal versus Germany’s Julia Sude and Karla Borger (23-21, 22-20).
Agatha and Duda, the No. 4 seed in Tokyo, knocked out two other American teams on their way to the championship match. First, they got past Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman 21-14, 21-17 in the opening round of elimination, and then they squashed the medal ambitions of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat 21-12, 21-13.
“We made that team look really good,” Walsh Jennings said after the match. “They’re good but they’re not that good. To me it’s unacceptable. They’re a great team, we respect them, we’re better than that, so I don’t know what to say. It’s very disappointing.”
An up-and-down 2019 for Walsh Jennings and Sweat so far has seen the pair finish on the podium three times, be forced to settle for a disappointing 17th at World Champs, and then take three fifths in a row.
“We’re staying together,” Walsh Jennings said. “When you stay together you’re not on a roller coaster. Whatever the score is, whatever the winds are, whatever it is, we’re together. So that eliminates the roller coaster feeling. It’s Olympic qualifying, it is what it is. It’s a challenge. We’re in this for a challenge. We’re not in it for it to be easy.”
The fourth American women’s team competing in Tokyo, Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, were knocked out in the second round by Canadians Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson, who will play for bronze on Sunday after losing to Agatha and Duda in the semis.
On the men’s side of things, the two remaining Team USA pairs finished their Tokyo runs in the second round, with Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena losing to the Netherlands’ Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen.
Somehow, Dalhausser and Lucena seem to match up against this tall and powerful Dutch duo often, and Brouwer and Meeuwsen have of late had the upper hand, eliminating the Americans in three of the last four FIVBs.
Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb faced a rematch of the World Championships bronze-medal match versus No. 1 seeded Anders Mol and Christian Sorum of Norway in the second round. Just like at World Champs, Bourne and Crabb pushed the Volley Vikings to three sets, and this time they even had a one-point lead late in the third, but couldn’t get the win.
“We actually were up 13-12 in the third here, got a little tentative, so this one is tough to swallow because we really felt like we had ’em,” Bourne said. “It’s tough. We’ve just got to use it and try to get better from it.”
Like for Walsh Jennings and Sweat, 2019 has offered Bourne and Crabb the highest of highs and lowest of lows, taking them from a fourth-place finish at World Champs to a 25th in Gstaad and now a fifth in Tokyo.
“Two steps forward, one step back,” Bourne said. “As long as we’re moving forward though. We understand that the path to mastery is not all upward. It’s about taking small steps here and there and just moving in the right direction.”
On Sunday, at 6:20 p.m.Tokyo time (5:20 a.m. Eastern), Ross and Klineman will play the Brazilians for gold. In the past two years, Ross and Klineman have played Agatha and Duda five times, with the Americans holding a slight lead in the head-to-head series 3-2, but the Brazilians winning most recently in the third round of the Ostrava four-star elimination bracket.
The rest of the American contingent, however, is likely already on their way to Vienna for next week’s five star, no doubt using that 12-hour flight to consider how they can keep moving in the right direction and avoid this being a week they take one step back.