It almost didn’t happen. The Cinderella run. The upsets over the 16, the four, the eight, the 22. The AVP semifinal that would be host to the highest seed – Q47 – in the tour’s history. The 8-3 jump Zana Muno and Crissy Jones would get on top-seeded Betsi Flint and Emily Day, on stadium court, on Sunday. All of that was nearly lost before any of it even began. Towards the end of Jones’ and Muno’s fourth and final qualifier match for AVP Hermosa, Jones felt a cramp coming on, compiled by an awkward landing on her knee. They finished the match, of course. By that point, they’d come too far not to, and it was over quickly enough: 21-13, 21-7 over Lara Dykstra and Kim Smith, who were battling through injuries of their own. Forget playing another seven matches in main draw. In that moment, they had done everything they had come to do. They qualified on the AVP Tour, something that eluded them in their only other professional event, in Seattle, where they fell in the third round to Janelle Allen and Kerri Schuh. They cried on the way home to the airport that weekend. “At the same time,” Jones said, “we were both really unsure with what we were capable of doing.” Both of them had proven more than talented enough indoors – Muno at UCLA, Jones at Washington — to command a contract, with a salary, validation, stability, overseas. Their beach journey, at that point, had been the exact antithesis. Twice they had bought flights, booked hotels for qualifiers. Twice, in Austin and then New York, they didn’t get into the qualifier because of a lack of points. “I was like ‘Oh my God, this is so hard,’” Muno said, laughing. She’s able to laugh now, in retrospect. It’s easier to look in the rearview and smile when there’s a third place at one of the biggest domestic stops in that same rearview. They drew lessons from each, Seattle in particular. For four years at UCLA, Muno had been the favorite in virtually every match she played, finishing a brilliant career with two national championships, scoring the final point of the match that would seal the second. Now the role was flipped: Muno and Jones, a standout on court one at Cal Poly, which enjoyed a historic season of its own, were the underdogs, a role they came to embrace. “We came into Hermosa and said ‘Ok, this is our time to attack it and we’re going to go through a qualifier again and just stay present with every match we played,’” Jones said. So when they qualified, and there would be no teary rides home, that was it. That was everything they had come to do. “Once you’re out of the qualifier you can breathe, you’re so free,” Muno said. “Once you’re in the main draw, now you have nothing to lose, you can play free.” Problem was: They almost didn’t play at all. Jones called Muno on their way to the site, told her that her knee was hurting pretty bad. She might not be able to do it. Muno, on the other end of the phone, put on her best supportive face: “I’m like, ‘It’s ok, you gotta take care of yourself,’” she said, laughing, always laughing. Meanwhile: “I’m sobbing.” They figured they’d give it a try anyway. They told AVP tournament director Jeff Conover to pull them off of stadium court. Nobody wants to see a mid-match forfeit. So he put them on court five, and against Katie Spieler and Delaney Knudsen, a team they had beaten weeks earlier in the Santa Barbara Open, they lost, 21-14, 21-10. It was the best thing that could have happened. In a 24-team draw, as Hermosa is, if you win your first round, you play almost immediately after. But if you win your first and lose your second, on minimal rest, you wind up in the exact same spot as if you had lost your first, only you have an extra match on your legs and mind. So instead of playing a second match on hardly any rest, Muno and Jones were able to take six, seven hours off their feet. Put the legs up. Recover, finally. And then, match by match, the story of the weekend was written: a 15-10 third-set win over fellow collegians Morgan Martin (Hawai’i) and Iya Lindahl (Cal) to make Saturday, a sweep of Meghan Mannari and Taylor Nyquist, another sweep of Brittany Hochevar and Maria Clara Salgado, a three-set win over Kim DiCello and Kelly Reeves, a thrilling three-set quarterfinal over wunderkinds Delaynie Maple and Megan Kraft. With each win, Jones would wonder to herself, “Is this really happening?” “I think the experience in general, because it was so unexpected, and because of all the adversity we had gone through to get there, we were so grateful for everything that happened and seeing all these people who had been kicking butt on tour, just giving it our best shot,” Jones said. They did that Sunday, too, but in their eleventh match, their legs finally gave in. The 8-3 lead they established on Flint and Day was flipped into a 14-21 loss. A valiant comeback in the second was thwarted. Flint and Day would go on to win, 21-19, and then win the final. Muno called her brother, JJ, a minor league baseball player who is currently in the Chicago White Sox system. He asked her what happened, and she said her legs just didn’t have anything left in the tank, a feeling he’s more than familiar with. Next week, though, in Manhattan Beach, they’ll have four less matches on their legs. After winning an AVP Next Gold Series in Colorado, they earned a direct main draw berth. Perhaps more important, they’ll have something they didn’t before: Validation. The confirmation that, yes, they can do this. They can compete with the players by whom they’re still star-struck. Beyond that: They can beat them. “We knew that when we got the opportunity we could hang and play with the best of them,” Muno said. “I think we just needed the opportunity. We were just trying to be as prepared as we could for [Manhattan] and our breakthrough came a little sooner than we expected.”
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