April Ross’ route to a possible repeat championship in the AVP Huntington Beach Open took an unusual detour Saturday: the contender’s bracket.
A defeat in her first match of the day with new partner Whitney Pavlik left Ross, a 27-time AVP champion and bronze medalist from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, facing a longer route to her intended destination. It’s the kind of journey in which Ross tends to thrive.
“I do love earning that No. 1 spot,” Ross said, “but I’ve always loved being the underdog.”
The second-seeded Ross and Pavlik rebounded in their second match, outlasting Kim DiCello and Emily Stockman, 25-23, 12-21, 16-14, to advance to a semifinal Sunday against the top-seeded tandem of Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar. Sixth-seeded Betsi Metter Flint and Kelley Larsen, who posted a 21-7, 21-19 victory over Ross and Pavlik earlier Saturday, will face fourth-seeded Lane Carico and Lauren Fendrick in the other semifinal.
Ross lost her status as a heavy favorite after longtime partner Kerri Walsh Jennings recently withdrew from the AVP following a contract dispute. Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who teamed with Ross in Rio last summer, wrote on Facebook on Thursday that she would not be competing “for the foreseeable future at any AVP events” but said her holdout was not related to a lawsuit she has filed against the league contending that she is owed money from a personal services contract last season.
“I do not ever want to settle for less than what I feel is deserved for myself and for my sport,” Walsh Jennings wrote. “The AVP has a rich legacy that has been built over the past 30 years and yet, when I see the way things are going on the tour that I have loved and competed on since I was 23, I cannot support it.”
One of Walsh Jennings’ primary issues with the AVP revolved around what she described as a four-year contract that was “heavily lopsided and broadly restrictive.” She wrote that players were required to sign non-disclosure agreements just to see the contract, restricting their ability to discuss its merits among themselves before signing it.
While maintaining that she fully respected Walsh Jenning’s position, Ross said she never wavered in her desire to keep playing for the AVP. She intimated that league officials made some contract concessions, saying “they were willing to work with us and make it so the players were happy and I feel like they did that. So for me, it was like, OK, no problems signing it.”
Donald Sun, managing partner and owner of the AVP, did not directly address Walsh Jennings’ complaints when asked for a response.
“I respect her decisions and I wish her well,” Sun said. “In the meantime, we’re just excited about all the athletes and crowds who are here in Huntington Beach this weekend.”
Those fans experienced cool, overcast conditions that included midday sprinkles, gusty winds and a precipitous drop in temperatures that prompted the P.A. announcer to jokingly call it “AVP Seattle.”
Things held mostly to form on the men’s side, where top-seeded Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb advanced to a semifinal against seventh-seeded Ryan Doherty and John Hyden on Sunday. Second-seeded Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson will face third-seeded Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in the other semifinal.
Ross said she learned that she would no longer be playing with Walsh Jennings shortly before the entry deadline for this tournament. She decided to team up with Whitney, a longtime friend and 2012 Huntington Beach Open champion who also needed a new partner. They had played together previously, reaching the semifinals of the world championships in 2013.
They had only 2 1/2 practices together before this tournament and struggled in their opening match Saturday. But they looked stronger against DiCello and Stockman, Ross repeatedly winning points with her powerful jump serve and Pavlik showing a deft touch around the net.
Walsh Jennings told the Associated Press that her partnership with Ross was “finished” even though they could have continued to compete together internationally. Walsh Jennings hasn’t picked a new partner but told reporters in Gulf Shores, Ala., on Friday that she would next compete in the FIVB event next month in Croatia, before also playing in the World Series of Beach Volleyball in July in Long Beach.
Ross said she would play alongside Fendrick internationally this summer, beginning with an event in Moscow, adding she understood Walsh Jennings’ thinking in choosing a dedicated partner.
“Like, how do you train full-time with different people?” Ross said. “Like, two practices a day, or what do you do? It’s not ideal because I loved our partnership and I thought we were really good together and I thought we could definitely go to Tokyo [for the 2020 Olympics] and do really well, but it’s not in the cards right now. You never know going forward, but …”