By Andy J. Gordon
Many consider the Manhattan Beach Open the crown jewel of the pro beach volleyball circuit. It has been held at this iconic beach since 1960, and each year’s winning team gets a plaque on the pier with bragging rights for all time. This year’s winners were Phil Dalhausser/Sean Rosenthal on the Men’s side and Kerri Walsh-Jennings/April Ross for the Women. Both teams have been dominant in the 2014 beach volleyball season so while their victories at Manhattan Beach were hard earned, they were definitely not unexpected.
The AVP tour is undergoing a renaissance, after years of struggles, bankruptcies and tour turbulence. With new owner, Donald Sun, a tech industry veteran, the revitalized tour is trying to recapture the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s when live network TV coverage, big purses, a large dedicated fan base and national attention were the norm. The past several years have been difficult for pro beach volleyball in the USA. With the exception of Olympic excitement every four years, the American professional beach game has struggled for attention. The new AVP is in their second full year under Sun’s leadership and they are slowly redeveloping the beach sport around the country.
In past years, the AVP treated the Manhattan Open as a major event, not unlike the World Series of baseball or the US Open of tennis. Giant bleachers, big crowds and national sponsors overran the beach at this small coastal southern California community. The local government and property owners often clashed with the tournament organizers. This year seemed to be a compromise. There was no giant bleacher stadium, just a small shaded area for VIPs and a few additional organizer tents surrounding the main court. Other courts south of the main one were packed together on the sand and fans lined the perimeter. There was a sponsor village with long time corporate supporters Paul Mitchell, Bud Light, Barefoot Wines and Dig Magazine. SmartUSA and Kingston Technology (Sun’s former company) also had sponsorship areas. Fans were able to get free samples, prizes and information about the companies.
The tournament competition was heated, but predictable. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and partner April Ross have dominated this year’s AVP tour, winning all of the previous three events. They also have won several of the international FIVB events, including the recent World Series Of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, CA and are considered the best team in the world. They had little difficulty going through the field until their semifinal match against #3 seeds Emily Day and Summer Ross, who took them to three sets before losing. The championship match was against Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat. Fendrick and Sweat are the clear number two team on the domestic tour and when on their game, are one of the few opponents that test Walsh-Jennings and Ross. They have faced each other in the final of all four AVP events this season. The final match in Manhattan Beach ended in disappointment for Fendrick/Sweat as well as for the fans.
After winning the first set 21-19 in a hard fought battle that ended with a Sweat ace serve, Sweat was clearly beginning to struggle. It turned out to be a back problem that she initially felt last week in the Salt Lake City, Utah tournament. Her injury seemed to get progressively worse as Walsh-Jennings/Ross cruised to a 21-13 victory in the second set, setting up a fifteen point third set. Walsh-Jennings/Ross jumped out to a 9-0 lead in the deciding set. Fendrick and Sweat took two early timeouts and during the second one, Sweat was given lengthy medical treatment for her back injury. She reluctantly chose to retire (stop playing) and her decision forced an end to the match. The victory was Walsh-Jennings seventh at the Manhattan Beach Open, but the first for April Ross.
The Men’s tournament was much more competitive as several teams threatened to take the title. Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal battled their way through the field. They had two big tests on their way to the championship. On Saturday they squeaked out a three set victory over Ryan Doherty and Nick Lucena. Later in the semifinal, they were taken to three sets by Tri Bourne and John Hyden. Theo Brunner and Todd Rogers also had a tough path to the title match. They lost a three set winner’s bracket match to Brad Keenan and John Mayer on Saturday. Later that afternoon, they had to defeat three opposing teams, including last week’s winners, Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson, in order to reach the semifinals on Sunday morning. Brunner and Rogers’ semifinal was a rematch against Keenan/Mayer. Brunner/Rogers won the match in straight sets, avenging their earlier loss to the team, but they did not seem to have enough gas in the tank to challenge Dalhausser/Rosenthal in the final.
rld, but their dominance this year has come on the FIVB international tour, not the AVP. They were only seeded sixth at the Manhattan Open based on a computer point system. However, their supremacy was proven as they handled Brunner and Rogers 21-17, 21-13 in the final. The victory came without the usual power game that Dalhausser brings each week. He and Rosenthal skipped last week’s event in Utah so Dalhausser could rest a nagging abdominal injury. This weekend Dalhausser played more of a finesse game, floating serves instead of using his explosive top spin jump serve. He also hit lots of roll shots on offense instead of bombing away. Despite his injury, Dalhausser wrapped up the close first set of the championship match with his strong blocking. The second set was not as competitive as Brunner/Rogers failed to figure out how to counter Dalhausser’s big block and Rosenthal’s excellent defense which he converted into several transition points. It was the fourth Manhattan Beach Open win for Dalhausser and second for Rosenthal.
The Manhattan Beach Open was a weekend of great weather, exciting volleyball action and large crowds. The new AVP is gradually building a strong tour that has the best American players participating in their events. With CBS Sports Network offering live TV coverage, national companies sponsoring the tour and enthusiastic fans like those that spent the weekend in Manhattan Beach offering support, the future of professional beach volleyball in the USA is looking promising.
All photos copyright Andy J. Gordon 2014©