Can April and Alix win one more gold at World Tour Finals?

CAGLIARI, Italy, October 5, 2021 - It was time. Time to unwind. Time for Alix Klineman to take a long-awaited trip to Florence and Tuscany, to sit back, drink some wine, enjoy some -- or quite a lot of -- good food, to enjoy the nuptials of good friends Brian Cook and Kelsey Robinson, to not pore over film and opponents and blocking moves and what she could be doing better on a beach volleyball court.


It was time. Time to unwind. Time for April Ross to hit a Kygo concert, to sit down with a good book, to rest the shoulder that pounded so many aces and kills, time to ease the mind that had won so many chess matches against the best teams in the world.


That time is now over.


A glimpse into what the off-season might look like, after the final ball at the AVP Chicago landed but before preparation needed to begin again for the upcoming World Tour Finals, was brief, a tease. Ross and Klineman, who have won mostly everything there has been to win this season, have one more tournament to stand atop the podium: the World Tour Finals.


On Tuesday evening, Ross was back in the USA Volleyball gym, “back to full volume training,” she said.


That full volume training has worked astonishingly well over the previous three years. Ross and Klineman have won eight FIVB medals, one NORCECA, and 12 AVPs. They’ve won cowbells, cemented themselves on the Manhattan Beach Pier, been adored in Olympic parades. They’ve now won three straight tournaments: Tokyo, Manhattan Beach, Chicago.


“I have to pinch myself pretty much every day,” Klineman said. “Life is seriously so crazy right now.”


And now for one last gold, one final pinch-yourself moment in 2021, at the World Tour Finals in Cagliari.


Their only attempt at a World Tour Final as a team came in 2019, in Rome. They finished ninth then, falling in the first round to the Czech Republic’s Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova. They’ve only finished ninth one time since.


They are rising still, Ross and Klineman. Somehow, some way. Yet so is much of the field. More than half of the eight teams in Cagliari made brilliant runs through the 2021 season, precocious teams once considered Cinderellas who are Cinderellas no longer. When Ross and Klineman spoke of the teams who became immediate Olympic contenders after a long and strange 2020, five are in the field of the World Tour Finals: Svetlana Kholomina and Nadezda Makroguzova, Nina Betschart and Tanja Huberli, Sanne Keizer and Madelein Meppelink, Joana Heidrich and Anouk Verge-Depre, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes.


“What were all these teams doing?” Ross mentioned of the youthful contingent who burst onto the podiums in 2021. “Russia got so much better. Australia got so much better. Swiss were ridiculous. Latvia. Maggie [Kozuch] on Germany got so much better. Sponcil-Claes got so much better. All these teams we felt like previously we kind of had a handle on, were beating us or we were struggling with. Agatha-Duda medalled three times in Cancun and we just did not feel like we were favourites at all heading into Tokyo.”


Are they favourites heading into the World Tour Finals?


It would be impossible to make any other rational argument, though it’s also impossible, in a field this strong, to claim that any team is strongly favoured. How can you count out Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, who have not won a tournament in more than a year but have won so much throughout their partnership? How can you not argue for Agatha and Duda, one of the most consistent podium-making teams in the world? Or Keizer and Mepelink, the only team who managed to take a set off Ross and Klineman in Tokyo? Or Verge-Depre and Heidrich, who won bronze in Tokyo, or their countrywomen, Betschart and Huberli, who were recently crowned European Champs?


“We enjoyed every single second on that court together,” Huberli said after winning gold in Vienna.


Starting on Wednesday, there will be more seconds to enjoy, the final seconds of the 2021 season. Then, Klineman can retreat back to Italy, enjoy some more wine and food. Then Ross can retreat to the mountains, enjoy a good book and coffee.


Then we can put a close on this wild and wonderful beach volleyball season.