Vitoria, Brazil, March 19, 2016 - They arrived in Maceio, Brazil, in the last week of February seemingly ready to pick up where they left off in 2015.
But the first tournament on the 2016 FIVB World Tour didn’t exactly work out for Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes. Seeded second, they finished ninth.
Two weeks later in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilians were once again poised to reassert the dominance that had helped them forge seven victories in 10 events last year. Again, Larissa and Talita finished ninth.
Now, had the pressure bubbled up for the Olympians as the World Tour headed to Vitoria? You’d better believe it.
What’s a little more difficult to believe is Larissa and Talita, who have already earned their federation’s blessing to represent their country in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, would have it no other way.
“In the last two tournaments we didn’t play well, but it’s the beginning of the season and we know that,” Talita said. “Everybody’s asking about our team, everybody’s talking about our team and we are training so hard. I think August will be the best moment for us.”
They have a pretty good moment coming up Sunday. After Larissa and Talita defeated Australia’s Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy, 2-0 (21-16, 21-16), in the $150,000 Vitoria Open semifinals, they reached their first gold medal match of the year.
They’ll have to get past the hottest team on the World Tour to get a gold medal. April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings, having already stormed to victory in the Rio Grand Slam, ran their 2016 record to 13-0 to reach the Vitoria final.
But the stands will be filled with loud Brazilians hoping to see their team finally come through in 2016.
“Yes, I think all the Brazilian teams are feeling that, but the people see we can do it,” Talita said. “It’s not a bad pressure, it’s a good pressure when people ask about the Olympic Games, about the gold medal. We like it because we are building. We’ve won a lot of tournaments and we know we have to play good all the time.
“We know that it’s step by step. We are still building. We don’t think about just the Olympics. Until then, there are a lot of tournaments and we have to go step by step.”
Larissa and Talita last met Ross and Walsh Jennings in August at the FIVB Long Beach Grand Slam. The Brazilians scored a two-game victory to capture the gold medal of a tournament during which Walsh Jennings could not swing her right arm. She later had surgery to repair her shoulder.
“Tomorrow’s looking good,” Walsh Jennings said after their 2-0 (21-19, 21-16) Vitoria Open semifinal win over Germans Katrin Holtwick and Ilka Semmler. “We’re feeling good. This whole tournament we’ve spent every day just preparing, preparing, preparing. We’ve been elevating our level and now we’ve just got to do more of the same, execute better than we did tonight, which is very possible, and have a lot of fun out there and stick together.”
Walsh Jennings, who is hoping to get a chance to win a fourth consecutive Olmpic gold medal, and Ross, the 2012 silver medalist, know what kind of challenge they’re up against with the crowd and the opponent.
They’ve never let that get in the way of what they want to accomplish.
“Tomorrow is for us,” Ross said. “It’s a chance to get better and a chance to play some high-level volleyball, play for a gold medal and learn about ourselves and the other team.”
It could be just the start of a season in which these teams battle at the deep end of a a lot of tournaments on the FIVB World Tour.
“Tomorrow’s a stepping stone,” Walsh Jennings said. “We need to play them, we need to get used to playing them, I love that we’re playing them in Brazil. There’s such a different vibe here, but we’re going to learn and grow from it and we’re planning on kicking butt.”