They call her “Six Feet of Sunshine,” but at night in London, the smile disappears and Kerri Walsh Jennings turns downright fierce.
She did it again Sunday, when she and Misty May-Treanor beat Italy in straight sets to advance to the semifinals in the Olympic beach volleyball tournament.
“I don’t want to let our opponents breathe. I don’t want to give them an edge. I don’t want them to feel comfortable for one second out there,” she said Sunday night after the win.
“You need to have that cutthroat mentality. Not mean and not, ‘I want to hurt you.’ It’s: ‘I respectfully want to beat you and give you my best game.’
“Crush you, yes,” she said. “Not your soul. Just you, on the court.”
The Americans have been crushing opponents for three Olympiads, sweeping to the gold medals in Athens and Beijing without even losing a set — 32 in a row over 16 games, including their first two in the round-robin at the London Games. Even before that straight-set streak was snapped on Wednesday, though, the two-time defending champions had shown signs of weakness.
They lost in Moscow to China in June, then lost in straight sets in Rome to Marta Menegatti and Greta Cicolari, the same Italian pair they met in the Olympic quarterfinals on Sunday night.
“I think we’re a different team. We sold the old team and we bought a new team,” May-Treanor said after winning 21-13, 21-13 in a match so dominating it brought out tears from Menegatti during a changeover. “She was probably like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ And that’s how you get teams in trouble.”
Menegatti, who’s 21, said she grew up idolizing May-Treanor. The Italians have only been playing together for three years, and their goal had been to qualify for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“She’s a young player, and she’ll learn” to control her emotions, May-Treanor said. “She has no reason to hold her head down whatsoever.”
In the other quarterfinals, the No. 2 U.S. women’s team of Jennifer Kessy and April Ross beat Czechs Marketa Slukova and Kristyna Kolokova. The Americans will play reigning world champions Juliana and Larissa of Brazil, who beat Germans Sara Goller and Laura Ludwig 21-10, 21-19 in the last match on Sunday night.
May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings will play China’s Xue Chen and Zhang Xi, which beat Austrian sisters Stefanie and Doris Schwaiger 21-18, 21-11 earlier Sunday. The Chinese pair, which won the bronze medal in 2008 but did not face Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor in Beijing, has beaten them three consecutive times, including a 21-14, 21-14 final in Moscow that was over in 34 minutes.
“Losing is one thing,” Walsh Jennings said. “But losing in a way that you can’t walk away with your heads held high is another. Misty and I have really come together. We’ve looked at ourselves individually and as a team.”
Ross and Kessy played an extended first set, with each side fighting off several set points before Slukova spiked one into the net to make it 24-23 and then Kolokova hit one long. The Americans had a 16-9 lead in the second set and held on to win 21-18.
The two U.S. wins keeps alive the hopes of an all-American final.
Kessy said she didn’t feel the same need to “crush” the opponent as the other Americans.
“I don’t care what the score is if we win,” she said. “I don’t have to win 21-12. I’d love to, but I don’t need to.”