Walsh and Ross clinch Fuzhou Open gold
It took the American pair just 33 minutes to win the gold medal of the first tournament on the 2014 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour and confirmed Walsh as the most successful women's athlete in World Tour history. The win was her 47th World Tour gold medal, one more than Brazil's Larissa França with Juliana on 45. Overall, Walsh has won 69 medals - 47 gold, 15 silver and seven bronze - from 90 events, equal with USA's Misty May Treanor but behind Juliana and Larissa (both 83 medals) and Brazilian legends Adriana Behar (86) and Shelda Bede (91).
Walsh is the third most successful World Tour athlete when also considering the men with Emanuel Rego (76 gold) and Ricardo Santos (55) one and two in the men's records ahead of another Brazilian Ze Marco de Melo (26).
In much better weather conditions than Saturday's men's final, Walsh and Ross gave Juliana and Antonelli a hard time in the first set of the Fuzhou Open final, displaying solid defence in the back row and at the net and pulling away in the middle of the set.
The Brazilians started well in the second set, jumping 4-1 ahead, before Walsh and Ross used an 8-2 run to take the lead. Brazil then called a timeout and returned to win three unanswered points to level at 9-9. The lead changed hands several times after that until 17-17 before Brazil saved a match point and then Walsh secured the set and the title with a brilliant block on Juliana.
"It's all we wanted. We're always excited to be on the top of the podium," said the 31-year-old Ross.
"All the best teams in the world came to this Open, because this is the first tournament of the season. It was a very, very tough tournament, a good indicator of how tough this season gonna be."
Ross, who took silver with Jennifer Kessy at the London Olympics, started to pair up with Walsh in September last year following Kessy's retirement. With the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro looming ahead, the two veteran players now aim to build a partnership, working hard amid high expectations.
"We're still growing as a team. I think we've made strides at this tournament. We just hope to get better and better," said Ross.
"April and I are a new team," 35-year-old Walsh said. "We have to improve a lot. We are excited to improve. This Tour is going to make us so strong because everyone is great. We're looking forward to the challenge and we want to win gold in Rio."
The final was a disappointing way for 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Juliana to finish her remarkable return to the World Tour. Having missed the 2013 season, Juliana returned in Fuzhou with new partner Antonelli. The pair had never previously played together on the FIVB circuit.
Juliana, who was playing in her 88th FIVB World Tour final four, now has 45 gold, 21 silver and 17 bronze medals.
Earlier in the morning, Walsh and Ross came from one set behind to beat local favorites Xue Chen and Xia Xinyi 2-1 (14-21, 21-15, 15-11) in the semifinals, while Juliana and Antonelli downed Maria Clara Salgado Rufino and Carolina Solberg Salgado (15-21, 21-13, 10-15) for their spot in the final.
Fuzhou native Xue and Xia overcame the disappointment of missing out a place in the final by edging Maria Clara and Carolina 2-0 (21-19, 21-18) in the bronze medal match
"We had prepared to play three sets, but we finished it in two sets," Xue said afterwards. "I think we played with a lot of patience today. We managed to hold our rhythm even when we were falling behind in the first set. That's key to our victory."
Xue, who started to pair up with Xia after her World Championship win in July last year, said she and Xia was very satisfied with their performance at the tournament.
"I think the competition over the past week is even more helpful than training two months, because you have to play under great pressure here, while in training you are usually less stressed," said Xue.
In addition to the Fuzhou Open, two other stops are scheduled in China in 2014 on the FIVB international schedule: the FIVB Shanghai Grand Slam (April 29 to May 4), which starts on Tuesday and the FIVB Xiamen Open (October 7 to 12). All three are double-gender events.