Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh walked off the court Saturday with their Olympic record intact, having yet to lose a single set in Summer Games competition. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of headlines would have you believe everything went according to plan. But it didn’t. This wasn’t a pretty start.
Australians Tamsin Hinchley and Natalie Cook seriously tested the Americans, playing loose and confident while taking advantage of every mistake made by May-Treanor and Walsh. In the end the Americans won both sets 21-18, 21-19, but they looked wobbly in the late-night match, which started at 11:00 locally (one of the pitfalls of being a television ratings draw).
By keeping them on the ropes, it was an emotional victory for Cook. The 37-year-old veteran leader of the Australian squad is playing in her fifth Olympic Games (more than any other volleyball player). She won a gold medal at home during the Sydney Games of 2000, followed with a bronze in Atlanta in ’04, then finished fourth and fifth place in Athens and Beijing respectively.
Cook knew she was the obvious target of the Americans, who put the pressure squarely on her to deliver, but deliver she did, with perfectly located dinks, deadly cut shots, and lethal spikes that kept the Americans on their heels and guessing. May-Trainor and Walsh showed cracks, and even brief glimpses of panic, while the Australians were all smiles enjoying their underdog role.
Like a veteran baseball pitcher who wins games with crafty location and off-speed pitches rather than pure power, Cook used her cagey skills to rattle the Americans. She and Hinchley played smart, exposing weaknesses with persistent pressure.
While the Aussies’ plan ultimately came up short, it was effective, and is one Walsh and May-Treanor would be smart to embrace as they move on, because the weapons that earned them their first two gold medals aren’t enough to get them three.
The most glaring problem for the Americans is May-Treanor’s spike repeatedly hitting the tape. On Saturday that gave the Aussies multiple chances to keep the ball in play and convert. With Misty’s power seemingly neutralized, she’ll be the primary target of serves, putting the vast majority of the kill pressure directly on her 5’9″ frame.
But as Cook proved Saturday, in beach volleyball age is less of a concern than mileage. The closeness that comes with team chemistry is everything. Walsh and May-Treanor remain close friends, but having spent much of the past four years apart raising babies and doing reality shows, there’s some mileage between them.
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh had good reason to celebrate their opening round victory in London, because the Australian pair of Tasmin Hinchley and 2000 gold medalist Australian Natalie Cook pushed them to the limit. Cook (middle photo) is playing in her fifth straight Summer Games. Photos: GettyImages/DanielGarcia