Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor are going to endure a rough path en route to three-peating gold in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Tough competition such as Brazil's Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta are just one example why, as they bested Walsh and May-Treanor for gold at the 2011 World Championships in Rome.
Also, the two-time defending gold-medalists in Olympic beach volleyball are only ranked No. 3 in the Olympic qualification world rankings. Additionally, Walsh and May-Treanor rank No. 4 on the world tour and No. 5 in the technical team rankings.
By that token, let's check out the top five contenders for Walsh and May-Treanor in London.
World rankings courtesy of the International Federation of Volleyball.
A sleeper duo to watch out for is Italy's Greta Cicolari and Marta Menegatti.
They are currently No. 5 in the world tour rankings and No. 6 in the Olympic qualification, so being just outside of winning a medal is what's expected. And considering that Italy didn't have a women's beach volleyball team compete in the 2008 Games, Cicolari and Menegatti have come a long way since turning pro in 2009.
Despite their Olympic inexperience by comparison to the rest of the top contenders, the Italians didn't lose a set until the Round of 16 at the 2011 World Championships. Matching up well in height while possessing much potential, watch out for Cicolari and Menegatti once the games begin.
The Brazilian beach volleyball duo of Talita Antunes and Maria Antonelli is interesting.
Antunes had a different partner during the 2008 Summer Olympics and placed fourth in Beijing. In the semifinals she and teammate Renata Ribeiro face Walsh and May-Treanor, but lost 21-12 and 21-14.
Now with new teammate Maria Antonelli however, this duo will be a tough out in London.
Currently they are No. 5 in the Olympic rankings, No. 3 on the world tour and technical team rankings. Two of those three are ahead of Walsh and May-Treanor, and Antunes' previous experience against the American duo has paid dividends.
With a solid offense and defense, Antunes and Antonelli have the potential to upset anyone in London.
The other American duo of Jennifer Kessy and April Ross are the top U.S. contenders after Walsh and May-Treanor.
Kessy and Ross are No. 4 across the board in each of the three rankings and ahead of Walsh and May-Treanor in two of them (world and technical team). The downside is that neither have competed in the Summer Olympics until now and have much to prove.
On the flip side, Kessy and Ross have no pressure and nothing to lose either.
To that end, anticipate an increased level of play as they look gain some well-deserved recognition. Lest we forget Kessy and Ross won the 2009 World Championships to solidify themselves among the elite.
A familiar face to the Olympics, Zhang Xi and Xue Chen of China won the bronze medal at the Beijing Games in 2008.
The duo didn't get the opportunity to face Walsh and May-Treanor in the last Olympics, but Zhang Xi and Chen are No. 1 in the world tour and technical team rankings. Additionally, they are No. 2 in the Olympic rankings making it a hat-trick over Walsh and May-Treanor leading into the London Games.
Both are younger and have excellent confidence rolling into the Olympics. Include Chen's height of 6'3" and that matches Walsh for controlling the net and blocking spikes. With their previous Olympic success, expect a strong showing from the Chinese duo in 2012.
The most threatening contenders to Walsh and May-Treanor, Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta of Brazil are a strong bet to make a run at gold.
They are No. 1 in the Olympic qualification rankings and No. 2 elsewhere. Regardless, Franca and Felisberta are in front of Walsh and May-Treanor across the board and defeated the Americans in 2011.
At the World Championships that year, Franca and Felisberta won in three sets last summer which built some major confidence before the 2012 Games. Surprisingly though, neither Franca nor Felisberta have won an Olympic medal but have seen impressive success otherwise.
And even though this duo lacks height compared to other elitists, their tenacity and strong defense is arguably the best around.
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