TwitterEmailFacebook

Tampa Bay Times
Sunday, June 14, 2015 10:32pm

On a little scrap of land protruding into Tampa Bay, a few miles from some of the nation’s best beaches, a group of elite beach volleyball players will meet for the St. Petersburg Grand Slam this week at Spa Beach in St. Petersburg.

Previously a stop on the U.S.-based AVP pro tour, this year’s event has an elevated significance. It is sponsored by volleyball’s world governing body, the FIVB, and it is a qualifier for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Along with added status comes an increase in the level of competition for the tournament.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot more leading up to it,” said April Ross, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist with then-partner Jennifer Kessy.

“Being that I’ve taken the last couple of tournaments off, I’m pretty fired up anyway to play.” Ross’ usual partner is Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist with former partner Misty May-Treanor. Ross and Walsh Jennings haven’t played since Walsh Jennings dislocated her right shoulder May 27 in an FIVB tournament at Moscow.

Walsh Jennings said on Facebook on Sunday that the injury will prevent her from competing this week. Ross will play with Whitney Pavlik instead.

Ross and Walsh Jennings paired up after May-Treanor retired after the 2012 Olympics. “The fact that (this week’s tournament is) for Olympic qualifying is a big deal, and you’re competing against the best in the world,” Ross said.

“The draw is definitely deeper. So … you definitely, I think, mentally prepare a little more.”

Ross and Walsh Jennings, who won four FIVB World Tour events last season, have won eight straight AVP Tour events. They are confident they can make a splash in Brazil next summer.

“It’s just how we’re wired,” Ross said. “We’re always looking to prove we’re the best team in the world.”

Ross and Kessy, who will compete this week with partner Emily Day, won the AVP event in St. Petersburg in 2013 and finished as co-champions last year when the final was canceled due to inclement weather.

The men’s side also has an Olympic pedigree. Brazilians Alison Cerutti and Emanuel Rego, who took home silver together at the 2012 Games, are in the mix, albeit with different partners.

Americans Jake Gibb, a two-time Olympian, and Casey Patterson finished No. 8 in the FIVB rankings last season. They placed second at last year’s St. Petersburg event and won it in 2013.

Tri Bourne and John Hyden finished 2014 ranked No. 2 on the AVP Tour.

Look for the American teams to have added motivation as they compete in front of a friendly crowd.

“I think the fans get super fired up to come see how we play against the rest of the world, and everyone can be patriotic and wear their red, white and blue,” Ross said. “That’s fun for us, too.”

FIVB St. Petersburg Grand Slam

What: FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour tournament that serves as a qualifier for the 2016 Olympics. Teams from more than 20 countries compete for $800,000 in prize money and Olympic ranking points.

When/where: Tuesday-June 21; Spa Beach, St. Petersburg Schedule: Tuesday, men’s qualification matches, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Wednesday, men’s pool play and women’s qualification matches, 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursday, men’s and women’s pool play, 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Friday, men’s elimination rounds and women’s pool play, 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, men’s semifinals and final, women’s elimination rounds, 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; June 21, women’s semifinals and final, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission: General admission free; premium ticket packages $10-$110 at avp.com/tickets

TV: Saturday, 4, Ch. 8; Sunday, 2, NBCSN, and 4, Ch. 8