By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Two-times Olympic champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh of the United States reduced one of their opponents to tears on Sunday as they powered into the beach volleyball semi-finals, staying on course to fulfil their dream of a third gold.
Italy's Greta Cicolari and Marta Menegatti had beaten May-Treanor and Walsh this year and were considered the strongest European team at the Olympics. But the ruthless Americans gave them such a pounding that Menegatti was in tears on court.
"I didn't know that, but that's what you want," said May-Treanor when a reporter told her what had happened.
"Well, it's not what you want to do, but that's (because of) us being aggressive, she was probably like 'I don't know what to do', and that's how you get teams in trouble," said May-Treanor.
The Americans beat the Italians, who had emerged undefeated from the group phase, by two sets to nil (21-13, 21-13).
May-Treanor and Walsh are friendly and charming in conversation, but on court they have no mercy. After Sunday's match they gave some insight into the steely mindset that has made them the most successful pair in their sport's history.
"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," said Walsh.
Asked whether they had thought about the fact that they might meet compatriots April Ross and Jennifer Kessy in the final, Walsh had this response: "Obviously that would be amazing for our country, but we want to crush everybody. We don't care where they're from."
In the semi-final, the Americans will face China's Zhang Xi and Xue Chen, who beat Austrian sisters Doris and Stefanie Schwaiger earlier by two sets to nil (21-18, 21-11).
The Chinese pair were bronze medallists in Beijing in 2008 and arrived in London with high expectations. They lost to a Russian pair in their first match, but have since recovered their confidence. They won easily against the Austrians.
May-Treanor and Walsh are the only pair of either gender to successfully defend an Olympic title in beach volleyball. They won gold in Athens in 2004 and again in Beijing.
Then they took time away from the sport and from each other. May-Treanor took part in the hit TV show "Dancing with the Stars" but injured her Achilles in rehearsals and was out of action. Meanwhile, Walsh had two babies less than a year apart.
The pair got back together in 2011 with mixed results, scoring some victories but also suffering some humiliating defeats. This year, they lost to Zhang and Xue at a tournament in Moscow and to Menegatti and Cicolari at another in Rome.
Those poor results were a turning point for the Americans.
"In Moscow we had our first final where we got our butts kicked. Then we went to Rome and we got our butts kicked again, by that Italian team," said Walsh.
"We came home and we were so sick of losing that way. Losing is one thing but losing in a way that you can't walk away with your head held high is a totally different situation.
"So we came home and worked really hard ... and Misty and I have come together. We've looked deep at ourselves, individually and as a team, and we've decided to take on this challenge."
The introspection seems to have paid off.
Walsh, who is 1.88 metres tall, has proved an insurmountable obstacle at the net, blocking every attack. She also has a knack for retrieving tricky balls with what looks like a casual flick of the hand but is clearly nothing but, as the ball invariably lands in the perfect spot on the other side of the net.
May-Treanor, who is shorter but equally agile, is masterful in defence at the back of the court and equally deft at springing up to the net to land an unstoppable spike.
The effect on the Italians, who have been playing beach volleyball for only three years, was to inhibit them to the point that their game was unrecognisable from previous matches.
The Americans paid tribute to Menegatti, who at 21 is the second-youngest female beach volleyball player at the Olympics.
"She's a young player and she'll learn. She has no reason to hold her head down whatsoever. She's done an excellent job throughout the year. But you can't let the emotions get the best of you. You go out there and you fight hard," said May-Treanor.
Walsh added that she did not see Menegatti's tears as a sign of weakness. "She wants it that bad and she puts her whole heart into it and that's how I read that situation," she said.
Walsh had this parting advice.
"You need to have that cut-throat mentality. Not mean and not 'I want to hurt you and devastate you.' It's 'I respectfully want to beat you and give you my best game.' Crush you, yes. Not your soul, just you on the court."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)