By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Twice Olympic women's beach volleyball champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh of the United States saw off a fierce Chinese challenge in the London semi-final on Tuesday, bringing the prospect of a third gold tantalisingly close.
May-Treanor and Walsh are the only team of either gender to successfully defend an Olympic beach volleyball title since the sport made its Games debut in Atlanta in 1996. They won gold in Athens in 2004 and again in Beijing in 2008.
But Zhang Xi and Xue Chen, who were surprise bronze medallists in Beijing and have won a string of trophies since then, had no interest whatsoever in helping the Americans to greater glory.
The Chinese came out aggressively with a series of flawless attacks, racing ahead to lead by 13-7 after just a few minutes. For a short while, it looked as though May-Treanor and Walsh had finally met their match on Olympic sand.
But the Californian pair kept cool under pressure and suddenly raised their game, shocking the Chinese with a string of blistering attacks of their own to draw level at 13-13.
From then on the set was too close to call until the very end. The Chinese saved two set points but the Americans eventually prevailed by 22-20. Sets are normally played to 21 points but a two-point advantage is needed to win.
The second set was also full of suspense.
The Americans led at the start but the Chinese drew level at 16-16. From then on the lead kept switching sides until the Chinese obtained a set point at 20-19. But the Americans frustrated them, and three points later they sealed the set and the match by 22-20.
In the other women's semi-final, scheduled for 2000 GMT, Brazilian world champions Larissa Franca and Juliana Felisberta take on former world champions April Ross and Jennifer Kessy of the United States.
Juliana, who missed out on Beijing because of a knee injury, said just before the London Games that her dream for the past eight years had been to face May-Treanor and Walsh in an Olympic final.
May-Treanor retorted that her dream was to beat Juliana in the final. The gold medal match is scheduled for 2100 local on Wednesday.
(Editing by Michael Holden)