The stakes have been steadily rising in women's pro beach volleyball tournaments in recent years.
So it's fitting that the marquee event of the season will be played this weekend at little Las Vegas on the Colorado River--Laughlin, Nev.
Buoyed by the major sponsorship of the Flamingo Hilton, cable television coverage and a handful of other sponsors, the women's tour has taken off this year. The women's purses haven't reached the levels of their male counterparts, but the tour's top players are making a comfortable living.
"This year has been a major turning point for our sport," said four-year pro Patty Dodd of Manhattan Beach.
This weekend's World Championships in Laughlin carries a purse of $50,000--the second-biggest on the women's circuit and roughly equal to the standard weekly package on the men's tour.
The event is one of 10 women's tournaments televised by ESPN. The Nevada-based Flamingo Hilton chain scheduled the tournament to parallel this month's opening of its newest luxury resort on the banks of the Colorado River.
"Who knows, maybe if you can't win on the court, maybe you can win a little on the blackjack tables," Dodd said.
Competitors at Laughlin will have to find a way to stop Jackie Silva--a Redondo Beach resident by way of Brazil--and her partner, Karolyn Kirby.
Silva, the tour's top money winner the past two seasons, has overcome a series of nagging injuries--a sore back, shoulder and ankle--to win more than $35,000 this season, which is more than all but a dozen men's beach pros.
Silva is indisputably the best player on the tour. But Dodd thinks much of the tandem's recent success is due more to Kirby's development.
"Karolyn is playing better right now than anybody on the tour," Dodd said. "Her jump serve has really come along, and it's such a great strength for that team."
Dodd and Kirby played six tournaments together at the start of this season before Silva lured Kirby to her side. After switching partners two more times, Dodd is settling in this weekend with her fourth teammate of the year, Lisa Strand.
The 6-foot Strand from the University of Hawaii is one of the tour's most dynamic young pros. She teamed with San Juan Capistrano's Janice Opalinski to shock everybody in the Tokyo Open late last month, knocking Silva and Kirby into a fifth-place finish.
Meanwhile, Dodd had struggled with Rita Crockett-Royster, finishing third once and fourth twice.
"It's a partner-switch for the future," Dodd said. "I don't want to be stranded without a partner at the beginning of next year."
She won't if Strand sticks around.
Playa del Rey's Tim Hovland is predicting big things for himself and partner Kent Steffes in the final two events of this season.
Hovland and Steffes are seeded third this weekend at the $60,000 Seattle Seafair Open.
Two weeks ago, the two skipped the Seal Beach Open to play in an exhibition tournament in Linguano, Italy.
For the mercurial Hovland, who played six years in the Italian Professional indoor league and speaks fluent Italian, it was a happy return. He and Steffes won "substantially more" for their victory in Linguano than if they had won at Seal Beach.
He's also a volleyball hero in Italy.
"Italy was great," Hovland said. "We beat everybody up pretty bad and showed them how to play the game."
Hovland, who is a ferocious blocker, and Steffes--a cat-quick athlete with a devastating jump serve--are easily the tour's most physical team when their games are on.
But in last week's Cuervo Gold Crown event in San Diego, Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos played the parts of the cunning veterans, downing Hovland-Steffes, 15-6, in the final.
"Sinjin and Randy have the experience," Hovland said. "But we're just getting over being a little nervous and we're starting to play calm, cool and collected. We're the new team on the block, so we've got nothing to lose."
The most powerful hitters on the beach tour hammer the volleyball at about the same speed as many major league pitchers throw a fastball.
The Assn. of Volleyball Professionals put a radar gun on the sport's top athletes in early June in San Jose.
Scott Ayakatubby is the tour's third-most powerful spiker, with an average of 90.75 m.p.h. on his put-aways. Former Olympian Steve Timmons is second at 91.25 m.p.h., and local favorite Brent Frohoff is fifth at 89.2.
Pono Ma'a, who splits his residences between his native Hawaii and Los Angeles, where he is a part-time model, was clocked at 89.6.
The tour's heaviest hammer belongs to the muscular Stoklos, who recorded a circuit-best 94 m.p.h., with an average of 91.6.
Mike Dodd--Patty's husband--still owes his wife a set of golf clubs for her birthday.
Dodd is an avid golfer and his wife has been yearning to take up the sport with him.
Dodd and beach-rival Frohoff often golf together during the week after playing volleyball--sometimes at Manhattan Beach Country Club, or sometimes at the Rolling Hills Country Club, where the Dodds are members.
Frohoff and Dodd have about a 12 handicap.