Along with the natural conflicts that are part of competition, women's beach volleyball pros are experiencing conflicted feelings this season.
For example, Elaine Youngs has been careful to navigate questions from fans and reporters about the void created by two-time Olympic gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. May-Treanor's injured Achilles tendon and Walsh's pregnancy have left them indefinitely sidelined for the 2009 season.
"You must feel great that Misty and Kerri are gone because now you can clean up," Youngs recalls fans asking.
Youngs didn't bite. Instead, she exhibited conflict resolution skills.
"I miss those guys," she said. "They brought my game to an unbelievable level. The drive I had in the off-season centered on beating those guys."
As the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) gears up for its second tour stop of the season, the Crocs Tour Riverside Open this weekend, the women's competition is wide open.
May-Treanor suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon last October while filming an episode of "Dancing with the Stars." Walsh is expecting her first child next month. May-Treanor and Walsh lead the AVP with 105 and 103 career wins, respectively, including 12 of the 17 tour events in 2008.
Jason Hodell, head of the professional beach volleyball tour, said: "They put us on the map as the AVP has grown with them." But, as top-contender April Ross dutifully noted, "a key road block is gone."
Jen Kessy, who partners with Ross on the tour's No. 2-seeded team, said of May-Treanor and Walsh: "Spectators want them to win every single time. If they lose, they get upset. But for other players and sports people, most think it's interesting to see a new No. 1 seed.
"I've gotten in trouble before with people thinking I want them to lose. That's not what I meant. I just think it's good for someone else to win."
For now, Youngs and Nicole Branagh have taken over the favorites' role after winning the tour's season opener in Panama City, Fla., last week. The final of that event went according to script, with the top-seeded team defeating No. 2 Kessy and Ross in three games in the final.
That tournament's earlier rounds, however, included three significant upsets, convincing Hodell and the tour's players of the prospect for greater parity throughout this season.
Holly McPeak, who with partner Jenny Kropp was a victim in one of those upsets, said several teams can now be considered front-runners.
"With my experience, I've won tournaments and I know how to win tournaments," said McPeak, whose 72 career victories are third on the AVP's all-time list. "But there are several teams that have won tournaments and know how to win. It all depends on how we execute."
It also depends on how players are motivated. Branagh said May-Treanor and Walsh "raised the level of play for all of us."
Afraid the absence of the tour's top team might breed complacency, Branagh trained with Youngs for two weeks in Rio de Janiero before flying to Panama City.
Both said the excursion helped them avoid what had been a rainy climate in Los Angeles and allowed them to work with coaches who emphasized more technique in their drills.
Which is not to say Branagh and Youngs fancy themselves heirs apparent to the tour's nearly unbeatable force.
"They've been the most dominant team in the history of the sport," Youngs said of May-Treanor and Walsh. "No one's going to replace them."