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Volleyball: China, Japan threaten USA, Brazil domination of World Grand Prix

High-flying USA, here beating Japan in the Preliminary Round, are bidding for a fourth straight title. Photos: FIVB.

High-flying USA, here beating Japan in the Preliminary Round, are bidding for a fourth straight title. Photos: FIVB.

August 27, 2013: For the last three years, the FIVB World Grand Prix has been a two-horse race. USA and Brazil have been embroiled in a head-to-head duel for the title – and the Americans have always come out on top in the end.

 

With the Finals of the 21st edition of the premier annual women’s volleyball tournament starting in Sapporo on Wednesday, there are a lot of signs that one or two of the other teams are also in with a chance of winning. China were the only team to remain unbeaten in the Preliminary Round, while Finals hosts Japan also made a strong impression.

 

However, a look back through the history of the competition reveals only one hot favourite: 2012 Olympic champions Brazil. Japan have hosted the World Grand Prix Finals four times in the past, with Sapporo being a fifth host city after Tokyo in 2009, Yokohama in 2008, Sendai in 2005 and Kobe in 1997. The last three times the World Grand Prix Finals have been held in the Land of the Rising Sun, the Olympic champions have emerged triumphant. The fact that no team have ever won the World Grand Prix four times in a row speaks against a victory for USA.

 

The crucial clash between the two teams on Wednesday (15:30 local time) will take centre stage on the opening day of the Finals. Brazil have won the last two matches 3-1 – the 2012 Olympic final in London and on home soil in the Preliminary Round. And the record World Grand Prix winners have once again warmed up for the all-important duel in their own unique way. Star coach Ze Roberto’s outfit defeated a local men’s team 3-1 in Nagoya.

 

“That was the perfect preparation for the Finals. The players had to think differently, and that was a valuable lesson,” said the legendary coach who has been in charge since 2003.

Brazil beat the USA 3-1 in the Preliminary Round, with home advantage.

Brazil beat the USA 3-1 in the Preliminary Round, with home advantage.

 

Libero Fabi was also impressed with the preparations: “We had to play with a high tempo against the men. That will be very important when we play five matches in a row in the Finals. We will obviously be trying to get our hands back on this title at last.”

 

The South Americans, ranked second in the world, are used to success. However, their last trip to the top step of the podium came back in 2009, and they have been waiting for their ninth title since.

 

World No. 1 USA have won the World Grand Prix five times in total. New coach Karch Kiraly – himself a triple Olympic gold medallist in the hall and on the beach – has prepared his girls for the big match by running joint practices with hosts Japan in Sendai.

 

“The match against Brazil is always a key game. However, we are expecting five matches against the best teams in the world – so you have to perform to your very best in every game,” Kiraly said.

 

The Americans will also come up against an old acquaintance, Jenny Lang Ping, who led the US team to silver in her home city of Beijing at the 2008 Olympics and took over as coach of the Chinese team this season. And she has enjoyed great success so far. The Chinese remained undefeated through nine preliminary matches, raising hopes of a second World Grand Prix victory, 10 years after the first.

20130827_PreviewLangPingHuiRuoqi

China coach Jenny Lang Ping and captain Hui Ruoqi, one of the current team’s 2012 Olympians.

Lang Ping refuses to get carried away: “We have to learn from our mistakes and continue to improve.” Her team, ranked fifth in the world, will play the opening match on Wednesday (13:00 local time) against European champions Serbia.

 

Both teams have met once in the last week of the Preliminary Round, when China managed to beat World No. 9 Serbia for the first time in the World Grand Prix with a 3-2 win after two previous defeats. Wednesday’s opening match is a repeat of the 2011 World Grand Prix Finals pool encounter, which Serbia won 3-2 on their way to an impressive third-place finish in their debut appearance in the competition.

 

The third and last match of the opening day (19:10 local time) sees World No. 4 Italy play hosts Japan. Italy have two silver and four bronze World Grand Prix medals to their name since 2004 while Japan, ranked third in the world, have never medalled at the World Grand Prix.

 

“Japan have a good set of players this year, including three Olympians from last year’s bronze medal team in London in Saori Kimura, Yukiko Ebata and Risa Shinnabe,” said former star player Yoshie Takeshita in an article for the FIVB. “Although the new team started playing together only last spring, they have shown a remarkable willingness to communicate and work together. I am more convinced than ever that Japan have what it takes to be number one this year.”

 

One thing is certain: The round-robin format will provide 15 exciting matches in the Finals. All six teams will play each other once in pool play over five days before the table leaders will be crowned 2013 World Grand Prix champions on Sunday.

 

World No. 4 Italy will take on hosts Japan on the opening day.

World No. 4 Italy will take on hosts Japan on the opening day.

2013 FIVB World Grand Prix Finals, Sapporo, Japan (local start times)

 

Wednesday, August 28 (13:30): Serbia v China

Wednesday, August 28 (15:30): Brazil v USA

Wednesday, August 28 (19:10): Japan v Italy

 

Thursday, August 29 (13:30): USA v Serbia

Thursday, August 29 (15:30): Italy v China

Thursday, August 29 (19:10): Japan v Brazil

 

Friday, August 30 (13:30): China v USA

Friday, August 30 (15:30): Brazil v Italy

Friday, August 30 (19:10): Serbia v Japan

 

Saturday, August 31 (13:30): Italy v USA

Saturday, August 31 (15:30): Brazil v Serbia

Saturday, August 31 (19:10): Japan v China

 

Sunday, September 1 (13:30): Serbia v Italy

Sunday, September 1 (15:30): China v Brazil

Sunday, September 1 (19:10): USA v Japan

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