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Sendai gripped by Volleyball fever for World Grand Prix finals

Tokyo, Japan, July 7, 2005 - Volleyball fever is sweeping Sendai ahead of next week's FIVB 2005 World Grand Prix finals.

Even though the six teams have still to be finalised, the remaining tickets for the July 13-18 finals were snapped up on Thursday.

So the 8,500-capacity gymnasium in scenic Sendai city will be full every night for Japan's five games, while teams competing earlier in the day will also be guaranteed enthusiastic audiences.
Pic: Japan has played in front of some fantastic audiences like this one in Tokyo during week one
On top of this, host broadcaster Fuji Television is expecting high prime-time ratings after the interest generated by the new-look Japan team in their two previous preliminary rounds, in Tokyo and Seoul.

The stage is set, therefore, for a titanic tussle for the Grand Prix title, as the continental super powers from the Americas, Europe and Asia prepare to converge on Sendai.

The Japan team, coached by Shoichi Yanagimoto, is hardly recognisable from the one that reached the quarter-finals of the Olympic Games in Athens last summer due to injury, unavailability or retirement.

The absentees include the rising young stars and last season's poster girls, Megumi Kurihara and Kana Oyama, plus the teenage phenom Saori Kimura, who is still only 18.

Yanagimoto, however, has dug up another gem in Kaoru Sugayama, who has been nicknamed "Kaoru-Hime" (or Princess Kaoru) by the Japanese media.

A Japan Volleyball Association official explains that "Hime" dates back to Japan's Edo Period, and was a title given to the daughter of the ruling Shogun.

It means "Princess", but the media dubbed Kurihara "Princess Meg" last year, so Sugayama has been awarded the Japanese title.

Standing just 1.69 metres and weighing 56 kilos, the 26-year-old wing spiker soars to 2.93 metres at the peak of her spike, and is an effective blocker, too, at 2.69 metres.

"Kaoru-Hime" wasn't even in Japan's starting six for the first and second matches in Tokyo, against Poland and Korea, but in the third she was the team's top points scorer with 20 in the 3-2 defeat to Brazil.
Kaoru Sugayama on attack

Four players remain from Athens and form the backbone of the team. These are setter and captain Yoshie Takeshita, the all-action Miyuki Takahashi, the elegant spiker Sachiko Sugiyama and the inspirational allrounder Ai Otomo.

With the 1.87-metre Makiko Horai also making her mark as a blocker, alongside Sugiyama and Otomo, Japan have a strong defence and lively attack based around the setting skills of Takeshita.

The spirit of the team is encapsulated by the new libero Yuka Sakurai, who runs a lap of the court after each Japan point. If Japan win the World Grand Prix, she'll probably run a lap of Sendai city before anyone can stop her.

It's no wonder that the TV ratings have topped 20 per cent on a couple of occasions, notably for the match with Brazil in Tokyo (21.8) and against Korea in Seoul last weekend (24.2).

As the visiting teams will know, a meeting with Japan is not simply another match, but an occasion, as the crowd is revved up by the appearance of boy band News.

Then the players enter the arena to great fanfare, and throw a mini-Volleyball into the stands.

The Brazilians, however, went against protocol recently before their high-pressure game with Japan. Instead of throwing their Volleyballs, they showed off their samba soccer skills by kicking the balls high into the stands.

"We have three very good soccer players," said coach Jose Guimaraes. "They like to play soccer very much in the warm-up, and decided they would kick the Volleyballs into the crowd."

Heading into the third and final weekend of Grand Prix action, both China and Cuba hold perfect 6-0 win-loss records.

They are followed by Brazil (5-1), Japan (4-2), Netherlands (4-2), Italy (3-3) and the United States (3-3).

Korea (2-4), Poland (2-4), Germany (1-5), Dominican Republic (0-6) and Thailand (0-6) complete the 12-team line-up.

With Japan qualifying automatically as the host nation, the remaining five spots will be fiercely contested from Friday to Sunday in the final three preliminary groups.

But whoever comes to Japan next week can expect another noisy night at the Sendai gymnasium.