Sendai gripped by
Volleyball fever for World Grand Prix finals
Japan, July 7, 2005 - Volleyball fever is sweeping
Sendai ahead of next week's FIVB 2005 World Grand Prix
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
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
Yanagimoto, however, has dug up another
gem in Kaoru Sugayama, who has been nicknamed "Kaoru-Hime"
(or Princess Kaoru) by the Japanese media.
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
"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.
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
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
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
They are followed by Brazil (5-1), Japan (4-2),
Netherlands (4-2), Italy (3-3) and the United States
Korea (2-4), Poland (2-4), Germany (1-5), Dominican
Republic (0-6) and Thailand (0-6) complete the 12-team
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.