Ningbo, 15th August 2007 - The world's top women's teams will be putting their shoulders to the wheel at the 2007 FIVB Grand Prix this weekend as the showcase event is welcoming the last preliminary round at three venues around Asia.
Leaders Brazil will be hardly tested as they are grouped with Chinese Taipei, Dominican Republic and Italy in Pool H to be played in Chinese Taipei during August 17th – 19th.
The six-time World Grand Prix champion has not met serious resistance in the previous rounds, compiling a 6-0 clean sheet after two weeks' preliminaries and only dropping two sets while playing against Italy in the first round.
For 2007 World Grand Prix finals, the team's Head Coach Jose Roberto Guimaraes has been keeping wary of three opponents. "China will play at home, and they are improving all the time. Another strong candidate to win this Grand Prix is the squad of Russia, who won the World Championship. Cuba will also have a great team and we know little about their players since none of them are playing outside the country," said the coach ahead of the 2007 campaign. "Playing in China just one year before the Olympic Games will be very important for our team. We will be able to know more about the country," added the Brazilian coach.
To one's surprise, Brazil has never had a chance to play against the three forth-mentioned teams in Grand Prix 2007 so far. The Brazilians, who claimed three titles in a row at the elite tournament, are now leading the general standings and followed at heel by Russia with five wins against one loss. Italy is now in third place, with Cuba, the United States and China fourth to sixth.
The Russians had been hoping for a fourth title after they won in 1997, 1999 and 2002 finals in 14 editions of the annual women's competition. They lost thrillingly 3-1 to the Brazilians in last year's final. The second leg witnessed Russia's dazzling play and gritty patience as they won two tie breaks against the United States and Cuba, pushed by a cheering 7,200 home audience.
They will be playing for the last round alongside Japan, Poland and Kazakhstan in Pool G in Osaka, Japan.
Last week's play also saw a different Poland: The shy team, which lost all three matches in its home debut one week before, was fully fired-up under some magic build-up from Marco Bonitta, former head coach of Italy. They started with a convincing 3-1 win over the Azzurre, which was followed by a 3-2 sweet revenge against China and an easy victory over Dominican Republic, lighting up again the way to finals in Ningbo, China.
They now stand ninth in the general rankings but collected equal points with sixth-placed China. "We definitely want to win at least two matches in Japan leg and get into the finals in China," said head coach Bonitta. "After the Grand Prix, we will focus on the Continental Competition in Belgium and then we will work on the Olympic qualification. There are still plenty of room for improvement in various aspects in my team. I am pleased that our players didn't become complacent after the second leg."
Poland's captain Dorota Swieniewicz gave credits to the coach, saying that the new coach helped them a lot "especially in the mental training" as well as improving the physical endurance and skills. "We are confident in qualifying for the 2008 Olympics under his leadership," she added.
China, in seeking of fast rise after a bitter 2006 World Championship slump, is in personnel transition with the Beijing Olympics only one year out.
Coming into Macau, China with a shaky 3-3 record, the Athens Olympic champions don't have to concern about the ticket to the Grand Prix finals as they have been assured of a berth with host status. However, they might blush if tumbling out of the top six after the final preliminary round in Macau.
China is in a group of death again, lining up with Cuba, the Netherlands, and the United States. "Comparatively, we have young players in our team and sometimes we need failure to gain experience as the saying goes 'Failure is the mother of success.' Losing make us aware of our weaknesses so that we can better improve our performance," said Zhou Suhong, team captain of China, after losing to Italy in the last match of the second leg on August 12th.
In contrast, Italy, last year's bronze medalist of the bonanza event, gleaned up a lot of confidence after the win over China. "It is important for us to beat a strong team like China. For us the result is a significant test because it shows what we have improved and what we need to further improve to get to the last six of the finals," said Italy head coach Massimo Barbolini. "No doubt China is a very strong team. Even with the young players, they will be a favorite in the 2008 Olympics. We have to work hard in order to qualify for the Beijing Games," said the 43-year-old coach.
The last preliminary round will decide the overall standings where the best five teams plus China will qualify for the finals slated for August 22nd-26th, a round robin in Ningbo, China.