Premier annual women's tournament starts Friday
The World Grand Prix Finals will return to Japan for the first time since 2009 and will take place in Sapporo from August 28 to September 1. Japan has hosted the World Grand Prix Finals four times in the past, with Sapporo being the fifth host city after Tokyo (2009), Yokohama (2008), Sendai (2005) and Kobe (1997).
It is a tournament full of new records as this year’s preliminary matches will take place in 13 different countries and will feature 20 teams for the first time in the tournament's history dating back to 1993. USA, Brazil, Thailand, Turkey, China and Cuba qualified for last year’s Finals, as well as Algeria, Argentina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, Puerto Rico, Russia and Serbia. That is four more teams than last year. Following the Preliminary Round, the hosts and the remaining top five teams will qualify for the Finals.
USA and Brazil – a familiar contest
The first week of the Preliminary Round starts with a match between two giants of the sport – Brazil and USA – in Campinas, Brazil on Sunday. It is a contest which spectators have come to expect, as the gold medal match over the past three years has featured these two teams. On each of these occasions USA came out on top, with record winners Brazil having to settle for second place.
However, the South Americans, ranked second in the world, have shown some signs of a comeback with a 3-1 victory in the 2012 Olympic final against world No. 1 USA. No doubt, Brazil are determined to take matters into their own hands and regain their World Grand Prix title this year.
History speaks in favour of Brazil succeeding in their quest of breaking USA’s winning streak, as never before has a team won the FIVB World Grand Prix four times in a row. And the fact that Japan is hosting the Finals speaks in favour of a Brazilian victory: the last three times the World Grand Prix Finals have been held in the land of the rising sun, the South American team have emerged triumphant.
So the US will have to work hard to buck the trend, especially since the team has undergone a major change in personnel. “King Karch” Kiraly, who won Olympic gold in the hall in 1984 and 1988, and added a third gold medal in beach volleyball in 1996, has taken over from former coach Hugh McCutcheon. Also the team is missing many of its top performers from last year, including Destinee Hooker, Megan Hodge, Logan Tom and Tayyiba Haneef-Park. But even with the number of new faces on the team, USA were in dazzling form during their three friendly matches against Japan. However, the same can also be said of Brazil, who presented the Netherlands with no chance of winning their three friendly matches.
Olympic champions Brazil still have the majority of their big names on board as they begin preparations for Rio 2016. But of the best-known Brazilians, Jaqueline and Paula Pequeno are missing from the team that, with eight victories to its name, has won the World Grand Prix more times than anyone else. The top favourites will once again be coached by the successful Ze Roberto.
Hosts Japan aiming for home win
As hosts of the 2013 World Grand Prix Finals, Japan are guaranteed a place in the Finals. But the team is yet to win the World Grand Prix title.
Defensive experts and Olympic bronze medallists, Japan have set their sights clearly on becoming the number one team by the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Ace spiker Saori Kimura was named captain of the team, replacing Erika Araki but with plenty of new faces this season, setter Hitomi Nakamichi has the big task of filling in for chief playmaker, Yoshie Takeshita, who has retired from the game.
Former winners looking to regain glory
Two teams who do know how it feels to lift the coveted trophy are three-time winners Russia and China. However, both national teams are in something of a transitional period.
For Russia, former team leaders and world stars Ekaterina Gamova and Lioubov Sokolova are no longer in the line-up and there is a new coach at the helm. Dynamo Krasnador coach Yuri Marichev now leads Russia’s women’s team. Marichev is looking to introduce a more modern style of play to the Russians, just as coaching legend Lang Ping is in China.
Former Olympic gold medallist for China in 1984, Lang Ping has also coached the US team to silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She has now returned home to coach the national team but will be entering the 2013 World Grand Prix without Wei Qiuyue, Ma Yunwen, Chu Jinling and Mi Yang.
Other teams in the running for podium glory
There are a number of European contenders for the title. However, Italy is missing key players like Eleonora Lo Bianco, Francesca Piccinini and Simona Gioli from its team this year, while Germany will have to work without Angelina Hübner.
Germany travel to the World Grand Prix on the back of their first triumph in the 2013 European League. They are also looking to build their confidence ahead of the European Championship that will take place on home soil from September 6 to 14. Coach Giovanni Guidetti’s team could be good for a shock or two, as could two-time winners Cuba and European champions Serbia and last year’s World Grand Prix bronze medallists Turkey. Massimo Barbolini is now the coach of the Turkish team and the former coach of the Italian national team joins Guidetti in a lengthy list of Italian coaches among the 20 teams in this year’s World Grand Prix.
The field also includes three debutants. Algeria are the first African team to take part, while Bulgaria and the Czech Republic are also new to the competition.
One thing is clear. Whoever takes this year’s World Grand Prix title will have to work hard to pull ahead of the competition and carve their niche among the world’s best in the sport of volleyball.