Sapporo, Japan, August 26, 2013 - For the last three years, the FIVB World Grand Prix has always been a two-horse race. USA and Brazil have been embroiled in a head-to-head duel for the title – and the US girls have always come out on top in the end. With the final of the 21st edition of the premier annual women’s volleyball tournament set to get underway 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 was the only team to remain unbeaten in the Preliminary Round, while the hosts of the Finals, Japan, also made a strong impression.
However, a look back through the history of the competition reveals only one hot favourite: Olympic champions Brazil. Japan has 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 has 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 (06:30 GMT/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. 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, 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. Lang Ping refuses to get carried away, however: “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 (04:30/GMT or 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 (10:10 GMT or 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 has a good set of players this year, including three Olympians from last year’s bronze medal team in London in the form of Saori Kimura, Yukiko Ebata, 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.
Click here for the full World Grand Prix Finals 2013 schedule