World Grand Prix Week 2: Big twelve begin title chase
This weekend, a record number of 42 games in seven preliminary groups involving all 28 teams are scheduled – at venues in Europe, across Asia (Korea) through to South America (Peru). Despite the record number of teams, the favourites remain the same. Olympic champions Brazil are still the team to beat, after claiming a hat-trick of big titles in 2013 including the World Grand Prix, World Grand Champions Cup and South American Championship. Despite triumphing with a flawless record of five wins and 15-0 sets in the final round of the 2013 Grand Prix, however, the ball wizards from Brazil are not in for an easy ride as they attempt to win their historic tenth title in the FIVB World Grand Prix.
This became clear in the friendly matches in the run-up to the first highlight of the season. The Brazilian women came up against hosts USA four times and they lost to the team with volleyball legend Karch Kiraly on the bench four times. There is no doubt about it: after a dominant run in the World Grand Prix with a hat-trick of titles between 2010 and 2012, and an unlikely sixth place finish in 2013, USA are out to prove that they can again win gold medals. And after libero Fabi, who won two Olympic gold medals and six World Grand Prix titles, stepped down from her career with the national team, Brazil need to find themselves again.
Brazil do not have much time to do so, however, as their opening game sees them take on last year's Grand Prix runner-up, China. Legendary coach “Jenny” Lang Ping's team showed that they are in top form when they claimed the title at the 2014 China Women’s International Tournament, with three commanding victories against Thailand, Belgium and the Dominican Republic. In their opening tournament, Brazil will also come up against the Dominican Republic and hosts Italy, who also host the FIVB Women’s World Championships in a few weeks. With two victories in four friendlies against Japan, coach Marco Bonitta's team have also shown that they are in great form.
Successful Brazilian coach Ze Roberto remains cautious: “All the other teams will improve in the build-up to the Rio Olympics, so we don’t want to be left behind. In terms of speed and defence, we want to catch up with other teams.” In addition to the USA and China, Japan could also pose a serious challenge, particularly since they host the competition's Grand Finale of the top six teams from August 20-24 at the 10,000 capacity Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo. Captain Saori Kimura believes that success has come as the result of a new strategy, which should bear more fruit in 2014.
The mastermind behind Brazil’s success, Ze Roberto, is well aware of the threat: “They grew up more than other teams in the last four years. Of course, they need to improve their block, but before 2009 Japan were always sixth or seventh in the world; now they are on the podium every time. They improved and I think they are close to us.” However, Japan also have a difficult opening tournament ahead of them. In Ankara, they will take on hosts Turkey, joint favourites USA and Russia. European champions Russia have resumed work after a short break. They prepared for the tournament at a training camp in “Volley Grad” near Anapa, Krasnodar Territory. Key players Tatiana Kosheleva and Natalia Obmochaeva, who missed the previous training sessions and Yeltsin Cup, have joined the team. But international stars Ekaterina Gamova and Lioubov Sokolova are not in the team. Turkey could also be good for a surprise, after all the team won the European League a few days ago.
In the third preliminary round tournament for the Group 1 teams that takes place in Hwaseong this weekend, hosts Korea, Serbia, Thailand and Germany will all go head to head. European Championship runner-up and European League runner-up Germany could also be one of the giants of the tournament. After all, Germany won the international tournament in Montreux at the start of the season, beating all the top nations. “We want to be fighting for a medal at the world championship and the Grand Prix is the perfect preparation for this,” said Germany's head coach Giovanni Guidetti.
The preliminary round of the World Grand Prix will see the twelve Group 1 teams – defending champions and world No. 1 Brazil, USA, Japan, China, Russia, Italy, Serbia, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Korea, Turkey and Thailand – play round-robin tournaments (each with four teams) on three weekends to determine which four countries will progress to the final round. They will be joined at the grand finale from August 20-24 by hosts Japan and the winner of the Final Four from the eight teams from Group 2. The Group 2 pools include Poland, Peru, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands, Argentina, Canada, Cuba and Belgium. Leuven, Belgium, and Trujillo, Peru are the venues this week for the second of three preliminary round weekends for the Group 2 teams.
For the eight Group 3 teams - Kenya, Algeria, Kazakhstan, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Bulgaria and Australia - it's already the deciding preliminary round weekend. The matches in Brno, Czech Republic, and Porec, Croatia, will decide which three teams make it to the Group 3 Final Four. Final round hosts Bulgaria are already confirmed as participants in the highlight from August 16-17 in Samokov.