World Grand Prix Week 5: Brazil’s ball wizards set sights on historic tenth title
Defending champions Brazil are undoubtedly the hot favourites to seal a historic tenth triumph. The Olympic champions won all nine matches in the preliminary round, dropping just three sets and topping the table by nine points. However, none of that counts any more for the world number ones, as they start from scratch again going into the matches in the Japanese capital against the hosts (WR 3), China (WR 5), World Champions Russia (WR 6), Turkey (WR 11), and outsiders Belgium (WR 22). The teams all play each other, and Brazil are well aware of the importance of starting their campaign with a win in Wednesday’s opening game versus Turkey.
“We played Turkey at the Olympic Games in London and just won 3-2. We know they are a quality team with great players,” said Sheilla Castro ahead of the first match. Turkish coach Massimo Barbolini believes that simply reaching the Finals is a “dream come true” for his team, who finished third in this competition two years ago. But Brazil have set their sights higher. After a seven-hour journey from their final preliminary round matches in Bangkok, the Brazilian team was already hard at work on Monday, preparing for their next opponents in Tokyo. Spiker Sheilla had no doubts as to the team’s goal: “We played well in the preliminary round and are determined to do well in the final. We want to win our tenth title.”
Brazil’s captain Fabiana Claudino is optimistic: “The final phase is a new championship. There will be five games in a row, but we are well prepared and motivated to get the title.” The biggest challenge could come from China, who finished runner-up last year and ended this year’s preliminary round in second place. Their first match on Wednesday is against European Championship bronze medalists Belgium, who are expected to be the weakest of the six teams. China’s successful coach “Jenny” Lang Ping is remaining cautious, however. After all, her team has only won the FIVB World Grand Prix once, back in 2003. “After so many matches, the tournament has taken its toll on the strength and stamina of the players. I hope the team can continue to improve and step up their performance in the finals.”
However, Belgium could prove to be a stumbling block. In reaching the final round, the Belgians have already achieved more than many expected on their debut in the competition. With Lise van Hecke, who scored an incredible 246 points in the preliminary round, the team boasts one of the top attackers in the world. Despite this, coach Gert Vande Broek preferred to play down expectations: “I am afraid that we will have a very difficult week in Tokyo, since the opponents we will play there are probably too strong for us at the moment.”
Two teams who definitely have higher expectations will meet on the opening day: hosts Japan and World Champions Russia. After poor starts, both teams are now hitting top form and won all three matches at their last preliminary round tournament. Russia overpowered Italy, who host the FIVB World Championship in a month’s time, Germany and fellow World Grand Prix finalists Turkey, who they defeated 3-1. Coach Yury Marichev is hopeful that these wins in important matches will have “united” the team. Ekaterina Kosianenko, captain of Russia, said: “We improved from match to match in the last week. And we want to continue like that in Tokyo.”
The World Champions won the FIVB World Grand Prix in 1997, 1999 and 2002. They also finished runner-up behind Brazil in 2009, the last time the final round was held in Tokyo. This could be a good omen for Russia, but Japan, cheered on by 10,000 passionate fans, will provide a stern opening test. Like China, the hosts have played in each of the 22 FIVB World Grand Prix to date, but are yet to stand on the podium.
That is the minimum goal for the Japanese, who showed a vast improvement in form at the last preliminary round tournament, with wins against Serbia, Korea and China. Japan coach Masayoshi Manabe is hoping the final round will inspire “a further improvement from my players. We have to make the most of our home advantage.” Captain Saori Kimura promised: “we will continue to play our best.” Will that be enough to prevent Brazil from claiming a historic tenth title? Only after the last of the 15 final round matches, between Japan and Brazil on Sunday, will the volleyball world know the answer to this big question.