Macau - 26 August, 2001 - Over the month on August, Brazil, Korea, China, USA, Russia, Japan, Germany and Cuba battled for their share of the US $1 million in prize money at the 2001 Women's Grand Prix.
Held over four weeks in three countries and six cities throughout Asia (Hong Kong, Thailand, China, Chinese Taipei and Japan, cumulating with the final round in Macau 22-26 August), the World Grand Prix 2001 produced spectacular results from Day 1.
In the opening round, Germany showed they were not going to be the easy-beats with a tough five-set two-hour match against Korea; USA stunned Russia in straight sets; Japan was the only undefeated team with wins over Cuba, Brazil and China; but the big news was Cuba's bottom-of-the-table performance with three straight loses to Brazil, Japan and China.
The highlight of Week 2 was the performance of a young and inexperienced Chinese team that took its revenge against Japan for the humiliating three-set loss in Week 1.
China, buoyed by parochial fans, used home ground advantage to its fullest to win its three matches over Japan, Germany and Brazil, placing them on top of the standings.
Week 2 was not a good weekend for Olympic silver medallist Russia, which lost its matches to Cuba and USA, or for Korea that lost all three of its matches. But for Cuba, they silenced the critics of Week 1 by walking away with three straight wins.
The World and Olympic champion's wins, although showing good spirit, were by no means decisive. In its first match they lost the second and third sets to an inspired USA team before fighting back in the fourth and fifth sets to finally win 3-2. They also lost a set in each of its matches over Korea (3-1) and Russia (3-1).
China again dominated Week 3, winning its three weekend matches, against USA, Germany and Cuba. With eight wins after its nine matches from the three rounds, China was now two points clear of second placed USA after the Preliminary Round.
After a disappointing non-podium finish at last year's Sydney 2000 Olympic Games (lost 0-3 in the quarterfinals to Russia), China's new head-coach, Chen Zhonghe, had pulled together a very skilled and fast outfit in the six months leading up to the Grand Prix.
Having convincingly defeated Olympic champion Cuba twice (3-1 and 3-0), and Olympic bronze medallist Brazil twice (3-1 and 3-2), this young Chinese team was now looking seriously at the prospect of its first ever World Grand Prix title. China's previous best Grand Prix finishes being a second in 1993 and a third in 1999.
The tournament statistics showed the strength of the Chinese attack: Yang Hao (#3) was ranked third in best scorers (with 162 attacks), and Liu Yanan (#4), with 199 attacks at 51.26 percent success, was leading the tournament in spikes. Liu also lead the tournament in blocks, and was strongly supported by teammates Zhou Suhong (#7) and Yang Hao (#3), both ranked in the top five in spiking.
Leading into the Grand Prix Finals, Cuba was again the focus of much of the media's attention with Cuban coach, Eugenio George, stating that he was not confident of success. He said that following Cuba's historic third consecutive Olympic gold medal in Sydney, some of the Cuban players have retired, got married abroad, or taken college education.
Of the Cuban players for the 2001 Grand Prix, only Yumilka Ruiz, Ana Fernandez and Regla Torres competed at the Sydney Olympic Games, with only Sanchez and Barros having world championship experience. Torres left the national team after the Olympics to complete a ten months college course, and had only just returned to training prior to the Grand Prix, said George.
"I can ensure you that the Cuban team and every player, will, as always, do their best," said George, defending his team to the media at the press conference.
Chen Zhonghe, China's head coach, was also a focus of media attention in Macau for the start of the finals. He said that the Chinese team, though ranked first after the preliminary rounds with eight wins from its nine matches, had been unsteady during the earlier rounds.
"Ours is a completely new team formed only four months ago and all the players, except team captain Wu Yongmei, are competing in their first world-class tournament," said Chen.
"We are aiming at obtaining international experience for our preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games, so we have fielded a team averaging 22-years of age. We shall learn from others in the finals here and play every match in the most serious manner," he said.
Slipping through the media-net almost unnoticed at the pre-finals press conference was the USA. They came into the finals round second on the standings, and although having played strongly with some good wins, the media paid them little attention. In each of the preliminary rounds they had finished with two wins and one loss - a 6:3 win/loss record - the same as Brazil. What had gone unnoticed was whom the USA had defeated: Cuba, Russia (twice), Brazil, Korea and Germany - the gold, silver and bronze medallists from the 2000 Olympic Games.
And after the USA's second match of the finals, where they suffered a straight-sets demolition at the hands of Cuba, the media did not seem to place much likelihood in an American finals-berth, or title victory.
But the USA followed up in the next match to defeat Brazil 3-1, the same match score as its first Pool B finals match against Korea, to secure a semifinal match against Russia.
The other semifinal was to be between China, who had defeated Japan and Germany and lost to Russia in Pool A finals, and a revitalized Cuba, who had defeated Korea, USA and Brazil to qualify for the semifinal.
The first semifinal between the Americans and Russia was a five-set thriller. A spirited USA, showing strong teamwork as well as well-structured and tactical offence won the first two sets. But the Olympic silver medallists came back hard in the third and fourth sets with accurate spiking and excellent blocking to even the set scores.
This just seemed to motivate the Americans, who started the fifth set with a series of quick attacks and effective blocking to win the set and match 3-2 (25-22, 28-26, 21-25, 25-27, 15-9), securing a well deserved finals berth.
In the second semifinal between Cuba and China, much to the delight of the parochial crowd, after losing the first set, the young Chinese team came back to dominate the next three sets, winning the match, and a chance at the title, 3-1 (18-25, 25-21, 25-22, 25-23).
The Forum de Macau was packed to capacity for the final, and the spectators witnessed the most exciting set of the tournament to start the match.
Both teams were determined to walk away victors and for twenty-eight minutes they traded point-for-point, leveling the score twenty times - neither team gaining more than a two-point advantage at any stage. The Chinese team showed composure beyond their years, holding out the US assault, finally taking the first set 28:26.
From the start of the second set however, the tide had already changed. The stronger and taller Americans, buoyed-on by a great team spirit, started to take control of the match. They won another close second set, then the third and fourth in quick succession, taking the match, and the World Grand Prix title 3-1 (26-28, 25-20, 25-21, 25-11).
For the USA, 188cm Danielle Scott was outstanding finishing first overall in scorers and blockers, and second in spikers. She was well supported by libero, Stacy Sykora, who led the tournament in digging percentages, and Robyn Ah Mow who led setting percentages. Experienced campaigner Tara Cross-Battle played very soundly in reception and was always dangerous in attack.
In the bronze medal playoff, Russia completely overpowered Cuba 3-0 (25-18, 25-11, 25-20).