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2006 edition
Six teams, six winners, in Sendai

Sendai, Japan, July 17, 2005 - After three rounds of the World Grand Prix Final Round, only two teams can possibly win the coveted title. Italy and Brazil have both compiled 3-0 win-loss records, and will clash on the final day of the tournament, Monday, in a match which will crown one or the other as World Grand Prix champions for 2005.

Even though the other four teams cannot win the trophy, they will also feel they have gained something playing amongst the world's elite.

Cuba have played at their sparkling best and their infuriating worst, and head coach Luis Felipe Calderon knows the difference is mental, not technical. After his team lost a marathon third set 32-30 to Italy and then collapsed in the fourth to lose tamely 3-1 on Saturday, Calderon pointed to his head and said, in English: "Not strong!"
Pic: New sensation - Cuba's Rosir Calderon Diaz (right) with her captain Yumilka Ruiz Luaces
But there's no doubt the Cubans have another gem in their ranks in 20-year-old Rosir Calderon, daughter of the head coach and of Erenia Diaz, a former world champion with the Cuban women's team.

The 20-year-old Rosir has been virtually unstoppable on the left. At a lithe 1.91 metres, she soars to 3.30 metres at the top of her spike, and slams the ball down at such a sharp angle and ferocious pace that it makes it difficult to retrieve.

The Volleyball aficionados here in Sendai have taken to her warmly, and she has responded with a series of eye-catching displays. Not bad for a player whose first sporting love was rhythmic gymnastics, before her rapid growth interfered with the ribbons and the hoops.

Cuba have the raw talent; now all they need is the consistency and concentration of Italy or Brazil.

Olympic champions China started with two defeats, but there were signs of a recovery in the victory over the Netherlands. They have many young players, among them 17-year-old Wang Yimei, a former swimmer with the physique to prove it: 1.90 metres and a sturdy 80 kilos.

China's leading player has been Chu Jinling, a powerful server and athletic spiker whose delight at seeing China win the gold medal in Athens last summer quickly turned to reality.

"I knew I was going to have to work hard and train hard to join the team," she said. "My first goal is to become a regular member of the starting six, and my dream is to play in the Beijing Olympics. We feel that the women's Volleyball team represents the whole of China."
Pic: Wang Yimei contests possession against Manon Flier of the Netherlands
Japan's roster here includes only four members from the Athens Olympics, with several either injured or resting. These include last year's poster girls, Kana Oyama and Megumi Kurihara, plus talented teenager Saori Kimura.

The job for coach Shoichi Yanagimoto is to find the right combinations when these leading players return alongside the new stars of his team, such as libero Yuka Sakurai, Kaoru Sugayama and Chie Yoshizawa.

The Netherlands have the height and the power to trouble teams, but they have visibly tired during matches due to the fast and relentless pace at this level. This has led to unforced errors, and to three defeats.

"We had to work very, very hard to get here, and at the moment we are not good enough to step it up in the finals. That is something our young team will have to learn," said head coach Avital Selinger, after the loss to China.

"Getting to the top six after coming from nowhere is a little bit too much for us as a team. We did our job getting here, and the rest of the teams are able to step it up."
Pic: Brazil's Jaqueline Carvalho
Brazil's head coach, Jose Guimaraes, knows his team is far from the finished product, but they have so many players who can win the crucial points, such as Paula Pequeno, Renata Colombo and Jaqueline Carvalho. The coach is not as happy with the team blocking and defence as he is with the offence, and feels this must improve if the defending Grand Prix champions are to hang on to their title.

As for Marco Bonitta's Italy, they have been like a machine. Consistent and disciplined, they have worn down teams before putting them to the sword.

Valentina Fiorin, clearly fully recovered from back surgery and only 20, has been a revelation, while Nadia Centoni has punished teams around the mobile setting of Eleonora Lo Bianco.

The World Grand Prix Final Round has given the neutral fans plenty to appreciate with some fantastic matches, and whet their appetite for the Grand Champions Cup in November and the 2006 World Championships.