Women’s Volleyball—World Grand Prix


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2011

Ask yourself this question: how many national-team sports are regularly shown on primetime? There’s soccer and… volleyball. That should give you some perspective on the significance of the sport in these climes.

Volleyball is a major sport for TV companies in Japan, just as major TV companies in Japan are a major asset for world volleyball. So the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has a tendency to place a lot of its major tournaments in Japan. Last year, we had the Women’s World Championship; this year we have both the men’s and women’s World Cup (in November). The men’s World League was going to pass through Japan in June, but the March 11 earthquake wiped that off the schedule. However, the women’s World Grand Prix—a round-robin event of sorts for national teams—has survived and the Japan sections will take place near Nagoya (Aug 12-14) and in Tokyo (Aug 19-21).

The Japanese women will certainly be hoping to do better than the men in the World League. The men are no dummies, but currently have to take a back seat to the women in terms of world ranking (14th vs. 3rd). Nevertheless, the ladies’s 1-11 (win-loss) performance in the recent Intercontinental Round of the World League was disappointing. They will be expected to do better, and no doubt believe they can.

Part of the reason for this was their inspiring performance in the World Championship last year, when they took the bronze medal. It was the Japanese women’s first World Championship medal for 32 years and they won it with some spectacular and dramatic volleyball. In fact, they came close to a spot in the final after taking a 2-0 lead against Brazil in their semifinal match; taking the second set 35-33 (usually the first team to 25 points wins the set, if they’re two points ahead). In the bronze-medal match, they twice fell behind the United States, but clawed their way back to ensure there would be a fifth set, which they won 15-8 to send the 12,000 fans at Yoyogi Gymnasium into a state of euphoria.

Despite being on primetime TV, Japan games attract plenty of very vocal fans to the stadiums, who idolize the likes of Yoshie Takeshita, Saori Kimura, Yukiko Ebata and Yuko Sano. While the elegant Kimura and Ebata pound the ball over the net with grace and power, Takeshita and Sano take on a different role, enforced partly by being two of the shortest players in the world of big-time volleyball. They are both 159cm, but as setter and libero, respectively, height is not a major requirement and the pair make up for their lack of stature with awe-inspiring energy and skill. Takeshita was name MVP at the 2006 World Championship.

Guided by tight-lipped man-of-mystery Masayoshi Manabe, Japan’s women have continued to impress in 2011, highlighted by a terrific triumph at the Montreux Masters in Switzerland last month, with one report saying their play—only three errors per set—“bordered on perfection.”

More significantly, Japan played without three star players: Takeshita, Sano and Kimura. Ebata showed she is becoming more and more important to the team—she was named Best Spiker of the tournament—while Saori Sakoda, a bit player at the World Championship, showed her value to the team. Japan beat Italy, the Netherlands, China and Cuba en route to their first Montreux title.

In the World Grand Prix, Japan will face the United States, Serbia and the Dominican Republic in Komaki, near Nagoya, before meeting Russia, Serbia and South Korea in the Tokyo series.

See sports listings for details.