Fledgling China topples towering Russia

IF you look at the final standings of the teams that participated in the women's 2003 World Grand Prix volleyball league — the championship was conducted by Italy because of the SARS epidemic in some of the Asian countries — you will be surprised by the drastic shuffle in hierarchy.

IF you look at the final standings of the teams that participated in the women's 2003 World Grand Prix volleyball league — the championship was conducted by Italy because of the SARS epidemic in some of the Asian countries — you will be surprised by the drastic shuffle in hierarchy.

Cuba, which was the World, Olympics and Grand Prix champion not long ago, finished 11th along with Canada! Russia, the defending champion, finished runner-up to China, which it beat in last year's Grand Prix final in Hong Kong. And Italy ended up fifth.

But the amazing part was that not only an Asian country (China) won the prestigious GP title, but also three Asian squads, Korea, Japan and Thailand figured in the first 10 of the event.

China's 3-0 win over Russia in the final was a big jolt for the European team that looked formidable in the beginning of the competition. In fact, Russia beat China comfortably in a group clash and the Asian giant could secure only third place behind Korea, which shocked Russia in the opening encounter. However, China rallied brilliantly in the later part of the tournament to pull off a sensational win against the defending champion and bagged its first GP title.

This triumph was a major boost for the Chinese team, which is aiming for the 2008 Beijing Olympics title. This was a fledgling side. Still China overcame its inexperience and disadvantage in height, toppling the towering Russian defence. Not since the days of Lang Ping, China had such a fantastic success on the volleyball court.

From 1980 the Asian nation had an incredible run of success, winning most of the world-level events like the World championship and the Olympics. There was no Grand Prix in those days. The towering Lang Ping was a one-woman army and she lifted China to a great height in world volleyball. But after her retirement, China's fortunes declined. Now China is back again to No. 1 spot.

In the final encounter, China's skill, strength and deception thrilled the crowd and the team was seen at its best. From the beginning it was China that called the shots, despite Russia's strong defence wall. Setter Feng Kun was swift and accurate in feeding the spikers and Zhao Ruirui, Liu Yunan and Yang Hao kept China going with their deceptive spiking.

Ekterina Gamova, Evoguenia Artamonova, an outstanding spiker, and Anastasia Belikova tried hard to shore up Russia's game, but China kept up the pressure right through to make it 3-0.

Despite some setbacks in the early part of the competition, both China and Russia improved their performances tremendously in the final phase with 4-0 victories before their final showdown. China's defence was solid against the Dutch and it wore down the rival, holding even usually hard-hitting Francien Huurman to 10 points. Zhao Ruirui, China's middle blocker, spiked brilliantly to notch up 15 points and blocked well too.

Similarly, Russia thrashed Italy in front of the huge home crowd, before moving into the final. The Italians dodged Russia's firepower with timely fakes and well-placed setting to take the first set. But the defending champion bounced back through lanky 6' 7' Ekterrina Gamova who dominated in the next three sets with her superb spiking. Italy went further down in the order.

The United States, which topped Group `A' with a 4-1 record, ahead of the Netherlands in a two-way tie, took the bronze, beating South Korea 3-0 first and then the Netherlands 3-0 on the final day. Incidentally, the U.S. team was in focus in the beginning, but the team fared badly in the final round. United States, the Netherlands and Italy from Group `A' and Korea, Russia and China from Group `B' qualified for the final round.

Germany, Japan and Cuba, which finished last, were eliminated from Group `A' while Brazil, Thailand and Canada were knocked out from Group `B.' However, the American squad recovered quickly, beating Italy and that paved the way for its bronze medal victory. Keeba Phipps and Logan Tom spiked intelligently for a combined of 28 points and the U.S. avenged its only preliminary defeat at the hands of Italy.

In the preliminaries there were some exciting encounters that changed the course of the event. South Korea surprised Russia, but was thrashed by China. Still the Korean team topped the Group. The U.S. team needed five seats to ward off the threat from Japan and the Dutch recorded a five-set win over Cuba. These encounters gave a glimpse of what was going to come. But in the final phase, there was a big surprise as China beat even stronger rivals like Russia, U.S. and Italy to reach the summit.

The final standings:

1. China, 2. Russia, 3. U.S.A., 4. The Netherlands, 5. Italy, 6. Korea, 7. Germany, &. Brazil, 9. Japan & Thailand 11. Cuba & Canada.

The results: Final: China beat Russia 25-2, 28-26, 25-21.

Bronze medal: U.S. beat the Netherlands 25-22, 25-20, 28-26.