The preliminary round of the World Grand Prix served up a real feast of world-class volleyball for fans all over the globe. It had shock wins and losses, featured one of the closest competitions in the history of the tournament and the drama lasted until the very last match.
In the end, all the favorites, with the exception of World Champions Russia, progressed to the Finals that will take place in Sapporo (Japan) from August 28 to September 1: undefeated China, Olympic champions and record winners Brazil, European champions Serbia, defending champions USA, world number four Italy, and Olympic bronze medalists Japan.
However, with a record 20 teams involved in 90 matches in 15 venues around the world, each and every one of the finalists had to fight hard to earn their tickets to the Finals.
Two figures in particular bear witness to how close the competition was in the preliminary round: 10 teams went into the final week still harboring hopes of making it to the Finals, and 19 matches had to be decided in a tie-break after ending all-square in regular time.
"The standard was high in the preliminary round," U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said. "We had a difficult round, playing Brazil in Brazil, Serbia in Serbia and Japan in Japan, as well as other strong teams. I'm proud of every one of our 16 athletes. They all made contributions over the matches to do what we set out to do: to earn the right to play five more matches and stay in Japan for two more weeks."
Although Brazil and the US have dominated the tournament over the last three years (USA have taken the championship title each year since 2010), they faced some stiff competition from other teams this time round. The level of competition was reflected in their final positions in the preliminary table: Brazil finished runners-up while USA were down in fourth place.
"We were really tested in a lot of the matches and had to step up our game. This preliminary round was the best possible advertisement for ladies' volleyball," said Brazil coach Ze Roberto.
China, whose only previous World Grand Prix triumph came ten years ago, remains undefeated after the opening nine matches this year.
Former U.S. coach Lang Ping returned to her home country, where she is widely considered the greatest women's volleyball China ever produced.
"There are still too many ups and downs in our games," Ping said. "We have to learn from our mistakes."