After having just flown back from Tokyo on a long Sunday (arriving at home before you left for the day is always fun). I wanted to write up what it was like for the final two days of the tournament. I was not able to go to the semifinals or 5th place match on Friday, October 19th, because I am on vacation and wanted to do some sightseeing in the Tokyo area. Additionally, I had a dinner scheduled with friends on Friday night because I knew that Saturday would be impossible with me attending the 3rd place and final.
However, some people may be surprised to hear that in Japan that the semifinals (both of them) were not even broadcast in Japan. Yes, this is absolutely correct. The only way that one of the semifinals would be broadcast was if the Japanese women’s national team made one of the semifinals. With the Japanese women being eliminated, they played in the 5th place match late on Friday night against the USA, which was broadcast across Japan. The first semifinal was very early in Japan, and I only got to see the final score with Serbia winning 3-1. On the way to my dinner with friends, I was the first to arrive and took a look at my phone and saw that Italy was up 2-1 and at 23-23 in the 4th set. I knew that I had use my Flovolleyball subscription to watch the remainder of the match. As the app opened to the match, it showed match point for Italy at 24-23. However, the Chinese fended off match point numerous times to finally force the match to 5 sets. As my friends kept sending messages that they would be a half hour late, I knew that I could watch the rest of the match on my phone. While looking at the time, as it neared 7 pm, if the Italy-China match could continue until that point, their semifinal would get on Japanese television, because the start time for the Japan-USA match was 7:20 and the TV pre-game would begin at 7 pm. Sadly the match ended a couple of minutes before 7, so even the Japanese did not get to see Egonu’s 45 points and the great 5th set.
As for Saturday, the commute from Shibuya station in Tokyo to Shin-Yokohama station, where the Yokohama Arena is located, is about 35-40 minutes (depending on the train and connection time). As I had previously seen that there was not many options from dining in the Yokohama Arena, I told my parents and my friend Kei (who also attended the matches with me that evening) that we should try to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen museum for dinner before the matches. It was a great decision as you got to learn about the history of ramen in Japan and even 10 different restaurants to chose from inside the museum before going to the match. At the restaurant that I chose, I overheard the couple next to us about going to the matches and mentioned that I was going too and even showed them the Italian RAI cartoon for the tournament. After eating a great bowl of ramen, we walked towards the arena and the lines getting into the arena a little confusing at first, but we got in fairly quickly. Upon entering the arena, you tried to make your way to your seats, but there were many sponsor displays, including an Asics one which showed all of their teams in the Men’s and Women’s World Championships.
Once entering the lower bowl of the arena, where my seats where, it was quick to see that the Chinese fans would be a presence in the 3rd place match. There were some Dutch supporters, but this was essentially a home game for the Chinese. The Netherlands have had their difficulties with China and it showed as the Chinese handled them easily 3-0. The question in my mind afterwards was, how would the crowd be with the hosts not being in the final?
The final itself was a phenomenal match, with the Italians striking first and just keeping ahead to take the first set. Serbia matched Italy in the second set to tie the match at 1-1. The crowd really enjoyed the play and let the players know their effort was worth it. With Italy taking the third set, the pressure shifted to Serbia. The Serbians had won all of their important matches (yes they lost two matches, but they had already qualified for the third round and did not care to injure star players), and were faced with a big test in overcoming a deficit for the second time in the match. As the match wore on, Italy seemed to even shift more to Egonu, who was up to the challenge, but the few mistakes she made gave the Serbian’s a gap to take the 4th. Additionally, Boskovic and Mihajlovic seemed to get more of the sets from Serbia. In the fifth, little mistakes are magnified. Italy got out to a quick 2-0 lead and Serbia’s coach Terzic called a quick time out to calm his team down. Serbia then used a 4-1 run to take the lead at 4-3. Italy then had their own 4-1 run to take a 7-5 lead. The Italian challenge on Egonu’s spike was lost at 7-7 and it seemed that Italy lost all of their challenges all night. With the side change Italy had the 8-7 lead, but still more tension was to come. Chiricella’s service miss tied the score at 8. The 9-8 point for Serbia was crazy with lots of saves on both sides of the net and Boskovic’s kill. Egonu’s blocked spike gave the Serbians a 2-point lead at 10-8. Teams kept swapping points, and then Boskovic’s cross-court spike inside the 10 foot line, was just a thing of beauty to make it 13-11. At such an important spot in the match, to see the technical and physical ability to do that was just impressive. Even with an earlier spike in the match I had seen a triple block against her and she did something similar maybe not at the 10 foot line, but still so far around the block and in the court, just unstoppable. The point of the match for me was the 12-13 Italy serve. Egonu give a great serve that turns into an overpass spike attempt for Italy, Sylla can not get a steep enough angle to kill it. Serbia saving and get an attempt from Boskovic, but blocked by the Italians, yet still saved by the Serbian libero. Serbia bump sets to the outside and still blocked by Italy, but the ball stays in the air long enough for a quick tap attempt by Serbia, but De Gennaro, Italy’s libero is ready for it, and can’t keep it on their side, but the Serbia captain Maja Ognjenovic spiked in downward to give the Serbian the crazy point and two chances at match point if they needed them. 15 seconds of defense and chaos, but those slight differences in connection are what matter at this level of the sport. Even the last point was still exciting, but Sylla’s net touch gave Serbia the match and the title.
After the match and before the awards ceremony, they showed a highlight video inside the arena, which was also shown on the FIVB broadcast, with the song “This is Me” by Keala Settle playing in the background. The video showed many of the highlights for each team during each of the rounds, including the hosts of course. It was a good reminder of what had happened in the past three weeks. As this was the last thing I saw before returning to my hotel as it was after 10 pm at that point. They were setting up for the awards ceremonies, but in Japan, trains do not run all night, so it was in our best interest to leave earlier than later. As we would be leaving our hotel at around 11 am on Sunday morning to fly back to the USA, getting back to the room to sleep and then having time to pack, it was just the right thing to do. Still we did not get back into our hotel room until after 11:15 pm.
Looking back at the tournament, I would say that the finishing positions of the top 6 teams were fair. Serbia was the best team all tournament. Italy defeated China twice and the USA to reach the final. Serbia beat Italy twice, once in the third round and then in the final and also the Netherlands in one semifinal. The USA were close to advancing to the semifinals but losing both of their third round matches in 5 sets meant a 5th place match, which they won. The Japanese almost had upsets over the Netherlands, Italy and Brazil, all going 5 sets. If Japan had beat Italy, Japan would have made the semifinals with an Italy loss to Serbia in the third round. At the beginning of the tournament, I felt that Japan would not make the 3rd round, but Brazil’s difficulties in the second round gave Japan the chance to make the 3rd round. For them, the had said a medal was a target, but really playing well against the bigger teams on the road to Tokyo 2020 is important and 6th place in my mind was a good result. The top teams of the sport excluding Brazil and Russia made the third round, and even they were still alive going into the final match of the second round. The gaps between these 7 or 8 teams are not huge and therefore teams have to play their best to win. The sport is at a great point right now and that parity is good for the sport as a whole.
Lastly, I want to say that at the beginning of the year, I did not expect to attend this tournament. However, around April, I decided that I wanted to attend, and I am glad that I did attend. Now, the entire trip was not about volleyball, it for me was also getting back to some of my past, having studied as an exchange student in Tokyo 25 years ago, it was a way to see what had changed since my time there, but also to see some things that I had not gotten to see while I was in Japan. I visited Nagoya for the first time and also got to Kyoto as well. Additionally seeing numerous friends and meeting some great people also during my time on vacation and with some connection to volleyball too it was really an experience to be had. For those reading this who have not attended an event internationally, I will say, go and experience this sport in another country. Each country’s experience with this game is different and let alone the cultures and destinations make some memorable experiences. I got to have my parents along for the trip and even got to show this great sport to a friend who had not experienced the sport at this high level. On volleymob.com I am lucky to give people a view of the sport, which sometimes are opinion pieces, while other times are just pure entertainment and other times just match results. With this trip, I just wanted to give the experience of being a fan of sport (yes wanting the USA and Japan to win), but also to show what was it like compared to what we are used to in the USA. I hope that you enjoyed some of the content that I was able to provide during (and after) the trip.