Hoping for a spike in success

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No longer a dominant force on the world stage, the current generation of Chinese women's volleyball stars is fighting hard to return to the podiums of international events and repeat the glories of their predecessors. However, from what we saw in 2022, it's clear that the developing Team China still has a long journey ahead of it.

Two sixth-place finishes, respectively at the FIVB Women's World Championship in October and the FIVB Volleyball Nations League (VNL) in July, were the best results that the Chinese women's volleyball team were able to muster in 2022.

The team, currently ranked No 5 in the world, is well aware of the gap between it and the world's top teams, such as Italy, which defeated Team China 3-1 at the quarterfinal of the world championship, and World No 1 Serbia, which took the world championship title. The young Chinese squad values all of the experiences it gained through the international games it played in 2022, especially the defeats.

"It's important that we have more chances to play against strong teams like Italy. To face the world's top teams, or even defeat them, we need to find more effective ways of playing. So, that experience of competing against them is valuable," Team China head coach Cai Bin told Xinhua.

"From the very beginning, when we started to build this team, team spirit is what we valued the most. I think we did well from that perspective, but in terms of the gap in skill, we cannot level-up overnight, and it will take some time to keep improving.

"We need to be more aggressive in the future and find a tactical balance of attack and defense. We must build a good system, otherwise we won't have any advantage when we play against the world's strongest teams."

Fans awaiting the resurgence of Chinese women's volleyball miss the days when Team China was capable of winning Olympic gold and world championships, like they did under former head coach Lang Ping at Rio 2016, and the World Cups in 2015 and 2019.

A painful turning point arrived at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, when the team failed to emerge from the group stages.

The shock early exit was China's worst Olympic showing in volleyball since its debut at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, leading to the resignation of legendary coach Lang.

"We faced unprecedented uncertainty ahead of the Tokyo Olympics due to the pandemic, and no one had experience. It was such a pity. We should have displayed more of what we had prepared, but we did not, and we need to accept that fact," Lang said on a NetEase show in December.

"But we need to find the solutions. That's how our players can be more mature in the future when they face these problems. I hope the team has more options in the future, but we need to let 2021 go, as the defeat is already history."

Rising star Li

Throughout 2022, the star that shone the brightest on Team China was Li Yingying. Without superstar Zhu Ting and veteran outside hitter Zhang Changning, due to injuries, a younger generation, spearheaded by Li, stepped up to shoulder more responsibility on the international stage.

The 22-year-old scored 179 points in total to finish as the team's top scorer, ranking sixth overall in the scoring chart of the world championship. During the VNL in July, Li racked up 248 points to finish third in the tournament's scoring chart.

"From 2018 to 2021, I grew from a kid at the national team to a core player. I was a youngster whose main job was to cheer for the others and, occasionally, I earned the chance to play. But, from the world championships this year, I shouldered a lot more responsibility," Li said in an interview with China Matters.

"But that meant I had more pressure, which influenced my performances to some degree. Winning and losing are a part of competitive sport. What's important, though, is the Chinese volleyball spirit, which is to never give up in the face of adversity, no matter how difficult the challenge is.

"Compared wi

Struggling men's team

Although the Chinese men's volleyball team made headlines by winning the 2022 Asian Volleyball Confederation Cup in August, the squad still need to make a big leap forward to close the gap with the world's elite teams and become more competitive on the global stage.

The Chinese men's volleyball team's only highlight throughout 2022 was the victory at the AVC Cup in Thailand. The triumph ended China's 10-year wait to top the podium at the Asian Volleyball Confederation tourney.

However, three straight group stage defeats at August's FIVB Men's World Championship not only left Team China languishing at the bottom of Pool E, but also last place in the overall ranking of the 24-team world championship. That showed just how far the men's team is away from becoming a medal contender at a major international tournament.

"There is still a huge gap between Team China and the world's volleyball powerhouses. It's not just about skill. It's about our physical condition, overall strength and our understanding of the sport. Such high competitiveness and intensity is unthinkable within our domestic league," Team China's head coach Wu Sheng told Xinhua.

"In a team sport like volleyball, it's not just about one player. There are so many details regarding the attacking and defensive sides of the team. There is so much work to be done to improve. The gap is comprehensive, and we failed to meet our expectations."

th other teams, we may still have a gap in terms of skill, but we should never lose that spirit. Each time, my goal is to win the key point in the key match for my team. I'm still 22 years old, and I believe I can always do better in the next game. This is just a start to a new chapter. I will work hard for my next Olympics in Paris."

During another interview with Xinhua, Li said another of her goals was to become the next generation of superstar.

"I'm now more confident on the court and I'm closing the gap with the world's top players. The distance is not that big. I believe I can get better with every game. Becoming a true world-class player is my next goal. I will certainly keep working hard and fighting for it." Li said.

"I just felt like I was the one who was attracting extra attention from our rivals. So I always need to be prepared to study our opponents, and to discover the weak spot in their defense. Finding solutions has always been a focus," explained Li.

"When I was younger, I played as a substitute at major championships. The rivals knew little about me, so I could always surprise them. But now I'm a core player, I feel the pressure and it is as if every opponent is focusing on me and studying me. So that presents different challenges."

Zhuper returns

From the setbacks at the Tokyo Games to the expectations on Team China throughout 2022, all of the mixed feelings of the fans could be linked to Chinese superstar Zhu. As the 28-year-old has returned to the court after a long hiatus due to injuries, fans now have high hopes that she will once again lead Team China to glory.

Zhu is one of the most high-profile women's volleyball players in the world. Nicknamed "Zhuper", she is the first player in history to win two consecutive FIVB World Cup titles, and was also named MVP at both those tournaments. Zhu was also the MVP at the Rio Olympics in 2016, when she helped the national team win gold.

However an injury to her right wrist, which she first sustained in 2017, brought a halt to the accolades and silverware. The problem flared up again in 2019, causing extra concern this time, as it began to adversely affect her performances. Rather than undergoing surgery, she initially chose a conservative program of treatment that would allow her to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics.

The treatment was not enough for Zhu to maintain peak performance at the delayed Games in 2021. Although Zhu did her best to play through the pain and still displayed her famous fighting spirit, defending champion Team China failed to make it beyond the group stage.

Zhu eventually underwent surgery earlier last year in Spain, and rested for the next several months in Europe. In July, Zhu announced she was signing for Italian Women's Volleyball League side Pallavolo Scandicci. This is the second time Zhu suits up for a foreign club.

From 2016-19, Zhu enjoyed a successful stint at Vakifbank Istanbul in Turkiye. Now expectations are high that Zhu can put her injury troubles behind her and bounce back in style.

According to a recent interview with current head coach Cai in Shanghai, Zhu is very likely to return to national team duty in 2023. Zhuper's first priority is to help Team China secure a spot at the 2024 Paris Games through qualifying.

"I really want to say thank you for all of the support and help from everyone during the time that I played in Italy. I will try my best to deliver better performances in the coming games." Zhu said in December.

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