Shaoxing, China, March 1, 2008 - An on-fire Wang Yimei scored 16 points to help Olympic Champions China claim their fifth straight win over Cuba in the Women's Volleyball friendly series between the two teams in Shaoxing, east China's Zhejiang province, on Saturday.
China's chances of defending the Olympic title were given a major boost as injury-battered players Zhao Ruirui and Feng Kun enjoyed a brisk workout during the match in the ongoing friendly series ahead of the Beijing Games.
After winning four matches in a row in the previous legs of the series, the Chinese team continued their momentum as they notched a convincing 25-21, 25-15, 25-17 triumph over the out-of-sorts Cuban team in just one hour and 15 minutes.
The series on Sunday was set to move to Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, for the last leg of the six-game friendly series.
The skilful middle blocker Zhao, once a crucial part of head coach Chen Zhonghe's side, suffered many setbacks with her fragile knees near to the 2004 Athens Games and has been out of action for almost four years.
Captain and setter Feng, also returning from a knee injury, has been sidelined for almost a year following surgery in 2007.
The duo, together with Yang Hao, Zhou Suhong, Liu Ya'nan and Zhang Na, are the only players in the current team with Olympic experience.
"I feel relieved to see them fully fit again and back in my squad," said Chen before the six-game friendly series began in Fuzhou, capital of southeast China's Fujian province on February 24. “Feng and Zhao recovered well from the surgeries. Feng is able to play 80 percent of her champion-winning level and Zhao at 90 percent."
However, their form demonstrated in the matches has given a lot more convincing evidence on their fitness than Chen's words. Both players have featured in the starting lineup of each game thus far. The 1.97-meter Zhao is now the team's leading scorer, averaging 10.7 points in the first four legs of the series and causing trouble in Cuba's strong defense, while Feng is getting involved in the team's offense, creating more chances for the spikers.
"After missing the 2007 season, I have to inspire chemistry with my team-mates match after match, it takes time but I think I have improved a lot in the winter training camp," said Feng. "We had bad fortune in 2006 and 2007, so the team is determined to make a fresh start this year and get the defense of the Olympic crown back on track. I believe in myself and my team."
After leading the team to its first Olympic title in Athens after 20 years, the ever-smiling Chen was troubled by the team's injuries, resulting in a slump in form over the past few years. The team lost a string of matches to lowly ranked teams and finished a remote fifth at the FIVB 2006 World Championships before losing the Asian Championship trophy the following year.
The team has just finished a behind-door training camp for the Beijing Olympics in August, and the six-game series against Cuba, from February 24 to March 2 in six different cities in southeast China's Fujian province and east China's Zhejiang province, has been the first formal occasion in which the Olympic champions have demonstrated their prep work.
"Although Zhao did not play for a long time, I won't keep her on the bench as I want to test her and give more motivation to her by sending her onto the court," said Chen, who has been at the helm of the team for seven years.
Zhao, the baby-faced 26-year-old, was injured in a match prior to the 2004 Olympics. Her injury became even worse in her first Olympic match against the United States, and Zhao was then sidelined for the rest of the tournament in Athens.
"I would never have imagined that I was able to play this well after four years' suspension," she said. "I still need time to get to know my team-mates and the way the team plays. After such a long time, I don't have to hurry, just feeling relaxed and getting used to playing on the court," Zhao added.
Said Chen, after Game 4 of the friendly series: "Zhao played a good match, especially in smashing and blocking, but there are problems on teamwork. We recruited many new faces in the side and definitely they need time and competition to know them better and get involved in the team.
"I hope they (Zhao and Feng) can adjust to their best form as soon as possible. Both players are still the best in China. I am looking forward to seeing them play again at the Beijing Olympic Games."
Currently there are a total of 19 players in the Chinese side out of which only 12 can make the final roster for the Beijing Olympics.
photo Getty Images
photo Getty Images