Bjelica and Stevanovic celebrate

Serbia dethroned defending three-time champions USA to claim a spot in the semifinals of the women’s Volleyball Nations League 2022. They emerged on the winning end of a five-set battle to celebrate with a 3-2 (29-27, 25-23, 20-25, 20-25, 15-13) victory on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, Brazil were the first team to progress to the semis. The Finals in Ankara opened with the first quarterfinal, between the South Americans and Japan. After a fierce duel, coach Ze Roberto’s squad celebrated with a 3-1 (29-27, 28-26, 20-25, 25-14) win and will take on Serbia on Saturday for a place in Sunday’s final.

· Watch all VNL 2022 matches live on Volleyball TV.

Brazil’s outside hitter and captain Gabriela Guimaraes led the scorers with 23 points to her name, followed by opposite Kisy Nascimento with 20 and outside Julia Bergmann with 17. Kisy and middle blocker Ana Carolina Da Silva each produced four of the team’s 16 kill blocks in the match, against a total of six for Japan.

A series of three consecutive points – a kill by Kisy, a perfectly placed ace by Begmann and a kill by Gabi – gave Brazil an early 6-3 lead in the first set. However, they made far too many unforced errors (14 in the set against three for Japan), while the Asian team played incredibly well in defence to catch up, take control and break away with a six-point lead as their outside and captain Sarina Koga crowned a fantastic super long rally with a spike for 20-14. After 21-15 though, Brazil scored six points in a row, four of them authored by Bergmann to level the score at 21-21. Bergmann brought in the first set point scoring for 24-23. Japan fought back to deny as many as four Brazilian opportunities to close the set, before Kisy converted the fifth one with a monster block, her ninth point in the set, for 29-27.

Continuing their tremendous digging efforts into the second set, Japan opened a 9-6 gap after winning another mega rally with a kill by outside Kotona Hayashi. Brazil caught up at 12-12 only to let their opponents break away again as middle blocker Haruyo Shimamura scored on the overpass for another three-point lead at 15-12. The South Americans reacted with four in a row to turn it around, take the lead and never give it back, at least not until deep into the overtime... A successful spike by Gabi delivered the first set point at 24-22, but then a spiking error by Gabi again levelled it at 24-24. She brought in the next set point with an attack for 25-24. This time, Japan not only denied it, but gained a set point of their own at 26-25 after a monster block by Koga. Still, Brazil kept their cool and took the next three points with Koga hitting wide for the opponents’ 28-26 winner.


Gabi spikes against Japan

Japan stormed the third set with a 3-0 run, but Brazil responded immediately with four in a row to take a 4-3 lead. However, the Asian side gradually regained control and after a monster block by Shimamura they had another three-point advantage at 10-7. Shimamura continued to play well in the middle as Japan opened a gap as wide as five points at 16-11 and 17-12, before Brazil came back to level it at 20-20. The epilogue was all about Japan’s outside Mayu Ishikawa. Her kill put the team in the lead again and she went to the serving line. Her strong serve resulted in a free ball, which Hayashi converted to a 22-20 lead. Ishikawa then went on a serving spree of three aces in a row to close the set at 25-20 Japan’s way.

Brazil’s reaction in the fourth set was swift and merciless, especially with their emphatic blocking. They dominated on the court and cruised to a convincing 25-14 close, shaped up by middle blocker Julia Kudiess with a kill for the match winner.

“First of all, I am still trying to catch some breath, because this match against Japan was like this: you attack one time, two times... The rally goes on for over a minute... So you need to be pushing all the time, physically and mentally. That’s why I am really proud of my team! We came back from behind in the first two sets, lost the third set and said, let’s keep our energy, take a breath and push everything we have in the fourth set and this is what made the difference. This is the energy of Brazil and we need to bring it forward in the semifinals too.” Gabi Guimaraes, outside hitter and captain of Brazil

The court in Ankara took on new colours for the VNL Finals

The second quarterfinal produced a total of 35 kill blocks, 21 for USA and 14 for Serbia. Serbian outside hitter Sara Lozo delivered the match high of 22 points, including four stuffs and three of the team’s six aces, followed by captains Kelsey Robinson of USA with 21 points and Ana Bjelica of Serbia with 20.

USA took their first two-point lead at 6-4 in the first set after an ace by middle blocker Haleigh Washington and a successful swing by opposite Jordan Thompson. Serbia tied it back at 8-8 and followed up with an ace by setter Bojana Drca for a 9-8 advantage. Outside hitter Bojana Milenkovic’s kill block gave them a two-point lead at the technical timeout. Moments later, she produced two back-to-back kills to widen it to 15-11. The Americans fought back to level it at 20-20 and even edged forward by a point. Outside hitter Kelsey Robinson brought in the first set point at 24-23 with an elegant tip. Serbia denied it and regained the lead with an ace by middle Jovana Stevanovic for 25-24. The set went deep into overtime before opposite Ana Bjelica’s monster block finished it off at 29-27 Serbia’s way.

The Americans recovered from the two-point deficit they had at 9-7 in the second set before an ace by setter Jordyn Poulter gave them a 10-9 advantage and Thompson followed with a kill for 11-9. Serbia reacted with four points in a row, crowned by two back-to-back aces by Lozo for 13-11 and USA never managed to regain the lead through the end of the set. A fantastic two-hand set over the net by Drca surprised the opponents to widen the gap to 22-18. A successful challenge revealed a block touch on Bjelica’s attack to bring in the set point at 24-22. A rally later, Robinson served into the net to hand Serbia a 25-23 set win.

Serbia had a 7-6 edge in the third set, when USA went on a five-point run – two swings by sub-in opposite Andrea Drews, two kill blocks by middle Chiaka Ogbogu and by Robinson and an overpass hammer by Ogbogu – to break away with an 11-7 lead. Showing some amazing blocking efforts (nine stuffs in the set!), the Americans cruised on to a seven-point gap at set point. The European side denied the first three opportunities to close the set, but finally served long to hand the set win to the opponents at 25-20.

A monster block by Ogbogu crowned a three-point series to give USA a 12-10 lead at the technical timeout of set four. Right after that, a pipe shot by outside Alexandra Frantti extended it to 13-10. Frantti continued to spearhead the American offence on the way to another 25-20 win, shaped up by a tricky tip from Robinson for the last point.

A series of six points, including two kill blocks and a Lozo ace gave Serbia a 6-2 lead in the tie-breaker. The Balkan team continued to set pace to get to 13-8 advantage. The Americans battled on, scored four in a row to narrow the gap down to a point, but finally Robinson spiked out of bounds to stop the clocks at 15-13 Serbia’s way.

“I really don’t know what to say after this game. We prepared for it very well, played with a feeling, with a focus, and gave our maximum. We are always prepared to go five, because we never lose five. It’s incredible! We expected to give our maximum and play a good game, but to beat USA, the best team in the world at the moment, is really difficult.” Ana Bjelica, opposite and captain of Serbia