Blanka Vlasic of Croatia unleashes her emotions after winning the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics' High Jump competition with a heigh of 2.04m (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Walker vs Demus rematch, and of course, Vlasic’s homecoming on tap in Zagreb – IAAF World Athletics Tour

Zagreb, CroatiaNearly 50 medallists from the 2009 World championships and 2008 Olympic Games will converge upon the Croatian capital on Monday (31) for the 59th edition of the Zagreb Grand Prix.

Zagreb 2009 is a Grand Prix status meeting as part of the IAAF World Athletics Tour 2009.

Vlasic’s homecoming

But for the expected sell-out crowd at Mladost stadium, one of the seven recently minted World champions will stand head and shoulders above the rest: national heroine Blanka Vlasic.

Vlasic, who defended her World High Jump title in the one of the most dramatic competitions of the Berlin World Cchampionships, returns home on the heels of yet another victory over arch-rival Ariane Friedrich. On Friday, the Croatian took her third career victory in Zurich where she cleared 2.01m despite admitting she was emotionally drained from the World championships. Zagreb, the site of her first 2.00m clearance back in 2003, always manages to put the wind back in Vlasic’s sails.

She’ll face Berlin silver medallist Anna Chicherova of Russia, who improved her PB to 2.04m here last year; 2004 Olympic champion Yelena Slesarenko; and another rising Russian star, Svetlana Shkolina.

As always, hurdles provide the impressive centrepiece

Named to honour Croatian inter-war hurdler Boris Hanžekovic, the hurdles races are traditionally among the key attractions at the meeting, and this year’s will be no exception.

While injury knocked World record holder and Olympic champion Dayron Robles out of the Berlin final and subsequently sidelined him from his scheduled appearance in Zagreb, organisers were quick to lure Ryan Brathwaite of Barbados, the surprise winner of the World title last week. The 21-year-old will face Berlin finalists Maurice Wignall of Jamaica and Czech Petr Svoboda, as well as Olympic bronze medallist David Oliver, who is on the rebound from injury.

The women’s sprint hurdles features Olympic champion Dawn Harper of the USA who won here last year, Jamaican Delloreen Ennis-London, who took bronze in Berlin, and Irishwoman Derval O’Rourke, who took fourth in Berlin with a national record 12.67. Harper was a distant seventh in the German capital, but bounced back with a 12.48 run in Zurich where she was a close second.

But among the finest rematches of the evening will take place over the full lap. Jamaican Melaine Walker followed up her Beijing triumph with a stunning run in Berlin, clocking 52.42 to become the second fastest in history. She’ll again face Lashinda Demus of the USA, who finished second in Berlin and earlier in the season improved to 52.63, and is currently history’s fifth quickest. A fast race is expected.

They’ll be pushed by Jamaican Kaliese Spencer and Natalya Antyukh of Russia who clocked 53.56 and 54.11 personal bests in Berlin where they finished fourth and sixth respectively.

There will be plenty of speed on display in the men’s race, led by American Bershawn Jackson who took bronze in Berlin and Beijing. Former two-time world champion Felix Sanchez is still going strong – he was eighth in Berlin – and remains a factor. Also worth keeping an eye on is Jamaican Isa Phillips. Lowering his PB to 48.05, the 25-year-old has run well this season and will be looking to bounce back from the disappointment of missing the Berlin final.

Kozmus heads Berlin podium reunion, and Cantwell vs Majewski in the Shot Put

For Slovenia’s Primoz Kozmus, it’ll be a quick hop across the border for his Berlin triumph follow-up. The 29-year-old shook off some early season injuries to add the World title to his Beijing gold in the Hammer Throw, and he’ll start as favourite here. He’ll face Poland’s Szymon Ziolkowski and Alexey Zagorny of Russia, who finished second and third in Berlin, along with Hungary’s Krisztian Pars, who dominated the event in the lead-up to Berlin, only to suffer his only off-day of the season at Olympic Stadium. Local eyes will focus on Andras Haklits, who was seventh in Berlin.

In the men’s Shot Put, American Christian Cantwell and Poland’s Tomasz Majewski square off yet again. Majewski took gold in Beijing ahead of Cantwell but the finish order was reversed in Berlin. Andrey Mikhnevich of Belarus, the Olympic bronze medallist a year ago, is also among the five Berlin finalists in the field. Look out for American Day Taylor, a 21.78m man this year, who’ll be hungry after failing to reach the final 12 in Berlin.

On the women’s side of the throws, Cuba’s Yarelis Barrios will be the woman to beat in the Discus Throw. The 26-year-old has been among the most consistent throwers in recent years, taking silver in Osaka two years ago, silver in Beijing last year, and silver again in Berlin. Olympic champion Stephanie Brown Trafton (USA), who didn’t have a good day in Berlin where she finished 12th, will be looking to put her season back on track. Local will be watching 19-year-old Sandra Perkovic, the European junior champion and World junior bronze medallist, who is already the senior national record holder at 62.44 and surprised with her ninth place finish in Berlin.

Caribbean vibes in the sprints

Jamaican Shericka Williams is among the class of the women’s 400m at the moment, and she’ll clearly be the woman to beat here. She followed Beijing silver with Berlin silver, improving her career best to 49.32 in the process. She’ll take on her compatriot Shereefa Lloyd, who she teamed with to take 4x400m Relay silver in Berlin and bronze in Beijing. Russians Tatyana Firova and Anastasiya Kapachinskaya, who took home bronze in the 4x400 in Berlin and silver in Beijing, have strong credentials as well.

Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown, the two-time defending Olympic champion in the 200m, returns to Zagreb to defend her 100m title from a year ago. The Jamaican performed admirably in Berlin, taking silver in the 200m and finishing fourth in 100. her primary challenger appears to be her compatriot Simone Facey, who took gold in the 4x100m Relay in Berlin, and American Stephanie Durst.

The men’s 100m field includes two Berlin finalists: Marc Burns from Trinidad and Tobago, and Americans Darvis Patton. Also toeing the line will U.S. champion Mike Rodgers, a Berlin semi-finalist, and Steve Mullins and Michael Frater, members of Jamaica’s victorious 4x100m Relay quartet.

Jepkosgei and Ayalew top middle and long distance fields

Kenyan Janeth Jepkosgei returns to the track after her impressive outing in Berlin where she managed to comeback from injury to repeat her silver medal winning performance from Beijing.

Her leading challenger is the current Russian No. 1, European indoor champion Mariya Savinova, who has improved to 1:57.90 this season and finished fifth in Berlin. Others in the field include her compatriot Elena Kofanova who is among the sub-2:00 ranks again this season, and Spaniard Mayte Martinez, who was seventh in Berlin.

In the 3000m, the favourite will be Kenyan Wude Ayalew, the Berlin bronze medallist in the 10,000m. The 22-year-old has improved dramatically this season, clocking 14:38.44 in the 5000m and 30:11.87 over the track’s longest distance. Her primary challenger appears to be Kenyan Milcah Chemos Cheywa, the 23-year-old who clocked a superb 9:08.57 career best to claim the bronze in the steeplechase in Berlin.

In the men’s 1500m, Berlin finalists Mohamed Moustaoui (sixth) of Morocco, Lopez Lomong (eighth) of the USA, and Ali Belal Mansour (ninth) of Bahrain, lead the field.

Although World champion Yargelis Savigne and silver medallist have been forced to withdraw in recent days, the Triple Jump field can still boast Cuban Mabel Gay and Russia’s Anna Pyatykh, the Berlin silver and bronze medalists, respectively, along with another Russian, Nadezhda Alekhina, the world leader this season at 15.14m.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF