Doha, Qatar, March 10, 2020 - Paolo Nicolai has been one of the world's most feared blockers for almost 10 years. The 31-year-old's partnership with Daniele Lupo is going into its tenth season and it’s a partnership you could say has lasted more than some marriages. Quick links:Instagram
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Nicolai and Lupo are the Olympic silver medallists from Rio 2016, three time European champions, the first Italian team to top the world rankings and, to top that, Paolo has the fastest recorded serve in the world. They are set to compete in their third Olympic Games after earning their country a berth at the FIVB Olympic Qualification Tournament in Haiyang, China in September, alongside Edgars Tocs and Martins Plavins of Latvia.
Qualification isn’t enough for the Italians, however, as they look to improve on their silver in Rio and fifth place finish in London.
“It’s a great feeling. We have the chance to represent our country for the third time at the Games. Anyway this is only the first step, we want to compete at the highest level possible in Tokyo.”
The Italians surprised some at London 2012 by defeating the Olympic gold medallists Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers in what the volleyball community called “out-Phil-and-Todding Phil and Todd”. They have been preparing for the new season with Dalhausser and his partner Nick Lucena in Florida and Nicolai has stated that just because they have qualified for the Games, it doesn't mean they will change their focus.
“We are focused on the World Tour events, I think that competition is the best way to prepare for the Games.”
The Italians haven’t won a World Tour event since the Open in Sochi in 2016, but Paolo insists that being victorious on the World Tour is the goal for every tournament this season. An injury to Lupo put preparations slightly back at the start of the 2019 season, but getting to Tokyo was their target for last season.
“The main goal for 2019 was to earn a spot for Tokyo and we did it. I think we played good beach volleyball, the level is so high right now in the FIVB.”
The Italians beat former world champions Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen 2-0 in Haiyang to qualify for their third Olympics. Nicolai and Lupo feel they are playing better than when they lost in the Olympic Final in 2016 to Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt of Brazil. Nicolai has also stated that their level of play in 2015 wouldn’t see them be a consistent main draw team now in 2020.“I think we are playing better than in Rio, we are more consistent in our game, but the level is going up year after year.”
Nicolai sees it is not just their team that are improving in performance. The rest of the world are also progressing at a steady pace and there are multiple teams they will be keeping an eye on.
“The number of good teams is going up and this is a good think for our sport. Almost every match could be a final. This is great because you have to work hard and constantly try to improve your game.”
When asked who could podium in Tokyo, Nicolai laughs and says “Too many teams!”
But the Italians will be going into 2020 with an aggressive mindset and Tokyo on the horizon. There is one main lesson they have learnt from the previous two Olympic Games, that can they can use in all aspects of their game.“I learnt that there is a big difference when you play to win or when you play not to lose.”
Nicolai and Lupo are now preparing for Doha after their camp in Florida and will take the 4th seeding in the main draw in the opening 4-star of the season that includes the world champions Viacheshlav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy, the 2013 world champions Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, and Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhauser in a draw that is missing the Beach Volley Vikings as Anders Mol continues to recover from a knee injury.
You can expect to see them competing on the World Tour circuit right the way up to the Olympic Games in July. When asked what their secret would be to return to the podium, Nicolai smiles and replies: “Hard work, thats all we can do.”