When American Olympic and world champion Todd Rogers speaks about the top teams on the planet, you know he speaks from experience after playing three decades on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour, highlighted by eight seasons with Phil Dalhausser.
Rogers said Italians Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai were built like Dalhausser and himself.
"Paolo is a physically dominant blocker with a great arm swing and sweet setting hands. He plays with an excellent ball control defender.
"Lupo is a couple of inches bigger than me, with better shots though. This team had our number going into London, and unfortunately for us, it showed."
Rogers and Dalhausser met Lupo and Nicolai on the court four times with the Italians winning the last three confrontations highlighted by that elimination win at the London 2012 Summer Games when the Americans entered the competition as the reigning Olympic champions.
German Olympian and Swiss coach Christoph Dieckmann had similar comments. “Lupo is a totally instinctive player, while Todd was totally cerebral. And Nicolai probably has a better all-around game than Phil, who of course was more dominating at the net at his prime.”
Dieckmann, who captured five World Tour gold medals and has been a part of the international beach volleyball scene for over three decades, said it is a “great achievement for Daniele and Paolo to stay together so long and to be successful as a team. They keep finding ways to keep it going. They are so fun to watch. Paolo is the smooth moving giant and Daniele the kid who doesn't look athletic but has a magic touch. And they are really nice guys.”
Talking about their journey together, Lupo said the partnership with Nicolai “started with the national youth teams. It was my first sporting experience with Paolo. Dionisio Lequaglie was our coach. It continued and definitively blossomed with coach Mike Dodd (an Atlanta 1996 Olympic silver medal winner) in 2011.”
During their first season together in 2011, Lupo and Nicolai posted a 24-13 record for seven events as the pair defeated seven teams that would eventually qualify for the London 2012 Olympics, including bronze medal winners Martins Plavins/Janis Smedins of Latvia and fourth-place finishers Reinder Nummerdor/Richard Schuil of the Netherlands.
“There was a great team feeling,” said Lupo about playing with Nicolai in 2011. “It was also a difficult year, but fun. I like difficult challenges! We have always believed in our team and we will never stop doing that!”
In their first World Tour event together in Brazil in April 2011, Lupo and Nicolai had to win two qualifying matches to advance to the main draw where they were defeated by local favourites Alison Cerutti and Emanuel Rego in the first round.
The Italian pair finished seventh after winning four consecutive elimination matches highlighted by a three-set victory over Spaniards Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera.
Since their Brasilia debut in 2011, Lupo and Nicolai have amassed a 291-146 FIVB World Tour match mark (66.6 winning percentage) in 85 events to become the most productive team from Italy on the international circuit (men and women combined).
Lupo and Nicolai have captured three World Tour gold medals together while competing in 12 finals, placing on 22 podiums with 25 final four finishes and 41 “elite eight” appearances. Highlighting the Italians' accomplishments was a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics after placing fifth at the London 2012 Summer Games.
Add in three European championships (2014, 2016 and 2017) and a 41-16 record for 10 events along with a 5-3 mark in qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics last September in China, Lupo and Nicolai have played 500 international matches with 335 wins.
“The key is respect!” said the 29-year Lupo. “We have different personalities, but we have one thing in common, the desire to win and never give up.”
Lupo added that his team “has always had great ambitions but unfortunately the career of an athlete also encounters obstacles. In 2018 and 2019 in the month of April, I had to stop due to two injuries. I was unable to complete my athletic preparation and reach a 100 per cent of my potential physically. However, I learned a lot of things from those days! And now it's time to have fun!”
As for competing for the third time in the Summer Games when Tokyo takes place in 2021, Lupo added “we are always excited to play a tournament like the Olympics. Now is not the time for disappointments, the whole world is facing a difficult period. We must adapt to the moment and always think positively. We are looking forward to taking to the court.”
“It would have been better to have had more tournaments to prepare, but we have adapted to the moment and for this, I am proud and feeling confident we have taken a step forward.”
With Lupo and the 32-year old Nicolai just entering the prime of their careers, they are looking forward to future Olympic competitions in Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028). “I love this sport,” Lupo said about his future in beach volleyball. “I hope I can play as long as possible with Paolo.”
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