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Samuele Cottafava celebrates a point

The first time that Paolo Nicolai competed in Latvia, 12 years into his storied and decorated career, it really couldn’t have started off much worse.

He and longtime partner Daniele Lupo, with whom he had won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games, opened up the 2020 European Championships with a stunning loss to 28th-seeded Aliaksandr Dziadkou and Pavel Piatrushka. Then they needed a comeback against 21st-seeded Germans Armin Dollinger and Sven Winter just to break pool.

Though they did, indeed, break pool, recovering from a 19-21 first set loss to eventually beat Dollinger and Winter, it set up a ghastly gauntlet before them: third-seeded Clemens Wickler and Julius Thole, fourth-seeded Edgars Tocs and Martins Plavins, perennial European power Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak, the hottest team alive in Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, and an excellent Russian pair in Nikita Liamin and Taras Myskiv.

It boded well for the Italians that medals are not awarded based on how you begin, rather how you finish a tournament. There went Lupo and Nicolai, shaking off whatever ailed them at the onset of the tournament, rattling off epic win after epic win: 26-24, 13-21, 15-12 over Wickler and Thole; 21-17, 21-18 over Plavins and Tocs; 21-19, 19-21, 18-16 over Kantor and Losiak. After falling in the semifinals to Mol and Sorum, 25-27, 19-21, they rebounded once more, defeating Liamin and Myskiv, 17-21, 23-21, 15-12 to win the hardest-earned bronze medal they could have asked for.

“With Daniele, we played together for 12 years, so everything on the court was already known,” Nicolai said.

Now? Still little is known about Nicolai and his new partner, 23-year-old Sam Cottafava. But what is known is this: Cottafava has earned every last point of his promotion to play behind the best blocker in Italian history.

Back in Jurmala for the first time since that bronze medal at the 2020 European Championships, Nicolai is guaranteed another, this one either gold or silver, as he and Cottafava swept both Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, and Andre Loyola and George Wanderley on Saturday to make the finals.

“Now with Samuele, we are playing a different style,” Nicolai said. “We are enjoying the game and it’s really nice to be back.”

Jurmala marks the sixth tournament for the new partnership. Already, they have made a final, at the Doha Challenge in early May. Already, they have made it through three brutal Elite16 qualifiers, in Rosarito, Ostrava, and Jurmala. Already, they have made a convincing argument as the best team in a loaded Italian federation, knocking out countrymen Alex Ranghieri and Lupo in the final round of pool play.

“It’s different,” Nicolai said.

And different can be awfully good.

On Sunday, they will meet Qatar’s Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan in the finals. After dropping their opening match to Brazil’s Alison and Guto, they swept four straight opponents in making it to their second final of the season, including Estonians Kusti Nolvak and Mart Tiisaar. Meanwhile, Sunday will be the first medal the Estonians will be competing for this season, after having to forfeit the bronze medal match in the Itapema Challenger in mid-April. They will see Brazil's George Wanderley and Andre Loyola Stein, who are looking for their second medal of 2022.

“We’re going to have fun,” Tiisaar said of the bronze medal matchup with George and Andre. “We’re going to enjoy.”