CKU Ceremony 035

Before Samuele Cottafava became the hottest young rookie on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour, before he made his first major final, in Doha just one month ago, before he proved he could challenge the likes of Anders Mol and Christian Sorum and every other big name in the beach volleyball world, before he was awarded his first Elite16 gold medal, as he was on Sunday in Jurmala, Latvia, Cottafava was working his way up the system.

He began at the ground floor, grinding in the one-stars, like anyone else.

And it was in a one-star in Cervia, Italy, last September, that Cottafava’s rise was confirmed as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise. Taking his usual fast set to the pin in the finals against Americans Miles Evans and Troy Field, Cottafava beat a swing into the angle. Evans barely had time to twitch, much less make a dig on it.

“That,” he told Field, shaking his head, “was so fast.”

That swing, and subsequent reaction from Evans, is a mighty apt metaphor for the blink-and-you-missed it rise of Cottafava. Shortly after beating Evans and Field in that final in Cervia, winning his third gold medal, all in one-stars, he was picked up by Paolo Nicolai, the greatest blocker in the Italian federation’s history. In their first tournament together, they beat both the No. 1 ranked team in the United States (Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner) and the 2013 world champions Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen. In their second, they pushed Mol and Sorum, the Olympic gold medallists and most dominant team of the previous four years, into a third set. In Doha, they made a final. In Ostrava, so dominant were Cottafava and Nicolai that they whipped Brazilians Evandro and Alvaro 21-7.

That is not a typo: They did, indeed, win 21-7.

The breakthrough, anyone who had been paying any attention knew, was coming.

In Latvia, it came.

There are no asterisks on this victory. No lucky breaks. No fortunate draws. No no. Cottafava and Nicolai earned every point of this gold medal, one that is as hard-won as any this season on the Beach Pro Tour.

This was a quest that began in the qualifier, against Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Maciej Rudol, which required a comeback after falling in the first set, 26-28. It required consecutive wins in pool play just to make the playoffs after losing in three to Christiaan Varenhorst and Steven Van de Velde. It required yet another win over Schalk and Brunner, and a pair of comeback victories in both sets over Brazilians Andre and George, who are playing as well as any team in the world and have a bronze medal in Jurmala to prove it.

And it required, of course, a gold medal effort in a gold medal match against Qatar’s Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan, the team for whom there has been no answer from any pair in the world for a full season now.

Cottafava delivered. Time and time again.

Even after losing the first set, 16-21, a set in which it was his offense, typically so steady and consistent, that proved to be an uncharacteristic issue, he delivered.

Even down three match points in the second set, trailing 20-17, he delivered. He sided out the first on, as announcer Simon Golding called it, “a bounce out of Jurmala”.

18-20.

He dug the second, ripping one off block of Ahmed to score in transition.

19-20.

It was Nicolai on the block on the next, planting a huge left hand into the seam of Tijan.

20-20.

A Nicolai block, after a Tijan side out, again saved the match.

21-21.

Side-outs to 25-25.

And then, who else would it be but Cottafava who came up biggest, delivering an ace down the line of Cherif.

“He’s having the time of his life,” Kerri Pottharst said on the mic. “He’s just got no fear.”

Another big serve from Cottafava, producing an out of system pass, an overset, a block from Nicolai, an improbable 27-25 second-set victory.

Down three match points to Qatar? And you survive to see a third set?

Are you kidding me?

And then, even after a rare error in an attempt on an overset, putting Qatar up 3-1 in the third, it was Cottafava who delivered and delivered and delivered again. A big serve and swing to take the lead, 4-3, the first of the match, and one they wouldn’t relinquish. There would be no big run made, no pull-away, just blow for massive blow, being delivered by all four players on the court.

Yet the moment was Cottafava’s, this young sensation, the next generation of Italian greats. It could have been no one else who put the final ball down, an angle swing around Cherif, an angle swing that sealed his first major win – one of many to come -- 15-12.

“He played like a legend,” Golding said. “A 23-year-old legend.”

A legend in the making