RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In March, Matteo Piano chose to have his second back surgery in about seven months and fix a painful herniated disk. He knew if he didn’t get the operation, there would be no way he’d be playing for Italy at the Olympics.
It was all worth it. Piano is going for gold on Sunday.
Now, Piano points to the heavy tape wrapped around his tender right calf that he hurt against Brazil, though there’s no way a minor injury — “It’s just a muscle pull,” he insists — will keep him off the court. There will be plenty of time to recover once he has returned home from Rio de Janeiro.
“To be here today, it was incredible, because nobody thought I could be here,” Piano said. “It’s one step. My body feels good.”
As mighty Italy looks tough to beat, Brazil has no plans of going down lightly playing for gold in its home Olympics, reaching the final when the two-time defending champion Brazilian women could not. Fabiana and the women fell to China in a five-set quarterfinal match.
“First of all, it is a final. It’s different from anything else,” Brazil’s William Arjona said. “At home, we are not going to let this get away from us. Regardless of our film study, our commitment, our will to win will be 1,000 percent on Sunday. We will leave everything on the court.”
Brazil avenged a loss to Russia in the 2012 London Games gold-medal match with a straight-set victory Friday night. The Brazilians are in their fourth straight final and chasing their first Olympic championship since 2004 in Athens.
That is fueling this fired-up team, backed by the raucous home crowd at Maracanazinho arena.
“It is a game nobody forgets. We had a big lead,” Brazil’s Lucas Saatkamp said of the 2012 Olympic loss to Russia. “We almost had the gold medal around our necks and they took it from us.”
Italy, too, has plenty of motivation. The Italians want to win it all after settling for bronze four years ago.
Piano knew this would be a memorable run for his close-knit team.
He had his first back procedure before the World Cup in Japan last September, for a different issue than the March procedure.
“I had the choice, because I chose to have the operation only to be here in the Olympic Games,” he said. “If I didn’t do the operation, I wouldn’t be here.”
All of that is in the past for Piano.
He is focused on reaching the top step of the podium on Sunday after Italy outlasted the United States 30-28, 26-28, 9-25, 25-22, 15-9 and left U.S. coach John Speraw predicting gold for the powerful Italians.
“Yeah! Yes!” Piano said shortly afterward, still overjoyed by the team’s triumph against the U.S. in an instant Olympic classic. “It’s the best thing I’ve had in my life and in sport.”
On Friday, once the Italians decided to focus on the present and not look forward at any medal matches, “We flew!” Piano said.
Italy is a deep team and the Brazilians realize their next opponent is capable of coming back at any point behind a star-studded lineup and the brilliant serving of Ivan Zaytsev, who served three straight aces in the fourth set against the U.S. as Italy used a 6-0 run to force a fifth.
“It’s a balanced team and I think they have been the most consistent team so far in the tournament,” Saatkamp said.
For Italy, it has taken commitments from every player to make the goal for gold a reality — like the spirit and determined pursuit of Piano.
“We tried to create from the work up this last year such a family ambience on the national team,” Zaytsev said. “Every part of this team is trying to give his best also like a person, from the human aspect so we are becoming like a family. So, Matteo Piano, he’s a part of this family and his desire to be part of this family is really, really huge.”