FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — No other beach volleyball player looks quite like Alison Cerutti.
The bearded Brazilian is 6-foot-8 with muscles that make him look like “a football tight end playing beach volleyball,” as U.S. Olympic silver medalist Jennifer Kessy said. He is simply known as “Mammoth,” and he has a large tattoo of the animal on his side to prove it.
“He is the strongest guy on the [FIVB] World Tour,” said his teammate, Bruno Schmidt.
Bruno, on the other hand, is soft-spoken and one of the shortest players on the FIVB World Tour at 6-foot-1, despite being the nephew of 6-foot-9 Oscar Schmidt, the emotive, five-time Olympic basketball player who holds the Olympic record for career points.
Bruno is known as the “Magician” for his ability to dig balls that seem destined to hit the sand beyond his reach.
Together, the duo has won more FIVB World Tour titles in 2015 than any other pair, and they are the top-seeded team in this week’s FIVB World Tour Finals. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will broadcast the finals live Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET.
“They are the best team in the world,” Canadian player Chaim Schalk said. “No doubt about it.”
Their strength is defense.
When an opponent rises to spike the ball, Alison meets him at the net. The 2011 FIVB World Tour’s best blocker uses his height and reach to stuff the ball back onto the other side of the court.
But even when Alison does not make direct contact, he often intimidates attackers into lobbing the ball at a slower speed over his outstretched arms, like a tall basketball defender who causes a driving player to change the trajectory of a lay-up.
This gives Bruno, the FIVB World Tour’s best defensive player in 2013 and 2014, more time to adjust and dig the attack. Not that he needs a lot of time.
Phil Dalhausser, a 2008 U.S. Olympic champion and the World Tour’s reigning best blocker, best setter and most outstanding player, called Bruno the world’s best defender, by far.
“He’s explosive,” Dalhausser said. “After two steps, he is at full speed.”
Alison, 29, and Bruno, 28, played together in their island hometown of Vitoria in their early 20s but had teamed with separate partners at the international level since 2008. They rejoined in spring 2014 after Alison returned home to be closer to his sick father and reached out to Bruno.
Chemistry came quickly.
They won every international tournament they entered this July and August, including the World Championship. They became the first pair since 1999 to win five straight international events.
The “Mammoth” and the “Magician” clinched their Olympic berth this summer and will likely be favorites on home sand at Copacabana Beach at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
But there will be pressure.
Volleyball, beach or indoor, is arguably the most popular sport in Brazil save soccer. A Brazil pair hasn’t won an Olympic title since Athens 2004. Teams lost in the 2008 and 2012 finals, including Alison with the legendary Emanuel in 2012.
“They expect us to win every single tournament,” said Bruno, who with Alison lost to Dalhausser and Nick Lucena in World Tour Finals group play Wednesday but are still expected to advance to the weekend’s elimination rounds.
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