Sunday 18th January
In 1969 concorde first flew, Sesame Street hit our television screens, the Beatles gave their last public performance, Charles de Gaulle stepped down as president of France, and Augusto Ibanez Sacristan came into the world. The pelotari better known as Titin IIII turned 40 this week and the tributes rolled in. How long, people wondered, can this amazing Riojan continue to mix it with the cream of the younger crop? As if determined to flaunt his extraordinary longevity and continuing freshness, Titin celebrated his milestone by showing a man sixteen years his junior how it is done.
The Bizkaian town of Mungia witnessed the final encounter of the third round of matches in this year’s pairs championship as Titin and his partner Inigo Pascual took on Oinatz Bengoetxea, the manomanista champion, and Ruben Beloki. Both pairs had a win and a loss apiece and were on the hunt for a valuable point as things get tighter at the top of the leaderboard, and it was the forward battle which had the most bearing on its destination.. When 24 year old Bengoetxea hit a ball low from close in to cede the opening point, the pattern was largely set. In the very next play, Titin played a delicate and virtuousic drop shot into the corner having tricked his opponent into going the other way, a tactic he used on no less than eight occasions. He directed proceedings like a great conductor in front of an orchestra, notably so when with the score at 12-4 in his side’s favour he sent Bengoetxea running far and wide, eventually tapping the ball into the corner while a helpless Beloki sprinted from the back in a futile mission to salvage the point. No unknowing observer would have put his age at 40. He did make mistakes; one drop shot fell short and one ball landed too wide, but nobody could doubt the quality which made him the star of the show. Pascual too had a wonderfully solid game and provided an unflappable base from which Titin could attack, without ever putting a noticeable mark on the game. He went about his business with cool professionalism.
For all that he was outplayed, Bengoetxea did pull off some tricks of his own. He nailed three stinging gantxos to which Titin had no answer and once even beat him at his own game with a triumphant drop shot but his mistakes were to cost him dearly. Similarly, Beloki, while playing well at times miscued more frequently than his opposite number. As the game slipped further from their grasp, the Asegarce pair seemed unable to muster much organised fight, a fact epitomised by one point, extraodinary for all the wrong reasons as far as they were concerned. With the score at 9-4 to Aspe, Bengoetxea slipped and both players thought the other was playing the ball. As confusion reigned, the ball travelled past them at an easily hittable height and angle while they threw their arms out in perplexed unison. And that was the story of the match in a nutshell; Bengoetxea and Beloki had no game saving masterplan and, as far as the forward play was concerned, experience and guile triumphed over youth and exuberance. Although they might have preferred a rather closer contest, the crowd roared their collective approval.
Scoring sequence (Bengoetxea VI/Beloki first):
0-1, 0-2, 0-3, 0-4, 1-4, 2-4, 2-5, 2-6, 2-7, 2-8, 2-9, 3-9, 4-9, 4-10, 4-11, 4-12, 4-13, 5-13, 6-13, 6-14, 6-15, 7-15, 7-16, 8-16, 8-17, 8-18, 8-19, 8-20, 8-21, 8-22