Mano pairs: Aimar and Oier show nerves of steel to qualify at Astelena

Sunday 22nd February

Astelena, Eibar


The equation was simple: the winners would qualify for the semi-finals and the losers would sweat it out. This duel had been headlined by the meeting of Olaizola II and Barriola, two immovable obstacles of big match play, the former possessed of a lethal left hand in attack, the latter resembling a brick wall in defence. The result, many thought, would hinge on their respective abilities to hit the high notes in a game where every point would matter. In this respect, the match turned out to be a let down, for the haematoma in Barriola’s right hand, acquired last week, had failed to recover. Leitza’s famous son was therefore replaced by Pedro Martinez de Eulate Maestresalas, the 29 year old from Lizarra-Estella who has two pairs championship wins on his resume. Despite Eulate’s status as a highly dangerous customer, the defending champions were now firm favourites, but matches of such magnitude are rarely straightforward to call. In the end, nerves of steel were required and unshakable determination would win the day: step forward Aimar Olaizola, the coolest cucumber in Navarre.

Early signs suggested that the defending champions had blown it. They endured a nightmare against Irujo and Goni III last week, hardly aided by Aimar’s suspect stomach, and it appeared that they had continued where they left off. After six points, Gonzalez and Eulate were 6-0 up, through a combination of some excellent attacking play from Gonzalez, two mishits from the back by Mendizabal and a wide swipe from Olaizola. Mendizabal found himself peppered with long balls in an early attempt to test his mettle; in the first seven points, he struck the ball 24 times to Olaizola’s 9. For the Asegarce pair it was therefore imperative to find a way to break the stranglehold in which they found themselves.

An error from Gonzalez gave the champions the serve and the advantage of their elected balls and from this point on, the disparity in points closed, gradually. As the score moved from 1-6 to 9-9, one sensed that Aimar had finally settled into the task at hand. Errors from Mendizabal, who still appeared ill at ease, were obviated by three exquisite hooks by his partner as well as a searing 98 kph serve expertly placed down the wall to which Eulate had no answer. Another excellent serve then set up a sitting duck of a winner and Aimar seized the lead for the first time in the match.

There now began a period of play when the Asegarce pair slowly and almost imperceptably pulled away in terms of both quality and composure. True, Aimar would make four more errors in the course of the game and Oier five but their opponents were the guiltier. Eulate in particular leaked points, his earlier solidity in the face of Olaizola seemingly gone. Mendizabal on the other hand saw his trajectory rise, hitting with ever increasing confidence and class. He was responsible for one of the shots of the match when, with the score at 17-15 he hit a skidding ball from the back of the fronton at such an angle that Gonzalez stood open mouthed in bewilderment. But it was Olaizola who was the chief architect of the solid recovery. Aimar’s great strength is his control of the pace of a match, every nuance calculated by his superb tactical brain. His pair never built a commanding lead and never obliterated their opponents with a barrage of dramatic hitting but the impression he gave was of a puppeteer pulling the strings. So clinical was his outward demeanour that one could be forgiven for overlooking his moments of brilliance as he demonstrated his wide repertoire of hooks, smashes and drops. Particularly impressive was his skill in turning defence into attack from the side wall; lack of operating space seemed to concern him not one bit. One match point was squandered when Gonzalez pulled off a masterful shot into the corner under unimaginable pressure but another miss by Eulate ensured the defending champions safe passage to the next stage of the competition. While his supporters gasped in relief, the tension past, Aimar nonchalantly signed autographs as if nothing had ever happened.

Scoring sequence (Olaizola II and Mendizabal II first): 0-6, 1-6, 2-6, 2-7, 2-8, 6-8, 6-9, 9-9, 10-9, 10-10, 11-10, 11-11, 12-11, 15-11, 15-12, 15-15, 19-15, 19-16, 20-16, 20-18, 21-18, 21-19, 22-19

Aimar in control

Aimar in control

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