Saturday 2nd May
18:00 BENGOETXEA VI v PATXI RUIZ
On Saturday night this already enthralling Manomanista Championship enters into orbit with the entry of the defending champion into the competition, when Oinatz Bengoetxea takes on Patxi Ruiz in Pamplona in the first of the quarter finals. Both parties chose their playing material on Wednesday in front of a large crowd at Labrit with Bengoetxea selecting balls of 105.6 and 105.8 grams, and Ruiz balls of 104.7 and 105.1 grams. A large audience is also expected at the historic fronton for the match between these two past champions.
Bengoetxea, young, charismatic and popular, was a surprise winner of the 2008 txapela, which he won with a 22-11 triumph over favourite and fellow Leitzarra Abel Barriola but was no less deserving for this. He dominated Barriola, who rarely found his stride, like a tidal wave of movement and power to claim his first championship at the age of 23. Barriola, who also lost in the final in 2007, had hoped to make amends this year but his dreams were dashed by a torn knee ligament sustained in a recent doubles match; the town of Leitza will not have to struggle with their divided loyalties this time around. The champion is one of the fastest men on court, bustling in attack and seemingly unbreakable in defence. He also appears to possess the mental strength necessary to thrive on this greatest of all stages, for the weight of the txapela seems to sit lightly upon his head. Speaking to Diario de Navarra, the 24 year old seemed at ease, declaring that he feels no pressure to repeat his triumph of last year, and will treat the 2009 edition as a different tournament in which he must take his opportunities and grow afresh. It is nine years since a Manomanista Champion has defended his title, the last to achieve this feat being Patxi Eugi who won in 1999 and 2000, but despite his opportunity here, Oinatz is determined not to look beyond the first hurdle, declaring it ‘inappropriate’ to be in a hurry.
Bengoetxea’s opening challenge comes in the form of Patxi Ruiz, who won this title in 2003, defeating Aimar Olaizola in the final. Although the defender from Estella has failed to win a txapela of any kind in the intervening six years, he has always been there or thereabouts, causing problems for the big hitters. This year, Ruiz has been, and will likely remain, an enigma. His physical problems began last year and resulted in a back operation which was carried out in the autumn and since his return to competition, pain has continued to dog him. Though the pain is doubtless very real, many commentators have become irked by his relentless brand of pessimism and his insistence on dwelling on his physical state. In an interview prior to his first match in the championship, he stated in no uncertain terms that he was not enthralled that he was having to play at all and suggested he had agreed only for the good of his empresa. Despite a comfortable victory over Inigo Leiza in the third round, he is still not optimistic. Interviewed at the presentation of material on Wednesday, the Navarrese pelotari declared himself to be less than one hundred percent. His hip, he stated, feels good but his back causes him pain as he moves to strike the ball. Ruiz has not trained at full intensity this week and at one stage cast doubt on his own participation on Saturday. However, his claims as to the seriousness of his condition were repudiated by Asegarce doctor Inigo Simon who declared that he would play, his problem being no worse than that experienced by Aimar Olaizola, who played through his injury in the pairs.
Oinatz Bengoetxea, who remains champion until June 7, will run out at Labrit the clear favourite. The defending champion’s mental will is not unbreakable, as Mikel Olazabal demonstrated as he pulled off a massive upset in the Cuatro y Medio Championship at his expense last October. The wounds of that defeat have, according to his botillero Asier Garcia, been slow to heal. However, if his recent demeanour is any indication of his state of mind coming into this year’s championship, Oinatz is in rude health. He has had a good build up to this weekend, capitalising on a solid and occasionally masterful display in the pairs championship with some impressive performances since. It is never easy to enter a championship at the quarter final stage, having to take on an opponent who has had the time to work himself into the competition, but Bengoetxea looks set to hit the floor running. Patxi Ruiz, although certainly more that capable of pulling off an upset, looks to be making excuses for losing before he has lost. This may be a harsh analysis of his current state but he seems keen to talk up Bengoetxea’s game at his own expense. Ruiz has described him this week as ‘a fly who is always hovering around you’ and as the overwhelming favourite, while talking of the difficulties he faced against Leiza and the fact that Oinatz will present a challenge in a totally different league. The impression is of someone who wishes to cover his back. Bengoetxea, for his part, seems unfazed by his opponent’s words, declaring that he stands outside such discussions. The defending champion’s mental strength and physical presence should see him through, but which Patxi we will see come Saturday is the unanswerable question.