In preparation for the Manomanista final on Sunday, we take a close look at the two protagonists, arguably the greatest brace of pelotaris the 21st century has seen. The spotlight turns first on Olaizola II.
29 year old Aimar Olaizola hails from Goizueta, in north-eastern Navarre, where Basque tradition dies hard and where Euskara dominates. Bars in the small town are awash with photographs of the local hero and his signed shirts, along with those of his older brother Asier, also a top player, but Aimar it seems is still very much the boy next door. In an interview before his last Manomanista final in 2007, Goizueta’s parish priest recalled the pelotari as a “good boy” who always knew his catechism better than his teachers, and who has since remained humble and close to his roots despite his celebrity status. As a child he had a reputation for composure and level headedness on the fronton, in contrast to Asier who was rather more given to shows of temper. Despite being one of the weakest back court players at his club as a junior, his technique, temperament and close range power marked him out as a pelotari of searing potential.
Aimar turned professional in 1998 after an impressive amateur career which included wins in the Spanish Individual under 20 Championship and the Navarrese Pairs Championship. Within a year, he had won his first major tournament, the 2nd Division Manomanista Championship, and in 2002 he broke into the big time with the first of his four Cuatro y Medio txapelas. Only the great Retegi II has won as many. In addition to his domination in this form of the game, Aimar has also been Manomanista champion on two occasions, in 2005 and 2007, beating Irujo and Barriola respectively in the finals. In addition, he and Oier Mendizabal were pairs champions in 2008. He has also been a losing finalist in major championships on five occasions, meaning that in the 26 major championships since 2002, he has reached the last stage in almost half.
Aimar has faced Irujo in four major finals and their record stands at two apiece. The last of these came in the Cuatro y Medio final in December where the Goizuetarra triumphed 22-17. Historically, they are pretty evenly matched. However, the circumstances which surround Sunday’s Manomanista final are somewhat out of the ordinary in that Aimar has reached this stage after playing only one game. Abel Barriola’s knee injury, which occurred prior to the tournament, meant Aimar was only to have played two qualification matches anyway, but when Ruben Beloki sprained his thumb in winning his quarter final, the path was open for him to proceed to the final after a single victory, against Urberuaga. This chain of events has left Aimar worrying short of match practice. In his four matches since the pairs final he has not lost, but he has not played for five weeks. By all accounts his training has been going well, but he must surely worry about his lack of competitive speed in the face of Irujo, who is quite capable of blasting anyone off a fronton given half the chance. A major question mark hangs over his head in this his 13th major final, for nobody has any idea as to the state of his form.
The other niggling doubt concerns the state of his long term fitness. Since last summer he has played with tendinitis in his right shoulder, and this ailment appeared to have dampened his attack somewhat in the pairs championship earlier in the year. After the final, which he and Mendizabal II lost (to Irujo and Goni III), Asegarce spoke of a long term rehabilitation programme to be built around competition. He cannot afford to be below his best on Sunday. However, Aimar Olaizola is a great champion, and champions have a way of pulling out the stops when it matters. While Irujo will head to Atano III as favourite, he cannot afford to underestimate his rival. Aimar is a man for the big occasion. So often he has turned a match around when all has seemed lost and that never say die attitude is what marks him out. He is a master tactician who possesses an uncanny knack for reading a game and changing his style accordingly, and also has the power to dictate the pace of a match so that it suits what he wishes to do. Added to his sporting intelligence comes an armoury of physical weapons. His cuatro y medio victories are testament to his power close to the frontis and his left arm is especially feared. Given half an opening, Aimar can and will twist the knife with utter ruthlessness. His form is an enigma and his state of match readiness is open to question, but in any situation this Basque boy next door is never to be taken lightly.