Sunday 7th June
Atano III, Donostia-San Sebastian
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO beat OLAIZOLA II 22-12
This match, the Manomanista final, the crowning point of the pelota mano year, had all the makings of a classic. In the blue corner was Juan Martinez de Irujo, the whirlwind from Ibero who had swept all before him in the year up until this point. He was the standout player of the pairs championship, where he and Fernando Goni got their hands on the prize and had obliterated all comers in reaching this showpiece final, slaying defending champion Bengoetxea VI, Xala and Gonzalez with a sweep of his arm and the eyes of a tiger. In red was his arch rival Aimar Olaizola, the cool assassin from Goizueta. Aimar had run Irujo close in the pairs and while not at his brilliant best this year, is never a man to be brushed aside. His route to the final was a little less conventional, proceeding as he did after only one match following the respective withdrawals of Barriola and Beloki, but his steely gaze which has struck fear into the hearts of so many was firmly fixed on victory. Irujo and Aimar are by far and away the greatest assets of their opposing empresas, their presence raising the box office takings of any given festival by at least 5000 euros, and Atano III sold out within the hour for this seminal match. However, when their eyes met, amidst the chants and the cheers, Aimar’s steel proved no match for the passion and power of the rampant Irujo.
Irujo’s victory, by 22 points to 12, was a demonstration of physical might. In the opening exchanges, the pair seemed evenly matched and battled toe to toe. Irujo served first but Aimar immediately wrestled the initiative from his rival, taking the serve from him and going up 2-0. He looked sharp and determined, fist pumping and brimming with intensity; all the worries about his lack of match preparation seemed unfounded. He continued to live with his rival, showing power and verve in the sotomano and serve, and displaying tantalising glimpses of his tactical intelligence in the way he moved Irujo back and forth. The Asegarce star found himself ahead at 4-3 and 5-4. However, any slight edge he may have held was slowly but surely whittled away as the hurricane of Irujo gradually picked up pace. Aimar, as a result of the withdrawals of both his quarter final and semi final opponents, was inevitably somewhat short of competitive preparation, and the warmer Irujo’s engine became, the more it showed. For a time, Aimar valiantly hung onto the coat tails of his opponent, pulling himself from 9-14 down to 12-14, but the remaining two point gap could not be bridged.
Irujo knew that a frenetic match would suit him better than Aimar and as he slipped into top gear, the pace rose accordingly. From 12-14, the Navarrese champion won a string of eight points to make the title his. Aimar, though he tried, could not live with him. As the panic became apparent in his normally serene demeanour, Aimar strove to slow the match by calling a string of time outs to allow him recovery. Even when an official break was not in progress, he paused to speak to his brother Asier on the sidelines, to have a drink and to catch his breath. Irujo meanwhile, sat for as little time as was possible before returning to the battle field to keep both his mind and his limbs warm. Body language told the story of who was the more comfortable, both in the course of play and out of it.
As a display of dominance and unquenchable power, this was a match for the ages, but as a contest it fell well short of expectations. Aimar, twice champion here and conqueror of Irujo back in December’s Cuatro y Medio final, was a shadow of what he can be; at no point was Irujo forced to feel the pain of his mighty left arm and his ability to read and change the flow of play was all but absent. He has clear excuses in his enforced five week break from competitive play, and the lingering effects of a troublesome right shoulder, but nobody can argue with the right of the champion to lift his prize. Aimar was outhit, out thought and overpowered by a man who can truly take his place among the greats, and left the arena of play drained of all his reserves. This is Irujo’s third Manomanista title, and his seventh major title in all, at the age of 27. It is the third championship final of his extraordinary season and his second txapela. If Irujo continues in this vein, how many more may follow? The pure life force that is Juan Martinez de Irujo, pelotari supreme, shows no sign of abating.