Sunday 18th October, Atano III, Donostia-San Sebastian
SARALEGI beat XALA 22-12
When 30 year old Ekaitz Saralegi crossed himself before unleashing his opening serve at Atano III today, it looked like a gesture of hope rather than confidence. Nobody seriously expected the man from Amezketa to trouble the might of Yves Salaberry. Saralegi, who has never won nor even reached the final of a major championship in his eight year career, is the 24th ranked player at Asegarce and lies 40th in the overall manista.com ranking. Xala on the other hand is the winner of two pairs championships and a past losing finalist in both the Manomanista and 4 ½ competitions, and is rated 15th by manista.com. Xala’s form has held steady throughout the summer and little suggested that Saralegi could seriously challenge the skill set of Lekuine’s finest. However, in a match where the baton of dominance passed back and forth in the early stages, it was the underdog who finally seized it for good.
If Saralegi suffered any pre game nerves at all they were soon banished as he took out the first three points with quiet ease, capitalising on Xala’s waywardness. However, Xala banished his demons and pulled his game together to take the score to 5-3 in his favour and it appeared as if the predicted result was on the cards; under pressure from his more fancied opponent, Saralegi hit wide and short, and failed to scoop out two low volleys which he perhaps should have allowed to bounce. But Saralegi once again wrested the initiative with five straight points in which he showed beyond doubt that he was in this encounter for the long haul. He went beyond his earlier mere solidity and pulled off two airez winners of pure brilliance. Though Xala pulled back points in ones and twos, Saralegi never looked under pressure form either his opponent or himself for the remainder of the match. He showed the full gamut of shots, from the gantxo on 6-10 which sent his fans into a frenzy, to the nonchalant txoko which gave him an eight point lead at 8-16. Tactically Xala had few answers; as his confidence and inspiration grew, Saralegi proved adept at manoeuvring his opponent out of position, using his serve with intelligence to send him the wrong way before striking the killer punch. Xala did threaten to regain his rhythm, pulling off four authoritative winners in a row, and in doing so reduced the deficit to four points at 12-16, but he was once again undone by his own lack of direction in the very next point when he struck too low. A time out at 12-19 could not stop the rot for Xala, who committed four errors in a row to bury, once and for all, his chances of reaching the next round.
The small but enthusiastic crowd rose to Saralegi with warmth and enthusiasm and he deserved every plaudit. He outplayed his more fancied opponent in every facet of the game and will surely meet the second round head on and full of confidence. His opponent there will be Asier Olaizola, who was in sizzling form in his first round defeat of Mikel Olazabal last weekend. If Saralegi wishes to triumph there he may need to raise his game another level, but who is to say that he might not silence the doubters once again?
Scoring sequence: 0-1, 0-3, 1-3, 5-3, 5-4, 5-8, 6-8, 6-11, 7-11, 8-11, 8-12, 8-16, 9-16, 12-16 and 12-22