Saturday 23rd January, Pamplona
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – BEROIZ beat OLAIZOLA II – MENDIZABAL II 22-20
Pairs Championship Quarter Finals
Federer v Nadal, All Blacks v Springboks, Real Madrid v Barcelona, Martinez de Irujo v Olaizola II. Such is the fervour surrounding any match between the two greatest players in the sport that countless column inches are devoted to their relative prospects, tickets are grabbed like hot cakes and the world of pelota descends into a combination of anticipation and ecstasy. Labrit, an atmospheric cathedral of the sport, was a swirling cauldron of passion last night as a full house greeted the two warriors with rapturous applause. In doubles however, there are four players. The stars really did come out to play in Pamplona, but it was with their respective partners that the destiny of the match lay, and their contrasting fortunes stood at the heart of the struggle.
Irujo and Olaizola delivered a battle royal on all fronts. A face off between the two is always a fascinating spectacle, as much for their differing styles and demeanours as for their stunning play; Irujo, all fist pumping and snarling, like a caged lion, and Olaizola calculating, clinical and only occasionally wearing his heart on his sleeve. Their defence was almost more impressive than their attack, with Olaizola showing incredible skill and resolve in chasing down each Irujo txoko and Irujo himself doing the seemingly impossible to counter Aimar’s stinging left arm. The match was close and tense for 18 points and there was little if anything to choose between the pairs.
The decisive period of the game came in its middle spell and centred on Oier Mendizabal. Mendizabal can be a brilliant defender, solid and dependable. He knows what it is like to win this competition, having stood on the top step of the podium with Aimar two years ago, but his performance here was not that of a champion. The Aspe pair bombarded him with long, high balls, perhaps looking to nullify the impact of Olaizola, and the tactic worked a treat. Most had identified the young and inexperienced Beroiz as the weak link amongst the four but he proved them categorically wrong, putting his more seasoned rival in the shade. Where Mendizabal lacked direction, timing and power, Beroiz had them in abundance, and 9-9 became 20-11.
At this juncture, many fans could have been forgiven for heading to the exits, and many writers probably had their reports all but written, but this was to reckon without the Aimar factor. With little help from his waning partner, the man from Goizueta took the match by the scruff of the neck and almost took the spoils singlehandedly. His astonishing run began with two trademark gantxo winners and for what must have seemed like an eternity for Irujo, he utterly bulldozed his rival. The defence of both forwards had been textbook earlier in the game but here Aimar almost defied belief in his ability to return everything his opponents could throw at him. Irujo looked stunned and shook his head incredulously. When he miscued to take the score to 21-20, the shock comeback win was well and truly on. The Asegarce pair however, fell fractionally short, and perhaps fittingly, it was a Mendizabal error which sealed their fate. But for the sterling work of Beroiz, Irujo would have crumbled to defeat against a machine called Aimar Olaizola, who finished with twelve scintillating winners.
Olaizola and Mendizabal must surely have felt crushed by the nature of their defeat but they can take heart in the level of play of the former. If both can fire on the same day, their partnership will be an electric one, and there is a long way to go before semi final places are decided; they have the time and the resources to make it. The victors must thank their lucky stars for Beroiz, who was the difference between the sides. The young talent started the tournament nervously but is fast becoming one of its stars. This was a tussle worthy of a final; how many people will now pray for a rematch at Easter?
Scoring sequence:1-0, 1-1, 1-5, 5-5, 7-5, 7-6, 8-6, 8-8, 8-9, 9-9, 14-9, 14-10, 17-10, 17-11, 20-11, 20-17, 21-17, 21-20, 22-20
Image from: Gara