Saturday 1st May, Pamplona
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO beat OLAIZOLA I 22-17
Manomanista Group A
Poor Asier Olaizola. Only the hard hearted could have watched his utter disintegration from a position of such rampant strength and felt nothing for the man. Rarely is Juan Martinez de Irujo put under such searing pressure, made to look like a captive hunting vainly for a way out, as that placed on him by Asier last night. The Olaizola clan must have thought that they had pulled off the biggest coup of the championship so far, some family consolation for the loss of Aimar to injury, but to the amazement of all, the champion did what only champions can do. In a staggering display of strength and sheer willpower, Irujo stormed the match, turning a 4-17 deficit into a 22-17 victory, sealing a night to remember at Labrit along with a near certain place in the semi finals.
The match started as normally as one might have expected, as Irujo made his immediate mark with a txoko winner. Matters proceeded innocuously enough, until with the score at 2-2, something clicked in the mind of Olaizola. When Irujo skied his return of serve and roared in disgust, the man from Goizueta grabbed the initiative full on. In this first phase of the game, Irujo managed two more points, courtesy of a strike over Asier’s head and an error from his opponent, but those aside, it was an utter rout. From 9-4 up, the underdog roared to 17-4 like a man possessed. Key to his success was his serve, which was both powerful and intelligent. He served to all parts of the fronton, which kept Irujo guessing. He used the wide service to excellent effect, as well as the dipping long serve towards the side wall, and his illustrious opponent was in the process bamboozled and outwitted. Olaizola racked up seven service winners, but many of his other points were set up by the strength of this service. There were for example some engaging and lengthy rallies such as that on 4-9, where Olaizola, due to the power of his serve put Irujo on the defensive from the off. Here, he was able to push him back and bombarded him with high balls before striking a txoko into an empty front court. Earlier he had employed the same tactic until Irujo cracked under the salvo. Irujo, ever expressive with his body and his face, let all know exactly what he was thinking with every gesture, from apoplectic scream to dejected slump. Surely it was all over?
What happened next defied belief and flummoxed the laws of probability. When Asier hit high on the side wall, nobody in their right mind would have predicted that Irujo would take the match without conceding another point, but the champion from Ibero is a force of nature, as unpredictable as he is brilliant. Seeing was believing. Irujo, like Asier before him, based much of his dominance on serve. He also finished the game with seven service winners and Asier simply had no answer to his speed and precision. In open play too, the lights went out as error after error afflicted him, mostly the direct results of Irujo’s dominance. Asier defended manfully, subjected to the same aerial bombardment which he had dished up previously, but had no answers. As panic set in, Asier turned increasingly to his botillero, injured brother Aimar. Their discussions in the first half of the game reminded one of a triumphant war cabinet, but now they searched in vain for a way to overturn their retreat. Aimar has so often found a way through Irujo’s armory over the years but there was nothing he could do for Asier here. Irujo’s march was savage and relentless. He was in what psychologists refer to as ‘the zone’, and only an act of God could stop him. Battered and exhausted, Asier could do nothing but bow to his mastery.
This must surely be one of the most astonishing turnarounds of the recent era and must have struck terror into the hearts of all Irujo’s future opponents in this championship. Asier Olaizola demonstrated that the champion is fallible, taking him apart in the early stages. However, Irujo sent a warning to all that he is a dangerous beast when down, and a fearsome one when the momentum is his. Asier Olaizola can still qualify for the semi finals, and must find a way of rising from the ashes, but it seems that for the defending champion, the sky is the limit.
Scoring sequence: 2-0, 2-6, 3-6, 3-9, 4-9, 4-17, 22-17.
Image from Noticias de Gipuzkoa, by Ruben Plaza