Saturday 5th June, Pamplona
XALA beat OLAIZOLA I 22-14
Manomanista Semi Final
Labrit was all of a buzz for this, the first of the 2010 Manomanista Semi Finals. A large and vociferous crowd gathered to cheer to show their support, and most, including a grown man in a pink tutu, sided with the underdog, Asier Olaizola, whose fans appeared to have commandeered the majority of the upper tier. It was conceivable that their man could cause an upset here. He had given Martinez de Irujo an almighty scare in the group stages, and shown indomitable fighting spirit in his two wins, against Bengoetxea VI and Barriola. However, he now faced Yves Salaberry, the pairs champion, who is experiencing a true purple patch this year. ‘Xala’ breezed through the preliminary rounds with barely a wobble, dispatching Patxi Ruiz, Retegi Bi and Arretxe II to reach this stage. Olaizola would in all likelihood pose a stiffer challenge than these three, but he was the overwhelming favourite. The match that ensued was every bit as enthralling as the fans must have hoped, an exhibition of pelota played at the highest level by two men who wanted it so very badly. In the end, polish trumped passion.
If anyone assumed Xala would hit Asier from the start, they were very wrong. The first part of the match was as close and as hard fought as anything we have seen in the championship thus far. Both men showed signs of nerves in the early exchanges, with two errors apiece in the first four points. Asier took the first real blood of the match with two winners, a cross court and a drop, to take the score to 4-2. The signs looked good for the Goizuetan, who demonstrated his power to force his opponent out of position. However, his error making returned as he hit high and then fell low to a high ball from Xala, to allow the latter to draw level at 4-4. Xala now built some momentum, kick started by a powerful long serve and drop routine and two further errors from Asier, but in keeping with the topsy turvy nature of the first half of the game, Asier wrenched the advantage back. He levelled at 7-7 by way of a Xala miscue and two outright winners, based on a serve which was now firing on all cylinders. Asier appeared once again to throw the initiative aside as Xala fired, but the pair could seemingly not be separated, as an impressive sotomano from the former brought the score to 10-10 deadlock.
The brilliance to which Xala has become used this year had thus far been contained by a man who had played with inspiration, determination, and the never-say-die attitude for which is has become known. However, the match now moved into a new phase. Xala must have sensed it was time to find a new gear, and so he did, although stutteringly at first. The three rallies which followed the 10-10 stalemate were all about the favourite. In the first, Asier managed to reach a dos paredes but in the effort found himself out of position for the resulting shot down the wall from Xala. The next two points were won by Xala’s serve, which now reached its apogee. Asier took two points back with some impressive defence turned to attack, but Xala surged again; it was the points on 12-13 and 12-14 which really turned the game. In the first of these two watershed moments, a smash from Xala appeared to have won it, but Asier dug the ball out. Xala then got one almost over his rival’s head and though Asier got to it, his reply fell just short. The underdog tried everything and was found wanting. The next point saw an exhibition of the sotomano from both players, followed by some stunning defence under the high ball from Asier. Xala eventually wore him down, winning the point with a drop. He now had a two point lead, but for Asier, that must have seemed like a chasm, for the man from Iparralde was giving no gifts.
Asier never ceased to fight, but managed only two more points in the match, one of which was the result of an extremely careless drop attempt by his opponent who must have sensed the prize was in sight. Even in points where Asier appeared on top, such as that on 13-16 in which he subjected Xala to an aerial bombardment, the eventual winner managed to escape, which must have been highly demoralizing. Points rarely came easily for Xala but one sensed that there was no way through for the brave older Olaizola. When Xala seized his 22nd point with a push into the corner, the game was up.
The scoreline, which seemingly suggests an easy victory for the favourite, fails to tell the true tale of a match where nothing came easily. Xala was put under huge pressure for the first half an hour from a man who strained every sinew to be as good as he could be. Even when he was on top, Asier refused to let him run away with the win. Xala, though, has the ability to employ an extra gear like few others, and it was this which saw him through. A hard fought match will have done him no harm in his preparation for the final, where he will have probably the biggest chance of his life to do something truly special.
Scoring sequence: 0-1, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 4-2, 4-3, 4-7, 5-7, 7-7, 7-8, 7-9, 8-9, 9-9, 9-10, 10-10, 10-11, 10-13, 11-13, 12-13, 12-16, 13-16, 13-20, 14-20, 14-22.
Image from: Noticias de Gipuzkoa