The eyes of the pelota world will alight on Ogueta, in Vitoria-Gasteiz, tomorrow evening for the greatest, most important, and most prestigious match of the year, the Manomanista Final. The eight top Manistas have fought it out for the past two months, each determined to reach the apogee of the sport, but the final has space for only two. Martinez de Irujo or Xala? The multiple winner or the player of 2010? Tomorrow will decide.
There are some that say the early stages of this year’s tournament were a let down, and it is true that Group B ended up weaker than was hoped. The first match in that group saw the catastrophic knee injury to two time winner Aimar Olaizola, who is unlikely to return before 2011. This undoubtedly gave Patxi Ruiz a helpful leg up for the rest of the group stages. The second big name to fall was the Cuatro y Medio champion Sebastien Gonzalez, a wonderful winner over Martinez de Irujo last December. He still suffers from hand problems. This left the aforementioned Patxi Ruiz, two players brought in from the second tier competition, Retegi Bi, and Arretxe II, and Xala. Xala had signalled his intent in the first round of matches by thumping Gonzalez 22-5, and his remaining rivals in the group faced him on a wing and a prayer. Patxi Ruiz was put to the sword, 22-6, before he battled well to overcome a dogged Arretxe II 22-16 to reach the last four. Perhaps this was the test he needed to harden his steel. Ruiz joined him in the semi finals by way of a well orchestrated out-powering of Retegi Bi.
Group A was clearly the stronger of the two, not least due to the forbidding presence of the defending champion Martinez de Irujo. He was joined by Barriola, Olaizola I and Bengoetxea VI, the 2008 champion. Despite sailing unbeaten through the group stages, Irujo was not untested. His game against Olaizola I was an extraordinary one, as he was forced to overturn an inhuman deficit to win 22-18. Barriola also took 18 points off him, but in truth was a shadow of the player he was before his knee injury of last year, and lacked the killer punch of his great rival. Bengoetxea was the final victim, falling easily by 22 points to 10. There was much else to applaud in Group A, not least the never say die attitude of Olaizola I, who took a wonderful, pulsating victory over Bengoetxea in the first week, and backed this up with a typically gutsy display against Barriola to make the final four. Bengoetxea, although not at his best, marked himself out as the group’s number three with an easy win over Barriola.
The semi finals pitted Xala against Olaizola I, and Irujo against Patxi Ruiz. The former was a tight affair for the first twenty or so points, before Xala cut free, showing the extra gear which distinguishes the excellent from the merely very good. In the second, nobody gave Patxi Ruiz any hope at all, and matters went to form with Irujo winning 22-6, barely examined.
Although Irujo must be counted as favourite on his past form in this competition if nothing else, the final could well be a close one. The man from Ibero is a coiled spring, and human tiger who prowls the fronton and displays his heart firmly on his sleeve. His ruthless and dominating style has garnered him three Manomanista crowns to date, level with the Patxi Eugi (his botillero on Sunday) and Miguel Gallastegi. Only five pelotaris have more: Ruben Beloki and Atano III (4), Azkarate and Retegi I (6) and the incomparable Retegi II (11). At the age of only 28, he has many more years ahead to build himself a niche in the panoply of the greats. In addition, he is the owner of one Cuatro y Medio and three Pairs crowns, and along with Olaizola II, is the dominant pelotari of the 21st century. He has been tested in this edition of the Manomanista, but only by Olaizola I, and his response to his near eclipse that day was so staggering as to strike fear into the hearts of all who would face the salvo in weeks to come. Even when he is down, Irujo has the ability to throw off the shackles, like a modern day Houdini. It would be a brave man to bet against the defending champion, but given his opponent at Ogueta, Sunday may prove a whole different ball game.
Yves Salaberry, or ‘Xala’, is in the form of his life, a true purple patch which shows no signs of abating. His manner on the field of play is like chalk to Irujo’s cheese, for the 30 year old from the French side of the Pyrenees rarely conveys his feelings, whether they be fearful or jubilant. He possesses an unshakable inner steeliness, a never wavering belief in his own ability to control and subdue. It is an attitude which has carried him to the heights in 2010. He and Zubieta, his also botillero throughout this Manomanista, matured like a quality wine in the course of the Pairs Championship, and took a deserved win in the final, all ease and grace. Xala was the unquestioned player of the tournament, incapable of playing a bad game. This was his second Pairs title, the first having come in 2002. He has also been a Manomanista and Cuatro y Medio runner up, in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Although he faces the toughest opponent of them all in the final showdown, there is a real sense that 2010 could be Xala’s year.
The evening’s matches commence at 17:00 (CEST) tomorrow, Sunday, with a classy doubles match to whet the appetite. The main event takes place upon the conclusion of this game, at around 18:00. If you watch only one pelota match this year, let this be it. Tune into ETB-Sat (https://www.eitb.eus/television/etb-sat) to witness the drama.
The balls chosen for the final are as follows: Irujo opted for balls of 106.6g and 106.2g, while Xala has selected slightly lighter options, balls of 105.2g and 105g.
Irujo or Xala? Sunday will decide
Image from: Diario Vasco, by Eduardo Buxens