Friday 27th August, Donostia-San Sebastian
BENGOETXEA VI – BARRIOLA beat XALA – APRAIZ 14-11 (Xala ret.)
It was an anti-climactic end to a match which had everything. With the score on 10-12 in favour of Bengoetxea and Barriola, the latter raced forward to retrieve a txoko from Xala. He got there, and dived, but the ball hit him on the rebound, giving the point to the opposing pair. Such was the drama of the point, in much the same vein as every point in this absorbing encounter, that one could have been forgiven for missing the stumble of Xala as his knee went sideways in the execution of his winner. As he sat, slumped against the wall, a resigned shrug told the story. He was hurt, and departed for treatment. He returned to the fray, briefly, but to continue was not worth the risk of lasting damage. Two points later it was all up for the pair in red, and thus came to an end a game, which although only partially played, was as long as a complete match of average length. Nobody can say what might have been.
The match started with a whitewash by Bengoextea and Barriola, the men from the same small Navarrese town of Leitza. Bengoetxea was supreme, looking every inch the player who took the 2008 Manomanista by storm. The first point, which ended in the first of his nine winners, was a tactical tour de force. Apraiz took took it on and attacked his opposite number, but Bengoetxea wrested the initiative before whipping the ball into space in the wide court. Xala almost nailed the second point, but pushed his attempted winner wide, and the Asegarce forward continued his masterclass, with five winners in the next five points, showing the immense range of his skill. In the point which took the score to 3-0, he dealt Apraiz a merciless working over before barreling one above his head. The next was won with a drop before he flummoxed Apraiz again. A service winner stretched the lead to six, and a textbook long serve-gantxo-drop routine took it to seven. Barriola was faultless as Bengoetxea’s foil, and there was nothing their opponents could do.
However, the tide turned. Bengoetxea, who had been stretching throughout the game, left the fronton at 7-0 for attention, and when he returned, he found a changed opposition. The reds gained their first point from Bengoetxea’s first mistake, and the second came from a Xala serve. The leaders continued to score in ones and twos, but the real surge by Xala and Apraiz came at 4-10, upon which they added five points without reply. Notable here was the reverse in the fortunes of the defenders. Hitherto, Barriola had been irreproachable, but Apraiz was not intimidated by his reputation and seized the initiative. Barriola’s dip started when he got utterly mixed up close in to the wall and pushed one wide. He withstood some searing pressure in the point which followed, but subsequently cracked under Apraiz’s salvo, going short and low in consecutive points. Xala, too, moved up a gear, tricking Bengoetxea superbly at 2-8, and firing merciless winners at 6-10 and 8-10. With the reds only one point in arrears, it was anybody’s game.
Bengoetxea and Barriola relieved some pressure, restoring their two point lead after the former ended a full scale war of a point with a crosscourt winner, but threw it away immediately with miscued sitter of a txoko. The pattern repeated itself as Bengoetxea volleyed cleverly into space, before the txoko winner in which Xala’s knee gave out. After the treatment break, Apraiz struck low before Benogetxea grabbed a three point lead with an easy winner into the corner, but Xala appeared immobile and dejected; he could not go on.
There is no way of knowing what could have happened in the remainder of this extraordinary match, so full of gargantuan points, stunning defence and virtuosic winners. A rout had seemed on the cards, but Xala and Apraiz showed an iron will to fight, and stormed back to within an inch of the lead. When the accident happened, Bengoetxea and Barriola appeared to be in the process of regaining their calm, and one has to concede that the best pair in the tournament took the spoils. Their semi final performance was a display for the ages, and in the early part of this game they showed that their level there was no fluke. Barriola took home the trophy for the player of the tournament, and save for his momentary slip in the transitional part of the final, he was near faultless. Bengoetxea too was in a higher league, full of venom, attack and guile. The fans can only hope that they will be afforded the chance to renew their partnership very soon.
Xala was diagnosed with a sprained right knee in the aftermath of the match, and will undergo further medical tests tomorrow to determine the extent of the injury.
Scoring sequence: 0-7,2-7,2-8,3-8,3-9,4-9,4-10,9-10,9-11,10-11,10-12,11-12,11-14
Winners/errors: Bengoetxea VI 9/3, Xala 4/3, Barriola 0/3, Apraiz 1/2
Total match time: 1:02.03
Playing time: 22.45
Balls played: 471
Image from Gara, by Jon Urbe