Sunday 12th December, Donostia-San Sebastian
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO beat BARRIOLA 22-17
Cuatro y Medio Final
On Sunday, 29 year old Juan Martinez de Irujo from Ibero became, officially, the second most successful pelotari of all time. In adding the 2010 Cuatro y Medio crown he took his tally of txapelas to nine, and only the incomparable Retegi II, with twenty, stands above him in the pantheon of pelota playing gods. It was Irujo’s second win in this championship, the first coming in 2006, and confirms him as the runaway player of the year, holding as he does both individual crowns. Few would bet against him adding the Masters title to his palmares in the next fortnight, for Atano III witnessed vintage Irujo, in a display which showed emphatically why he is at the very pinnacle of his art.
At first, the game was all about Barriola. It cannot be overlooked that for the man from Leitza, simply making this final was a triumph of some magnitude, for many doubted he would ever reach his former heights in the wake of his appalling knee injury of last year. His play in the first seven points appeared as a celebration of his resurrection, and with sheer exuberance he put Irujo to the sword. He stormed to 3-0 with three unreturnable serves, low, skidding and guileful. A clearly rattled Irujo hit low in the next point, and Barriola marched on, with yet another service winner. He then proved his quality in open play, maneuvering his rival expertly in the following two points to take a 7-0 advantage. Could he dare to dream?
For any mere mortal, such a drastic start would likely prove impossible to overcome, but Irujo is on a plane above the ordinary. Time and again he has proved his ability to turn deficits into positions of strength, and by sheer force of will, and white hot determination, he came roaring back, all bared teeth and pumping fists. The tide turned when he managed to dig out a point he had no right to win, scrapping like a dog before sending Barriola haring back to no avail. With his tail up, he played Barriola at his own game, winning the next four points with three service winners and a searing gantxo. He piled on the winners, passed his opponent’s tally, and kept going. Barriola hit wide attempting an ambitious winner on 7-9, and this acted as a barometer for the state of the match; the underdog now knew that to beat Irujo he had to take risks, and with this realization on the part of his rival, the eventual winner scored a crucial sucker punch.
Barriola’s risks did on occasion pay off. He stemmed Irujo’s flow with a skimming crosscourt winner to peg his deficit at 8-10, but he now seemed anxious, losing the next two points with a rushed gantxo attempt and a high ball with which he tried in vain to pin Irujo back. Irujo slipped into another gear with the point for 13-8, driving Barriola all over the fronton before crushing him with a gantxo. Barriola refused to be bowed however, and chipped away at the scoreboard with flashes of dogged brilliance. He drew level again at 14-14, thanks to his strong serve, several ingenious winners and two uncharacteristically slapdash errors from Irujo, and it was game on once again. However, in three swift points, the whole complexion of the game swung once again to Irujo, this time for good. Agonisingly, Barriola struck the 4 ½ line in an attempt to push Irujo long, and railed against himself, hands on head. With the lead back, Irujo pounced with venom, producing a gantxo which reasserted his dominion over the fronton. He then worked Barriola over mercilessly, sending him wide and then long, before his valiant salvage attempt fell short. Irujo was now tearing, blinkered, towards the prize, swinging freely and oozing confidence from every pore. He treated Atano III to his full armory of attack. Barriola served at 19-16, still within striking distance, but in sad contrast to his earlier brilliance in this department, his ball failed to travel far enough. This was the final nail in the coffin, and Irujo wasted little time in condemning Barriola to his seventh straight defeat in a major final.
Barriola, the perennial bridesmaid, may find this loss hard to swallow, but the man from Leitza has confounded the critics. It was sometime after his comeback before he regained the fluidity and accuracy for which he is known, but with his performance in the Cuatro y Medio and the tournaments which led up to it, he has regained his status at the very top of the game. For Irujo, who suffered a painful and unexpected loss to Gonzalez in last year’s final, the sky is the limit. How many more titles might he add before he writes the final chapter of his already illustrious career? Might Retegi II be toppled?
Scoring sequence: 0-7; 10-7; 10-8; 13-8; 13-10; 13-12; 14-13; 14-14; 15-14; 16-14;19-14 19-16; 20-16; 20-17; 22-17.
Match time: 43 mins, with 9 mins actual playing time
Balls hit: 206
Image from Noticias de Gipuzkoa, by Ruben Plaza