OLAIZOLA II – BEGINO beat XALA – BEROIZ 22-14
Phenomenal Aimar hits 16 winners in a performance of power and grace, as Xala fails to scale the heights
The word ‘epic’ is oft overused in the sporting arena, but while not especially close, this final was something akin to it. Take 3000 ecstatic fans in a new cathedral of a fronton, a great player on a mission to scale the summits he enjoyed prior to a serious injury, and a 35 year old desparate for his first professional txapela and hardly able to walk for the pain in his leg, and you have the recipe for a very special drama. Aimar Olaizola is one of the modern giants of the game, a man who has collected trophies for fun throughout his illustrious career. However, in last year’s Manomanista Championship he fell crashing to the floor in agony, victim of one of the most dreaded injuries in pelota, the complete anterior cruciate ligament tear. Medical practice tells us it is possible to return to the field of play roughly six or seven months later, but the truth is more complicated; many who succumb to this injury are never quite the same again, their speed lessened and their explosiveness deadened, and although he had produced some impressive performances since returning late last year, countless people wondered whether we would ever again see the Aimar of old. However, he took this match on like a bull to a red flag, and produced one of the finest displays of pelota seen in months. This was a recital, full of snap, vigour, pace, instinct and ruthless finishing. Aimar is back, let the world take note.
The cruel absence of Abel Barriola was rued, rightly, in the run up to the game. Quite apart from the fear over how Mikel Beroiz would react to the pressure of having to replace probably the greatest defender, in the biggest game of his life, the occasion seemed somehow sullied and incomplete by the fact that Xala, who had duked it out with his settled partner for sixteen weeks, would now have to reach for the txapela without him. However, the fevour and passion of both the play and the atmosphere in the first few points rendered all reservations meaningless; this was the biggest game of the year and the excitement was utterly contagious. The opening salvo seemed as if it would never end, with both pairs struggling to achieve supremacy and neither succeeding. The crowd reacted with a roar to every impressive strike as the ball ricocheted around the fronton careering off every surface, before Beroiz won the point with an oddly bouncing dipping long ball, to which a slightly baffled Aimar only just got a hand. The next point was almost as intense, but the result was different, as Aimar dropped the ball into the corner for a hapless Beroiz to chase. The Asegarce pair built on their base in the next three points, and began to look the more polished. Another Aimar drop, which took the score to 3-1, had both blue players spread eagled on the floor, though Beroiz had done well to reach his first attempt at the winner. In the next play, Aimar opened his shoulders with a trademark gantxo, a foretaste of things to come.
If this ominous show of strength from the great forward sounded a terrifying warning bell for Xala and Beroiz, they were not overawed, as they clawed two points back to a rare error apiece from each of their rivals, but their nascent revival was not to be, as a brace of lax, wide, hits from Xala, undoing all his sterling defensive work, opened the door to another Olaizola salvo. Whereas the opening points had been evenly fought, the next passage of play was utterly owned by the reds, spearheaded by an Aimar who was beginning to revel in his superiority. An airez on 6-3 out-manoeuvred both blues comprehensively, and although they let two points slip through mishits, in Begino’s case perhaps brought about by a moment of indecision, they surged again, from 7-5 to 12-5 in the blink of an eye. Another airez from Aimar sent Xala thudding onto his back, legs flailing, and he doubled the pain with a brutal gantxo. Xala tried to play him at his own game, but while a valiant effort, his own gantxo was low, and paled next to the extraordinary power and precision of Aimar’s example. Aimar then demonstrated his ability to strike winners even from positions of weakness, conjuring a cross court airez from somewhere as he fell and stretched forwards. He had earlier sent Xala and Beroiz into disarray when he forced the former to cover both a gantxo and the resulting spiralling long ball, and having found themselves the wrong way round, they were perpetually on the back foot. With a beautifully disguised txoko, Aimar stretched the reds’ advantage to seven. Xala had yet to strike a winner; Aimar had romped his way to nine.
Hope for Xala and Beroiz seemed vain, but fortunes in pelota can turn on a sixpence, and given their chance to play with their chosen balls thanks to a pair of errors from Begino, who temporarily misplaced his radar, the blue partnership came surging back. The massed ranks of fans roared with delight as the rot was stopped, in the knowledge that they may yet get a final which was tight as well as intense. The point which took them to 8-12 was immense. Both Xala and Beroiz tested Begino to the death, pummelling him over and over again. Every time, he powered the ball back, but when Xala had him where he wanted him, and had tied Aimar up with a txoko, an airez finished the job. When he took the next point with a wonderfully calculated txoko, the momentum had surely swung, for this was the Xala to whom we have become accustomed these past three months, cool and brutally effective. He continued in his march, ever growing in confidence and venom, with two gantxo winners, the second from an outrageous angle. When Begino hit low in the next rally, it was, amazingly, twelve apiece. Xala let his new persona slip a fraction, failing to scoop a dipping ball off his boots, but he drew his pair level again at 13-13 with yet another improbable gantxo, which took Aimar completely by surprise. The pairs traded points once more with an error from each of the defenders in turn, and at 14-14, it appeared to all the world as if we were in for a very long haul indeed.
However, for Aimar clearly enough was enough, the younger Olaizola brother is, and always has been, a consummate big match player. When a championship hangs on a knife edge, he knows no nerves and he grasped his destiny with fearsome force of will. His scintillating cross court winner for 15-14 cut through air like a rapier, and like a huntsman who has his prey on the run, he gritted his teeth and yelled in grim determination. In the next point he sent Xala haring after a fictional gantxo while he tapped the txoko the other way, and with a sense of near panic, Xala clawed at a ball close to the frontis with too much haste, despairing at the tell tale thud of a txapa. At 17-14 though, things almost went terribly wrong for the ascendant pair; Begino, who had struggled with a niggling leg strain earlier in the tournament, now succumbed in far more dramatic fashion, and retired to the locker room for treatment. When he returned, he was strapped heavily, and clearly encumbered. However, the knowledge that his partner desperately needed a swift end to the game only spurred Aimar on to greater heights. He protected Begino from the ball, taking matters squarely upon himself, and racing towards the magic number 22 with whipped airez upon txoko. The straining defensive efforts of Xala and Beroiz were nowhere near enough. The last point was long, and for Begino, no doubt arduous. It is to their credit that he and Aimar managed the build up to the eventual winner so patiently, but when it came, there was no chance of an answer as the rampaging forward unleashed his left arm for one last time. Begino collapsed in a mixture of joy and agony, before being swamped by his ecstatic supporters.
While not especially close in the final analysis, this final will go down as one of the most passionately fought in recent times. Xala failed to hit the heights which made him the overall player of the tournament, and if he had, the battle would surely have been white hot, but nobody in the stands can have felt short changed by the over 700 strikes which comprised this drama. The game was made by the forwards, but a word must be spared for Mikel Beroiz, who came in at the eleventh hour, pressure heaped upon him, to play by far the most important match of his young career. Although he ended on the losing side, he played an excellent game, and has nothing to reproach himself for. He was, in fact, clearly superior to Begino, his opposite number, However, that barely mattered given the discrepancy at the front, where save from Xala’s brief revival, Aimar Olaizola ruled with exhilarating aplomb. There can no longer be any doubt about his post injury potency, for this was extraordinary stuff. As he beamed his way through the press conference, he dedicated his win to the medical staff who had got him back to the fronton. Begino, meanwhile, struggled to stand let alone run, but he too radiated joy unabashed. Worthy champions indeed.
Scoring sequence: 0-1, 4-1, 4-3, 7-3, 7-5, 12-5, 12-12, 13-12, 13-13, 14-13, 14-14, 22-14
Winners: Olaizola II 16, Begino 1, Xala 6, Beroiz 1
Errors: Olaizola II 3, Begino 4, Xala 4, Beroiz 1
Service winners: Olaizola II 0, Xala 0
Service errors: Olaizola II 0, Xala 0
Match time: 83 minutes
Balls hit: 720
Image from ttipi.net