Sunday 29th May, San Sebastian
OLAIZOLA II beat BENGOETXEA VI 22-15
It would have been easy for Aimar Olaizola to have fallen into the trap of complacency. The two-time former winner, and current Pairs champion, has swept all before him this year, and to many, his scintillating win against Martinez de Irujo in the quarters felt like the final; how would he rouse himself for another effort, against a dangerous opponent with the skills to spring a surprise? Aimar, however, was firmly on his guard, and a slight mid-game lapse notwithstanding, produced another performance seemingly designed to crush the soul of Benogetxea, himself the champion in 2008. That year, he beat Aimar in the semis, but in 2011 there was no chance of that.
Bengoetxea started well, winning the first two points with clean winners. However, a falta ceded the serve, and with it the advantage. Aimar took the following three points with poise, producing a service winner and a txoko, and forcing Bengoetxea to hit wide. The underdog showed all his noted resolve to draw back level, repelling a barrage of long balls from Aimar before producing a winner from a position of near desperation, and then serving his way to 4-4. However, the next passage of play was one way traffic, as the great Navarrese forward unleashed the heavy artillery, adding eight points without reply. A key turning point came when Bengoetxea left a serve which looked to be going long. When it was called in, Aimar kept the serve and battered his rival into submission, manipulating him like a puppet on a string and finishing him off with a cocktail of overarm volleys, drops and a beautifully angled dos paredes which made the crowd purr. Bengoetxea defended with all his might, but was still found wanting, his disbelief palpable when he hit fractionally low after brilliantly picking the ball up from his toes at 4-10.
Bengoetxea got back on the board at 5-12, striking a winner by the skin of his teeth from an Aimar gantxo. There followed a period in which Bengoetxea chipped away, coming back to within five points at 8-13 before Aimar reminded him of the status quo by means of his powerful left arm. At 8-15, Bengoetxea would need to bring about a seismic shift to have any chance, but miraculously, he almost did it. Aimar made two uncharacteristically careless errors in a row, the second borne of a tactial blunder in choosing not to go long earlier in the point. Bengoetxea, full of bounding confidence and fight, then produced four winners in a row, finding momentary domination with a wonderfully employed long serve. Suddenly it was 14-15, and the game took on a very different complexion. Aimar, hitherto so calm and matter of fact, wore a furrowed brow. However, in the manner of great champions in all sports, he raised his level when the pressure was on, allowing Bengoetxea only one more point in the match, in a salvo which took him from 15-14 to 22-15. The awe inspiring Aimar was back, whipping the ball behind, above and round his ailing opponent until he was either forced into failure or powerless admiration. Bengoetxea never gave up the fight, but Aimar was a cut above.
This was perhaps not as complete a performance from the favourite as the one which vanquished Irujo, but the same elements remained in place. His serve was strong and well directed, his speed was immense and tactically he was almost faultless, employing the simple but devastating tactic of controlling the left wall and pummelling his opponent with his left hand. Bengoetxea tried to play him at his own game for much of the encounter, volleying from serve in an attempt to wrest the initiative. Against a lesser opponent, this may have borne fruit, but Aimar was unfazed, and showed how it should be done, with a total of eight airez winners in the game. He plays Xala in the final, which will be held on 19th June in Bilbao, delayed for a week due to a minor hand ailment suffered by Aimar. If he plays as he did against Irujo, Xala will be left reeling; if he lets his guard slip, and if Xala plays at the top of his game however, it could be a classic.
Scoring sequence: 0-2, 4-2, 4-4, 12-4, 12-6, 13-6, 13-8, 15-8, 15-14, 20-14, 20-15, 22-15
Winners: Olaizola 13, Bengoetxea 9
Errors: Olaizola 2, Bengoetxea 4
Service winners: Olaizola 4, Bengoetxea 4
Service errors: Olaizola 0, Bengoetxea 1
Match time: 56.30, with 10.54 of actual play
Balls hit: 264
Image from: Kiroljokoa