Sunday 3rd July, Bilbao
XALA beat OLAIZOLA II 22-19
The 2011 Manomanista Final captured the interest of Euskadi like few before it, garnering a massive audience share which far outstripped the Wimbledon final, with which it shared the day. Part of the reason for this was the enthralling head to head contest between undoubtedly the two pelotaris of the year. Aimar Olaizola has been a juggernaut in recent months, crushing everything and everyone in his progress through two championships. His performances in the latter stages of the Pairs Championship were devastating and utterly compelling, and in the Manomanista he took up where he had left off, especially in the scintillating quarter final against defending champion Irujo, who was left looking like a lost boy. Yves Salaberry, too, had a stunning Pairs, only undone by Olaizola at the last, before his serene journey through this championship was interrupted by an unlikely head to head, not with another player, but with the LEPM. A bout of acute appendicitis, and an emergency operation, meant he could not play the final on the appointed date, and when it was announced Bengoetxea VI, who lost his semi final to Olaizola, would take his place, the quiet man from Lekuine harnessed all his emotion, his courage and the people-power of his supporters to overturn their decision, salvaging the spirit and integrity of his sport. Reaching the final was an achievement in itself, but Xala now had to overcome his second miracle, defeating the whirlwind of Aimar’s 2011 form. It seemed as if destiny carried him to the txapela in one majestic sweep.
Bizkaia, Bilbao’s glorious new fronton, erupted in a cauldron of fervour when the two protagonists emerged like prize fighters from the locker room. It was Aimar who pulled the first punches, winning the opening three points with a gentle but beautifully placed volley, an overarm which forced Xala short, and a trademark gantxo. However, Xala wrestled the serve from him with a point he did very well to win, sending a ball deftly over his opponent’s head. He brought the scores level and kept going, sounding a warning shot to the Asegarce camp by taking a 6-3 lead. Two of these points were won from the serve, which ran like clockwork for him, and he twice showed his precision cross court hitting ability. Aimar advanced again when Xala struck a txoko too low, but then Xala seized the game again with another service winner and a txoko, which this time achieved perfection.
However, the fans were about to be treated to vintage Aimar Olaizola, who delivered a spell of play, from 5-9 down to 17-10 up, which made it impossible to see how Xala could spoil Goizueta’s party. The first four points of his run were so easy that it almost defied belief; he knocked off a lob, a txoko and two dos paredes, creating acres of space in which to land the ball, with Xala on a different planet. The deluge continued with his first two service winners, and then a third and a fourth, interspersed with five more clean open play winners, for which he barely broke a canter. This was phenomenal play, and you could almost sense the hand hovering over Belshazzar’s wall.
Xala, ever intense and ever cool, never had a thought of giving up however, and a well worked high ball from which Aimar fell short, gave him a foothold back into the final. Barring a total meltdown from Aimar, which only happens when pigs fly, his chances seemed extremely remote, but inspiration struck. The next three points were a crescendo of brilliance, as he treated Aimar like a puppet before firing two cross court winners as accurate as William Tell’s arrow. It did not seem possible. Aimar managed another two points, due to errors from his rampant rival, the second taking him back within one at 19-20, and inducing a wry smile from Xala, but this now seemed a question of destiny. The script was there for the writing: pelotari struck by medical emergency before the biggest match of his life, ousted in favour of a lesser competitor, fights tooth and nail for his rights with an emotional appeal, backed by the groundswell of public opinion, plays his match and puts one in the eye of the authorities with a famous victory. But life is never like Hollywood, surely? Xala showed that, sometimes, it is. The nerve he showed with some of his shot choices was extraordinary, skirting the boards and the lines with breathtaking precision. It was impossible to believe that anyone could show such a cool head in such circumstances, but Xala was calculating and serene, while all the time surfing a wave of inner passion. There was nothing Aimar could do; Xala had written the script and was determined to commit it to film. When a disconsolate Aimar, who himself had produced such brilliance, hit wide, the wave crashed to engulf Xala in a swell of disbelief. He claimed that winning his right to participate was the greatest match of his life, but even that triumph was eclipsed by this. Yves Salaberry, txapeldun.
Scoring sequence: 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1, 3-2, 3-3, 3-4, 3-5, 3-6, 4-6, 5-6, 5-7, 5-8, 5-9, 6-9, 7-9, 8-9, 9-9, 10-9, 11-9, 12-9, 13-9, 14-9, 14-10, 15-10, 16-10, 17-10, 17-11, 17-12, 17-13, 17-14, 18-14, 18-15, 18-16, 18-17, 18-18, 18-19, 18-20, 19-20, 19-21, 19-22.
Image from: Noticias de Navarra