Virgen Blanca Final: Bengoetxea and Begino come storming back to win marathon decider

Tuesday 9th August, Vitoria-Gasteiz


It took 888 collisions of ball and hand to decide the outcome of the Virgen Blanca pelota tournament, the traditional sporting accompaniment to the Basque capital’s fiesta of the same name. 888 strikes of attrition, determination and venom from four of the game’s top players, none of whom would lie down without a gargantuan fight. The game swayed one way, and then the other, and then back again, as each attempted to make their mark. The two forwards, Aimar Olaizola and Oinatz Bengoetxea, were tantalizingly matched, the former having had an excellent year and the latter, winner of the San Fermin Cuatro y Medio, most alive in the summer months for the second year running. These two greats of their generation were equally matched almost throughout, but while most eyes were on them, it was in the back division where this marathon was decided, with the seven errors of Beroiz to Begino’s one proving the difference.

Momentum was firmly on the side of Bengoetxea and Begino in the opening portion of the match. Bengoetxea conceded the first point with a wide gantxo, but he stormed into affairs in the rallies that followed, with two classically worked winners before a forward fight with Olaizola went his way. The next three points brought Beroiz into the game, in a far less than positive manner. The young defender committed three unforced errors in a row, the third undoing all the sterling defensive work of Olaizola in front. At 1-6 down, the red pair had to act, and act they did, coming slowing but surely back into the game. Bengoetxea granted them the serve with a miscued txoko, which would have proved a dramatic winner had it worked. He suffered five more lapses before the scores drew level, making life very easy for Olaizola, who nonetheless reminded all and sundry of his virtuosity with a brutal and classic sequence of shots to the corner and then cross court to leave his opponent floundering. The eight-time txapela winner had clearly upped the pace, and Bengoetxea struggled to match him. Not content with reaching 9-9, the reds marched on past their rivals, most of the dirty work completed by Olaizola, who continually forced Bengoetxea into ever more desperate defence, before delivering the coup de grace. Even Beroiz, now growing in belated confidence entered into the battery, hitting a winning txoko while haring forward to cover for his partner. The score moved to 14-9, and 17-12, and the leaders looked solid as rocks.

Bengoetxea, served excellently by the absolutely unflappable support of Begino, began to chip away at the red lead, taking a point here and there to keep his pair in touch. He seized the momentum back with a vengeance with the score at 14-18, breaking through the shackles placed on him by Olaizola, and taking advantage of the platform provided by his partner. A cross court swipe into Olaizola’s body brought him within three points. Olaizola must surely have thought he had won the next point with a txoko, but his indefatigable rival returned it with interest, whipping a txoko of his own out of the top drawer. The reds began to seem rattled, and the next point did little for their state of mind, when the referee deemed a ball to Beroiz to have bounced twice before he hit it. Beroiz thought otherwise, and let his view be known. The television replays were inconclusive. A change of serve here might have been Olaizola and Beroiz’s salvation, but they then proceeded to lose a monster rally, in which the blues drew level at 18-18 after a heartless salvo from Bengoetxea beat them into submission. The point which took the score to 18-20 saw further heartbreak for Olaizola, who thought he’d pulled off the most stunning gantxo winner of the night, only to hear the telltale clunk which signaled the ball had fallen fractionally low. It was perhaps fitting that the final two points were conceded by Beroiz, whose inconsistency had proved the difference. The new Asergarce signing appeared to have lost his ability to fight, fatigued and broken after a truly mammoth match.

Bengoetxea provided the glamour of this victory, dramatic even when things did not go his way, breathtaking when they did. However, the jury rightfully awarded the player of the tournament award to Begino, the unsung, metronomic, powerful, unmovable hero of the hour. As for Olaizola and Beroiz, this was their debut as a pair, and there are many positive things onto which they can latch. When he was on song, Beroiz displayed power which belied his years, and his rearguard defence was often exceptional. He and Aimar worked well as a pair, and but for some telling errors at crucial moments, they looked an extremely promising partnership. But on Tuesday night at least, the spoils went to Begino and Bengoetxea, the calm and the fury.

Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-6, 3-6, 3-8, 4-8, 4-9, 14-9, 14-10, 15-10, 15-12, 17-12, 17-14, 18-14, 18-22.

Aritz Begino: man of the week

Aritz Begino: man of the week

Image from Noticias de Gipuzkoa, by Iban Aguinaga

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