SundSunday Sunbday 11thDecember, Bilbao
OLAIZOLA II beat MARTINEZ DE IRUJO 22-12
When Aimar Olaizola saw Irujo miss the ball which gave him the 2011 Cuatro y Medio title, his reaction was one of relief, perhaps infused with disbelief, rather than unabashed joy. It has been a tortuous month for the great forward, who broke his finger in his semi-final win over Abel Barriola on 13th November, causing the final to be delayed twice, and then had to endure the death of his father from a long illness only days before his date with sporting destiny. Nobody truly knew the state of his afflicted finger. Although he stated that he practised on Wednesday and experienced ‘good sensations’, playing a major final with a finger in a plastic brace is clearly far from ideal. Irujo warmed up in a more conventional manner, playing two pairs games to keep his match fitness nicely tuned, and although his year has been disappointing in comparison with Aimar’s, he started as clear favourite in these somewhat rarefied circumstances. However, conventional reasoning rarely applies to finals, where dead certs can crumble and underdogs can be crowned; Aimar showed no sign of distress or mental disquiet, while Irujo disintegrated with devastating effect to give the former his ninth professional txapela and his fifth in Cuatro y Medio. He now stands alone amongst the champions of this specialism, ahead of the great Retegi II, and while he dismisses obsession with records his place in the pantheon of the sport is fully assured.
The opening exchanges were torturously tight and high on both excitement and nerves. The pace was frenetic but neither played with consummate assurance. Irujo stamped an early mark, taking the first point by passing Aimar on the left but cancelled it out with an error in the next. Irujo took the next rally with a ball down the wall but then Aimar sent a warning of his presence with a cross court bullet. 2-2 became 3-3 after an error apiece and nobody had the ascendency. All cagey looks and concentrated stares, the protagonists seemed deep in a subtle mind game. Aimar was the first to make his move, taking the game from stalemate to 6-3. His run of three points was kick started by Irujo completely missing a ball against the side wall, much to his scowling disdain, and he broke clear with a wonderfully worked point in which he pinned Irujo to the wall before whipping the ball to the right. This was followed by a service winner which his opponent totally misjudged. 6-3 could easily have been 7-3 had his attempted gantxo winner made contact with the frontis but his three point cushion was restored when Irujo made an almost identical error in the next point, although he was possibly hard done by with the referee’s call. Aimar, however, was unable to break free and despite flashes of his customary brilliance, the typical nervous errors of such a momentous match crept into his play. He doggedly fought off a barrage of txoko attempts in the next point before somewhat needlessly hitting high and then miscued a sotomano which he sent clattering into the metal. His lead extended once more to two when Irujo went wide, and dropped again to one when he went low.
From this impasse, the colour of the encounter changed as Aimar exerted the control he had hitherto struggled to find. From 8-7 he advanced to 13-8 and the only point he lost in the sequence was due in part to Irujo’s unintentional blocking of his path, which lay just on the right side of the law as far as the officials were concerned. Aimar is renowned as an excellent tactical thinker and he showed his aptitude here in getting Irujo exactly where he needed him as he controlled the open spaces. This was especially evident in the point on 10-8 in which he completely out-foxed Irujo, hitting left to right as he hared the other way. His served also increased in potency, giving him the upper hand in rallies from the off, and the point which gave him his five point lead was brought about by his second sakez.
Aimar was obviously the more composed and the more potent, but as he stated in his post match press conference, you can never be sure to have buried Irujo until you reach 22. This being the case, his fury with himself at letting his great rival back into the game was fully understandable. Once again Irujo hauled himself back to within one point thanks to four errors in a row from Aimar which sprang more from a slippage of his own standards than a raise in Irujo’s. It seemed the championship would go to the wire, but what occurred over the following twenty minutes must constitute one of the most startling meltdowns in of the current era. Irujo would not win another point as Aimar strode towards the txapela with unshakeable assurance. He realised the importance of the point on 13-12, not wanting to give Irujo the mental boost of drawing level with him for the first time since 3-3 and pumped the air as if to signal the dawn of Irujo’s demise when he won it. If that was crucial, the next play was more truly the turning point, a momentous, never-ending whirl of hitting in which Irujo had Aimar running for his life, falling and tumbling in his desperate efforts to recover. The destination of the point appeared obvious, but Aimar thrillingly turned straining defence into glorious attack with a gantxo from nowhere, followed by an unreachable txoko. Irujo, dejected, must have wondered what he could possibly do to get past the obstacle in his path. Aimar did not celebrate, but leant his forehead against the wall, a picture of concentration, focussed on what he still had to do to make the prize his. The mentality of a champion.
If it was the stunning defence of Aimar which turned the tide, it was the force and accuracy of his serve which broke Irujo’s resolve. He moved from 17-12 to 19-12 with three straight service winners, pushing Irujo from flat, to dejected, to utterly incredulous. Irujo is not a player renowned for bottling his emotion deep within and although the lid was on, one sensed that it was about to blow in dramatic fashion. Sure enough, the next point did it. Irujo battled throughout its lengthy course, hitting as an equal, but when he threw his chances away with a ball which went well wide, it was more than he could bear. He walked purposefully towards Patxi Eugi, his botillero, as if to take a time out but then snapped in the blink of an eye, stamping on his chair with such force that pieces of plastic snapped from its legs before hurling it towards the floor of the fronton which he had come to hate so much. He stormed off the field of play past a slightly stunned looking Aretxabaleta, warming up for the third match, to a barrage of whistles from Bizkaia’s mighty throng. The game was obviously in Aimar’s hands, but to his immense credit, his focus never left him. He knew the dangers of playing Irujo, of assuming the prize is yours before the scoreboard confirms it. When Irujo returned, it was business as normal as Aimar registered his sixth service winner. This time his opponent left the furniture unmolested and resorted to a mere shrug. The magical 22, for which he had so patiently grafted, fell into Aimar’s grateful lap when Irujo missed the ball completely.
The new champion, engulfed by his friends, his brother and the press, looked serene and calm, and it was these virtues which took him to victory. Irujo was so rattled by the end of the game that he was barely recognisable as the great player we know him to be. Many would have become impatient and
bolted for the line, but not Aimar, who accumulated his points with quiet determination, never content until the job was done. The txapela of triumph upon his head, he pointed skywards in memory of his father, who had scarcely missed a match involving either him or his brother Asier, in a very public but also touchingly private tribute. Irujo, to his credit, mustered a wan smile on the podium and joined in the heartfelt applause for a worthy and truly great champion.
Scoring sequence: 0-1, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2, 3-3, 6-3, 6-4, 7-4, 7-6, 8-6, 8-7, 10-7, 10-8, 13-8,
Winners/errors: Olaizola 14/9, Irujo 3/8
Balls hit: 263
Match time: 48:18 with 9:55 of actual play
Botilleros: Asier Olaizola with his brother Aimar, and Patxi Eugi with Irujo
Image from Deia