Heroic Merino leads Riojans to Historic Txapela

Sunday 29th April, Bilbao


Pairs Championship Final

Take a walk through Bilbao on Sunday and you might have been forgiven for thinking the Riojans had invaded. The old town was full of the usual families, couples and tourists, out to find food, drink and pleasure in the sun which had finally deigned to appear after a week of rain, but among them strode groups of friends dressed in the red, white, yellow and green flag of the Basque Country’s neighbour. Many wore pelota shirts emblazoned with ‘Titin III’ and ‘Merino II’, the names of their heroes. Later they made their way up the hill to Miribilla, where the bars and cafes were packed, and which resounded with singing. They had come to witness an historic final, one in which a Riojan duo would attempt to become the first from that province to win the Pairs Championship.

This pair symbolised more than just the hopes of a community, they represented the old and the new of Riojan pelota mano, the passing of the baton of the great Augusto Ibanez, evergreen at 43, on to his 22 year old partner David Merino and the blending of their unparalleled experience and youthful élan. La Rioja’s population is a mere 310,000 and the combined population of Titin and Merino’s home towns numbers fewer than 700, but in a fronton which seats 3000 Riojans seemed in the majority, certainly in terms of vocal presence. Two bus loads came from Villar de Torre alone, representing almost half of the village. It seemed like destiny that the Riojans would win. How could they fail with such a surge of support carrying them to the txapela? To lose in front of a crowd like this seemed unthinkable, the pressure on them unbearable. Would they be inspired or would they crumble under the weight of expectation? In their way stood Xala and Laskurain, who squeezed into the final just as they squeezed into the last four and their fight in the face of the Riojan tidal wave produced a match of stunning passion in which Titin needed all the grit he could muster and Merino, already doted upon by his army of fans, proved utterly heroic.

The start of the game was as close as it was tense, the four players riding on the adrenalin of their deafening welcome. Titin drew first blood with a txoko which induced a sprinting Laskurain to hit low. Titin himself then failed to find the front wall twice in a row before firing another txoko to level the tie at 2-2. Slowly but surely however, the Riojans eked out a lead, built patiently and assuredly. A wide cross court ball from Xala, disputed by the Manomanista champion to much arm waving and not a little confusion, gave them the advantage which was extended to three points at 2-5 when some titanic returning from Merino wore Laskurain down. The pair in red kept them firmly in check however, closing to within a point at 6-7 and to within two at 7-9 after the lead had once again gone out to three. A nail biter looked to be on the cards.

However, to use an analogy beloved of cycling commentators, Titin and Merino began to stretch the elastic. Xala and Laskurain had managed to claw their way back into close proximity every time the lead went out, but there came a point when the proverbial elastic started to fray. On 6-9, Titin had made his most ill-advised move of the match, skying a ball which he should have left for Merino. He reacted to this error of judgement with a determined winner in the next point and this time, Xala had little answer, striking the ball low twice in succession. In the blink of an eye the Riojans had a significant buffer. As Titin fired, Merino grew in stature. In the early plays, Laskurain had been his equal but now the biggest defending talent in years came into his own. Merino is tall but instead of appearing lanky or out of control he is grace personified, grace coupled with terrifying strength, beauty allied with a power which belies his slender frame. Time and again the ball was sent long by Xala and Laskurain, and time and again the crowd roared Merino as he hit, not only reaching the frontis but reaching it with interest, turning scrambling defence into a position of superiority. It was mightily impressive stuff, especially from a man of barely 22 in the biggest match of his life. 

A 13-7 lead for Titin and Merino prompted the second time out in quick succession for Xala and Laskurain but there was little their botillero Aitor Zubieta, who won the title with Xala in 2010, could do to assist them in breaking the momentum of their opponents. They should have taken the next point; Merino was forced forwards to scoop up a drop from Xala, sending Titin into the defensive role at the back. Xala proceeded to bombard him with high balls but he kept returning them, sending the fans into rapture. Just when he looked as if he would crack, Xala hit high for 7-14. Xala needed to act quickly and he clawed a point back with a gantxo which sent Titin diving in despair but a miscue along the floor in the next play restored the seven point lead of his opponents. The Riojan advantage should have grown to eight when Merino went low after Xala miraculously retrieved a txoko from Titin which looked to have won the point. Again however they restored their gap through the deftest Titin txoko, Xala having got caught behind. Merino atoned for an error on 9-16 by brilliantly surviving a bombing and maintaining enough pressure for Xala to err. At 10-17, all looked set fair for Titin and Merino, but there were clouds on the horizon. Merino was clearly uncomfortable physically, frowning as he stretched his leg, and he disappeared to the locker room, shepherded by a concerned entourage. This state of affairs was to prove the final ingredient in a melting pot of high drama.

There was no cause for extreme alarm when he re-emerged. A pat on the back for Titin and a nod of the head served to reassure his fans that all was well and there was nothing in the next run of points to cause worry. Xala and Laskurain pegged them back to 18-12 but this was due to a brace of lapses from Titin, who slapped his head in disgust, aware that he had missed a golden chance to put the final nail in the coffin of his rivals. Xala and Laskurain picked up points in ones and twos but a real run was needed to close the gap, and the Riojan grip was now too tight. The prize was in sight and there seemed no danger of combustion, even when they ceded the first of their match points. Merino’s brother Miguel and his friends moved from their places to the steps by the playing area, ready to swamp their hero in their arms and their flags. However, what occurred in the point on 14-21 sent hearts into mouths. In a long and physically demanding rally, Merino’s muscular problems returned with a vengeance. He pulled up in anguish, stretching in the vain hope of loosening whatever was ailing him while Titin was left to defend for two. Forced back into action by a ball which dipped into the left hand wall, he threw himself headlong and could not get up. Sitting slumped against the wall, he could do little but watch in anguish as Titin, playing alone, was taken apart by his two rivals. In considerable pain, he was helped into the locker room where he remained for over ten minutes. The crowd held its collective breath. Surely this victory, a victory which seemed written in the stars, could not be denied so cruelly with the line almost crossed?

Merino emerged to rapturous applause, stony faced and determined and prayers were sent that the win would come quickly, before calamity befell him. A vociferous gentleman from Villar de Torre yelled ‘falta!’ as Xala served, in the hope that that would be it. A falta it was not and the point dragged on, Merino comfortable at least to outward eyes. It fell to Laskurain to sign the final stroke as a ball from his hand rose up and up and hit the wall too high. Merino, forgetting all his pain, sprinted with arms outstretched and threw himself at Titin in a wild embrace, soon to be joined by the baying throng.

It is hard to express what this win means for Riojan pelota. It is a small territory which will never rival the Basque provinces in strength and depth, but in recent years a string of young players have made their debuts and there are others waiting in the wings. Merino is the star of this generation and less than two years after his debut he now sits at the top of the sport. For years, Titin was the lone star but now he has company. They won this final because they were stronger than Xala and Laskurain in almost every regard. Xala, who has rarely fired on all cylinders in this championship continued indifferently here, solid enough but rarely spectacular. Titin had the greater tactial hold and the greater finishing power. Laskurain’s strength has carried his pair and again he played well, but Merino played better. The statistics tell their story, but when people remember this final, the images will outweigh them, images of a province rising in celebration for their flag bearers, the master and the disciple, Titin III and Merino II, champions.

Scoring sequence: 0-1, 2-1, 2-5, 4-5, 4-7, 6-7, 6-9, 7-9, 7-14, 8-14, 8-15, 9-16, 10-18, 12-18, 12-19, 13-19, 13-19, 13-21, 15-21 and 15-22

Service winners/errors: Xala 0/0, Titin 1/0

Winners/errors: Xala 4/4, Laskurain 3/3, Titin 11/5, Merino 3/3

Match time: 100 minutes, with 34:12 of actual play

Balls hit: 665

Botilleros: Aitor Zubieta with Xala and Laskurain, Joaquin Plaza with Titin and Merino

All images: mine

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