Monthly Archives: December 2012

Pairs Championship: week two movers and shakers

The second rotation of the Pairs Championship is not quite over, with Martinez de Irujo and Zabaleta playing Titin and Merino tomorrow, but here is a run down of what has happened so far this week, of who is up and who is down.

The first game of the rotation took place on Friday in Tolosa, and saw a 22-17 win for Xala and Barriola over Gonzalez and Zubieta. This constitutes a second win for the former and a second loss for the latter. This was a marathon of a match characterised by some rallies which seemed as if they would never end. In all, the ball was struck 714 times in a game of an hour and a half, thirty six minutes of which was actual playing time. The two pairs were very closely matched in most of these attritional rallies but overall, Xala and Barriola had the edge. No one player had an excellent game as errors were a greater contributor to the final tallies than were winners, but Xala’s greater accuracy at the front proved crucial. Gonzalez failed to find any sort of stride until the second part of the game, when he and Zubieta managed to close in from 9-18 to 15-19. He proved in this passage that he is capabale of stunning winners but all too often in the game as a whole he missed shots which should have been winners. Barriola probably comes out of the game with the most credit; in such a contest, three errors is not a high total, especially when balanced with one winner, and he defended with his usual solidity. Zubieta also played well on occasion but was prone to let the odd ball slip through his net. Xala and Barriola therefore march onwards with little stress, while Gonzalez and Zubieta must find a way to win. They will be encouraged however that for much of this game they looked like a solid unit, undone by the fact that the difference between winning and losing any point can be very small.

In Pamplona on Saturday, Aimar Olaizola demonstrated his human side as Bengoetxea VI and Beroiz beat Olaizola II and Ibai Zabala 22-19. All four pelotraris played an excellent match. Olaizola and Zabala had the early upper hand, going ahead 9-4 as the former continued in his dominating ways. However, Bengoetxea moved into attack mode, taking the game to his rival, and with the help of Beroiz who was solid as a rock took his pair into an 18-15 lead. Olaizola had several lapses which gave the blues room to breathe. The game remained very tight until the death, with the scoreboard reaching 17-18 and 18-19, but from this juncture, Bengoetxea’s determination coupled with Beroiz’s potent hitting from the back took them to the line. It is a combination of skills which promises to take them far, and though it is early days, they must be considered one of the favourites for this title. Olaizola and Zabala, though they lost out, can be encouraged by another good display. Zabala played well and has already done much to silence the doubters. The question is whether he can continue to play at the requisite level, week upon week.

There was a surprise on Sunday in Eibar as Arretxe II and Begino proved the undoing of Berasaluze VIII and Albisu, winning 22-20.The underdogs counfounded all expectations by going ahead early and staying there for much of the match, leading 1-4, 6-10 and 9-14. It seemed inevitable that the dogged Berasaluze wold find a way to come back into it and so he did, leading from the front to take his pair to parity at 15-15. The momentum swing seemed terminal, and the 2011-12 version of Arretxe and Begino would surely have folded at this point. However, perhaps determined to prove his worth, Arretxe found some considerable fire in the belly to halt Berasaluze in his tracks, turning 15-17 into 19-17. Thanks to a string of unfortunate mistakes from Albisu, who repeatedly did all the hard wirk before blowing the denouement, they were able to hold out for a shock win. Maybe their 2013 vintage will be a better one. Berasaluze and Albisu, on paper such an attractive pair, now have two losses and much watch their step.

Mikel Larunbe joins Asegarce on a two year deal

Asegarce have announced the signing of Mikel Larunbe, a 19 year old defender from Galdakao, on a two year deal. Larunbe won the pairs titles of the Torneo el Diario Vasco in 2012, GRAVN in 2010 and the Basque Country championship in 2010. He will make his professional debut on Saturday 5th January at Bizkaia, where he will play alongside Asier Olaizola against Saralegi and Apraiz.

Pelota on ETB, 28th December-1st January

Friday 28th December, Tolosa


Followed by GONZALEZ – ZUBIETA v XALA – BARRIOLA Pairs Championship

Sunday 30th December, Eibar


Followed by BERASALUZE VIII – BEGINO v ARRETXE II – BEGINO Pairs Championship

Tuesday 1st January, Eibar



To watch, go to http://www.eitb.tv

The other Pairs Championship match this week is Olaizola II-Ibai Zabala v Bengoetxea VI-Beroiz, tomorrow in Pamplona

Pairs Championship: first week wins for Irujo-Zabaleta and Bengoetxea-Beroiz

Also victorious in the first round of Pairs Championsip matches were Martinez de Irujo-Zabaleta and Bengoetxea VI-Beroiz. Irujo and debutant Zabaleta were not overly stretched in beating Gonzalez and Zubieta at Labrit last Sunday, running out 22-11 winners. Far closer was Bengoetxea and Beroiz’s win over Berasaluze VIII and Albisu, which finished 22-21. This looked like the most enticing of the first rotation’s matches on paper, with two evenly matched pairs featuring two of the most dynamic forwards on the circuit. Bengoetxea and Berasaluze have both been in great form recently, coming second and third respectively in the Cuatro y Medio and they put on a great show at a buzzing Bizkaia. For the first part of the match, affairs were extremely close with the eventual winners pegged back from 7-4 to 7-8 before the pairs were locked in combat on eight, nine and ten. Beraslauze and Albisu edged ahead 12-10 before Bengoetxea and Beroiz began to exert pressure and looked to be heading for a reasonably comfortable triumph. Thanks to the potency of Bengoetxea’s shot play and the rock solid defence of Beroiz, they forged ahead to 16-12 and 19-14. However, Berasaluze is nothing if not tenacious and, audibly goading Albisu on, he led a revival. They closed to 17-19 before Bengoetxea and Beroiz steadied the ship, giving themselves four shots at match point on 21-17. However, again their rivals fought back, setting up a winner-takes-all final point from 21-21. In a point of high tension, it was Berasaluze who fell first, handing the game to Bengoetxea and Beroiz when his strike fell agonisingly low. We will surely here much more from both couples as the championship progresses.

Victory in Bilbao for Oinatz Bengoetxea

Victory in Bilbao for Oinatz Bengoetxea

Pairs Championship: Aimar leads from the front for Christmas triumph

Tuesday 25th December, Eibar


Pairs Championship

This had the makings of a highly intriguing match up. On the one hand, we had the defending champions, Titin and Merino, an established pair who combine experience and youthful talent in a coherent whole. Against them stood the biggest mismatch of the championship, Olaizola, the undisputed number one, and his partner the highly inexperienced debutant Ibai Zabala. Everything rested on whether Olaizola, still riding a purple patch of form which has extended for nigh on two years, could carry his partner to the extent that he could overcome such a talented pair. In the end, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Olaizola shouldered a massive proportion of the responsibility, striking many more balls than his partner, which is notable in that the defender usually hits more balls than the forward in pairs matches. He knew what he had to do and rose to the task.

The defending champions went behind almost immediately, going down 2-0 and 5-1. They came back into it, but were only to lead on two occasions, once at 6-5 and again at 7-6. Thereafter, the Asegarce pair was in almost total control. Ibai Zabala held up his end admirably, but in truth all he had to do was to defend and let his illustrious partner do the work. If Titin had been in better form the balance might have swung back, but Olaizola had his number, controlling the front of the court like a territorial tiger. He ruled the side wall, creating the angles and the space to pass his opponent and gave Titin no room to move. He scored more than double the number of winners of his rival, a whopping fourteen out of the twenty two needed to pass the line. Merino was the better defender, despite a nasty knock to his tailbone late in the game, but with such imbalance up front there was little he could do. The obvious tactic should have been to take Olaizola out of the game by hitting long to punish Zabala, but his control was too great and Titin was for the most part forced to fight for scraps. Once the lead had reached 17-11 there was no comeback and the body language of the champions suggested that they knew this.

So far so good for the most puzzling pair of the tournament. Olaizola was as stunning as one might expect and Ibai Zabala did what he needed to do to support him. Their fate in the competition depends on for how long Olaizola can keep this up. The Pairs is a long championship which requires consistency week in week out. It is also highly demanding physically. One senses that a slight dip in form for Olaizola, coupled with weaknesses creeping in from behind could see them fall from their early pedestal. Time will tell, but they will have enjoyed their Christmas.

Scoring sequence: 2-0, 2-1, 5-1, 5-6, 6-6, 6-7, 13-7, 13-8, 14-8, 14-10, 15-10, 15-11, 17-11, 17-13, 21-13, 21-14, 22-14
Service winners/errors: Olaizola 2, Titin 0
Winners/errors: Olaizola 14/4, Titin 6/4, Zabala 0/3, Merino 1/2
Balls hit: 500
Match time: 65 minutes

A winning debut for Ibai Zabala

A winning debut for Ibai Zabala

Pairs Championship: Xala and Barriola ease to opening win

Friday 21st December, Najera


Pairs Championship

The 2013 Pairs Championship got underway last Friday with what looked like an outrightb mismatch. Xala and Barriola’s partnership is likely to consitute one of the most solid of the competition given their experience and individual class, while Arretxe and Begino were the whipping boys of 2012, rather mysteriously given a second chance. Much to the surprise of many, however, this was not a walkover and for the first half of the game at least, the underdogs held their own, giving Xala and Barriola a significant barrier to pass.

Arretxe and Begino went ahead in the early stages thanks to a brace of outright winners from the former, which very much contrary to the script. A Xala txoko got the favourites into the game however and from 3-3 onwards they began to build what looked to be an easy lead, with Xala effortlessly turning up the heat. However, Arretxe, not intimidated by the reputation of anyone, was on fire and out-manouvered his opponents single handedly to wrest the serve back. He cancelled out their deficit with a hook and a service winner to make it 6-6, before an error from Barriola gave them a 7-6 lead. Unfortunately for them though, Begino proved less sharp than his partner and two mistakes from the back meant a momentum swing back to the favourites who were then able to capitalise. As they built their lead from 8-7 to 15-8, 18-10 and 21-11, Xala demonstrated that he is in a different class to the plucky Arretxe. Going about his work in a characteristically cool manner the man from Iparralde showed off his full range of shot play, serving excellently and putting away winners to all corners of the fronton. He was ably assisted by the typically solid Barriola who as well as defending excellently as usual, put away winners of his own.  Arretxe and Begino threatened a late flurry, moving from 11-21 to 14-21 thanks to an error apiece from Xala and Begino and a txoko from Arretxe, but it was too little too late as a miss from close in by Arretxe in the following point made the score 22-14.

The major difference in this match was between the forwards, where Xala was on a different level. His fourteen winners to three errors tell the tale of his dominance, set against the mere six winners put away by his opposite number. Begino played a solid enough match, but without the firepower up front, there was little he could do to advance their cause. Xala and Barriola, while not the most dynamic pairing of the line up, look set for a good tournament; once they found their stride the win came with ease.

Scoring sequence: 0-3, 3-3, 6-3, 6-7, 10-7, 10-8, 15-8, 15-9, 15-10, 18-10, 18-11, 21-11, 21-14, 22-14
Winners/errors: Xala 14/3, Arretxe 6/1, Barriola 5/3, Begino 2/3
Balls hit: 597
Match time: 1:04.50 with 29:13 of actual play

Pelota on ETB, 21st-25th December: Pairs Championship kick off

Friday 21st December, Najera

22:00  (CET) XALA – BARRIOLA v ARRETXE II – BEGINO Pairs Championship

Sunday 23rd December, Bilbao



Tuesday 25th December, Eibar


Followed by OLAIZOLA II – IBAI ZABALA v TITIN III – MERINO II Pairs Championship

To watch, go to http://www.eitb.tv

The weekend’s other Pairs Championship match takes place tomorrow, Saturday, in Pamplona, where Gonzalez and Zubieta play Martinez de Irujo and Zabaleta.

2013 Pairs Championship line up creates talking points aplenty

The combinations for the 2013 Pairs Championship were announced yesterday at the Hotel Karlos Arguiñano in Zarautz. They are as follows:

For Asegarce: Olaizola II-Ibai Zabala, Bengoetxea VI-Beroiz, Berasaluze VIII-Albisu, Arretxe II-Begino
For Aspe: Martinez de Irujo-Zabaleta, Xala-Barriola, Gonzalez-Zubieta, Titin III-Merino II

The empresas usually spring some surprises with their line ups, but this year’s pairs give rise to more discussion points than is common. The most obvious place to start is the pairing of Aimar Olaizola with Ibai Zabala. Zabala is a debutant in the championship and has rarely played at this level even in matches which matter for little. His inclusion is a major surprise, as he has apparently done very little in the past year to press for selection. Alexis Apraiz will feel aggrieved and not without reason; he himself has rarely set the world on fire this year but has consistently played on a higher level than Zabala, and is far more experienced. Also unexpected is the fact that Zabala plays Olaizola. Olaizola and Beroiz were nigh on unbeatable as a combination in the 2012 championship, only falling in the semi finals where Beroiz was badly hampered by hand problems. They won all of their round robin matches, an unprecedented feat. It is puzzling as to why Asegarce would not give them another shot but more confusing is why Olaizola would be given Zabala as a partner instead. There is little sense in putting a debutant with an inexperienced partner, and thus Zabala must feel all his Christmases have come at once, but it is hard to see this partnership going all the way, even with Olaizola at the helm. Olaizola is Asegarce’s golden goose but they seem to have shot themselves in the foot here by severely denting his chances of winning another title.

The other Asegarce pairings are less of a shock; one could argue for Beroiz being teamed with Olaizola again, but with Bengoetxea he should go far nonetheless. This looks like one of the strongest teams on paper. Berasaluze and Albisu resume their partnership from 2012 when they very nearly made the final. Slightly puzzling though is the second chance being afforded to Arretxe and Begino, who were very poor last year in winning only three of their fourteen matches in the opening stage and suffering a string of very heavy losses. There was a definite case here for giving a younger player such as Urrutikoetxea a shot at the highest level, and many would argue for retaining Apraiz over Begino who has never regained the level which saw him win the title with Olaizola in 2011.

There are two major talking points in the Aspe line up. The first of these is the debut of Zabaleta, which is well deserved. The empresa has clearly been grooming him for the big league and his recent performances hinted at a forthcoming selection. The fact that they have paired him with Irujo is a major vote of confidence and it is easy to see them going far here. Laskurain is the victim in this, as the defender forced to make way from last year’s selection. He may have cause to complain after finishing a slightly unexpected runner-up with Xala last year, but on current form it is unsurprising that he was the one to go.

The other main topic for discussion as far as Aspe are concerned, and perhaps the biggest surprise, is the inclusion of Gonzalez over a whole string of young pretenders with excellent claims. Gonzalez was left out in 2012 in favour of Aritz Lasa and made his hurt very evident in the press, later being forced to apologise to his employers for his words. Throughout the intervening year he has done very little to prove that their decision was ill advised, having very rarely been at his best, if at all. Aspe has an embarrassment of riches on the forward front and four other players legitimately made their cases for selection. Jon Jaunarena is young and perhaps they wish to bring him on more slowly, but he has won all three Promocion titles this year as well as embarrassing many far older players. There is nothing more he could have done to present his case. Also banging on the door was Joseba Ezkurdia who looked to be on a fast track to the top level, being blooded repeatedly in headline matches and more than holding his own. Perhaps Aspe thought that he, too, needed more time. If they were reluctant to gamble on a very young player though, the time was surely right for Retegi Bi, and especially for Idoate. These two seem stuck in limbo, surely good enough to be given a chance at the main championship but too experienced for the Promocion. If Aspe wanted to look to the future and develop the players who will be amongst their stalwarts in the years to come, giving one or other of them the chance to shine now would have seemed prudent. Their only consolation is that neither Gonzalez nor Titin can go on for ever, but then again, if Jaunarena and Ezkurdia fulfil their promise they may miss their chance entirely, condemned to inhabit the gap between the upper and lower level in perpetuity. Xala and Barriola will be solid and there is little about which to argue here, although given the past successes and clear chemistry of Xala and Zubieta as a pair, one could have argued for that. Finally, Titin and Merino get the chance to defend their title, which is right, proper and fair.

It is four months before we will know which of these pairs will prove the best. The Pairs Championship always produces surprises, pairs who exceed the sum of their parts and stellar combinations which never quite gel. Whatever one makes of the pairs presented in December, the journey is always a fascinating one, and very definitely a marathon rather than a sprint. The fun kicks off this Friday and there will be much to entertain us over the Christmas:

Friday 21st December, Najera: XALA – BARRIOLA v ARRETXE II – BEGINO
Saturday 22nd December, Pamplona:
Sunday 23rd December, Bilbao:
Tuesday 25th December, Eibar:

Can the Riojans take the top step again in 2013?

Can the Riojans take the top step again in 2013?

Photo: mine

Cuatro y Medio Final: Invincible Aimar leaves Benogetxea reeling

Sunday 16th December, Vitoria-Gasteiz


Cuatro y Medio Final

This should have been a contest. Oinatz Bengoetxea had a legitimate chance to add the Cuatro y Medio to his record, to finally grasp the prize which so many believed would fall his way by right sooner or later. Bengoetxea’s game, so quick and infused with energy, is ideally suited to the short court form of pelota mano. He has won the Navarrese title for the past two years and only months ago defeated both Olaizola II and Irujo in the process. However, it has been his great misfortune to have been born when he was, fated to play in the same era as two of the greats. While Irujo and Olaizola have succumbed to the occasional off day in the Navarrese championship, in the one which really matters they have seldom been so careless. In both 2009 and 2011 Bengoetxea was knocked out of the Cuatro y Medio in the quarter finals, by Irujo. In 2012 he dodged this bullet, unexpectedly finding himself up against Berasaluze VIII in the semis instead, but there was no light at the end of the tunnel; Aimar Olaizola awaited. Olaizola wasted no time in despatching Irujo in the last four, almost toying with him before powering away. Bengoetxea, while he had his theoretical chances, proved a mere play thing.

If Olaizola feels the weight of expectation, the stress of favouritism, he never shows it. His march is relentless, his eyes steely, his demeanour utterly controlled. Fifteen minutes in and there was no doubt whatsoever as to the outcome of this final. The crowd clearly wanted a fight and fell silent in the face of Goizueta’s clinical winning machine, mustering only the occasional shout of encouragement to the vanquished Bengoetxea. While not thrilling as a contest however, this match was something to savour. There is something awesomely beautiful about Olaizola in full flight and something wondrous about any sportsperson so completely in control of their chosen medium that they make the extravagant look normal. Aimar Olaizola is a champion to be cherished.

Bengoetxea won the toss and with it a golden chance to take first blood with his serve. However, in an act which foretold the remainder of the final, Olaizola snuffed him out with immediate effect. The defending champion took the first point with a pass down the wall and strode up to the service line to lay down his own law. Twelve times he served, and twelve times Bengoetxea was forced to turn round, walk back and try again. 13-0. There was no comeback. Six of these first thirteen points came directly from service winners. Some Benogetxea hit though failed to return within the legal bounds, some were so well directed that he stood no chance at all. Of those he did manage to return, a further two were won with Olaizola’s second touch, one a drop and one a hook. Bengoetxea tried to gain the initiative by volleying his returns, but nothing he could throw at Olaizola was sufficiently potent to net a point. Only once in this astonishing sequence was Olaizola stretched, in the point at 7-0 in which he was forced to scramble to return a hook, but he turned his defence into attack with a ball to the corner which his opponent put low. Asier Garcia, Bengoetxea’s botillero, tried to work some magic by cajoling his charge, massaging his legs and slapping his back. Olaizola by contrast sat and sipped his drink calmly and chatted with his brother, who was surplus to requirements. This was business as usual.

Even fans of Olaizola must have become worried for Benogetxea that he would fail to register a single point, so it was met with some considerable relief when the Leitzarra got on the board with a deft drop to the corner. He then advanced to two with a textbook serve and then hook routine. However, even if Bengoetxea found his touch, all Olaizola needed to do was accumulate the odd point here and there to reach the finishing line. A total miss from Bengoetxea for 14-2 took him another step closer and even three errors in a row, rather staggering in their context, were in no way sufficient to cause his camp worry. Such was his control over the destiny of the game that he could afford to push the margins, to take chances. Briefly, Bengoetxea scored at a faster rate and happily for his future confidence he demonstrated why he is a pelotari of the top flight. His dos paredes on 16-6 and 17-7 were as beautiful and as brutal as anything Olaizola produced, and he also displayed his ability to pass Olaizola down the wall, out-manoeuvring him cleverly at 16-5. However, it was far too late and Olaizola did not allow him to come any closer than nine. He forged ahead once again from 17-8, running rings around his opponent before putting the ball over his head. A low strike from Bengoetxea, followed by a trademark hook and the lead was twelve. It probably should have been extended to thirteen in the next play when his shot was probably inaccurately adjudged long, but this was a tiny blip in a relentless march to the line. A dos paredes gave him match point before, rather aptly, the championship was sealed with a serve. Bengoetxea, resigned to the inevitable, was gracious in defeat and in his acknowledgement of a master.

This was an unprecendented sixth Cuatro y Medio crown for Aimar Olaizola. The next most successful proponent of the art, the great Retegi II has four. It is also his fourth txapela in all major championships in the past twelve months, a staggering record. The only big wins which have eluded him in the past two years have been the 2011 Manomanista, which he lost to a comeback from an emotionally charged Xala in the final, and the 2012 Pairs, in which he and Beroiz set a record by winning all of their round robin matches before Beroiz succumbed to injury woes in the semis. He is so far ahead of everyone else, Irujo included, currently that he has a thousand point lead in the rankings. Since turning professional in 1998, he has won eleven major titles, an average of one a year for the past eleven years. Oinatz Bengoetxea must surely feel stunned by his heavy loss, faced with the wall that is Olaizola there was little he could have done. In another era, he too could have won multiple titles. At 28 Bengoetxea has more time on his side than does his 33 year old conqueror, but worryingly for all his rivals Olaizola seems to be getting better with age. As 2012 draws to a close, they can only salute and hope for luck in 2013.

Scoring sequence: 13-0, 13-2, 14-2, 14-5, 16-5, 16-7, 17-7, 17-8, 20-8, 20-9, 22-9
Service winners/errors: Olaizola 8/0, Bengoetxea 0/0
Winners/errors: Olaizola 11/3, Bengoetxea 5/3
Balls hit: 188
Match time: 46 minutes with 7 minutes of actual play

Olaizola II took his sixth Cuatro y Medio crown

Olaizola II took his sixth Cuatro y Medio crown

Photo: mine