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

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