Martinez de Irujo and Zabaleta crowned Pairs champions after injury to Pablo Berasaluze
Sunday 28th April, Bilbao
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – ZABALETA beat BERASALUZE II – ALBISU 6-4 (ret)
Irujo and Zabaleta, the long-time tournament favourites were duly crowned as Pairs champions on Sunday, but not in the way that they or anybody else would have hoped. They came into the final very heavily fancied to take the crown but in their way stood a pair who had fought with an astonishing spirit, against all the odds to make it this far. Pure passion could have carried them to the title, with Berasaluze in inspired mood, playing better than ever he has in memory of his late father and determined to dedicate a txapela to him. However, we got a massive anti-climax and witnessed as near as one can possibly get to a sporting tragedy.
Bizkaia was full to the brim with excited and vocal fans, amongst them other pelotaris, former players, and stars of other sports. This sort of occasion is what pelota players live for, the zenith of their sports and the opportunity for greatness on the grandest stage. The match began in a way which lived up to the hype. The first rally was lengthy and packed with quality, with all four protagonists settling well into the melting pot of the final atmosphere. It was won by a skidding drop from Irujo, signalling the promise of great play to come. Albisu handed the Aspe pair a 2-0 lead by hitting high in the next point, but Zabaleta then erred to give the underdogs a start on the scoreboard. A service winner from Berasaluze and it was all square at 2-2. Irujo fired a lethal gantxo in the next play and an over-enthusiastic swipe from Berasaluze, who aimed to pressurise Zabaleta, made it 4-2. This became 5-2 with Albisu’s second high hit of the game but the momentum shifted rapidly with two masterful winners from Berasaluze, one a txoko and one a crafty shot down the wall. It was 5-4 with everything to play for. Both forwards looked on song and both backs, despite occasional errors looked mightily impressive and fairly evenly matched. We salivated at what was to come, but then everything fell apart.
As he ran towards the side wall to retrieve a dipping ball from Irujo, Berasaluze landed awkwardly on his left leg and then, attempting to put weight on it, fell in agony. Stunned silence descended on the fronton, punctuated by the stricken pelotari’s cries for help. It was clear, as he was helped off the playing area, that this injury was terminal. Within minutes, which felt like hours, it was confirmed that Berasaluze had likely snapped his Achilles tendon. It was game over and amid bewilderment and not a little shellshock, Irujo and Zabaleta were proclaimed champions with the battle only just begun. If they did not know how to react, the situation was even more baffling for Albisu, left high and dry in the biggest match of his career. He looked utterly helpless. At least for Albisu, however, there is plenty time to reach more finals; Berasaluze is reaching the end of his career and future chances may prove few and far between. His career had come down to this match, his chance to write his name in the history books after an extraordinary late flowering, but now all was lost.
The crowd did not know what to do either. Should they go or was there something to stay for? The organisers hastily ushered Xala, who had played in the curtain raiser, back onto the fronton and he played with Albisu in a strange shadow of what should have been the showpiece culmination of months of competition. There was nothing to play for other than to give the spectators something to watch for their money, and nobody’s heart, least of all Albisu’s, was remotely in it. For the record, Irujo and Zabaleta won.
There followed the presentation of the trophies and txapelas, to a tumultuous reception from the crowd, especially when Berasaluze hobbled out on crutches to soak up their cheers. It was both warming and heart rending. In this melting pot of emotions we must not fail to celebrate the achievements of Irujo and Zabaleta however. Despite the lack of competitive final, they were the best pair in the competition and deserved their spoils. Irujo had failed to win a major championship since the 2010 Cuatro y Medio and this was quite a resurgence. Alongside him, we must applaud to the rooftops the achievements of Zabaleta, a tournament rookie who took to the big time as if he had always been there. The young defender had been carefully primed for the top level and he proved week upon week that this was where he belonged. He has a great future, of that there can be no doubt. As for Berasaluze, a scan confirmed the diagnosis and he will undergo surgery tomorrow. It is estimated he will be out of action for six months. We wish him all the very best.