Tag Archives: Bizkaia

Pelota on ETB, 3rd-5th May: Manomanista first week!

Friday 3rd May, Legazpi

22:00 (CEST) BARRIOLA v ARRETXE II Manomanista Championship


NB this is not live on the web channels so avoid the result if you want to watch it not knowing!

Sunday 5th May, Eibar


Followed by OLAIZOLA I v JAUNARENA Manomanista Championship

To watch, go to http://www.eitb.tvhttps://www.eitb.eus/es/television/etb-sat/or https://www.eitb.eus/es/deportes/deporte-en-directo/

Hard fought Pairs wins for Bengoetxea-Beroiz and Xala-Barriola

Sunday 17th January, Bilbao

This match went to the form book in the end, allowing Bengoetxea and Beroiz to maintain their qualifying spot and consigning their opponents to a lowly seventh after some considerable improvement in recent weeks. However, it was rarely easy for the favourites.  In fact, it was Berasaluze who took the game on initially, powering ahead 6-1 with some scintillating winners. However, Bengoetxea grew in defence and managed to turn the tables, putting pressure on Albisu and mastering Berasaluze who was unable to maintain his earlier lightning pace. The game remained very close until the death, when the favourites broke the shackles and strung together a sequence of points to take the tie. They now sit level on points with Olaizola and Ibai Zabala, but their relatively poor points difference keeps them third, with one win in hand over Xala and Barriola in fourth.

Monday 18th January, Tolosa

The scoreline in Tolosa was exactly the same as that in Bilbao the day before, with Xala and Barriola taking an expected win over the bottom pair. Also in common with the Bilbao match was the closeness of the competition. On paper, the eventual winners should have won this with more comfort but although they repeatedly edged ahead on the scoreboard, they proved incapable of leaving Arretxe and Begino behind. Arretxe fought tooth and nail with the more illustrious Xala and matched him. It was only from 17-17 that the Aspe pair managed to make inroads, their experience at dealing with tight situations in championship games perhaps coming to the fore. Five straight points at the death and the game was theirs. They cling onto a qualifying spot narrowly, but with three pairs in all likelihood competing for the last place, there is much struggle ahead.

The table looks like this, with nine rounds down and five to go:

Pair Matches played Wins Losses Points for Points against Points difference
1 Martinez de Irujo-Zabaleta 9 8 1 197 143 54
2 Olaizola II-Ibai Zabala 9 6 3 188 141 47
3 Bengoetxea VI-Beroiz 9 6 3 182 181 1
4 Xala-Barriola 9 4 5 170 179 -9
5 Titin III-Merino II 9 4 5 158 188 -30
6 Ezkurdia-Zubieta 9 3 6 161 163 -2
7 Berasaluze VIII-Albisu 9 3 6 159 176 -17
8 Arretxe II-Begino 9 2 7 140 184 -44

In the Promocion Championship, Gorka-Cecilio maintained their unbeaten record, defeating Elezkano II-Larunbe 22-16 in Bilbao on Sunday. The most dramatic match of the week came the following day in Tolosa however, where Apezetxea-Larrinaga came back from 8-18 and 13-21 down against Olaetxea-Ladis Galarza to win 22-21. In the other games, Lemuno-Mendizabal II beat Olazabal-Arruti 22-16 and Rico IV-Untoria beat Mendizabal III-Merino I 22-12. The Promocion table now looks like this.

Pairs Week 7: the slow moving saga unravels

Friday 1st February, Zestoa: OLAIZOLA II – IBAI ZABALA beat ARRETXE II – BEGINO 22-6
Many questioned the wisdom of pairing the might of Aimar Olaizola with the inexperience of the untried Ibai Zabala, but thus far the experiment is working, mostly. The empresas made a conscious policy of picking pairs which would be evenly matched, thus creating close matches and greater excitement but at times, the dominance of Olaizola has been so great that he appears to all the world as if he could win entirely alone. This would, however, be to do Zabala a disservice for he has held his own at this level for the most part and has at times looked very solid indeed. It is too soon to tell whether they will have the staying power to go all the way, but on the strength of this showing they can be fairly optimistic. It is true that this year just as last, Arretxe and Begino are clearly the least potent of the couples, but they were destroyed here in no uncertain terms. They kept pace for a short period, Arretxe temporarily hitting with Aimar as an equal, but once the latter got his eye in there was no stopping him. This was as vintage a display of shot play as you are ever likely to see and there was nothing his opponent could do to stem the flow. Zabala played his part ably as Begino endured another bad day. Olaizola and Ibai Zabala move up to third in the table, with this their fourth win. Arretxe and Begino remain entrenched at the bottom with a solitary point. It is easy to forget that, not so long ago, Begino lifted the trophy with Olaizola. Times have changed.

Saturday 2nd February, Idiazabal: EZKURDIA – ZUBIETA beat BENGOETXEA VI – BEROIZ 22-11
Aitor Zubieta’s first match without the ousted Sebastien Gonzalez was a triumph. It was he who made the difference, dominating Beroiz at the back and giving Bengoetxea virtually nothing on a length from which he could hit a winner. When the opportunity did come his way, he proved unable to close the deal. Joseba Ezkurdia, miraculously recovered from what looked like a much more serious shoulder injury, stepped into the fray and looked as if he had always been there. He belied his tender years, and doubtless also allayed the fears of the Aspe bosses that they might have taken the wrong decision regarding Gonzalez. An Ezkurdia flop would have looked very bad indeed. However, it will take more than one golden match to resurrect the title hopes of this pair. With Gonzalez, Zubieta managed only a solitary win, over bottom pair Arretxe and Begino. They still languish in seventh but with a full rotation of matches still to be played, time is on their side. In the early days of the championship, Bengoetxea and Beroiz looked almost unbeatable and every inch the winners. However, as some other pairs have risen, their form appears slightly on the wane. They are still second in the table, with five wins and two losses, but both these defeats have come in the last two weeks. Their immediate future trajectory depends on whether Bengoetxea can keep Olaizola at bay when they clash on Friday at Labrit.

A good day for Aitor Zubieta

A good day for Aitor Zubieta

Saturday 2nd February, Pamplona: MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – ZABALETA beat JAUNARENA – BARRIOLA 22-13
Very much on the up are Juan Martinez de Irujo and Jose Javier Zabaleta. They have lost only one match so far, and that 21-22 (to Bengoetxea and Beroiz in week three), and look be growing in both confidence and flair. Attracting much of the praise is Zabaleta, new to this level of competition but taking to the big stage like a natural. It is easy to forget his tender years when one observes his command at the back of the fronton, and sensed the calmness in his demeanour. Aspe have clearly found a treasure, no matter what happens from this point on in the Pairs. Irujo, who has not had a great year by his standards, lagging dramatically behind Olaizola in the quest to be the best, appears galvanised by this new partnership. Jaunarena, another golden young talent here stepping in for Xala, proved easy pickings for Irujo on Saturday but will not be overawed; last week he clearly demonstrated his potential at this level. Barriola, so used to being in charge, could not unseat Zabaleta as the pair in red dominated every aspect of the game. They now sit top of the table in isolation while their opponents slip to sixth with two losses in the past two weekends. Xala will undergo a physical test on Friday to determine whether he can play in Tolosa on Saturdau against Ezkurdia and Zubieta.

Sunday 3rd February, Bilbao: BERASALUZE VIII – ALBISU beat TITIN III – MERINO II 22-9
The Pairs Championship is a slow burning affair. Some couples hit their stride right from the off, winning weekly with seeming total control. Others, such as Jon Ander Albisu and Pablo Berasaluze enter the tournament with high hopes but initially fail to fire. However, as long as any period of malaise is relatively contained, there is time to turn things around and there is a sense that recovery may be on the cards for Albisu and Berasaluze. They opened their account with four straight losses but have now won three in a row, lifting them from the base of the table up into fifth and right in contention for the semi-final places. This latest win was perhaps their most impressive; they flattened the defending champions 22-9 in Bilbao on Sunday, leaving the Riojans looking dejected and clueless as to how to come back. The commander in chief was undoubtedly Berasaluze, who looks to be back in the same kind of form he displayed in December. He hit winners for fun and totally dominated Titin who looked flat footed and stretched to his limits. David Merino, so often such a model of classical elegance at the back, for forced to scrap in order to lift himself out of the traps placed for him by a masterful Albisu, who was clearly the better of the defenders. So petulant was Merino’s body language by the end that he appeared broken in both body and soul. And so, Titin and Merino’s up and down title defence continues. They still sit fourth, holding onto the final qualifying spot narrowly, but there is still far to go.

For the current table see here, and for past results and future fixtures, go here.

In the Promocion Championship, Gorka and Cecilio took command at the top with a 22-6 win over Lemuno and Aretxabaleta. Elsewhere, Urrutikoetxea (replacing Tainta) and Ladis Galarza beat Mendizabal III and Merino I 22-14, Elezkano II and Mendizabal II (standing in for Larunbe) beat Olazabal and Arruti 22-18 and Apezetxea and Larrinaga squeezed past Rico IV and Untoria 22-21. For the full Promocion table, see here and for results and fixtures, here.

Gorka Esteban, going well in the Promocion

Gorka Esteban, going well in the Promocion

Pictures: mine

Olaizola II and Ibai Zabala net second win, and Larunbe shows promise

Saturday 5th January, Bilbao

Aimar Olaizola and Ibai Zabala returned to winning ways on Saturday, defeating Pablo Berasaluze and Jon Ander Albisu at Bizkaia. The scoreline makes the victory appear relatively straightforward but this does tell the full story; the eventual winners had to fight from behind and only late in the match imposed themselves. Berasaluze and Albisu forged an early 7-1 lead, desperate for the win which had eluded them thus far in the competition. Albisu was a major player in this early dominance, doing what so many have failed to do and putting pressure on Olaizola. However, the number one found his rhythm and was instrumental in bringing his pair back to 10-10. They went behind again at 10-14 but from then on, Olaizola put Berasaluze to the sword, racking up a total of twelve winners in open play to his opponent’s six. He and Ibai Zabala, who kept pace admirably, took ten points in a row and allowed their opponents only one more before sealing a 22-15 win. They now sit third in the table with two wins and one loss, while their oppoonents languish at the bottom.

Scoring sequence: 1-7 6-7 8-9 10-10 10-14 20-15 22-15

On the same evening, Mikel Larunbe made his professional debut for Asegarce, playing alongside Asier Olaizola against Saralegi and Apraiz. Although the 19 year old and his experienced partner lost the game 21-22, the signs were very promising with the debutant playing an excellent match.

No joy for Pablo Berasaluze thus far in 2013

No joy for Pablo Berasaluze thus far in 2013

Photo: mine

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

Aimar Olaizola defeats Irujo for shot at sixth Cuatro y Medio title

Sunday 25th November, Bilbao


Cuatro y Medio Semi-Final

There is little one can say about the intense rivalry between these greatest of modern pelota players which has not been said before. Olaizola and Irujo have, in the past few years, been head and shoulder above their rivals so it is natural that matches between them should arouse so much interest. Coupled with that, their opposing playing styles, Irujo so fiery and Olaizola so cool, lend a human element to proceedings, inviting the fans to adopt their personal favourite. So it was that Bizkaia was packed last Sunday, and full of atmosphere. The two champions obliged with a stormer of a match, with Olaizola pulling away only at the last to seize a place in his sixth Cuatro y Medio final.

After a brief opening flurry from Olaizola, thanks to his strong serving from the gun, it was Irujo who looked the sharper early on. Olaizola looked, by his standards, out of sorts and unable to find a rhythm, resulting in three errors in a row to gift his rival a 3-6 lead. He looked to have found his touch in the next point with a virtuosic cross court winner at full stretch but then, infuriatingly for him and his fans, served a falta. He failed to make any significant inroads, despite closing to within one point on 6-7 and Irujo, with the bit between his teeth, raced to 6-12. Olaizola seemed unable to read Irujo, or if he could then unable to do anything about it, and the man from Ibero punished him with a wide range of shots, the apotheosis of which was a stinging hook on 6-10. Irujo showed no signs of the virus which had caused the postponement of the match from the previous week and it was hard to see how Olaizola, looking unusually flustered and constrained, could turn matters around.

However, Olaizola is a great champion and has the cool to come from behind as well as annihilate from the front. Slowly but surely the defending champion began to find his mojo. With the serve back, he punished Irujo early to reduce his deficit by half at 9-12, and then he profited from an extreme moment of carelessness on the part of his opponent who missed a complete sitter in the next play. Another Irujo error and it was 11-12 and all to play for. Olaizola fell behind again with a pair of near misses but then came back once more with a glorious dos paredes. A low strike from Irujo and it was 14-14. Again Irujo battled forward through force of will, and again Olaizola pegged him back as deadlock was resumed at 16-16.

From here on though, a switch appeared to flick. An error from Irujo meant Olaizola was ahead for the first time since 2-1 and once there, he had no intention of sliding into arrears. The next two points brought vintage Aimar as a hook and a dos paredes landed him in view of the finishing line. An increasingly ragged Irujo could not respond as his opponent changed gear, gifting a point for 20-16 before Olaizola hammered his superiority home with a service winner to give him match point. Irujo pulled two points back with a late flurry, offering a reminder of who he is, but it was too late; as he pushed the last ball of the game low, Aimar Olaizola’s calm exterior gave way to a brief celebration before his mind turned forwards, towards another final and dreams of a sixth title.

The final was originally scheduled for this weekend but a back problem for Olaizola has resulted in a postponement. He will now face Oinatz Bengoetxea on 9th December in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Likewise, the Promocion final between Jaunarena and Untoria has been postponed, due to an injury to Untoria. It will take place in Pamplona on 8th December.

Scoring sequence: 2-0, 2-3, 3-3, 3-6, 4-6, 4-7, 6-7, 6-12, 11-12, 11-14, 12-14, 14-14, 14-16, 16-16, 21-16, 21-18, 22-18

Aimar Olaizola blows Martinez de Irujo away for third Manomanista crown

Sunday 24th June, Bilbao
Manomanista Final

This final, pelota’s showpiece event, promised a gargantuan tussle, a fight to the death between the players of their generation where no quarter would be given. In reality, we got a near walkover. Juan Martinez de Irujo’s implosion must however in no way devalue Aimar Olaizola’s devastating performance, for this result was the product of the Goizuetarra’s irresistible force. Olaizola was dominant in every conceivable way, both in this play and in his rock solid state of mind and Irujo had no answers. This sterling victory is the logical conclusion of a year in which Olaizola has been the best of the best. Throughout the Pairs Championship, he swatted all comers aside with disdain and was only prevented from attaining what many viewed as an inevitable txapela when partner Beroiz succumbed to injury in the semi-finals. He approached the Manomanista as favourite only to find his mere participation in grave doubt owing to an injury to his right arm. However, with the aid of match postponements, he set himself on course, overcoming a dogged Retegi Bi in the quarters and flattening Bengoetxea VI in the semis. Irujo had had to work harder for his place in the final, having very nearly been undone by Idoate in the last four, but he is a notoriously tough customer in finals. Not so for Aimar Olaizola who took 46 minutes and 49 seconds to dismantle him, body and soul.

The opening phase of the match, belying what was to come later on, was close and tense. Aimar hit the ground running with a gantxo winner, followed by a further three points based around a strong serve to go up 4-0 before Irujo had had the chance of a look in. He ceded the serve by going wide for 4-1 but Irujo could not capitalise, hitting the side wall high to restore Aimar’s four point advantage. Irujo took the next point with a cross court winner however and began to make inroads, closing to 5-5 with some dominating play before going ahead 7-5 thanks to a stunningly placed dos paredes. Irujo is well known for coming from behind, and those in the Olaizola camp must have sensed thunder clouds looming. All was now proceeding according to plan for the man from Ibero; it seemed the weaknesses he had shown in the first plays were now out of his system and that he was set to surge. It seemed unthinkable that he would fail to win another point in the match, but an excellent cross into the left hand wall from Aimar was to prove the opening salvo of a run of the fifteen straight points which took him to his third Manomanista title unopposed.

So what was it that precipitated this extraordinary second phase of the final? Was it the brilliance of Aimar Olaizola or the mental meltdown of his opponent? In reality, the two were intrinsically linked. For Aimar something clicked and every point was gilded with pure class. At 6-7, Irujo was undone by a terrific long serve, at 7-7 he was forced into miscuing an overhead volley, at 8-7 he was left reeling by a gantxo, then a volley into the corner at 9-7. Aimar was nonchalant and relaxed in his excellence, but relentlessly focused. As Irujo sensed fewer and fewer openings, the road of return becoming ever longer, his mistakes multiplied. More in hope than anything, he left a serve on 14-7 which he thought was going long. It did not, and Aimar strode on apace. When another serve passed him by, Irujo could take no more. He wandered, looking resigned, to his chair for a time out and in a sudden moment of rage kicked it to pieces, leaving his hapless botillero Patxi Eugi stranded on his feet. This is the second final in a row against Aimar Olaizola where Irujo has done this. Now, as in the 2011 Cuatro y Medio final, neither Eugi’s counsel nor the letting off of steam made any difference to the outcome of the game. Aimar returned to serve his way to 19-7 before Irujo hit wide twice on the bounce to cede match point. The champion elect wasted no time in tapping the ball with ease into an ocean of space, and as the board switched to 22 he raised his arms to the adulation of the crowd. Irujo knew he had been soundly beaten and congratulated his conqueror with a smile, eschewing his temper reserved for the courtside furniture. Two great champions saluted the crowd, but in 2012 there is little doubt as to who sits on the pinnacle of the sport. Aimar Olaizola, txapeldun.

Scoring sequence: 4-0, 4-1, 5-1, 5-7, 22-7
Service winners/errors
: Olaizola 3/0, Irujo 1/0
: Olaizola 13/1, Irujo 6/9
Balls hit
: 253
Match time
: 46:49 with 11:01 of actual play
: Asier Olaizola for his brother Aimar, and Patxi Eugi for Irujo

Manomanista wins for Gonzalez and Retegi Bi

Sebastien Gonzalez, who had to come from behind to beat Urrutikoetxea in the last round, took his win rather more comfortably this week, beating Pairs champion David Merino 22-14 in Bilbao. It was Merino’s first visit to Bizkaia since his remarkable triumph with Titin at the end of April and on this occasion it failed to prove such a happy hunting ground for the Riojan star. The first half of the match was extremely tight but from 12-10, Gonzalez forged ahead and had too many weapons for his opponent who defended manfully but could not keep him down. Merino came back in the latter part of the game but by then it was too late and it is Gonzalez who proceeds to the quarter finals, where he will face 2008 winner Oinatz Bengoetxea.

Meanwhile, at Beotibar in Tolosa, Retegi Bi made short work of Mikel Olaetxea. The Aspe forward took the match 22-8 and will now play Aimar Olaizola in the quarter finals. Olaetxea found himself in an almost perpetual defensive position and had no answer to the grip which Retegi asserted on the game, although to his credit he fought hard until the final ball.

Beotibar, scene of Julen Retegis triumph

Beotibar, scene of Julen Retegi's triumph

In the Promocion Championship, Ezkurdia beat Rico IV 22-6, Untoria beat Mendizabal III 22-16, Jaunarena beat Ibai Zabala 22-16 and Zabaleta beat Lemuno 22-10. In the semi finals, both of which take place on May 27th, Untoria plays Ezkurdia and Zabaleta plays Jaunarena.

The Pairs Final in Pictures

The glorious new Bizkaia Fronton in the Bilbao suburb of Miribilla. It seats 3000 and is a true cathedral of the sport.

The fans began to gather, with many Riojans arriving by coach from the home villages of the finalists.

The fronton was almost empty when the press were allowed entry, save only for the players warming up for the curtain rasier.

Bizkaia is vast

The television crew set up

Merino’s home village must have been empty on Sunday

In the first match, Idoate and Pascual beat Berasaluze VIII and Apraiz

The finalists warm up in front of a now massive crowd

Expectation mounts

Joxan Tolosa and Xabier Euzkitze discuss live on ETB

Aitor Zubieta, botillero for Xala and Laskurain, is interviewed

Game on

Crowds roar

Joy and relief

Everybody wanted a piece of David Merino and he was happy to oblige

Cameras flash

Merino’s brother, Miguel, admires the silverware


Xala and Laskurain, defeated

Titin, history maker

Merino can scarcely believe what he has achieved

He took the time to pose for me!


All photos are mine

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