Tag Archives: Ogueta

Promocion Pairs Final: triumph for Ezcaray as Gorka and Cecilio are crowned

Saturday 27th April, Logrono


Adarraga was in full scale party mode on Saturday evening for the Promocion final, in which all four players were Riojan. Each pair had its faction in the crowd but the biggest single group of supporters came from Ezcaray, the home town of both Gorka Esteban and Cecilio Valgañón, and they did not leave disappointed as the dominant pair of the championship took the spoils. This is a second Promocion crown in a row for Cecilio, who won last year with Jon Jaunarena. Despite the emotion of the occasion, the match itself was not a vintage one. The contest was riddled with errors, especially from Rico, who never found any rhythm. Cecilio, too, was below his best but provided dogged defence and just enough of a platform for the player of the match, Gorka, to do what was necessary. Seven winners in open play plus four on serve represented an excellent return for the forward in such an error strewn match.

Gorka and Cecilio fought their way through the semi-finals by the skin of their teeth, living very dangerously after losing their penultimate match 21-22, and relying on a 22-21 win in their last for their final place, but they came good again when it mattered. They were easily the class act of the round robin stages, winning nine of their eleven games with one of their losses coming while Gorka was injured and replaced by Aritz Lasa. It is justice that it is they who stand atop the podium. While Cecilio has won this title before, it is a first professional txapela for Gorka who has looked more and more solid this year. It could prove a springboard into greater things. For the moment though, Ezcaray’s finest will revel in their local celebrity and the adulation of the wider pelotazale.

There is a short video with highlights and footage of the presentation here.

Scoring sequence: 3-0, 3-7, 6-7, 6-9, 7-9, 7-10, 10-10, 10-14, 13-14, 13-20, 15-20, 15-22
Service winners/errors: Rico 2/0, Gorka 4/0
Winners/errors: Rico 3/7, Untoria 2/2, Gorka 7/3, Cecilio 2/5
Match time: 64:02
Balls hit: 493

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 manista.com 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

Virgen Blanca Final: Irujo and Zabaleta in perfect harmony

Wednesday 8th August, Vitoria-Gasteiz

The gulf in play between the two pairs in the Virgen Blanca final was vast, and but for a late flurry from Bengoetxea and Begino the scoreline could have verged upon the embarrassing. The defending champions came into the final full of confidence after an impressive win over Titin and Zubieta in the semis but Irujo and Zabaleta outdid them in every department, both as individuals and as a partnership. Such was the tactical togetherness of the victorious pair that it was easy to forget their relative inexperience in playing together. Irujo was close to his very best and Zabaleta, profiting from an injury to Barriola to take his place in the final, once more underlined his potential as both a current match winner and a future champion.

Irujo began the match very much as he did not mean to go on, missing what should have been an easy txoko winner, but from there it was almost all plain sailing. Five points in a row for the blue pair set the tone, giving a taster of Irujo’s front of court dominance, Zabaleta’s metronomic rhythm and Begino’s lack of direction. Irujo momentarily let Bengoetxea and Begino back into affairs with a moment of carelessness having totally bossed the point on 5-1 but he forced Begino into a mistake in the next play to gain the serve back. The next seven points belonged to the blues. The highlights of this period of play came on 7-2 and 8-2; Irujo produced an astonishingly nonchalant gantxo in the first of these points, the return of which was swatted with abandon into the corner. Irujo then forced Bengoetxea all over the fronton before handing the mantle to Zabaleta, who launched a rebote over a desperate Begino. Zabaleta’s first two errors of the match came in successive points and allowed the reds to close marginally to 4-13, but a row of errors of their own stifled any thoughts of a comeback.

At 19-4, the defending champions were disconsolate. Bengoetxea picked up a point with a gantxo, but Irujo, masterfully creating space from nowhere, brought up match point at 21-5. All too late the trailing pair strung together four points thanks to Bengoetxea, but all this did was to ward off the inevitable and perhaps remind the audience of just how special he can be when all is right in his world. An error from Begino brought up 22 for Irujo and Zabaleta, deserving and overwhelming winners and a quite excellent marrying of the prodigious talents of two individuals.

Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-5, 2-5, 2-13, 4-13, 4-19, 5-19, 5-21, 9-21, 9-22.
Winners/errors: Bengoetxea 4/5, Irujo 11/2, Begino 0/5, Zabaleta 1/3
Match time: 42:28 with 16:07 of actual play
Balls hit: 334

Irujo in charge

Irujo in charge

Image from aspepelota on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Titin and a brilliant Merino defeat the invincibles to surge into final

Sunday 8th April, Vitoria-Gasteiz


A belligerent Titin and a stunning David Merino did the unthinkable on Sunday and defeated Aimar Olaizola and Mikel Beroiz. Nobody else had managed this in the entire tournament, not in fourteen qualifying games or in their first semi-final. The high flying pair did not play badly at Ogueta, indeed an often imperious Aimar came out statistically better than Titin, but they failed to capitalise at key moments and Beroiz in particular was worn down by a scintillating effort from Merino who is scaling the heights of the sport. Their triumph means that the Riojans advance to the final with one match still to spare. Aimar and Beroiz must play off against Xala and Laskurain on Friday for the other place.

Although Titin and Merino took an early narrow lead, it was Aimar and Beroiz who looked to be the more assured as both pairs settled into the game. Up until 10-10 matters looked as close as close could be, although the patterns of the match as a whole were established. Beroiz, a rock throughout qualifying, began to show worrying signs of fragility on his way to several unnecessary errors, some of which appeared almost careless. In contrast, Merino appeared brimming with confidence. He absorbed some searing pressure, returning with jaw dropping ablomb and exerted plenty heat of his own. He was not faultless, but the errors he made tended to be induced rather than of his making.

Aimar was the catalyst as he and Beroiz eked out a lead, going ahead 15-11. He was helped by a handful of mistakes from Titin, the worst of which entailed a point needlessly squandered. However, a brace of uncharacteristic mistakes and another error from Beroiz allowed the Riojans back in. Aimar surged again, and this time one wondered whether the elastic might have snapped for Titin and Merino, but a key error by the great forward on 14-17 handed them the serve back. A 18-14 lead may have been a critical turning point but all of a sudden, one drop fell low and the momentum was lost, the moment had passed. The final phase of the match was utterly nerve ridden. All four made mistakes and all four showed immense skill in turn. The fact that the final two points were ceded to Titin and Merino by errors from Aimar reflects badly on the latter, and perhaps unfairly so. The Goizuetarra did everything he could and objectively played a good match. Unfortunately for him, his partner showed too many flashes of mortality just as Merino reached for the gods.

Titin and Merino’s celebrations were jubilant and utterly deserved. The underdogs have come good in the latter stages of this tournament, finding their form exactly when it matters. For a pair who were forced to struggle so hard to make the last four, reaching the final ahead of Aimar and Beroiz is quite some coup. For the defeated partnership, hitherto untouchable, this is uncharted water; they simply have to win in Bilbao on Friday otherwise their dream is dead in the water. Few would have predicted this scenario, but in the semi-finals, anything can happen.

Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, 5-2, 5-5, 7-5, 7-8, 9-8, 9-10, 10-10, 10-11, 11-11, 11-15, 14-15, 14-17, 17-17, 17-18, 18-18, 18-19, 20-19, 20-20, 22-20

Winners/errors: Titin 9/5, Olaizola 9/4, Merino 3/3, Beroiz 3/6

Match time: 85:26 with 34:11 of actual play

Balls hit: 714

Virgen Blanca Final: Bengoetxea and Begino come storming back to win marathon decider

Tuesday 9th August, Vitoria-Gasteiz


It took 888 collisions of ball and hand to decide the outcome of the Virgen Blanca pelota tournament, the traditional sporting accompaniment to the Basque capital’s fiesta of the same name. 888 strikes of attrition, determination and venom from four of the game’s top players, none of whom would lie down without a gargantuan fight. The game swayed one way, and then the other, and then back again, as each attempted to make their mark. The two forwards, Aimar Olaizola and Oinatz Bengoetxea, were tantalizingly matched, the former having had an excellent year and the latter, winner of the San Fermin Cuatro y Medio, most alive in the summer months for the second year running. These two greats of their generation were equally matched almost throughout, but while most eyes were on them, it was in the back division where this marathon was decided, with the seven errors of Beroiz to Begino’s one proving the difference.

Momentum was firmly on the side of Bengoetxea and Begino in the opening portion of the match. Bengoetxea conceded the first point with a wide gantxo, but he stormed into affairs in the rallies that followed, with two classically worked winners before a forward fight with Olaizola went his way. The next three points brought Beroiz into the game, in a far less than positive manner. The young defender committed three unforced errors in a row, the third undoing all the sterling defensive work of Olaizola in front. At 1-6 down, the red pair had to act, and act they did, coming slowing but surely back into the game. Bengoetxea granted them the serve with a miscued txoko, which would have proved a dramatic winner had it worked. He suffered five more lapses before the scores drew level, making life very easy for Olaizola, who nonetheless reminded all and sundry of his virtuosity with a brutal and classic sequence of shots to the corner and then cross court to leave his opponent floundering. The eight-time txapela winner had clearly upped the pace, and Bengoetxea struggled to match him. Not content with reaching 9-9, the reds marched on past their rivals, most of the dirty work completed by Olaizola, who continually forced Bengoetxea into ever more desperate defence, before delivering the coup de grace. Even Beroiz, now growing in belated confidence entered into the battery, hitting a winning txoko while haring forward to cover for his partner. The score moved to 14-9, and 17-12, and the leaders looked solid as rocks.

Bengoetxea, served excellently by the absolutely unflappable support of Begino, began to chip away at the red lead, taking a point here and there to keep his pair in touch. He seized the momentum back with a vengeance with the score at 14-18, breaking through the shackles placed on him by Olaizola, and taking advantage of the platform provided by his partner. A cross court swipe into Olaizola’s body brought him within three points. Olaizola must surely have thought he had won the next point with a txoko, but his indefatigable rival returned it with interest, whipping a txoko of his own out of the top drawer. The reds began to seem rattled, and the next point did little for their state of mind, when the referee deemed a ball to Beroiz to have bounced twice before he hit it. Beroiz thought otherwise, and let his view be known. The television replays were inconclusive. A change of serve here might have been Olaizola and Beroiz’s salvation, but they then proceeded to lose a monster rally, in which the blues drew level at 18-18 after a heartless salvo from Bengoetxea beat them into submission. The point which took the score to 18-20 saw further heartbreak for Olaizola, who thought he’d pulled off the most stunning gantxo winner of the night, only to hear the telltale clunk which signaled the ball had fallen fractionally low. It was perhaps fitting that the final two points were conceded by Beroiz, whose inconsistency had proved the difference. The new Asergarce signing appeared to have lost his ability to fight, fatigued and broken after a truly mammoth match.

Bengoetxea provided the glamour of this victory, dramatic even when things did not go his way, breathtaking when they did. However, the jury rightfully awarded the player of the tournament award to Begino, the unsung, metronomic, powerful, unmovable hero of the hour. As for Olaizola and Beroiz, this was their debut as a pair, and there are many positive things onto which they can latch. When he was on song, Beroiz displayed power which belied his years, and his rearguard defence was often exceptional. He and Aimar worked well as a pair, and but for some telling errors at crucial moments, they looked an extremely promising partnership. But on Tuesday night at least, the spoils went to Begino and Bengoetxea, the calm and the fury.

Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-6, 3-6, 3-8, 4-8, 4-9, 14-9, 14-10, 15-10, 15-12, 17-12, 17-14, 18-14, 18-22.

Aritz Begino: man of the week

Aritz Begino: man of the week

Image from Noticias de Gipuzkoa, by Iban Aguinaga

Virgen Blanca Semi Final: Nightmare for Xala and Albisu

Sunday 7th August, Vitoria-Gasteiz


This was an unmitigated sporting disaster for Xala and Albisu. They were perhaps an unlikely pair, coming from different empresas, and never having played together, but formed an intriguing mix of proven championship class and future potential. Bengoetxea and Begino played excellently, but in a sense did not have to, for the vast majority of points came from the errors of their opponents, especially Albisu, who started badly and if anything, got worse. Even Xala was unable to impose himself on the game, though he did have the excuse of a cut on his hand, procured while adjusting his protections, which required treatment. The result, with its staggeringly one sided score line, puts Bengoetxea and Begino, winners of two matches in a row with consummate ease, into the final against Olaizola II and Beroiz.

The first seven points were a microcosm of the match as a whole. Bengoetxea began with a winning drive to the corner, and hit two service winners, showing himself as the class of the match. In addition, there were three errors from Albisu, and one from Xala. After conceding a point Bengoetxea marched on, always supported with metronomic ease by Begino from the back, whipping out a dos paredes, and a ruthless cross court shot from a position almost on top of the frontis. But the errors kept coming from both reds. The most disastrous period was that between 2-11 and 2-16, where Albisu lost his direction completely. He hit unnecessarily wide three times in a row, becoming more frustrated with each infelicity. There was little he could do about a strong Bengoetxea serve in the next play, but he then hit wide yet again, to the disbelief of the crowd.

To his credit, Albisu did then play an excellent point, getting the ball over Begino after a more even forward tussle, and a rare error from Begino gave his pair two points in a row. Xala showed signs of finding some form, setting up the next play beautifully, but then miscued what would have been an overarm winner. The reds’ one further point was handed to them by Begino’s second lapse, but from there on, things got worse again, with Albisu, clearly and understandably rattled, hitting high three times in a row, before Bengoetxea finished things off with two winners of brutal efficiency. The job was done, much more easily than he can possibly have anticipated.

Scoring sequence: 0-7, 1-7, 1-11, 2-11, 2-16, 4-16, 4-17, 5-17, 5-22

Service winners/faults: Bengoetxea 3/0, Xala 0/0

Winners/errors: Bengoetxea 4/1, Begino 2/3, Xala 0/3, Albisu 1/10

Match time: 43:36, with 16:18 of actual play

Balls hit: 305

Nothing went right for Jon Ander Albisu

Nothing went right for Jon Ander Albisu

Image from: Noticias de Alava

Virgen Blanca Semi Final: Olaizola II and Beroiz too hot for Aspe pair

Saturday 6th August, Vitoria-Gasteiz


Aimar Olaizola and Mikel Beroiz, are inexperienced as a pair, given the latter’s only recent transfer to Asegarce, but they hit the ground running in the first Virgen Blanca semi final. They were always ahead on the scoreboard, and gave their rivals, Juan Martinez de Irujo and David Merino little look in. The gloss was taken off the match as a contest by the problems experienced by Merino with his right calf, which prevented him from playing to the best of his ability, but this is not to devalue the class of the winners’ performance. Olaizola put Irujo to the sword, hitting with brutality and ruthless precision on his way to thirteen winners in the match. Irujo, whose attacks were almost always rebutted, managed to pass his rivals only five times. Merino sought to keep the game from the forwards in order to protect his colleague from the onslaught, but it was to no avail, as the Asegarce pair sailed into the final. Merino for his part is expected to play again this week, as his injury, while impeding, proved to be a relatively minor strain.

Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-1, 5-1, 5-4, 9-4, 9-5, 11-5, 11-6, 12-6, 12-9, 14-9, 14-10, 17-10, 17-11, 19-11, 19-13, 22-13

Winners/errors: Olaizola 13/4, Irujo 5/4, Beroiz 1/4, Merino 0/1

Duration: 81 minutes

Balls hit: 638

Virgen Blanca Quarter Final: Oinatz in the Ascendency

Friday 5th August, Vitoria-Gasteiz


The opening match of the Virgen Blanca tournament in Vitoria-Gasteiz looked on paper to be a tough one to call. The Aspe pair combined Titin, still as dogged as ever with Aitor Zubieta, well on the way to recovering his considerable best after injury, while Asegarce fielded the oft thrilling Oinatz Bengoetxea, who stormed his way through the summer tournaments last year, with metronomic champion defender Aritz Begino. However, there was in reality little contest, as Bengoetxea dominated the evening, bringing his A game, while everyone else left theirs at home.

The tone of the game was set from the off, as Bengoetxea and Begino seized six points without answer against opponents who seemed immediately off colour. Bengoetxea signalled his intent in the first point, which he won with a beautiful txoko, from a superb angle, which barely bounced. Zubieta put it wide twice, and Titin low once, and those errors, combined with Bengoetxea’s serve and long game, placed the Aspe pair so firmly on the back foot that a time-out had never been more necessary. When Titin and Zubieta re-entered the fray, they secured their first point, by the grace of a falta from Bengoetxea, and their second due to a mishit from Begino, but then business continued as usual. Titin showed, not for the only time in the game, a lack of judgement, taking on the half volley a ball he probably should have waited for, before Zubieta miscued after some involved forward play from both parties. The normally unflappable defender let cry a tirade against himself and the world. 3-8 became 3-11, thanks in most part to the extraordinary pace of Bengoetxea’s play, which made Titin look leaden footed at best.

From 3-11 to 7-11, the Aspe pair put together their best run of the match, offering hope of a comeback. This sequence began with an embarrassed Bengoetxea going in for the kill and blowing it from close, but the next three points were all Titin, who wrong footed his forward rival by going to the corner, before two serves in a row induced bewilderment from Begino. However, he let the opportunity slip in the very next point by rushing into an ill advised volley, which fell short. The serve was recovered with a cross court stinger, but then Bengoetxea re-imposed his brilliance with a txoko, and an attritional point seized with a pitch perfect swipe from left to right. Titin offered another glimmer, replying with a tremendous airez, but his momentum was broken, and the Asegarce pair surged again. The two forwards went at each other hell for leather, but even with his partially recovered confidence, Titin simply could not answer the infernal pace of the man from Leitza. At 9-18, the die was well and truly cast; three errors from the dominant pair kept a trickle of points going for their struggling opponents, but the game was up when an improbable reply from Bengoetxea to a Titin dos paredes provided the meat in the sandwich of two further errors from Zubieta, now resigned and dejected.

There was only ever going to be one winning pair in this match, and within that pair, there was only one man who truly hit the heights. Begino was not at his best, although he outdid Zubieta in the consistency stakes. Bengoetxea showed flashes of serious class, and his mark on the match could have been even greater if he had not on occasion given way to complacency, hurrying to hit winners rather than building points block by block. There was little Titin could do to rescue the initiative, as Bengoetxea made him appear in a class below. If he can hold onto this purple patch, every other forward in the tournament must come up with a plan to subdue him and his boundless spirit.

Scoring sequence: 0-6, 1-6, 2-6, 2-8, 3-8, 3-11, 4-11, 7-11, 7-12, 8-12, 8-14, 9-14, 9-18, 10-18, 12-18, 12-22.

Oinatz Bengoetxea: class

Oinatz Bengoetxea: class

Image from: Noticias de Navarra

Torneo Virgen Blanca: Barriola the Beacon in Error-Strewn Final

Monday 9th August, Vitoria-Gasteiz


Virgen Blanca Final

When the great defender Abel Barriola tore the cruciate ligament in his right knee in April 2009, some doubted that he would ever again reach the heights which saw him finish 2008 as the number one pelotari in the Basque Country. Since his return to competition five months ago, the man from Leitza has struggled for form and rhythm, showing flashes of the old Barriola in the Manomanista but rarely threatening. However, in the past week at Ogueta, he has gone a long way to silencing the doubters. It takes two to win a doubles title, but in Monday’s Virgen Blanca final, Barriola was the towering master, the difference between the sides, and the biggest winner.

In the way of Barriola and his partner, one half of the reigning Pairs Champion couple Xala, stood Titin, and Xala’s erstwhile partner Zubieta. In professional pelota pairs change competition by competition, but such was the bond between Xala and Zubieta in their victorious championship campaign that it seemed almost perverse to see them on opposing sides. Titin and Zubieta reached the final here by virtue of an excellent win over Irujo and Beloki, and they started well enough this time round. The first two points went against them, but Titin restored parity with a gantxo and a txoko, suggestive of a continuation of his rampant semi final form. An error from Barriola gave them a 3-2 lead and all seemed right in their world, but this was to be the only time they found themselves ahead in the match.

All four players committed more errors than they hit winners but the scale of each error count told its own story. Barriola, with a winner and only two errors, became the first defender in the history of the Virgen Blanca tournament to take home the prize awarded to the best player of the week. He was solid as a rock, returning everything his opponents threw his way and also played with his head, always in the right place at the right time whether awaiting the long ball or covering for Xala at the front. His opposite number, Aitor Zubieta, did not have such a stellar night, although his six errors obscure the quality of much of his play. He was frequently in command mid rally and suffered from the lack of spark shown by Titin, who was a shadow of the dynamic presence we saw in the semi final. Zubieta’s slips more often than not came as he tried in vain to push the margins, to try anything to pressure Barriola. Xala must thank his lucky stars for his defender, for like Titin he leaked mistakes. He was at times sparkling, and showed his power to dominate with icy calm, but eight errors, encompassing a worrying tendency to prod the ball low, was more than he can have countenanced.

The final failed to live up to the hype which preceded it, induced the quality of the earlier matches. The 1500 spectators at Ogueta, which has seen excellent ticket sales throughout the festival, may well have felt short changed. They did however witness the crowning of worthy winners, and the resurgence of one Abel Barriola, something in which all pelota fans can rejoice.

Scoring sequence: 0-2, 2-2, 3-2, 3-3, 3-7, 4-7, 5-7, 5-9, 7-9, 7-13, 11-13, 11-20, 14-20, 14-22.

Winners/Errors: Titin 3/6, Zubieta 1/6, Xala 7/8, Barriola 2/2

On Sunday, the final of the Torneo Manomanista Promoción La Blanca was contested between Lemuno and Merino II. The latter ran out the winner by 22 points to 16.

Barriola: player of the tournament

Barriola: player of the tournament

Image from Gara


Torneo Virgen Blanca: Xala and Barriola battle into the final

Saturday 7th August, Vitoria-Gasteiz


Torneo Virgen Blanca

Yves Salaberry and Abel Barriola pulled a performance from the top drawer to make the final of the Torneo Virgen Blanca at Ogueta last night. They were subjected to a tough, 536 ball examination by Juan Martinez de Irujo and Ruben Beloki but after the first point were never headed, and came through by a margin of six. Their mastery lay in their greater consistency, especially in the defending stakes, where Beloki, usually an impenetrable wall, had a game to forget.

It was easy to assume that this match would be won in the forward battle. It pitted against each other the 2010 Manomanista finalists, with runner-up Xala likely out for revenge on the sport’s greatest player Irujo. The two matched each other stroke for stroke for much of the match, and dominated the early exchanges to the extent that one almost overlooked the role of the backs, who were both excellent in the opening salvo. Irujo took the first point of the game with a txoko which was almost nonchalant, only to be emulated by Xala who showed that two could play that particular game. Two more imperious winners from the Lekuine native, and an error from Irujo, and the blue pair had established a 4-1 lead. The two traded spectacular gantxos on 2-5 and 2-6, but as the score line suggested, it was Xala’s pair who were in the ascendant.

It soon became evident that although the tussle in attack was an enthralling one, this match may be decided by the relative fortunes of Beloki and Barriola. When Xala got himself in a twist to allow Irujo and Beloki to tie at 6-6, a golden opportunity presented itself for them to seize the upper hand, but perhaps in an effort to push Barriola back, Beloki hit carelessly high. It was the first of four such errors by the man from Burlada and his lapses were to prove decisive. He made six errors in the game to Barriola’s one, which in such a close fight made the difference. In addition to his bone fide errors which cost points directly, many of his shots within rallies were lacking, giving Xala an all too comfortable platform from which to attack. In contrast, Barriola, roaring back into form after his injury hiatus, was outstanding, giving away his first point only when the score stood at 14-11.

As the match wore on, there was a sense that Irujo’s play became somewhat dragged down by Beloki’s. Until the last third of the match his error count had been low, but lax shots crept in as he committed four errors in the final ten rallies. In contrast, Xala soldiered on. A falta on 15-12 blotted his copybook to a degree, and he twice made mistakes while going for the kill, but by that time the game was almost up. The game ended, rather fittingly, with a miscue from Beloki.

So, an enthralling final is in prospect, with Xala and Barriola taking on Titin and Zubieta on Monday. Both pairs have looked in fine form this week, and the battles between the both the forwards and backs promise to be closely matched. It is hard to call a winner, but if Xala can replicate last night’s standards, he and Barriola could be hard to stop.

Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-1, 1-4, 2-4, 2-6, 3-6, 6-6, 6-7, 6-8, 7-8, 7-10, 9-10, 9-11, 9-12, 10-12, 10-14, 12-14, 12-15, 13-15, 13-16, 14-16, 14-20, 15-20, 15-21, 16-21, 16-22.

Winners: Xala 9, Martinez de Irujo 10, Barriola 1, Beloki 1

Errors: Xala 4, Martinez de Irujo 6, Barriola 1, Beloki 6

Abel Barriola: consistency personified

Abel Barriola: consistency personified

Image from: Noticias de Alava