Sunday 29th March
Atano III, Donostia-San Sebastian
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – GONI III beat OLAIZOLA II – MENDIZABAL II 22-21
Stunning Aimar almost turns the tables but Irujo and Goni show themselves to be the consumate partnership as the championship goes down to the wire
This was the final to end all finals: for a championship three months in duration to come down one point in the final match in front of a packed audience in full cry is the stuff of Hollywood. That it as a close run thing was not wholly unexpected, pitting against each other as it did the two best pairs, containing some of the very greatest players, of the bunch. For two weeks, press and public alike have discussed the relative merits and weaknesses of the protagonists; Irujo’s passion? Olaizola’s tactical intelligence? Goni’s consistency? Mendizabal’s talent for the big stage? Which would win the day? In the end, none of the four deserved to lose, but as the tournament hovered in flux, the sword of Damacles had to drop for two.
The first two points of the final whetted the appetite for the forward battle to come as the great Irujo and Aimar locked horns from the off. The first point went to the former who used both walls to wrong foot Aimar and signal his intent. But the Goizuetan showed he would not be dictated to with a brutal airez of his own. In reality though, it was the duel at the back of the fronton which was to set the pattern for the majority of the game. It seemed to all the world as if the Aspe pair would waltz away with the prize as they consistently held their opponents at arm’s length, never closer than two points. This seeming air of inevitability was brought about largely by the rock solid play of Goni III to whom the very idea of the unforced error seemed anathema. No matter how hard Aimar tried to set him up for a fall, the man from Zubiri returned with interest. It took the defending champions 17 points to knock him, briefly, from his pedestal of perfection when Aimar manipulated him back and forth until he hit wide. In contrast, Oier Mendizabal creaked almost from the off; before Goni had made one mistake, his young opponent had failed four times. The discrepancy in the defensive play was clear for all to see, not least for Irujo and Goni themselves, who milked it for all it was worth. Aimar played with assurance but for the large part was totally unable to impose himself. Irujo played with all his usual fire and more in his expert partnering of Goni. He was not immune from the odd careless error, greeted as usual but furious incredulity, but with dominance surely applied these hardly mattered.
When three Mendizabal errors in succession took the score to 16-11 in favour of Irujo and Goni, the Aspe partnership must have smelt the finishing line. However, this was to reckon without a man by the name of Aimar Olaizola who was not in a mood to let a potential eighth txapela pass him by. The Asegarce botillero called time out for his pair and when they returned to the fray, the match was very nearly turned on its head. With Aimar slightly repositioned on the fronton, the trailing attacker cut loose. A drop, an airez and a trademark lethal left handed hook ensured that the gap in points edged down, gradually, but assuredly. With the score at 18-15 to Irujo and Goni, Mendizabal hit low from the back of the fronton and one sensed that it was now or never for the Asegarce pair.
When Irujo miscued close to the side wall, Aimar pounced and attacked full on. Another hook levelled the score at 19-19. The crowd, now at fever pitch, gasped in stunned unison. This had hardly seemed possible a mere half an hour previously. When Goni could not return a long ball from Aimar, the defending champions were ahead for the first time and all hell broke loose in the Oier Mendizabal fan club, which was sizeable and deafening. However, their hero once again hit too low from far out and the score was tied again. Now the Aspe pair inched ahead and claimed a match point when Irujo left Aimar unceremoniously sprawling with his legs above his head. Surely this was it? But 21-21 came; Irujo could hardly comprehend how his shot failed to find the frontis. And so, one point to win it all. Who had the nerve and who would fall? The final point was agonising in every conceivable way. One moment of brilliance, one mistake and sporting fate would be sealed. Nobody had deserved this, but there was Fernando Goni brilliant to the last, sending a ball of beauty, low and skidding to the frontis. Aimar ran, dived, hit and watched. One inch was all it took to kill a dream. Juan Martinez de Irujo and Fernando Goni had won.
Points sequence (Olaizola II/Mendizabal II 1st): 0-1, 1-1, 1-3, 2-3, 2-5, 3-5, 4-5, 4-6, 4-8, 5-8, 5-10, 8-10, 8-11, 8-12, 9-12, 9-13, 10-13, 11-13, 11-14, 11-17, 12-17, 13-17, 13-18, 15-18, 15-19, 19-19, 20-19, 20-20, 20-21, 21-21 and 21-22.
Juan Martinez de Irujo: job done