Friday 13th February
Fronton Maurice Ravel, Saint-Jean-de-Luz
XALA – ZUBIETA beat LEIZA – BEGINO 22-10
On Friday the pairs championship travelled to the northern side of the Pyrenees for a match in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a resort of the Belle Epoque known more for its beaches, architecture and cuisine than for its contribution to the history of pelota. But as far as the four pelotaris were concerned there was little time to soak up the atmosphere as this competition has reached crunch time; every win must now be considered gold dust and every loss a monumental blow. This was a hard match to call given the fact that each side was forced to field a substitute, Leiza for Berasaluze VIII and Zubieta for Laskurain, but in a fronton named after that famous half-Basque composer Maurice Ravel, it was Xala who made sweet music.
In the early tantos, the encounter had the makings of a hard fought nailbiter. Contrary to the later flow of play, it was Zubieta who appeared error sticken, hitting low to cede each of the first two points in almost identical fashion. Xala showed glimpses of his excellent form before hitting wide and succumbing to a Leiza gantxo which put him on his back. Begino joined the party with two errors and the score was all tied at 4-4. However, it was then that the man from Lapurdi, playing in his home province, began to show his class to take the score to 12-4 in the Aspe pair’s favour. Although their opponents managed to eke out six more points in the course of the match, they were soundly beaten from the moment Xala cut loose. He baffled and bamboozled Leiza with his drop shots, which verged on the nonchalant, his gantxos, which travelled like bullets, and a pair of cross court hooks into the side wall which left his forward rival nowhere to be seen. In a masterful display, he has surely tightened his grip on the league which decides the tournament’s best player. Such was the magnetism of Xala that Zubieta was almost anonymous. However, although he hit no winners of his own and made four rather careless errors, he was an invaluable foil for his flashier colleague. Once the initial wobbles had passed him by, he hit fearsomly and solidly, providing a firm platform from which to attack.
Notwithstanding the excellent play of their opponents, the Asegarce pair made far too many errors to be competative. Begino persistently hit either low or high from the back, unable to match the consistency of his opposite number in defence. He even elicited boos from a small sector of the intermittently animated crowd when one such mistake opened up a twelve point deficit. Leiza, for his part, was simply outplayed by Xala. Although he managed a late flourish in the form of a gantxo winner, he was never on terms as the Aspe forward sent him darting right and left in an increasingly futile effort.
This result will have come as a stinging disappointment to a pair who have been very much on the up in recent weeks. Pablo Berasaluze sprouted wings to take them into second place overall last week but on this occasion he was forced to watch from the stands, dejectedly chewing gum, as his substitute lost the plot. Xala and Zubieta on the other hand, have given themselves a genuine chance. The plot of this extraordinary championship thickens….
Scoring sequence (Xala and Zubieta first):
0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 1-3, 2-3, 3-3, 4-3, 4-4, 12-4, 12-5, 17-5, 17-6, 18-6, 18-7, 18-8, 21-8, 21-9, 21-10, 22-10