Saturday 14th July, Pamplona
XALA-ZUBIETA beat BENGOETXEA VI-BEGINO 22-17
San Fermin Pairs Final
It has been an extremely tough year for Aitor Zubieta. The tall, powerful defender from Etxarri-Aranatz, imperious at his best, had made the slow and painful journey back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament at the end of 2010 and was starting to fire when his old hand problems flared up. He missed most of the Pairs Championship as a result and the issues lasted to a greater or lesser degree for weeks afterwards. Aspe paired him with his close friend Yves Salaberry for San Fermin, a tournament he has always wanted to win, doubtless in the hope that together they could rekindle the form of early 2010 when they won the Pairs Championship together in superb style. Zubieta has long been the confidant of Xala, acting as botillero for him in individual tournaments and on the fronton they share an understanding which, when everything clicks into place, is wonderful to witness. So it was here, and it was Zubieta, back from the depths of sporting despair, who emerged as the player of both the match and the tournament in an emphatic rebirth.
Although Bengoetxea, who had won the Cuatro y Medio tournament the previous weekend, and Begino began the final as favourites, their opponents were in command from the get go. When their early 3-0 lead was pegged back, they surged forward again, opening the gap to 7-2. Bengoetxea appeared a shadow of the player who had regained such verve in beating Olaizola II and Irujo the week before, leaking too many errors to maintain any pressure. Xala, while not spectacular, took the opportunities which were presented to him and accumulated points with the minimum of fuss. Bengoetxea found some pace and direction subsequently, and pulled his pair to within two at 6-8, but it was then that the relentless pressure of Zubieta began to wear Begino down. His hitting was as powerful as it was accurate and he also showed a great deal of invention, willing to come forward when necessary as well as to race back in defence, where he proved able to alleviate pressure with some monster returns. He continually put Begino on the back foot, and although his opponent defended gamely and often superbly, there was little Bengoetxea could do to help him turn the tables. At 14-8, then 16-8 and 18-9 it seemed there was no way back for the Asegarce pair.
However, at this juncture things went a little awry for Xala and Zubieta, largely due to resurgence from Bengoetxea whose temporary supremacy allowed Begino room to move. Zubieta made several errors to which he had hitherto seemed immune and Xala lost his former potency. At 18-16, times were worrying for the leaders. An incredibly tense point followed in which Bengoetxea finally hit low to give Xala and Zubieta an inch more breathing space, but then a miscue from Xala meant the pressure was very much back on. Both players cursed the heavens, knowing they had let their opponents off the hook. However, they kept their cool and returned to doing the basics well. Once again Begino came under incredible pressure from Zubieta and cracked twice over before Xala sealed the deal with a txoko. The relief as well as the unabashed joy was palpable.
Ever since 2010 when Xala and Zubieta scaled the heights so impressively, many within pelota fandom have been waiting for a reprise and with Zubieta finally healthy again we were treated to a vintage display. Rarely has a player exuded such genuine happiness, allied so wonderfully to the party mood which pervaded Labrit as the revellers celebrated the end of their party week before taking to the streets, clad in red and white to bid San Fermin farewell for another year.
Scoring sequence: 3-0, 3-2, 7-2, 7-5, 8-5, 8-6, 14-6, 14-7, 15-7, 15-8, 17-8, 17-9, 18-9, 18-16, 19-16, 19-17, 22-17.
Winners/errors: Xala 5/3, Bengoetxea 4/6, Zubieta 4/4, Begino 4/6
Service winners/errors: Xala 1/0, Bengoetxea 2/0
Match time: 1:18.52 with 34:35 of actual play
Balls hit: 678