Friday 19th February, St Jean de Luz
GONZALEZ – LASKURAIN beat SARALEGI – APRAIZ 22-16
On Friday, the Pairs Championship decamped to Iparralde, and specifically to the charming resort town of St Jean de Luz (or Donibane Lohizune in Basque), famous for its fishing, its architecture and its picturesque sands. The port across the harbour, Ciboure, is best known as the birthplace of composer Maurice Ravel and it is after him that the fronton of St Jean de Luz is named. While Ravel may be better known in the wider world, the town has another famous son in the shape of Sebastien Gonzalez; pelotari, Cuatro y Medio champion, and one of the protagonists here. He and his partner Aritz Laskurain were clear favourites in advance of the encounter, over opponents Ekaitz Saralegi and Alexis Apraiz who are both replacements for players who started the championship. A win for the underdogs would raise Asegarce spirits no end, but the faithful of Lapurdi sat squarely behind their home boy Gonzalez. In the end, the locals went away satisfied.
All the early signs pointed to a rout for Gonzalez and Laskurain, who went ahead 5-0 without raising a sweat. Both hit winners with which they ran rings around their opponents, who looked ill at ease and error prone, just as they did in their last encounter. There was much relief from all supporters of the blue pair and many neutrals too when Saralegi found his range with a ripping gantxo to make the score 5-1. This was the start of an impressive comeback, in which he and Apraiz levelled the scored on 7-7 before taking a 7-10 lead. Saralegi harnessed all his vim and vigour into some excellent serves, two of which proved clean winners, and Apraiz defended outstandingly, notably in his staggering return of a near rebote. The defender in addition managed two consecutive winners in this period of play. The first was achieved with a large slice of serendipity, but the second, a spiralling long ball right into the back corner, was pure class. The scene looked set for a memorable tussle.
Sadly for Saralegi and Apraiz, this period of the match was to prove their high point, for they would never lead again. Gonzalez restored a modicum of control for the Aspe duo with two winners before two Saralegi errors won them back the lead. From here on, the home boy stamped his authority in impressive style. As Saralegi’s direction deserted him, Gonzalez offered up a crosscourt masterclass with two vicious airez winners. He was not immune to moments of carelessness as he proved in consecutive points at 14-11 and 14-12 but he had Saralegi’s number and controlled the front of the court in open play with an iron fist. Laskurain proved again to be a valued partner. He was not wholly consistent but was easily the better of the defenders, as Apraiz’s play grew increasingly wayward. Apraiz can be a frustrating player. That he has great talent is beyond doubt and early in the match he displayed moments of great inspiration, but these, as is often the case, were mixed with moments of inexplicable laxity. At 12-14 the Asegarce pair was still well in touch, but their strong position was thrown away in an instant when Apraiz played two wild shots, the first wide and the second high. Two rallies later he hit low and looked well and truly resigned to his fate, now six points in arrears. One wonders what he might be capable of if he could remain on top of his game. Saralegi too lost his earlier spark. He continued to pull impressive winners out of the bag in the form of two drops into the corner, but his crosscourt game failed to fire.
All in all, this was a frustrating match. Gonzalez and Laskurain continued their solid form but did not have to produce magic to win. Saralegi and Apraiz had the potential to pull off an upset, but every time they gained a foothold they succumbed to a moment of madness. In their final match of the tournament, against Xala and Zubieta, they will play for pride alone. Gonzalez and Laskurain face the tough proposition of a match up with Olaizola II and Mendizabal II in the last rotation of quarter final matches. Much could hinge on their battle; the 2008 champions annihilated them in week four but both pairs are in the hunt to make the semi finals and big match nerves can play funny tricks. This tournament continues to march with intent, like Ravel’s Bolero, towards its Easter finale, but who will be there at its apotheosis?
Scoring sequence: 5-0, 5-1, 6-1, 6-7, 7-7, 7-10, 14-10, 14-12, 15-12, 18-12, 18-14, 19-14, 19-16, 22-16
Image from: Noticias de Navarra