Mano pairs final: thrilling victory for Irujo and Goni III by frontonnews

Sunday 29th March
Atano III, Donostia-San Sebastian

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

Juan Martinez de Irujo: job done


Mano pairs: Aimar leads defending champions to the final by frontonnews

Sunday 15th March
Atano III, San Sebastian

As the curtain fell on the last semi final match of the 2009 championship, San Sebastian seemed to resound with song. This was not the passionate swell of sound from the home of Real Sociedad, nor was it the celebrated Orfeon Donostiarra choir in rehearsal; indeed, it was not homegrown song at all. Oier Mendizabal was born in San Sebastian but he had seemingly brought a fan club from his adopted home of Hernani, all of eight kilometres to the south of the Gipuzkoan capital, for the noise came from the upper reaches of Atano III, where the local Azeri dance was in full cry. Their municipal hero was in the final and they meant to let everyone know it. Whether a similar contingent had made the trip from Goizueta in honour of Aimar Olaizola was harder to tell but it was the Navarrese master striker who turned this game in the blink of an eye. Aimar, or more precisely, his fabled left arm, ensured the champions a chance to defend their crown.

Facing Aimar and Oier in the melting pot of Atano III was a pair who might, but for Martinez de Irujo, already have booked their place in the final. Oinatz Bengoetxea and Ruben Beloki had the chance to qualify outright last weekend but lost out to a combination of errors and an opponent on fire after a game which had balanced on a knife edge. The first phase of this match, their second and final chance, must have given them an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu; not even a hair’s breadth could split the two sides. In a proverbial war of attrition, point was traded for point in a grinding stalemate of long and gruelling points. It took 476 strikes of the ball to reach 11-11, after the pairs had found themselves locked together, all square at 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 apiece. This period was characterised by the duel of the two defenders. Bengoetxea knew he could count on the best defender in the tournament thus far in Beloki and set about attacking Mendizabal with abandon but to no avail; Oier played an excellent match last week against Berasaluze VIII and Begino and here stepped up to yet another level. He and Beloki traded blow after blow, sending the ball like a rocket to the frontis from seemingly impossible positions. Neither seemed willing or likely to crack.

The early battle between the forwards was every bit as absorbing, pitting as it did two outwardly very different characters into conflict. Bengoetxea is like a whirlwind on the fronton, never resting, always bustling both in play and in respite. Seeing that Mendizabal would not break, the manomanista champion threw all his attacking power at the door of Olaizola. Particularly impressive was the low skidding ball which took the score to 2-2 and a pair of hook winners, the second of which sent Aimar sprinting headlong into the a cameraman. Olaizola, in contrast, appears as the clinical destroyer. Only occasionally does he let his emotions show through his facade of control. While Bengoetxea looked fit to burst with fight, Olaizola displayed a quieter but no less obvious determination, hitting a succession of winners to nullify those of his rival. Bengoetxea looked to have the slight edge in their early fight, although the score remained in deadlock.

With the score at 11-11, the game moved into a new and different phase which spelt danger for the defending champions. A combination of two winners from Bengoetxea, and an error apiece from Oier and Aimar meant that the pair in blue found themselves four points adrift. Although no sense of panic was evident in their demeanour, something clearly had to be done. Step forward Aimar Olaizola. Although brilliant at times, Aimar has rarely been at his exalted best in this tournament. The Goizuetan was dangerously close to pulling out of the Cuatro y Medio championship in December owing to a painful right shoulder and the fact that he stayed and went on to win it is testament to both his wide armoury of skills and his determination. He may however have paid the price, having played with tendonitis in that same shoulder ever since. His right arm is therefore not as potent a weapon as it should be and has in all likelihood contributed to his rather less than vintage form. However, his left arm, his most feared attribute, worked at Atano III like the hammer of Thor and there was nothing Bengoextea could do to stop it. In a masterclass of hooks, peppered with drops and smashes, Aimar ripped the prize from the hands of his oppoents and beat them into submission. While he cut loose, the pressure on Beloki told as he made four errors, a blot on an otherwise textbook game. When Bengoetxea struck too high, the game was up, and Goizueta, like Atano III, surely burst into song.

So, we return to Atano III on March 29th for a final which promises much. Juan Martinez de Irujo and Fernando Goni, both of whom have been in white hot form of late, await the defending champions who will do everything within their power to contain and better them. If Oier Mendizabal can maintain his stellar run, the defensive battle will be enthralling and any match which pits Aimar against Irujo is enough to set the juices racing. Who has the nerve to strike for glory on the biggest of all stages only time will tell.

Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-3, 3-3, 3-5, 6-5, 6-7, 7-7, 7-8, 10-8, 10-10, 10-11, 15-11, 15-15, 16-15 and 16-22.

Aimar Olaizola turned the match

Aimar Olaizola turned the match

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Mano pairs: Beloki and Bengoetxea show their colours and go top by frontonnews
March 2, 2009, 11:38 pm
Filed under: Pelota Mano | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Sunday 1st March

Atano III, San Sebastian


In what could be termed the battle of the Bs, Asegarce played Asegarce for the honours in San Sebastian on Sunday night. Pablo Berasaluze and Aritz Begino finished the quarter final stages with a flurry, taking a nailbiting win over Titin III and Pascual to qualify in pole position but their opponents last night were in no mood for compromise. Oinatz Bengoetxea, the 24 year old manomanista champion from Leitza, is known as one of the best defensive forwards in the game; many opponents have discovered to their cost his incredible tenacity and ability to produce attack out of dead ends. His current partner in crime is Ruben Beloki, ten years his senior, and the owner of six championship txapelas, the most recent coming in the pairs, six years ago. If this display was anything to go by, Beloki is back and hungry for more, for it was his dominance and mind-blowing accuracy which won the day in emphatic style.

In the early points, the two sides seemed even enough but at 5-4 to the eventual losers, the floodgates opened and there was no way back for Pablito and Begino. Bengoextea was entirely prepared to let Beloki dictate the game and his defensive partner payed him back by the bucket load. In a stunning display, the veteran made up for his undoubtedly diminished speed with guile, tactical nouse and unrelenting accuracy. In the process of this showcase of his talents, he made not one single error. Compare his efforts to those of Begino and the reason for the discrepency in the scoreline becomes apparent. Begino is possessed of on of the strongest right arms in the game but strength is nothing without skill and this was not to be his night. He chalked up eight errors in the course of the evening and Beloki, metaphorically speaking of course, ate him for breakfast. Berasaluze tried his best to lift the spirits of his flagging partner but to no avail.

Berasaluze for his part struck eight winners but could do nothing to stop the rot. Bengoetxea hit fewer winners but also made fewer mistakes and through his incredible energy and indefatigable spirit was able to prevent his counterpart from cutting loose. After 59 minutes and 55 seconds, Oinatz and Ruben raised their arms in both triumph and the quiet satisfaction of a job well done. They now lead the semi final standings on points difference ahead of Irujo and Goni. Berasaluze and Begino find themselves bottom, one place below defending champions Olaizola II and Mendizabal II.

Scoring sequence: 3-0, 3-4, 4-4, 4-5, 15-5, 15-9, 17-9, 17-10, 21-10, 21-11 and 22-11

Ruben Beloki

Ruben Beloki

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Mano pairs: King Irujo plays a blinder by frontonnews

Sunday 15th February
Atano III, San Sebastian

This was supposed to be an epic. Juan Martinez de Irujo and Aimar Olaizola are two of the greatest exponents of forward play we have seen in many years and as befits their status, they have a long and turbulent rivaly, tinged with huge respect. The last time these starry pelotaris met at Atano III, Olaizola took home the Cuatro y Medio crown at the expense of Irujo in a match which dominated the sporting media, eager to delve into the characters of the finalists. Irujo is known as an often erratic genius, one day barnstormingly brilliant, the next error ridden and off colour. In contrast, Aimar is frequently summarised as the great tactician, calculating and brutal, and cool as the proverbial cucumber. Which Irujo would we see today, and would Aimar be able to out-think him? A sell out crowd could hardly wait for the answer, but the match which promised so much turned out to be a one sided showcase for Irujo.

The forward from Ibero was simply stunning. From the off, the front half of the fronton was his territory and his alone as the winners came thick and fast. Three breathtaking gantxo winners left the Asegarce pair stranded and impotent and he employed the drop shot with impunity, manouvering his opponents with seeming ease to create a mouthwateringly open court for his purposes. He did not commit an error until the score stood at 9-2 in his favour. Two more errors were to follow but by then it barely mattered; the crucial point was all but in the bag.

And what of the usually great Olaizola II? A combination of factors led to his downfall, the first being that Irujo was so well and truly on song that he never allowed the Goizuetan to find his stride. For Aimar throughout his career, txapelas have seemingly grown on trees and he managed to show a few glimpses of his pedigree with three textbook crosscourt winners, but otherwise, things never went his way. On a day when the brilliant Irujo rather than the erratic one came to the party, he made too many errors to compete; his bad day conincided with his opponent’s superlative one. Olaizola may have the excuse of an abdominal problem, stories of which were doing the rounds before the match. Although there was no obvious sign of pain, he did look ill at ease and maybe this was due to more than just Irujo’s onslaught. Irujo seemed to indicate that he did not appear quite right in his post match interview, but whatever the reason, Olaizola will need to put today behind him and concentrate on next weekend, remembering the great player that he is.

The battle of the defenders was not quite so crucial but still played its part. Oier Mendizabal was replaced by Oier Zearra owing to a problem with his right hand. Commentators assumed that the absence of his usual partner would be Aimar’s major worry, but in truth, Zearra played well enough. His performance was solid at times but he did make errors, notably from the back where he was tested purposely by the Aspe pair. Goni III was the better of the two, providing an excellent and dependable foil for the attacking might of Irujo.

Next weekend will be a nailbiter for both pairs. Olaizola and Zearra, top of the standings after last week, would have had one foot in the semi finals had they pulled off a win here but they now join the plethora of pairs on four points and will almost certainly need to beat Barriola and Gonzalez next week, the only potentially saving grace being their points difference. If Irujo and Goni had lost tonight, they would have had a monumental struggle on their hands to qualify. As it is, they have given themselves the best possible chance; they lie top for the moment, level on points with Olaizola’s pair. In this topsy turvy tournament, what may happen next weekend is anybody’s guess.

Scoring sequence: 0-1, 1-1, 9-1, 9-2, 9-5, 10-5, 15-5, 15-6, 19-6, 19-7, 19-8 and 22-8

The unstoppable Irujo

The unstoppable Irujo

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