Manomanista Final: the Coronation of King Irujo
Sunday 20th June, Vitoria-Gasteiz
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO beat XALA 22-13
The Manomanista Final is always an occasion and this edition proved no exception to the rule. A massive crowd turned out in the Basque capital Vitoria-Gasteiz to witness two pelotaris at the pinnacle of their sport fight it out for the greatest prize of them all, and they lifted the roof. A deafening roar greeted the protagonists, which gave way to chanting, singing, the playing of instruments and the waving of banners, one of which, bearing a huge image of Martinez de Irujo, measured several metres across. The spectacle began with a special presentation by Irujo to Basque mountaineer Edurne Pasaban, and once the heroine had been honoured, it was time to crown a hero.
The match began with Xala, perhaps the marginal underdog, on top. Before reigning champion Irujo had had time to draw breath, the man from Lekuine was 4-0 up and on cruise control. Irujo’s first error, in the very first point, suggested tension, as he hit a highly speculative cross court winner attempt well low. Xala’s impressive serve, the backbone of so much of his success in 2010, unfurled itself as he won the next point with a gantxo, set up by his initial delivery. Irujo then hit high and wide from the next two Xala serves, the first long and the second cheekily short. However, Irujo marshaled his senses and fought back with a vengeance. He took his first point of the final in commanding fashion with a spiraling ball over the head of his rival, and backed this up with a txoko, to suggest his engine had begun to fire. On 3-4, the unease returned for a fleeting moment as he pushed his serve long, but as if wishing to banish this blemish with immediacy, he chose the next point to demonstrate his emerging dominance in open play. He retrieved a seemingly excellent gantxo from Xala, then survived a barrage of high balls, before returning a txoko with interest to force his opponent wide. With a service winner in the next play, the score stood at 5-5.
It was in the next passage of the game that Irujo asserted his mastery, and drew slowly but surely away from Xala. Three winners, a crosscourt and two txokos gave him daylight for the first time, with a score of 8-5. Xala miscued an overhead volley in the next point to make his lead four. Xala took a point back with a wonderfully worked sequence of shots ending in a killer txoko, but again the defending champion stepped on the gas, moving from 9-6 to 12-6 as he really let fly. Xala perhaps sensed that a move needed to be made to avoid reaching the point of no return, and gave his fans a glimmer of hope in the next three points, taking perfect advantage his own selected balls with two service winners. At only 9-12 behind, the left hander was still very much in the match.
However, Irujo changed gear and was never seen again. Two successive errors from Xala gave him the boost he needed to charge for home, and he wasted little time in doing so. Xala increasingly took risks in order to rein the champion elect back, but luck was not on his side, and he increasingly found the fronton too small for the angles he needed to get around the tiger-like Irujo. Part of the frustration of playing Irujo is his ability to defend from almost any position and any predicament. Time and again one assumes that balls will beat him, and somehow, time and again, he gets there, omnipresent in the manner of Rafael Nadal on the tennis court. For Xala he proved an insurmountable wall. Not content with chasing down and profiting from everything thrown at him, Irujo’s serve now started to ignite with two unreturnable missiles in quick succession. With the score at 19-10, the gulf could not be bridged. Xala, renowned for his calm head and his impassive control, seemed powerless, unusually lacklustre and on the edge of survival. Irujo gave him two gifts, allowing Xala to draw within seven points, but in reality this was meagre consolation. A wild, wide and desperate throw of the dice from Xala handed Irujo match point, and the winning blow was struck with the vanquished on his knees, both physically and in spirit.
In the end, the statistics told the story. Irujo struck an incredible 17 winners to only five errors, all but five of them coming in open play. Xala managed a mere eight winners, six of which came from serves. Xala has relied heavily on his serve throughout this tournament and until today, his strength in this department has proved more than enough to grant him dominance, but pelota becomes a whole new ball game when Irujo enters the equation. Xala will surely be disappointed tonight, but in time he will reflect on an excellent championship, in which he soared to the form of his life. He is still one of the two best players of the year, and his demise here was due only to a multiple champion with the bit firmly between his teeth. For Irujo, now a four time Manomanista champion, greatness beckons. At only 28 years of age, his playing colleagues must dread the grip he can exert on the sport for years to come. Irujo, jubilant, shared his triumph with his supporters, his girlfriend and their tiny baby daughter, to whom he dedicated the win; for the man from Ibero, new father and newly reinstated king of the fronton, it has been quite a year.
Scoring sequence: 0-4, 1-4, 3-4, 3-5, 9-5, 9-6, 10-6, 11-6, 12-6, 12-9, 15-9, 15-10, 20-10, 20-13, 22-13.
Winners: Irujo 17, Xala 8
Service winners: Irujo 5, Xala 6
Errors: Irujo 5, Xala 5