Jubilation, Heartache and Hope at World Pelota Championships

By Xabier Berrueta,
United States Federation of Pelota

The world celebrated the game of Basque pelota last week at the XVI World Championships in the Bearnaise capital of Pau. Veteran athletes from many countries said the tournament was by far the most successful and best organized.

Maite Ruiz de Larramendi Maite Ruiz de Larramendi was the first woman ever named FIPV Player of the Championship. Photo: Courtesy of Xabier Berrueta, U.S. Federation of Pelota
Maite Ruiz de Larramendi was the first woman ever named FIPV Player of the Championship. Photo: Courtesy of Xabier Berrueta, U.S. Federation of Pelota

 Not surprisingly, four countries were aspiring to become absolute champion as they headed into Saturday night’s finals: Argentina, defending 2006 World Champ; Mexico; Spain, and the host nation of France. Team USA had been eliminated from medal contention. Yet U.S. athletes had displayed unprecedented team unity and given some solid performances.

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France’s victories in Pala Corta (40-39) over Spain, as well as cesta punta/jai alai over Mexico (after Mexico upset Spain in the semis 35-33) gave hope to Les Bleus as they sought to win their first Absolute title since 1994 in Saint Jean de Luz.

 But Saturday night’s victory of Mexico in trinquete in handball doubles was a blow to the French Team as “Loquillo” Lopez and “El Chato” Serralde defeated the French 40-31. French pain was further suffered by the victory of the Spanish women’s team over the French in paleta goma trinquete.

In what was by far the feature match of Saturday night, the women’s final saw the team of Elguezabal (Espeleta) and Leiza (Cambo) break out to a strong lead in the second half of the match 26-19 against Maite Ruiz (Urbasa, Nafarroa) and Urkizu (Gipuzkoa). Elguezabal dominated the play and it looked as if the “Michael Jordan” of women’s pilota, Maite Ruiz de Larramendi, would go down to defeat. But the defending 2006 Champ played cool, calm and collective. In the end, she prevailed with a 30-29 win.

France, Spain and Mexico fielded powerhouse teams at the championships. Photo: Courtesy of Xabier Berrueta, U.S. Federation of Pelota
France, Spain and Mexico fielded powerhouse teams at the championships. Photo: Courtesy of Xabier Berrueta, U.S. Federation of Pelota

The loss was a heartbreak for the hosts. But there was still Sunday.

The Sunday morning games saw victories in trinquete for Argentina in paleta cuero as the tandem of Gaston Munoz and Villegas easily defeated Spain 40-24. It was the third Gold Medal for Argentina of the championships. The match was followed by the victory of Martin Cabello of Mexico in the individual handball category of trinquete 40-32 over Jeannots of France. Despite this, France still had options, along with Mexico and Spain.

The afternoon sessions saw victories for Mexico in women’s and men’s frontenis. This put Mexico in the driver’s seat to defend the Absolute Title of 2006.

Sunday night brought the title race down to the last two games. Mexico-Spain in handball and France-Spain in paleta cuero. If Medina from Mexico won, El Tri would successfully defend their title of Absolute Champs of 2006. If Spain won, then the winner of France-Spain in paleta cuero final would capture the title.

Tense drama in Pau was brewing as people drank their espressos and cafe au laits at the bar of the pelota facility

The pelota action was fast and furious as the world's top players battled it out. Photo: Courtesy of Xabier Berrueta, U.S. Federation of Pelota
The pelota action was fast and furious as the world's top players battled it out. Photo: Courtesy of Xabier Berrueta, U.S. Federation of Pelota

The 36-meter handball individual final was of epic proportions — pitting the ex-professional of Asegarce “Momo” Medina from Mexico against Unai Onsalo of Leitza, Nafarroa. The game lived up to its billing and the match was sold out 10 days earlier before the championships had even started.

Medina jumped to a 15-10 lead. But no one doubted the comeback potential of Onsalo, who had been down 16-4 against Alberdi (Hendaia) from France but ended up winning 22-19.

The game would come to the penultimate point with Medina (20) serving to Unsalo (21)

The final serve by Medina was a line drive, short and to the left. Unsalo fired back but Medina was unable to get it before the second bounce. Unsalo celebrated! Throwing his jersey in the stands! Absolute great game!

This meant overall heartbreak for Mexico, eliminating them from the title race. It would leave the paleta cuero players from Ile de Reunion, Africa, would defend for France against the Spanish tandem of Skufca-Caballero. The African tandem of Welmant and Fontenont would play well put Skufca was unbeatable as he only made 3 errors the entire game. Spain won 35-22. Spain would proclaim its 8th World Title and become 2010 Champion.

Maite Ruiz de Larramendi was named FIPV Player of the Championship. The first time the award was given to a women.

As for Team USA, its members had opportunites for Bronze medals but came up short. Roger Etchevers got hurt in the quarterfinals against Venezuela. So 26-year-old Mattin Garateix stepped up for the next two games. He played Spain for the Bronze and lost 40-11.

Tony Huarte battled France and lost 22-10 to the Pampi Laduche-trained Alberdi from Hendaia. The game started 5-0 for Alberdi, then Tony tied it 8-8. But from then on, Alberdi ran away with it.

Overall, of the eight specialties in which Team USA participated, two qualified for World Cup play (top four), and three others qualified for the 2011 Pan American games. Overall, a sense of pride and unprecedented team unity was displayed, and the future is bright with American talent on both sides of the Atlantic in years to come.

Guadalajara, Mexico, 2014 awaits. See you there!

Berrueta is the president of the United States Federation of Pelota.

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