Get To Know Basque Pelota
by Brendan Rourke
With the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 just a week away, it’s time to brush up your knowledge on a sport that dates back to the 13th century. While it has made an appearance in four Olympic Games, it has since found a home in the Pan Am Games, due in part to its popularity in Spanish-speaking countries.
Team USA fans, get ready to cheer on our three athletes in the fast-paced, high-intensity sport known as Basque pelota.
Remember being a kid and playing all sorts of schoolyard variations of “wall ball?” Think of this sport as the professional version of that scenario. Earning the name from its place of origin — the Basque region of Southwest France and Northwest Spain — Basque pelota is an energetic wall-and-ball sport that has several variations. The rough estimate of official variations is around 13, but only four will be on display at the 2023 Pan Am Games. The overall rules for each variant are relatively the same, but the combinations of which racquet (if any), ball and court used changes.
The sport’s first Olympic appearance was in 1900 in Paris. It later returned as a demonstration sport in Paris in 1924, in Mexico City in 1968, and lastly at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992. Only men played pelota the first three times, while both men and women participated in 1992.
Today, it has found a home with the Pan American Games, where it has been on the program since 1995. However, it did not appear in 1999, 2007 and 2015 editions due to its lack of popularity in Brazil and Canada.
Due to the speeds the ball reaches, players must wear protective eyewear and/or helmets in some disciplines. In one variation, commonly referred to as “Jai alai” in the U.S., balls can reach deadly speeds due to the curved baskets players use to hurl the ball. In fact, the Basque Government claims this variant to be the “fastest sport on Earth.” On Aug. 3, 1979, José Ramón Areitio hurled the fastest Jai alai shot in history while playing a match in Rhode Island. At its top speed, the ball traveled at a blistering 302 km/h (187.65 mph).
While we won’t see those exact speeds (or Jai alai) in Santiago, some of the variants that are on display can produce ball speeds of up to 200 km/hr (120 mph). The four variations that will be at Santiago are doubles trinquete (rubber ball), individual fronton (rubber ball), doubles frontenis and frontball. Four years ago at the Pan American Games Lima 2019, some variants were played using a leather ball.
Israel Mateos, and brothers Salvador and Omar Espinoza will be the Team USA athletes competing in Santiago. Mateos will compete in the newest pelota variant, frontball. Meanwhile, Salvador plays individual fronton and doubles frontenis with Omar. Team USA is not sending athletes to compete in the doubles trinquete discipline.
The general rules are similar to racquetball's rules. One team starts play by serving a ball toward a large front wall. The wall is blank, except for a line indicating the height at which the ball must hit above. The returning team then must hit the ball off the front wall again to avoid losing the point. Play continues as the teams alternate hitting the ball towards the front wall. Players are allowed to play the ball off any other wall as long as the ball eventually hits the front wall above the height line before bouncing. After the ball hits the front wall, it is then allowed to bounce only one time off the ground before the other team must attempt to perform the same action.
A point is earned by the serving team when the opponent allows the ball to bounce twice, hits the wall below the height line, hits the ball out of play (in some variations, there is no out-of-play due to the court’s design), or interferes with the other team’s opportunity of hitting the ball. A team loses its serve if the returning team bests the opponent in the same fashion.
Federation tournament matches are played in three sets, and are usually played up to 15 or 21 points. The third set is shortened similar to the shortening of final sets in beach volleyball matches.
Doubles Trinquete — This variation will be played with two teams of two, wielding broad wooden racquets called paletas, and using a rubber ball filled with gas that generates more bounce and speed than leather balls. But the most distinguishing feature of this variation is the court. The trinquet is a court designed with a front wall, a glass wall on the right (for spectators), a wall on the left that has a dugout built into it (for athletes), and lastly a wall at the back. The dugout is covered with a downward-sloped roof. There is no chance to hit the ball out of play as the athletes are enveloped in the playing area. For those more familiar with racquetball, this variation will appear most like it.
A picture of the court is below.
Individual Fronton — Like trinquete, this will be played with a paleta and a gas-filled rubber ball. But, this game is played individually. The main difference is the court, which is depicted in the second photo of the article taken at the 2019 Pan Am Games. Unlike trinquete, this will be played on a 30-meter-long (98 feet), two-walled court. The court has a front wall (or fronton) and a left wall, while the right side remains open. Judges are placed in this space to determine who wins a point during the game. The judges wear helmets and eyewear to avoid injury, while spectators view from the back behind a net. In this variation, players must be careful not to hit the ball out of play.
Doubles Frontenis — First becoming vastly popular in Mexico, this variation is played using the same court and ball as individual fronton. However, frontenis introduces a different racquet style, and two players will be on each team. Just as it sounds, the racquets used are nearly identical to modern-day tennis rackets. Because of this, balls can reach up to even higher speeds.
Frontball — Perhaps the newest and most accessible variation of Basque pelota is frontball. Resembling what is commonly referred to as “wallball” in the U.S., individual players compete without racquets (several athletes tape up their hands to prevent injuries) and use a special ball that cannot currently be bought in the U.S. The court is smaller in size, has the potential to be in an arena or outside, and displays only a single front wall. Lines are painted on the floor indicating the side boundaries of play. Typically, a seating section surrounds the open three sides, encircling the players and making a “theater in the round” environment. Due to its ease in setup and replication, frontball has gradually boomed in popularity. So much so that a trailer for a new frontball video game was recently released 11 months ago.
The picture below highlights a very similar style court used in individual Peruvian fronton. However, frontball players do not use the racquets shown in the below image, and the wall will include a height line.
Salvador Espinoza — Perhaps the most experienced pelota athlete who represents Team USA is Salvador Espinoza. The 26-year-old is playing in his second Pan American Games. Four years ago at the Pan American Games Lima 2019, he claimed the silver medal in doubles frontenis with his brother, Omar, and placed fourth in individual Peruvian fronton (another variation). Espinoza hopes to have a similar performance in Santiago.
Omar Espinoza — Only less experienced because of his age, Omar Espinoza teamed up with his older brother Salvador to claim silver in doubles frontenis at the 2019 Pan Am Games, his only event. At this time, it is unknown if Omar will also play in the individual fronton tournament against Salvador.
Israel Mateos — Playing in a sport most commonly found in Spain, Mexico and France, Israel Mateos is hoping he can help frontball become more popular stateside. Mateos began playing Spanish handball (a frontball variant that does not have height lines on the wall) around the age of 17, not having heard about frontball until he spotted his now-coach, Francisco Mancilla, playing it at a park in Los Angeles. For those interested in learning more, a local LA news station published a story and video interview with Mateos not long ago.
New fans of pelota can watch Mateos and the Espinoza brothers play in the 2023 Pan Am Games at https://www.panamsportschannel.org. All events, not just pelota, will be livestreamed on the site for free. The pelota tournaments begin on Tuesday, Oct. 31.
For those interested in learning more about the history of pelota, click here for Google’s Arts and Culture piece on the sport.
For those interested in watching a frontball match, click here to watch the semifinals from the 2022 FIPV World Championships.