No racket for Spanish Basque ball players

Their hands protected by layers of tightly bound tape, the players take turns swatting a small, hard ball at speeds that reach 115 kilometers (71.4 miles) per hour.

They are playing a match of Pelota Vasca, or "Basque Ball," a sport popular to its native Basque region that overlaps northern Spain and southwestern France. The game is similar to squash, but played without a racket and with only three walls.

The court is called a "Fronton," and players can play the ball off the front, back and the left-side wall. The right wall is missing.

Victor Esteban, 25, a player of Basque Ball, warms up at Labrit court or fronton, in Pamplona, northern Spain on Feb. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Pelota Vasca was traditionally played in the village square facing a church, whose facade offered a perfect wall for players to hit the ball.

Now it is a professional sport played indoors with organized tournaments in northern Spain played by individuals or doubles, where many spectators bet on the winner. As a trophy, the winner of the annual championship is awarded a large green Basque beret, called the "Txapela." The champion is called the "Txapeldun."

The handmade ball was originally made from a small hard plastic core bound with strips of cat intestine and wool thread, with an outer layer made of dried sheep skin. Today the balls go through a more industrial process, with synthetic materials being used.

Other varieties can be played with a racket or a hoop, but the traditional style is just to whack the ball with the open hand.

Players of Basque Ball hold balls on their hands protected by layers of tightly-bound tape, in Pamplona, northern Spain on March 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Players, called "pelotari," can spend an hour before a match preparing their hands. They coat their fingers and palms with a wax covering that they first heat up with a flame. Then they wrap each finger in layers of tape and some thin foam padding to reduce the risk of injury.

The players bend backward like tennis players taking a serve to generate power. The impact of the ball is clearly heard in the stands. It can often be painful, making players grimace when they strike the ball incorrectly.

Players of Basque Ball known as "pelotari", use tape to protect their hands ahead of a match at Labrit court or fronton, in Pamplona, northern Spain on March 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Victor Esteban, a player of Basque Ball, known as "pelotari", prepares and protects his hands ahead of a training session, in Pamplona, Spain on Feb. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

A poster with photographs shows how to protect the hands to practice the Basque Ball or "pelota vasca", at a store in Pamplona, Spain on Feb. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Basque Ball player or "pelotari" Victor Esteban, returns the ball during a match at Labrit court or fronton, in Pamplona, northern Spain on March 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Victor Esteban, center, prepares to hit the ball with his hand during a match at Labrit court or fronton, in Pamplona, northern Spain on March 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Victor Esteban returns the ball on a Labrit court or fronton, in Pamplona, Spain on Feb. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Danel Elezkano, right, celebrates winning the match 22-10 in Pamplona, Spain on March 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Diego Iturriaga, 27, a player of Basque Ball known as "pelotari", holds Basque Balls as he poses for a photo at Labrit court or fronton, in Pamplona, northern Spain on March 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Basque Balls items are displayed at a store in Pamplona, Spain on Feb. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

Different models of Basque balls are displayed for sale at a store in Pamplona, northern Spain on Feb. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

A group of young players of Basque Ball or "pelota vasca" take part in a training session, in Berriozar, near Pamplona, northern Spain on Feb. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)