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The Reckoning

Austria’s Albin Ouschan steady play and steely resolve pushed him to the title at the World Pool Championship.

By Keith Paradise

Sitting in his chair during the finals of the World Pool Championship, Albin Ouschan was starting to ponder if today simply wasn’t his day.

The early lead he jumped out to against Kuwait’s Omar Al Shaheen had completely evaporated and the match had developed into a see\saw affair until Ouschan missed a sharp but not impossible cut shot on the 6 ball. Al Shaheen seized on the opportunity, clearing the table and tacking on two more games to build a 9-7 lead in the race-to-13 finale. The Austrian barely watched, staring at the floor throughout most of his opponent’s play before calling for a quick restroom break.

One thought went through the Austrian’s mind: “Okay, you’re at nine wins and that was your last rack. I’m going to take a timeout and then it’s over for you.”

“I set not only a goal to win but not to let him back to the table anymore,” Ouschan recalled later.

Ouschan raised his game as the World Championship went on.Photo by JP Parmentier

When the Kuwaiti failed to pocket a ball on the break in the 17th game, the Austrian turned his vision into a reality, winning six consecutive racks to defeat Al Shaheen, 13-9, and win his second World 9-Ball Championship last month in Milton Keynes. Ouschan, who claimed his first championship at the 2016 competition in Doha, Qatar, became only the fifth player to win multiple world titles – joining Earl Strickland, Thorsten Hohmann, Johnny Archer and Fong-Pang Chao. The victory was yet another strong performance for the Austrian at Matchroom-produced events this year, having won the inaugural Championship League Pool competition in April and finishing in the top-10 of last month’s World Pool Masters.

“I just feel tremendous, to be honest,” he said. “I still get goosebumps if I go on Facebook and see that it really actually happened and it wasn’t a dream.”

The two-time world champion proceeded through the five-day, 128-competitor event much in the same manner that he survived that early spring Championship League tournament: He overcame adversity early to play his best pool at the end when it mattered most. It’s a gameplan aided by Ouschan’s recently adopted fitness regimen that started during COVID-19 lockdowns early last year.

As tournaments and travel were postponed, canceled or placed on hold, the Austrian struggled to find motivation to practice – sometimes putting down his cue after 15 minutes of hitting balls at his training facility. Instead, he decided to spend more time with his wife, daughter and extended family and reached out to his trainer, looking to improve his overall strength. He began spending three-to-five sessions a week hiking, biking, skiing and working out, giving an already fit-looking competitor even more endurance and energy.

“That was a huge part of my game, that I’m still 100 percent there, even if its 10 p.m. or whatever time,” said the Austrian. “I think I showed that in the Championship League Pool event that, after so many matches and really not much sleep, I did very well again.”

After opening the tournament’s double-elimination phase with a 9-5 victory against Italy’s Fabio Petroni, Ouschan faced Roberto Gomez, who kept the Austrian permanently seated in building a commanding 8-0 lead in a race-to-nine, winner breaks format. Standing one rack from victory, Gomez allowed his opponent to the table when he missed the 8 ball. Ouschan cleared the table to get on the scoreboard, then took advantage of a couple more unforced errors from Gomez to win six more games to pull to within 8-7. Ouschan had an opportunity to send the match to a deciding rack but missed the 6 ball, giving the Filipino the opening he needed to secure the game and the match.

Matchroom's return to the event was apparent in a sleek, new arena.Photo by Taka Wu/Matchroom Multi Sport

“I can’t really say that I made some bad mistakes or something. He just froze me in my chair for like an hour,” said Ouschan. “While in the end, it was my fault, he played good and I played solid.”

Trying to swallow down the result as quickly as possible and not dwell on defeat, the former Mosconi Cup Most Valuable Player drew upstart American junior Kaiden Hunkins in the next round. Ouschan drilled the winner of the 2019 Billiard Educational Foundation’s 18-and-under boy’s championship, 9-1, to earn a spot in the single-elimination, 64-player knockout portion of the competition.

Although this year’s tournament lacked contestants from China, Chinese Taipei and the Philippines due to pandemic guidelines in those countries, the tournament transitioned into its single-elimination phases with plenty of solid stars and intriguing storylines to go around.

The field included three of the eight women who entered the event – Kelly Fisher, Germany’s Veronika Ivanovskaia and Albin’s sister, Jasmin, who knocked Filipino Jeffrey De Luna out of the event with a 9-5 victory, then clawed back from a 6-1 deficit to defeat England’s Mark Gray in a win-or-go-home, hill-hill third round match.

There were the players from Poland. Which ones? How about all of them. Nine Poles entered play on Sunday morning and, when the knockout phase began Tuesday afternoon, all nine remained, making up one-eighth of the field.

And then there was the six-pack of United States players who survived the competition’s first phase, including last year’s Mosconi Cup nucleus of Skyler Woodward, Billy Thorpe and Shane Van Boening, who at times appeared to be in some of the best form of his career. The five-time U.S. Open 9-Ball champion opened the round-of-64 with a commanding 11-4 victory over longtime rival and reigning Mosconi Cup Most Valuable Player Jayson Shaw of Scotland.

With a weaker field than usual thanks to Pacific Rim travel restrictions and a game that appeared razor sharp despite the long COVID layover, Van Boening appeared to be in the driver’s seat to capture his first World Pool Championship. After an 11-4 trouncing of Pijus Labutis of Lithuania, the South Dakotan faced Hungarian Oliver Szolnoki, a player who drove six hours from his home to Bucharest to spar with the 14-time Mosconi Cup team member the week before the tournament to gain some experience and education.

Kaplan (above) led nine Poles into the knock-out stage, while surprise Ivanovskia (below) was one of three women to advance.Photo by Taka Wu/Matchroom Multi Sport

“It definitely had a positive impact,” said Szolnoki. “I usually feel pressure facing a player that I admire, but the biggest thing that calmed me down is that I saw that even he is human. It helped me understand to not be too hard on myself when I miss – even Shane misses.”

And boy, did he in their match.

With template racks now replaced by referees using a traditional wood triangle to rack the balls, van Boening appeared poised to repeat what had happened in Romania, using two dry breaks and a foul by his opponent to build a 4-0 lead in a race-to-11. Then the South Dakotan missed a combination shot in the fifth game, a bank shot on the 1 ball in the sixth game and a sharp cut shot on the 1 ball in the seventh game. Van Boening tacked on another rack in the eighth game to increase the lead to 5-3 but that would be the final game he would win. The 24-year-old Hungarian implemented a combination of safeties and two break-and-runs, and was aided by a handful of misses by his opponent and some good, old fashioned luck.

He missed a 1 ball only to have the ball fall into a pocket diagonal to his intended pocket, allowing him to stay at the table. He connected with the 4 ball on a jump shot in the 12th game which accidentally struck and pocketed the 8 ball, giving him the opportunity to close out the rack and increase his lead to 7-5. The Hungarian used a sliver of opening left by Van Boening to add another rack, then used a break-and-run and back-to-back victorious safety exchanges to win eight consecutive games and close out the match, 11-5.

“Basically, they changed the rack and I couldn’t find the break. Oliver found the break and I was just too late to find what he was doing. He took over the match,” said Van Boening.

“The change hurt him for sure,” said Szolnoki. “I found a break that worked and suddenly I had either good looks or was able to play safeties, and when I did miss, I got very lucky with the leaves.”

Szolnoki wasn’t finished. Facing Spain’s Francisco Sanchez-Ruiz in the quarterfinals – a player he had already defeated 9-8 in the tournament’s opening round – the young Hungarian was shaky in the early stages but clawed to a 4-3 lead. He added three straight to build a commanding 9-3 lead. The Spaniard was down but far from out, winning six of the next seven games to cut the deficit to 10-9, before Szolnoki gutted out the final rack, advancing to the semifinals with an 11-9 win.

“He came back and had chances, but I was lucky again,” he said. Heading into Thursday afternoon’s semifinals, the two matches had the feeling of varsity and the junior varsity. In one match, there was previous champion Ouschan versus two-time World Pool Masters champion David Alcaide of Spain. In the other semifinal was Szolnoki, whose highest finish on the EuroTour was third in 2018, facing Al Shaheen, a 28-year-old Kuwaiti who was authoring a Cinderella story of his own.

Al Shaheen got off to a shaky start, missing shots in the first three racks. Szolnoki picked off the missed shots and built an early 6-1 advantage.

“I know that I was terrible and my technique looked terrible,” said Al Shaheen. “I was playing fast because I didn’t want to think.”

Maintaining his composure and a smile, the Kuwaiti’s comeback started in the seventh rack when his opponent failed to pocket a ball on the break. Al Shaheen cleared the table, then used a break-and-run along with some safety play to win seven consecutive games and take an 8-6 lead. The Hungarian responded by using a scratch by Al Shaheen and a victorious safety battle to win three of the next four games and tie the score. At the table with a chance to retake the lead in the 19th game, Skolnoki attempted to execute a difficult cut shot on the 2 ball and missed. Al Shaheen cleared the table and then tacked on a break-and-run to close out the match, 11-9, and advance to the finals.

“I was very disappointed in the semifinal,” said Szolnoki. “Even though I was winning, I really wasn’t spending much time at the table. So, I wasn’t getting a chance to figure out the table. I had switched to a power break that was working but I missed a few pressure shots.”

Americans Van Boening (above) and Woodward (below) looked unbeatable until the format switched to the use of wood racks.Photo by Taka Wu/Matchroom Multi Sport

Despite the disappointment, it was still a pretty productive week for a player who has only been full-time professional for three years and wasn’t feeling all that confident about his play as the knockout stage began.

“Still, I’m very happy overall,” said Szolnoki. “I’ve never received so many messages before. I got so much support and it made me feel really good. It made me feel like I’m heading in the right direction.”

Also heading in the right direction was Ouschan, who survived the single-elimination rounds as much as he won them. After defeating Bosnia’s Sanjin Pehlivanovic and Germany’s Thorsten Hohmann by matching 11-7 scores in the first two rounds, Ouschan faced Poland’s Mieszko Fortunski in a grueling set during the round of 16.

“No one knew how the break would work with the wood rack and, on our table, it was horrible,” said Ouschan of the breaking conditions. “There were so many clusters.”

The two competitors were within a game of each other through most of the match, until Ouschan scraped together back-to-back racks to gain a 9-7 lead and used a critical cut shot to run out the 19th rack and limp into the quarterfinals with an 11-8 victory.

Waiting for Ouschan in the quarterfinals was Woodward, the lone American remaining in the field. Despite not picking up a cue for two weeks after dealing with a bout of food poisoning, Woodward was playing like the competitor who won back-to-back Mosconi Cup Most Valuable Player awards in 2018 and 2019. The transplanted Kentuckian (now living in Texas) knocked out reigning world champion Fedor Gorst, 11-8, in the round of 64 and eliminated Filipino Roberto Gomez, 11-7, in the round of 16.

After winning the first three games against the Austrian, Woodward lost control of the table when he missed the 4 ball in the fourth game. Ouschan tied the match, then forfeited the table when he scratched on the break in the seventh rack. Woodward tacked on two more games to push his lead back to 5-3 and had a chance to increase his lead in the ninth game but missed a tough cut shot.

“I just missed the ball and didn’t really have a chance from there,” Woodward said.

Ouschan used a jump shot along with two combination shots, two break-and-runs and a couple of safety victories to win eight consecutive games and advance to the semifinals against Alcaide.

“I don’t know what happened there but I was totally in the zone,” said Ouschan of his play after the jump shot. “I don’t think there was any chance anymore for Skyler to beat me at that point.”

He would play even better against the Spainard, who jumped out to an early 2-0 lead before missing a routine 6 ball in the corner pocket.

“I don’t know why I missed that ball,” said Alcaide. “I looked at the ball and I thought I made it and then it ended up stuck in the corner and I was like, ‘Wow. What happened?’”

What happened is that Ouschan took full advantage, winning the third rack to climb onto the scoreboard, then breaking and running four straight racks to build a 5-2 advantage. Alcaide won back-to-back games to cut the lead to 5-4 but was never a factor again. Ouschan ran from the break twice and beat Alcaide in several safety exchanges to close out the match, 11-4.

“I figured it was a coin flip on who wins so I thought, ‘You’re already in the semifinals so you have nothing to lose at this point,’” said Ouschan. “Pretty much from the start I played a perfect match until the end.”

Consistent Alcaide threatened until his semifinals loss.Photo by Taka Wu/Matchroom Multi Sport

The Austrian’s dominant play continued early into the championship match against Al Shaheen, breaking and running the first three racks to build an early lead. Life was good. The fans in attendance, let in for the final day of competition, were starting to serenade Ouschan. He was smiling. He was happy. He was comfortable. So comfortable that he lost concentration and Al Shaheen tied the match with three straight victories of his own. From there, the competition was a tug-of-war as much as a game of pool, with the competitors splitting the next six racks. When Ouschan missed that 6 ball in the 15th game, Al Shaheen cleared the table then tacked on a break-and-run to push his lead to 9-7. After taking their timeouts, the competitors engaged in a prolonged safety battle before Ouschan made a jump shot and cleared the table to cut the lead to 9-8. He would control the remainder of the match, breaking and running twice then using a foul by his opponent to build a 12-9 lead.

After volleying the 1 ball after the break in the 21st game, Ouschan was sure his opponent would respond with another safety of his own – until he saw Al Shaheen, realizing he was running out of chances, eyeing up a long shot for the corner pocket.

“Inside I was hoping, “Please please go for the 1 ball,’” said Ouschan. “It was like a 10 percent chance to make it because the cue ball was frozen.”

Al Shaheen attempted to pocket the ball and missed, leaving Ouschan an open table and a routine runout for the championship in a match that was anything but routine.

“It was pure relief,” said Ouschan. “You just want to get on the table, scream your heart out and then enjoy the moment.”

Also enjoying the moment was Al Shaheen, a player who had been going through a major transformation process over the previous six months after some financial setbacks as well as the death of close friend and mentor Jalal Alsarisi of Jordan, who died in April from complications from COVID. Alsarisi constantly preached to the Kuwaiti to be patient because he was talented, so Al Shaheen stepped away from practicing to evaluate where he was in life and where he wanted to be. He recently quit his job, traveled to the United States and simply decided to try and slow down his usually quick pace.

Szolnoki took out fancied practice partner Van Boening en route to the semis.Photo by Taka Wu/Matchroom Multi Sport

He persisted through the event with endurance, rallying from a 9-7 defeat by Aloysius Yapp in the double elimination stage to defeat Stewart Colclough, 9-5, and qualify for the knockout phase. The Kuwaiti then survived back-to-back hill-hill matches against Poland’s Daniel Maciol and England’s Chris Melling, and an 11-8 nail-biter against Nick Ekonomopoulos of Greece to qualify for the quarterfinals. Al Shaheen took down Tomasz Kaplan of Poland, 11-6, then came from behind against Szolnoki before falling to Ouschan.

If only Alsarisi could have been there.

“I wish he had seen that,” Al Shaheen said. “He would have been so, so proud. And I know he’s looking and he knows what’s happening.”

It was not the best of times for returning champion Fedor Gorst of Russia, who survived the double-elimination portion of the event undefeated, only to be bounced in his first match of the single elimination phase. The 21-year-old opened the tournament having to fight back from a 6-2 deficit to defeat Mark Magi of Estonia, 9-7, then survived Mark Gray, 9-6, to advance to the single-elimination phase and meet Woodward.

The young Russian’s prospects looked good early on as he built leads of 4-1 and 8-4 but lost control of the table after a misplayed safety in the 13th rack. Woodward charged back, winning four straight games to tie the score. After a safety exchange, Gorst had the option of kicking at the ball and playing a safety or jumping the blocking ball and attempting to pocket the ball. Considered one of the best jump shot players in the game, he chose the latter and ultimately bounced the cue ball off of the table after landing the shot.

“I knew if I hit the cue ball right that it would stay on the table,” said Gorst. “But after sitting in the chair for 25 minutes it was tough to guess the power needed and I hit the ball too hard.”

Given the benefit of hindsight, the Russian stands by his strategy.

“With the winner breaks format, you want to make that ball and run the rest,” Gorst said.

A smattering of fans and the patented Matchroom touch brought the glory back to the WPC.Photo by JP Parmentier

The switch from alternate break, which was the format for previous World 9-Ball Championships when the event was recently held in Qatar, to winner break is one of two demonstrative changes which Matchroom made in its first year of operating the event. The other was to implement a template rack in the double-elimination stage and early parts of the knockout phase, then switching to referees racking the balls for the final 16 stage of the tournament – a similar format to what the promoter implemented during its inaugural running of the U.S. Open in 2019.

Matchroom Multi Sport COO Emily Frazer said players were made aware of the format before signing up for the event and that the decision was made in order to maintain a consistency throughout the company’s multiple table events.

“It would be preferred to always hand rack but we do not have enough referees to rack these tables and the balls to the standard we would like,” said Frazer.

Format alterations aside, the competition went on with the usual flair, features and – for the final day – fans, with pub tables being spaced out in the area and doors being opened for a handful of spectators for the semifinals and finals. Viewers on Sky Sport and mobile application DAZN were given a front-row seat for the main arena table while an ancillary table was available for viewing on YouTube for free. As the event progresses under the London-based company’s umbrella, Frazer plans to closely examine the tournament format, such as winner breaking versus alternate breaking, and the equipment used to establish a competition which is tough yet fair for all competitors.

Ouschan is one of just four players to win two world 9-ball titles.Photo by Taka Wu/Matchroom Multi Sport

“I think we need to look at the world championship to make it the dominant event of the Matchroom series,” she said. “I think we delivered a high-quality event. We showcased lots of different players and I think we finally showcased world class pool.”