Achilles and Agamemnon


Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on December 21, 2013

Bert van ManenThe two mightiest Greek warriors in mythology had interesting lives. Never a dull moment, when you  lead armies into war, sacrifice a daughter to the Gods, feud over female beauty, but most of all: compete. Against each other mostly, because they were head and shoulders stronger than all the others. You know where I am going with this, don’t you? Fast-forward a few dozen centuries: Filippos Kasidokostas and Nikos Polychronopoulos rule the 3-cushion sport in their country, two levels above the competition. Plenty of talent and a few veterans in Greece, but still: from 3d place down, it’s 1.2 average and less. On 2nd and 1st place, it is 1.5 or (much) better. Filippos and Nikos are world class.

You are tempted to name them in the same breath, in Karpov / Kasparov fashion, but a quick look at their careers reveals a significant difference. Nikos has colored his billiard life in silver and bronze so far, where Filippos’ career is silver and gold. FK first:

World championships: Lausanne 2009, winner. Valladolid 2003, runner-up. Rotterdam 2004, runner-up. Antwerp 2013, runner-up.
European championships: 2012, winner
Crystal Kelly tournament: 2011, winner.
World Cups: Hurghada 2010, winner. Suwon 2010, 2nd place. Antalya 2010, 3d place Trabzon 2011, 3d place. Peloponessos 2013, 3d place. Medellin 2013, 3d place.

With only Agipi missing, Kasidokostas has won three of the four most prestigious titles in contemporary 3-cushion, plus a World Cup, several Greek national titles and a dozen other podium finishes. That is very impressive indeed. Not only can he rub shoulders with the world’s best, he can win major tournaments and has well earned his current 3d place on the world ranking. Next up, Nikos.

World championships: St. Wendel 2006, runner-up. Rotterdam 2004, 3d place. Cuenca 2007, QF. Antwerp 2013, QF.
European championship: Espinho 2005, QF. Salon de Provence, 2007, QF.
European junior championships: 1995, 3d place. 1997, 3d place. 1998, 2nd place. 1999, winner.
World Cups: Matosinhos 2009, 2nd place. Sluiskil 2008, 2nd place. Vienna 2011, QF. Matosinhos 2011, QF.  Sluiskil 2007, QF. Hurghada 2006, QF. Sluiskil 2005, QF. Barendrecht 2005, QF. Hurghada 2004, QF. Barendrecht 2001, QF, Agipi 2010, QF.

Look at all those 2nd and 3d places, and all the quarter-finals. It is both enviable and heartbreaking. Is Nikos an almost-guy? Can’t take the pressure, can’t seal the deal? I have to admit, I thought so ten years ago. He reminded me of the late Christoph Pilss, only stronger. Relying on talent rather than grit, always looking for a clever (and easy) way out of a problem instead of working hard to find the perfect hit, the difficult line. Where catholic raised but Calvinist at-heart Jaspers would say: “If you only have half a chance, double your effort”, the young Nikos said: “I am not going to waste my energy on this position”, and he would casually shoot, miss, and not care.

I was too quick to judge back then, when I thought he’d never make it into the top 20. He has matured a lot, and even though his game plan has not fundamentally changed, his averages have gone up steadily as a result of better decision making. Quite possibly, he is more dedicated to the demands of his sport now than he was in his twenties. Nikos is still smart as a devil, he’ll spot every makeable (reverse) ticky, umbrella or other bank shot to break your defense, and he can run eight naturals in two minutes. But as with all players who mostly depend on the right half of their brain, he can be his own worst enemy.

Which brings us back to Filippos. Moments of total triumph: the world title, the Crystal Kelly win, the magnificent 21-and-out against DJ in Agipi 2011. But Kasidokostas too, can lose it completely. Three of his most painful recent losses were in Peloponnese (40 – 10 in 13), Agipi (50 – 7 in 20/19) and Medellin (40 – 39 in 29). His nemesis, three times over: Torbjörn Blomdahl. Believe me, the worst of the three is the 40-39. Losing a match where your opponent is speed-skating and you are wading through knee-high mud, we can all live with that. But losing a match you know you should have won, that leaves a scar.

What is so special about Kasidokostas, other than his famous back hand “tremor”? Without a doubt, his control over the second ball. He has such a repertoire, when it comes to playing easy shots. A little more ball, a little less english. Vary the height, vary the speed. You and I think it is an easy short-angle, we go down, shoot, and make the point. For Kasido, (who is a bit like Zanetti, in that respect) it is a drop-down menu he can pick from. He’s confident enough to pass up on the unmissable line, and play a more difficult one, with position as his reward.

Neither Nikos nor Filippos has the greatest stroke in the world. In sheer quality of ball hitting, they are up there, but not in a league with the likes of Merckx, Dong Koong Kang and Sanchez. They make up for it with impeccable choice of shot. Both have a great feel for the percentages, an understanding of “what works” and what does not. None other than Blomdahl has shown us how crucial that is. You are better off playing the right line with decent quality than superbly hitting the wrong shot.

Last week, Polychronopoulos and Kasidokostas met in the final of a Greek GP, the fourth in a series to decide the National championship. I saw that match, and it was a thing of beauty. Nikos won it 40 – 30 in 15 innings, but he had to watch as Filippos made the missing 10 in the equalizer. And what a run that was! Ten easy shots, courtesy of nine perfect position plays; that is reserved for occupants of the Olympus only. Nikos won the shoot-out 2-1, and I think he deserved it. Zeus watched, and nodded with approval.