Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on August 31, 2013
Germany’s ace Martin Horn recently announced that he will not play the World Cup tournaments in Greece, Korea and Colombia later this year. He has had two mediocre seasons, dropped out of the protected top-12, and is apparently struggling with his motivation. Not the game itself, not the league matches in Europe – so he says – but the World Cup circuit is what he is unhappy with. He claims these tournaments are not “professional” enough. Horn is every inch a gentleman, his game is a delight to watch, and I am sorry he has made this decision. It seems to me he is kicking Cindy Crawford out of his bed because of that little mole on her cheek. Being 15th on the UMB ranking may feel like a disappointment to him; countless others would give up a kidney if it got them to where he is now. It made me think, about the top 12 and that daunting, Herculean task: becoming a professional billiard player. Let’s go back a few years.
Sure, Ceulemans made money, but billiards as a profession started with the BWA. In the late eighties, one of the highlights of the billiard season was the Spa tournament. A hundred and forty or so 3-cushion players travelled to this picturesque city in the south-east of Belgium, to participate in a knock-out event where TWO players would be left standing. They all paid a – then unprecedented – entry fee to the organizing BWA: 200 D-Mark. The format (until the last 16): single elimination, best of three sets to 15. If you lost 15 – 5, 15 – 5, counting travel expenses and your hotel, every carom you made may have cost you 100 D-Mark. Prize money? Initially, some 2500 dollars for both winners, half that for the losing semifinalists; but those modest numbers even dropped in the early nineties. Why on earth did players come from all over Europe, and several from other continents, to be a gladiator in this bloody arena? Because they wanted to become professional billiard players, and this was the only way in. The two “winners” in Spa were added to the BWA stable of pro’s, for ONE whole season. They would be in the main draw of all the World Cup tournaments, and make money rather than spend it, for a year. At the end of the season, the two lowest ranked contract players lost all privileges, and had to make room for the new winners of “Spa”.
It’s 1987, a year that illustrates well how mixed the field in Spa is, and the rules are made up as the show goes on. A match between two Dutchmen is terminated by the tournament director after 50 innings, at 12-14 in the first set. Jaspers survives three rounds, but then loses to his countryman Ad Broeders. Sang Lee comes all the way from NY, but he too falls in the fourth round. Laurent Boulanger and 1986 Las Vegas world champion Avelino Rico are the two winners, but BWA-founder Werner Bayer bluntly denies Boulanger his promotion, claiming that two Belgians (Ceulemans and Dielis) is the maximum.
1988, and no fewer than 25 hopefuls from Denmark travel to Spa. The host country Belgium has …3 interested players. Jaspers once again trips, this time over the foot of Dane Hans Laursen. Abel Calderon from the USA has a good run, but he loses in the QF. Fine play by German Hans Jürgen Kühl, but it’s not to be: Francis Connesson from France and Karsten Lieberkind from Denmark win the jackpot. As is almost always the case, both their adventures in the elite last just a year.
1989, heads roll again. Sang Lee loses in the second round, to Jef Gijsels. Forthomme goes out against Carsten Hjollund. Arenaza beats Caudron, Theriaga beats Sayginer. The year has another unpleasant surprise in store for Bayer, when Rini van Bracht and Yoshihiko Mano are victorious. The German businessman is happy to welcome Mano, son of a multi-millionaire from a country that may become important to the BWA. He dislikes the arrogant 8-time Dutch champion though, and frequently finds a reason to fine him or withhold prize money. Van Bracht usually hits back the wrong way (giving insulting interviews), but gets his ultimate revenge when he wins the Oosterhout World Cup in 1992.
1990, Spa continues to mock with reputations. Players who miss out on the last 16, best of five stage: Sanchez (beaten by Andreas Efler), Forthomme (by Wim Vredeveldt), Merckx (by Antonio Oddo), and Sayginer (by Paul Goelen). Yes, you’ve read that correctly: Vredeveldt, Oddo and Goelen in, Forthomme, Merckx and Sayginer out. Spa is like the Wimbledon Court nr. 2, the one they call “The Graveyard”. Jaspers loses to Joji Kai. Sang Lee and Caudron are in the last eight, but they lose to Paul Stroobants and Christoph Pilss respectively. Tatsuo Arai and Pilss are the new professionals.
1991, once again Sanchez, Forthomme, Caudron and Merckx are in the field, as well as past pro’s like Mano, van Bracht, Lieberkind and Pilss. Kurt Ceulemans and Martin Spoormans are in contention, as well as Dutchman Jan Arnouts who always goes far in Spa. Tonny Carlsen from Denmark beats Mano in the semi to become a pro, and 50 – year old dark horse Leon Smolders beats his Belgian countryman Spoormans, to become the most unlikely winner of a BWA ticket ever.
1992, the Dutch contingent does well as always (Havermans, Burgman, Habraken, Arnouts, Weijenburg), but none of them go the distance. Japanese players still make the trip (Mano, Arai, Kobayashi), but also South American hopefuls (Bone, Aveiga). Daniel Sanchez goes out at the hands of Rudolph (who also beats Merckx), Caudron loses to Kobayashi. The new pro’s: Christian Rudolph and Nabuaki Kobayashi.
1993, Daniel Sanchez and Eddy Merckx are by now the players you would expect to win. But they don’t, both get beaten by Louis Havermans. From the QF on, it’s a Belgian / Dutch affair with Riuchi Umeda completing the field. Weijenburg beats Arnouts in the semi, Umeda beats Wesenbeek.
1994, and the international enthusiasm for Spa starts to dry up. No Americans, very few Asians. It is an expensive trip, and the chances it pays off are extremely slim. Basically, the tournament dies because the format is flawed. Belgian and Dutch players still show up, of course. Raimond Burgman and Karsten Lieberkind are the last two standing. It was the last edition of “Spa”, where good players could win but (many) great players couldn’t.
Fast-forward to 2013. Have things changed, with the transition from BWA to UMB? The craziness of Spa is gone, but by what has it been replaced? Is it easier now to climb the ladder and become one of the elite?
Sorry, no. But we can hardly blame the UMB or the current (honest) format for that. It’s the sheer number of strong players, the current LEVEL of play that has made it so desperately difficult to get to the top of the world ranking. Our sport is such a small economy, it can only provide for a dozen pro’s and a few hundred struggling semi-pro’s. To be one of the twelve anointed, you have to beat Sanchez or Merckx or K.R. Kim from time to time. Good luck with that. Lieberkind, Umeda and Smolders had it easy. Becoming a professional 3-cushion player has never been more difficult than it is today.