Posted by Bert VAN MANEN on March 22, 2014
Eddy Merckx did not go undefeated in Viersen 2014, Frédéric Caudron did. But “Fred” was the first to say that Belgium’s third world team title in a row was as much Eddy’s accomplishment as it was his. He added that Merckx had played the higher tournament average (EM 2.243 – FC 2.150, a world record 2.195 combined), while facing the toughest of the two opponents in all five rounds. I’ve sung the praises of Caudron on these pages many times, never did more than just mention Merckx. It’s about time I corrected that. Make no mistake, Eddy Merckx is not in the “we must also mention”- category. He is in the “absolute giants of the game”- category. I could watch him play for days, and never get bored. Here’s his story.
Eddy Merckx (4 Sept. 1968) can be called a late bloomer, even though his career took off with a bang in 1994. With almost no international experience at that time, he won a BWA Grand Prix in Backnang, Germany, beating Komori, Sang Lee, Willenberger and Jaspers. But it was not (yet) the start of a great career, it was just an early sign of things to come, much later. Merckx again won a tournament in 1997, in Hooglede, Belgium, where he beat Horn in the final. Then, a few more years of drought. The likes of Carlsen, Sanchez, Theriaga, and good old Ceulemans usually got the better of Merckx in 8th and quarter finals, or there was an unlucky 1st round draw against DJ or TB.
You could have asked yourself back then: is this guy really ambitious, or is he happy as a billiard room owner who freelances in the leagues and plays second fiddle to the stars? Unlike the other Belgians of his generation (Caudron, Forthomme, Leppens), he never played in Asia or America, which also slowed his progress on the ranking. There was a third place in 2001, in Lugo, Spain, as a losing semifinalist to Jaspers, then no international tournament victory until 2005, when in Barendrecht, Netherlands, he beat Caudron in the final. What he HAD done in the eleven years since “Backnang”, was firmly establish himself in the European leagues as one of the hardest-to-beat players. I remember Blomdahl looking at his 22-match schedule for the Dutch “eredivisie” season of 1996/1997, pointing at the home and away games against Jaspers and Merckx, saying: “those are the four I could lose”. If you consider that TB was about 1.7 at that time and Merckx was around 1.3, he got a lot of respect from the Swede even then. As for his ambition, there was no lack of it, and the world would find out.
I’ve heard people say that he got on the right track as a billiard player after his spectacular weight loss. It’s not true: he lost all the excess pounds as early as the mid-nineties, and I salute him for it. But his rise to the top started a decade later, when he had matured as a person and found his groove as a player. Once he was in the world’s elite, 8th and quarter final losses suddenly turned into semi’s, finals and titles. It is not an exaggeration to say that since 2005, he has had a legitimate chance of winning, every tournament he was in.
- St. Wendel, 2006. World Champion, beats Polychronopoulos in the final.
- Salon de Provence, 2007. European Champion, final v. Caudron.
- Hurghada, 2008. Runner-up to Daniel Sanchez.
- Lausanne, 2009. Runner-up to Kasidokostas.
- St. Wendel, 2010. Runner-up to Jaspers.
- Porto, 2011. Runner-up to Jaspers.
- Trabzon, 2011. Winner, beats K.R. Kim in the final.
- Porto, 2012. World Champion for the second time, final v. S.W. Choi.
- Viersen, 2012. World Team title with Caudron.
- Hurghada, 2013. Winner, beats Tasdemir in the final.
- New York, 2013. Runner-up to Caudron in a strong field. Kozoom-subscribers: here is a video that illustrates well how Merckx approaches the game, and what he’s made of mentally. It’s the semi-final against TB, there is money at stake and the pressure is extremely high. Watch it all, or skip to minute 62, to see a very fine 11 run by TB. As good as that run is, what happens a few minutes later will leave you speechless. http://www.kozoom.com/en/billiard-carom/video/5338.html
- Viersen, 2013. World Team title with Caudron.
- Viersen, 2014. World Team title with Caudron.
Let’s not forget the five wins in the Belgian Superprestige, the eight times he won the National title in 3-cushion in Belgium, and his three wins in the tough Christmas invitational in Zundert.
And then of course, there is that world record. Not just SOME record, it may prove to be the toughest one in billiards to ever break, one that could stay in the books longer than Lindsay Lohan in rehab. Here it is: 4 – 9 – 26 – 7 – 0 – 4. Yes, in a league match in Fehrbach, Germany in 2011 against In Won Kang, Eddy Merckx made 50 points in 6 innings. I can’t even write that down without getting shortness of breath. There’s also a 40 in 7 against Coklu, a 40 in 8 against Peter Ceulemans, and 45(!) other matches over 3.000 average. He’s 4th on the all-time list of 3.000-and-over, behind DJ, FC and TB.
I’ve had the privilege of playing EM about two dozen times in my life, and it often ended in the 50 – 33 in 31 range, sometimes it was more like 50 – 17 in 24. One time in his room in Schelle, we played to 40 and after 4 innings, the scoreboard said 23 – 0. The elderly referee politely asked me if I wanted to use the halftime break I was entitled to. That’s a fun memory. I lost that match 40 – 27 in 21 by the way, which always makes it easier to tell the first part of the story.
What time and again impresses me most about Eddy’s game, is that he never takes anything for granted. He has the Jasperian work ethic, and a samurai’s control over his emotions. Each and every shot gets his respect, is thought through, treated as a challenge, a problem worth solving. His style is so different from Caudron’s. Frédéric is friends with the balls, he asks in a nice way, and they always seem happy to please him. Merckx doesn’t ask, he gives orders. And believe me, if Eddy’s cue tells you where to go, that is where you go, end of story. He has one of the most authoritative strokes in the world, and Caudron once said: “He can solve absolutely every problem on the table”.
Study matches by Merckx on video, and you’ll find out when it is legitimate to combine two chances, and when it is a mortal sin. You’ll learn about controlled speed and warp speed, about cue ball-memory, and maybe even about that special weapon he has, the “delayed draw” which he masters like no other top player. You’ll learn how to walk that fine line, with “precision” to your left, and “I’ll take my chances” to your right. If you genuinely look for a role model to emulate, a player whose style you will attempt to copy, EM may be a smarter choice than FC with his inimitable fluency or TB and his maverick brilliance. And while you are at it, you may want to copy Merckx’s manner around the table as well. He never complains, always apologizes for a fluke, behaves like a “mensch”, as they say in Yiddish. Not a flamboyant guy at all, not a colorful character. But an absolute pearl in the crown of 3-cushion, nevertheless.