By Bert van Manen
If you are under 50, it’s likely that every high jump you have ever seen on TV was a Fosbury-style jump, known as the “flop”. It’s the standard now, has been since Mexico 1968 where Dick Fosbury won the Olympic gold. Hard to believe that they used the scissors-style jump and the straddle jump for centuries, isn’t it? Imagine it’s 1965, and put yourself in Fosbury’s shoes for a second. When he decided to committ all his training to the “flop” (he did not invent it, but he convinced the world it worked), he had not won anything with it yet. It’s not as if he fiddled with a detail and found a small improvement. He changed the run-up. He changed the take-off. He changed the turn, and the landing. How confident must you be, to travel so deep to the left, into uncharted territory, when to the right there is a tested concept? He did it, because high jumping had stopped developing. It had hit a ceiling, and Dick Fosbury broke through it.
Torbjörn Blomdahl is our Dick Fosbury.
You can’t get a proper perspective on Tiger Woods’ achievements without knowing a thing or two about Jack Nicklaus. So before I say anything about TB, I have to talk briefly about Raymond Ceulemans. At the peak of his career, Ceulemans was not only the best player in the world by a mile, he was even pretty close to being the best player a person could theoretically be, with the knowledge available at that time. He had the rock-solid stance, the authoritative stroke, immaculate concentration, temperament and nerve. As a match player, he was extremely hard to beat because of his tactical ability (which is a polite way of saying he always kept the chicken breast for himself, and left the chicken shit for his opponent). His position play was as good as anyone’s, in that era when Blomdora’s box had not yet been opened. He played a technical game, a precision game. Control was the key word: the cueball usually hit the third ball with just enough speed, + 10 inches to keep positions open. His gameplan: hit the second ball with accuracy, send the cueball off into the desired line, and it will hit three rails and ultimately the third ball. If this third ball is close to a rail, be more precise. If it’s frozen to a rail, be unbelievably precise. Is the second ball eight feet away from you? Then your stroke had better be laser-straight. Ceulemans dedicated himself to this; his cueball ran in honest, straight lines across the table. He took the calculation of bankshots (of all shots, for that matter) to a higher level; three cushion was a science. His mindset was apollonian: logic ruled over emotion, and reason over intuïtion.
The Great Man honed and perfected that gameplan, until it could go no further. He averaged 1.5 for many years, 1.6 even in some tournaments, and that was it. He had hit the ceiling, or rather: his game had. There was no way for him to get to 1.8, because he already did everything as well as it could humanly be done.
In the early eighties, a young fellow from Sweden walks into Ceulemans’ life and changes the textbook of three cushion forever. He has a different gameplan. He is like Fosbury, who says: “Trying to convert more run-up speed into height has been tried often enough, apparently it does not work.”. Blomdahl seems to say: “Precision and more precision does not pay off. I am not even going to try to find that last rail when the third ball is so close to it. Why look for a 2 mm chance when there is a 61,5 mm ball on the table, waiting to be hit? I’ll try different lines, different combinations of spin and draw, spin and run-through, and different speeds. What do I have to lose, if conventional
methods give me a 5 % success rate on these tough positions? I might as well experiment. Which lines can I create using the grey area’s inbetween the usual three hits: no-english / running english / maximum spin? When can I make use of the cueball running in curved lines, rather than straight ones? What if I give myself an extra chance by playing the shot with so much speed that it could miss after three cushions and then hit after two or three more? What if I give my cueball contradictory orders? How can I use the fact that angles can be lengthened or shortened by using a different stroke?”.
The amount of outright new solutions, variations on existing ones, adjusted lines and improved or double chances the Swede comes up with, is staggering. It’s as if the chessboard has gone from 64 to 100 fields. He has blown the game wide open, no position seems unmakeable, attack is the superior defense.
One of the things he makes clear once and for all, is that billiard balls could not care less about the laws of mathematics, and all two-dimensional billiard diagrams should be viewed with skepticism. It’s the rules of physics that determine how three-dimensional rolling objects react to collision and friction. Lines on paper are like words on paper: add a voice and intonation, and they can change from lilac to deep purple.
Blomdahl’s mindset is different from Ceulemans also, and it shows around the table. We like to think of Swedes as cool cucumbers, but this one often has the emotion of the match on his face for all to see. Exuberance, pride, disappointment, frustration, bewilderment, joy. Shot for shot, he captivates audiences everywhere with an electric presence. Hit or miss, he is exciting. Brash, and fresh, with the arrogance of youth, but also imaginative, beyond anything we have ever seen. Blomdahl does not discard the three main ingredients of the Ceulemans game: control, calculation and caution, but he mixes in his own trio: imagination, inspiration and intuition. His results don’t lie: the I’s prove to be as fruitful as the C’s.
Torbjörn Blomdahl is already a serious challenger when he is barely 20, and he begins beating Ceulemans from time to time, early in his career. He is over 1 average in his first few international tournaments, well over 1.2 soon after. It makes him an automatic selection for Dr. Bayer’s BWA stable of professional players in its second season (1987), and in 1988 he takes over the nr. 1 spot on the world ranking, having played at the highest level for only 6 years. At that time he joins Ceulemans in “1.5 – country”. Must have been strange for RC; Kobayashi had crossed the border once or twice, but nobody had ever actually LIVED in that kingdom except the king.
The billiard world is beginning to take notice of one of the Swede’s main innovations: speed. Not on every position of course, 7 out of 10 times he will play the shot like any top player would, if there is no problem. But the difference the 3 out of 10 make, is shocking. If a shot is easier to make with speed, he’ll often play it that way and leave position to chance. If an easy shot will surely result in a bad position, speed is again the answer: on occasion 110 miles an hour. Three balls will fly across the table, and nobody knows where they will come to rest. At times, the resulting position will be as awful as it would have been at controlled speed. TB takes that in his stride, no complaints; after all,
he was the one who took a random card from the deck, he put the balls where they are now. But he is not apologetic either, if he gets rewarded with an ideal position and an opportunity to make a high run. Watch old video of TB – RC matches, and you’ll see the expression on the senior maestro’s face, when TB makes a point and sends three balls flying, without any control. The balls come to rest in the nicest places, and RC’s face, for those who can read mime in Flemish, says: “You lucky piece of ****”. I am sure that in later years, he came to realise that this was not luck, but a well-deserved reward for good thinking.
Blomdahl is the world’s dominant player in the nineties, on his own for most of that decade, then joined by Dick Jaspers at the summit of the game. They will dance a tango for many years, and the three cushion sport is the big winner. In 1999 in Heiloo (Netherlands), they play a winner-takes-all day long match for 100.000 guilders (around 45.000 Euro). Blomdahl wins it decisively, and the main reason he does is: he is the less stressed, the more relaxed player. Coping with pressure and seizing moments are recurring themes in his career, and he usually comes out on top.
Both TB and DJ are now able to play at a pace of 1.7 /1.8, and they keep pushing each other to do even better. I am absolutely convinced that Blomdahl was made a better player by Jaspers, and – even more so – vice-versa. Priceless was the comment I heard TB make about Dick in 2006: “Let’s all be grateful that he plays the wrong shot from time to time; if he didn’t, he’d never lose.”
The Blomdahl era is quite different from the Ceulemans era in more ways: where RC in his prime played just one (Belgian) league but many classic disciplines, DJ and TB don’t bother too much with the free game, 1-cushion or balkline, and become three-cushion specialists and multinational league players. Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, later even Spain and Portugal. Add to that the BWA tournaments, later on replaced by the UMB circuit, and it’s a tennis-players life that Blomdahl starts to lead, where travel is year-round and exhausting.
Not only does he have to be a superior three cushion player, he is now also expected to be able to drive 1100 km in a single weekend and play well, fly to all continents, suffer from jetlag and play well, eat whatever food is available, adjust to whatever table is there, and play well. He is a journeyman, with a lovely wife and two young boys at home in Backnang, Germany. It takes a stubborn, focussed, uncomplaining and exceptionally self-sufficient sportsman to do that: unlike his pampered tennis- and golf counterparts, he usually flies economy class, he is his own business manager, and his own coach. Most tournaments – the Crystal Kelly being the obvious exception – are unglamorous, and there are many non-playing hours to kill. Aged 35, Blomdahl says he cannot live this life indefinitely, and announces retirement from the sport when he is 40. Lucky for us, he had second thoughts about that. “He is as much a prisoner of his own ability as I am”, said Jaspers about that, recently.
Speaking of ability: as most people know, TB has unusual language skills. In two decades as an adult, he becomes fluent in German, English, and Dutch, with a working vocabulary in Danish, French, Italian and Spanish, and he can manage basic communication in Turkish, Japanese and Korean. I see a significant parallel here, with his billiard learning curve. Where most of us would be shy of the unknown, afraid to make mistakes, stick with what we know, TB jumps in with both feet and opens new frontiers for himself.
In 1998, playing for a Dutch team in Hengelo, Blomdahl crosses a milestone barrier. He records a league year average over 2. It’s 2.017, to be exact. He’s the first player ever, who can claim to have
an actual playing strength over 2. You cannot make that claim by playing 2 average in a single tournament, we can all agree about that. But if you do it in 22 matches to 50 in the Dutch league, with strong opponents every week, over an 8 month period, in 12 different rooms? Then your year average is your actual playing strength. He will miraculously repeat that feat by playing 2.017 again in 2003, again in the Dutch league but this time for his team in Heeswijk. Jaspers and Caudron are the only players who have also recorded a season average over 2, in more recent years.
In the new millennium, TB and DJ are joined by Frédéric Caudron and Daniel Sanchez at the top of the world ranking, and both the Belgian and the Spaniard prove to be formidable opponents, winning 4 world titles and 16 World Cups between them. In ever-changing order, this quartet makes up the top-4 of the world for almost a decade, with Zanetti always close behind and only Sang Lee and Semih Sayginer getting a foot in the door for a while. TB is on a record hunt for years: in Sergei Bubka-style he goes inning by inning: first equalling the 50 – point average record held by Kobayashi and Komori (50 in 15) against Bitalis in 1992. He will later even make 60 in 15 (v. Ceulemans), and hold or share the 50 pt. record on 14 innings (again v. Bitalis), 13 innings (v. Jaspers), 12 innings (v. Weijenburg), 10 innings (v. Tay Quoc Co in 1996) and even 9 innings. The 9 inning game (v. Chr. vd Smissen in 2000) is still his personal best, and he shares it with Zanetti and Caudron. The record stands for 11 years, until Merckx amazes the world with 50 in 6, in 2011.
In the high run department though, he is never the world record holder. A run of 24 is his best in match play, well below Komori (28) and Ceulemans (28).
In late 2006, Blomdahl is 4th on the ranking and in danger of losing his priviliges in the draw. He produces an amazing run, winning three World Cup tournaments in a row: Istanbul in December 2006, Sluiskil in January 2007 and Manisa in March 2007. He is once again the pack leader, and nobody has ever won three World Cups in a row since.
The “quartet” starts to lose its iron grip on the world ranking around 2008. The emerging Koreans had a bit to do with that, but also Merckx, Horn and Kasidokostas turn out to be as good as the four kings in the deck, if it’s their day. There is nothing wrong with TB’s game in these years, not even if he starts to lose in 8th and quarter finals of World Cups regularly. Not his game has changed, the three cushion world has. So many other players can now do 1.5 and better; it’s as if the knowledge that he, DJ, DS, SS, SL and FC have spread around the world now comes back to haunt them. The set system is cruel, a little mistake or a little luck can make or break your tournament, and not even the biggest names are safe in the early rounds of World Cups.
A few years later, around 2010, it’s official. Blomdahl’s game is slipping. Where Jaspers and Caudron are now rock solid on 2 average, TB has dropped to the 1.6 / 1.7 mark. That is still awesome, but no longer what the best of the best do. It’s not only visible in his body language, his choice of shot is affected too. He is not comfortable with his own game, tries to avoid problems rather than confront them, bad decisions creep in. Nobody in the three cushion community thinks less of TB because of it. It’s a natural thing, he’s approaching 50, he has won everything, what does he have to prove? For every player, there will be come a point where they lose their peak ability and it all goes downhill,
slowly but irreversably. It is too bad though, that this great champion who has given us so much joy for 30 years, will never again…
Hold on. Stop typing clichés. What just happened there?
Forget those last few lines. They may have looked okay in February 2012, but turned out to be rubbish, in March.
TB wins the most prestigious money tournament in the world, in 2012: the Agipi Masters. Does it in style too, destroying Kasidokostas 50 – 7 and beating Sung Won Choi in 14 innings with the help of a 20 run. K.R. Kim is his victim in the final. There is a bad hiccup in the 2012 world championship in Porto, but then, a week later: TB wins the Suwon World Cup, arguably the toughest one in the cycle. And my goodness, we cannot believe our eyes when we watch him play. It is vintage Blomdahl, it is nothing short of a triumph. The confidence is back, and in abundance. He has a 2.370 general average in Suwon 2012, which is just a few innings away from Caudron’s Vienna world record, with two matches over 3 average. The icing on the cake is, that he regains the nr. 1 spot on the UMB world ranking. It is a stunning comeback, to say the least. He has a new cue, sure. But in this writer’s opinion: it’s not so much the bike, it’s the legs.
I want to say happy 50th birthday to one of the sharpest minds in our sport; and behind his aloof presence you’ll find a truly nice guy. I can testify to that: he has welcomed me into his home and played practice matches with me, beating me 50 – 17 time and again without breaking a sweat, thereby crushing what little confidence in my own ability I may still have had.
I am kidding. I loved every minute of it.
He’s a family man with a different perspective now, who has learned the relativity theory of billiards. He is a gentleman: if you ask him about Caudron, Jaspers, Merckx, Sanchez or Zanetti, he will tell you – no, explain to you in detail – how phenomenally good they are, and he’ll mean it. And yet, as I write this, none of them are at the top of the ranking. He is.
Torbjörn, you don’t have to promise us that you’ll play as long as Ceulemans, which would mean: another 25 years. But we would certainly appreciate another decade.