Primed and Ready for Battle

An All-Star cast for the 5th China Open


(Shanghai)--As in much of the world, the sport of professional pool has had to endure its share of austerity lately. Which is why as over 100 of the best men and women players from around the globe gathered today in Shanghai to prepare for Thursday’s opening day of the China Open 9-ball Championship, the mood among the gathered throng of cue artists was decidedly upbeat.

For professional pool players China is clearly their Shangri-La. This is a country where the sport of pool gets real backing from the government and real attention from legions of fans. Big tournaments like the China Open are shown on national television with viewing audiences numbering over 100 million people. Massive pool halls abound and more are being built. The women players especially are legitimate sporting celebrities. Just the other night China’s CCTV state television aired a one hour documentary in prime time on female pool stars Fu Xiaofang and Liu Shasha. Yes, you read that right; a pool documentary aired nationwide at peak viewing hours. 

Now in its fifth year, the China Open, which kicks off Thursday May 16th at the  Shanghai Pudong Yuanshen Stadium, has quickly established itself as one of the premier events in the professional pool calendar.  The tournament, which is a major ranking event of the World Pool and Billiard Association(WPA), features both a men’s and women’s tournament. The men’s event offers $176,600 in prize money with $40,000 going to the winner. The women’s tournament, which is played at the same time, has $125,600 on offer with $30,000 going to the eventual champion.

That this is going to be one of the toughest slogs of the year in pool is without question and, for the best players on the planet, they wouldn’t have it any other way.   One could literally feel the excitement buzzing through today’s players meeting and press conference at the Wyndham Plaza Royale Oriental hotel in smog covered Shanghai.  As far as everyone was concerned, the China Open felt just like a world championship.

Defending men’s champion Dennis Orcollo knows all too well how difficult the task can be. The Filipino great had to put in yeoman’s effort in 2012 and, even then that almost wasn’t enough. After brilliantly disposing of Taiwan’s Lu Hui Chan in the final Orcollo remarked that the win represented perhaps his greatest achievement in pool. 9 months on he still feels the same way.

“This tournament is one of the hardest to win,” Orcollo said. “Last year was very difficult. I don’t know how I won it because I almost got knocked out several times.  Of all the tournaments I won, winning the China Open is one of my top achievements.  And this year there are more top players so it will be very difficult to win again. I will just try my best.”

World 9-ball Champion Darren Appleton, himself one of the greatest hard core players of this or any generation, concurred.  The Brit has had success all over the world but not yet in China.

“This tournament is one of the toughest to win for players from outside China,” Appleton said. “The tables are different, the food is different, the time zones, everything. Plus you’ve only got 64 players in the field which is a lot less then we normally play. And out of those 64 players, maybe 40 can win the thing. In most tournaments, you have some time to get in the groove, but in this event, you can draw a top player in the very first round and find yourself on your way home in a hurry.  It’s not called a world championship but it’s like a world championship.”

A quick glance at the players list(below) for this year’s event and you quickly understand Appleton’s sentiment.  The line up is literally a who’s who of pool’s greats.  Even former two-time double world champion Wu Jia Jing (formerly Wu Chia Ching) has found his way back to competitive pool after winning one of the tough qualifiers earlier this week. Wu now plays for China.

On the women’s side defending champion Kelly Fisher is under no illusions about the task at hand.  The WPA World number one  has dominated the women’s game for the last year and half, and with her recent win at the Amway Cup in Taipei in March, she is the odds on favorite this week. But she knows at this level, there are zero guarantees and repeating as champion is a tall order indeed.

“There are a lot of dangerous players in this tournament,” Fisher said. “I just take it one rack at a time.”

Despite being defending champion Fisher received little attention at today’s press conference. Nearly all the media glare shined down upon the handful of Chinese superstars, whose celebrity status is made up of one part athlete and another part cute supermodel. China’s number 1 Fu Xiaofang,  Liu Shasha, Chen Siming and the legend Pan Xiaoting all answered plenty of questions and posed for endless photos. The only other foreign player who could compare in the glamor department is Korea’s Ga Young Kim. Kim, who speaks fluent Mandarin, is clearly a darling of the Chinese media.

While the Chinese ladies would surely seem to have a big advantage on home soil, the pressure in which the play under is immense, not only from their association but also from their legions of fans. The spotlight is so intense that the prying goes well beyond the pool table.   One reporter quizzed the legend Pan Xiaoting about whether she was planning to release a CD of songs for her adoring public.

“No, I have no plans to record a CD,” Pan said. “9-ball is my profession.”

The women start with 48 players divided into eight groups of six players, with the top two progressing to the final 16, which is then single elimination. The total prize fund for the women is $124,000 with $30,000 going to the eventual champion

The men’s event has 64 players playing in eight groups of 8, double elimination, alternate break with four players progressing from each group to the final 32, which is then a straight knockout.  The men’s event offers $178, 000 in prize money with $40,000 going to the winner.

Action gets underway in the group stages at 1:30pm local time(GMT +8).