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Fisher stays atop WPBA rankings with come-from-the-loss-side win at Sledgehammer Open

Kelly Fisher, Janet Atwell and Kristina Tkach

The late Helena Thornfeldt remembered in heartfelt 1st Annual event named in her honor

She was nicknamed the Sledgehammer because of her powerful break. Whenever conversations about Helena Thornfeldt broke out among friends and competitors at the 1st Annual WPBA Cherokee Sledgehammer Open, named in her honor this past weekend (Wed., Oct. 19 – Sun., Oct. 23), more than just a few of the gathered women had cause to remember it; the loud whack of initial contact and the way the balls spread out as though desperate for space beyond the rails to dissipate the energy of it. It had taken over two years for the pool community’s widespread respect and admiration for the late Helena Thornfeldt to arrive at a gathering in her honor. The WPBA Hall of Famer died in August of 2019 and though Janet Atwell, in an attempt to organize a 2020 event, began work on it almost immediately, COVID had other ideas, that persisted.

This past weekend, Atwell’s room, Borderline Billiards in Bristol, TN had one of Thornfeldt’s favorite things, sunflowers, on prominent display. A table was set aside to hold a variety of individual and collections of photos. The trophies that were handed to the winner, Kelly Fisher and runner-up Kristina Tkach were accompanied by two actual sledgehammers, made by Robert Ingold of Team SuperShaft. Atwell is working on the creation of a permanent wall plaque at Borderline Billiards with engraving space for the event’s present and future winners, along with a pair of crossed sledgehammers. The event began on Wednesday with words from Janet Atwell and a video made by Bonnie Arnold that featured, among other things, Thornfeldt singing a karaoke version of Born to be Wild. The event officially opened with the National Anthem sung by Christina Druen.

“I think it was an emotional event for everyone,” said Atwell. “Some went through some struggles with it.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Kelly Fisher. “A very emotional event, that first night. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

Kelly Fisher

“We all missed her really,” she added, “and we hadn’t had a chance to show that or feel that, as a family, together. I know that for myself, during that final and a during a few other close matches as well, I could just imagine Helena saying things to me. I went outside at one point to get a breath of air and Monica (Webb) said something to me that Helena would have said and I got kind of fired up there. So for me, personally, she was definitely a presence in my heart and mind.”

Among those in attendance, including Fisher, Tkach and Atwell of course, was Jeannette Lee, who had, in a 2017 interview, called Thornfeldt “the best female straight pool player in the world.” Lee joined Atwell as a member of a ProAm team (one of many) that played a social tournament on opening night, full of blatant sharking and fun. Monica Webb, who ran a restaurant business with Thornfeldt for a number of years, was there, as well. So, too, was the WPBA’s Peg Ledman, a personal friend of Thornfeldt. Not present, though there in spirit, was Allison Fisher, who was in England being awarded an MBE title (a Member of the British Empire) for her “contributions to sport,” many of those, from Britain’s point of view, earned as a snooker player there. The event also featured a strong contingent of (now) relatively well-known junior competitors like Hayleigh Marion (for whom Borderline Billiards is a home room), Sofia Mast, Skylar Hess and recipient of a great deal of attention, 12-year-old Savannah Easton.

The $10,000-added Sledgehammer Open drew a total of 80 entrants to Borderline Billiards, 32 of them drawing byes exempting them from Stage One competition. The 48 others, 16 of whom drew opening round byes in Stage One, played in a double-elimination bracket until there were eight on each side of it. Stage Two awarded byes to the top 16 in the WPBA standings, as the double-elimination bracket got underway, and . . . they were off. 

Headlining the eight competitors who advanced to Stage Two from the winners’ side of the Stage One bracket was Sofia Mast, one of the 16 who’d been awarded opening round byes in Stage One. Her first opponent was Savannah Easton, setting up an early junior marquee matchup. Mast advanced on the winners’ side 7-2, while Easton would move to the loss side, winning three by an aggregate score of 21-5 and advancing to Stage Two. Also advancing on the winners’ side of the Stage One bracket were Kathy Friend, Jaye Succo, Nathalie Chabot, Christy Norris and the Callado sisters, Eleanor and Emilyn. Along with Easton, loss-side competitors advancing to Stage Two were junior competitors Skylar Hess and Precilia Kinsley, along with Nicole Albergaria, Dawn Oldag, Kim Housman, Lisa Cossette and Casey Cork.

Kristina Tkach

The opening round of Stage Two, with Kelly Fisher (among others) idle with opening round byes. Kristina Tkach played and won her opening round against Casey Cork 8-3 and then downed Stephanie Mitchell 8-3 in a match that set her up to face Fisher. Savannah Easton opened the Stage Two part of her title bid with a successful, double-hill match versus J. Pechauer Northeast Women’s Tour (JPNEWT) veteran Kia Burwell. Easton advanced to face another JPNEWT veteran and the #1-ranked American player in the WPBA rankings, Caroline Pao, where she (Easton), as they say, met her match; Pao winning the contest 8-5. Mast lost her opening Stage Two match to Meng-Hsia (Bean) Hung 8-2, and moved west for an eventual rematch against Easton. 

Fisher, in the second round, downed Eleanor Callado 8-3 and then, in a late match, fell to Tkach 8-6. Tkach advanced to the other winners’ side semifinal against Pao.

“She obviously had worked very hard and perfected that cut break and I just wasn’t getting my break going,” said Fisher. “She obviously played very well to beat me. I knew she was in good shape and thought “Oh, my!”

At the other end of the bracket, Margaret Fefilova, with relative ease, was working her way through the winners’ side for an eventual matchup against Jennifer Baretta in the other winners’ side semifinal. Fefilova got by Lisa Cossette 8-3 before running into what turned out to be her toughest opponent (as gauged by racks-against), Janet Atwell, who chalked up five against her. Fefilova moved on to down Ashley Rice 8-2 and record a shutout over the #3 competitor in the WPBA rankings, Brittany Bryant, which set her up against Baretta.

Fefilova got into the hot seat match with an 8-3 win over Baretta and was joined by Tkach, who’d sent Pao to the loss side 8-4. On Saturday night, Tkach claimed the hot seat 8-2 over Fefilova and would wait until Sunday afternoon to see who came back from the semifinals.

It was Kelly Fisher. But she wouldn’t play that semifinal until Sunday. In the meantime, Pao and Baretta had business to attend to on what was left of Saturday night. Baretta picked up Savannah Easton, whose improbable and impressive run among this roomful of professional female pool players was still happening as the bracket whittled down to its final six. Easton had followed her loss to Pao with a loss-side, double-hill win over Beth Fondell and then, looking to advance into the first money round (17th/24th), she had the opportunity to avenge her Stage One loss to Sofia Mast. She did so, in a match that appropriately came within a game of going double hill. Easton then eliminated Laura Smith and won a double-hill battle against Emily Duddy. She then downed Monica Webb 8-6 and Dawn Hopkins 8-3.

Larry Easton, Savannah’s father, no stranger to his daughter’s talent, turned to Atwell as he was watching this, as amazed as many of the spectators at how far his daughter had come, in a lot of ways.

“I don’t even know what to say,” he told Atwell.

“She’s got great cue ball control, thinks ahead and plays very smart for her age,” Atwell would comment later. “She’s very strategic and plays great safeties. She plays like an adult and (her career) is off to a great start.”

Pao, in the meantime, drew Fisher, who’d started what she called a “grueling Saturday,” playing five matches in a row from noon to 8:30. She played and eliminated Meng-Hsia Hung (at noon), Janet Atwell (2 p.m.), Susan Williams (4:30) and the WPBA’s #2-ranked competitor, Brittany Bryant (6:30), all 8-4. Fisher defeated Pao 8-3 (8:30), as Baretta elicited a variety of mixed emotions from all assembled by ending Savannah Easton’s run 8-1. There was a lot of spectator applause in the moment, some of it for both of them, but a lot of it for the talented junior.

“People were excited to see her play,” said Atwell, “and happy with her finish.”

In a quarterfinal battle appropriate to the circumstances, played the following morning, Fisher and Baretta went double hill before Fisher prevailed. In the semifinals, Fisher went back to the loss-side pattern she’d established and punching her ticket to the finals, defeated Fefilova 8-4. Fisher might have played six matches to be in the finals, but thanks to Tkach, it required eight, including a loss. The rematch came within a game of double hill, but not before Fisher found herself down 2-5 and later, 5-8; Tkach a rack away from the hill.

“I was spurred on by pure determination really and the will to win it,” she said of her comeback. “I told Helena, I looked at her picture and like that, ‘Come on, do this for you’ kind of thing and whether you believe in that kind of thing or not, it’s not about who or what it takes to spur you on, but doing whatever it takes.” 

“Whatever it was,” she added, “things turned around. I dug in my heels, hit a gear and took charge of the match.”

From 2-5 down, Fisher won eight of the last 11 games, including the last five in a row. Quite the gear, all things considered. Whether it was herself, Helena, or just the adrenaline of a final push to the finish line, Fisher brought it all to bear and claimed title to her close friend’s first and likely not the last memorial.

Helena Thornfeldt

The 1st Annual WPBA Cherokee Sledgehammer Open came about through the efforts of any number of people, all of whom host Janet Atwell thanked, from the players and spectators to the members of her staff. She also thanked event sponsors the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Brad Hendricks Law Firm (Little Rock, ARK), Patty and Walter Harper of Knoxville and the streaming services of DigitalPool with Upstate Al, Zach Goldsmith and a number of competitors who joined them in the booth.

Editor’s note: Helena Thornfeldt died on August 20, 2019 at the age of 52. Originally from Borlange, Sweden, she was living in Villa Rica, about 35 miles west of Atlanta, when she died. She had opened a new restaurant, Pizza Mania, 15 days before she passed. The “Sledgehammer” turned professional in 1994, was a three-time European straight pool champion and won the 2002 US Open Championship in New Mexico, downing Allison Fisher in the finals. In the year she was inducted into the WPBA Hall of Fame in 2017, she was ranked 9th among American pool players. We here at AZBilliards join with members of the ever-expanding pool community in mourning her loss and in the years to come, celebrating the life of such a vibrant, widely-admired and respected member of our community at an annual Sledgehammer Open.

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Marion and Kanamura take home doubles title on Viking Cues’ Q City 9-Ball Tour

Yoshiaki Kanamura and Hayleigh Marion

While the vast majority of pool tournaments feed into a system that defines various levels of competition based on a player’s performance at them, there is a breed of tournament action that doesn’t really care whether you win, lose or fall somewhere in between. They’re called Scotch Doubles Tournaments and while they are competitive in so far as those who participate are certainly invested in winning, they’re more of a crowd- and player-pleasing exercise which has a way of emphasizing fun rather than player stats and grim-faced battles for dominance at the tables.

Every once in a while, say a number of tournament directors from all across the landscape, you have to throw one or two into a tournament schedule, because they’re popular and because, as Paul Simon said so aptly in his song, it’s a good idea to “keep your customer(s) satisfied.”

The Viking Cues’ Q City 9-Ball tour tossed one into their schedule last weekend, March 6-7, and drew a crowd of 18 teams of two to Jac’s All-American Billiards in Newport, TN. An unexpected pair of competitors made it through the event to claim the event title. It’s not that teenager Hayleigh Marion and early 20-something Yoshiaki Kanamura, playing at a 9 handicap as a team (5 & 4), faced high tier competition at this event. There wasn’t a chance that they’d be running into Wei Tzu-Chien and Shane Van Boening, for example, but tour veterans Reid Vance and Hank Powell, sporting a combined ‘15’ handicap were there, as were 16 other teams sporting players of relatively high caliber.

Team Yoshiaki worked their way through the field to arrive at the hot seat and while they lost the subsequent first set of a double elimination final, they came back to claim the second set and the title. It was only the second time that Hayleigh Marion had ever cashed at an event, the first being a Scotch Doubles Tournament at Break & Run Billiards in Chesnee, SC last June, when she and Janet Atwell finished in the tie for 5th place and won $30; combined, not each. We have not, until this past weekend, recorded any data regarding Marion’s partner, Mr. Kanamura.

They faced Rodney Huskey and Ricky Bingham (some teams gave themselves names, others didn’t) in one of the winners’ side semifinals, as Team Chitwood (Ricky Chitwood & Josh Swindell) squared off against Team Supershaft (James Price & Robert Ingold). Team Yoshiaki downed Huskey/Bingham 5-2, as Team Chitwood sent Team Supershaft west, double hill (8-4).

With Team Chitwood racing to 8, Team Yoshiaki claimed the hot seat 5-4.

On the loss side, Team Supershaft picked up Team Hightower (Jimmy Hightower & Jose Irizarry), who’d just defeated the aforementioned Reid Vance & Hank Powell 5-1 to reach them. Huskey/Bingham drew Louis Chandler & Dakota Waldrip, who’d eliminated Cory Morphew and Steve Summerlin 5-3 to reach them.

Two double hill matches ensued for advancement to the quarterfinals, both won by the recently-arrived-from-the-winners’-side team; Huskey/Bingham downing Chandler/Waldrip 6-4 and Supershaft eliminating Team Hightower 5-7. Team Supershaft won the next two for a shot at Team Yoshiaki in the finals. They defeated Huskey/Bingham in the quarterfinals 5-2 and then, Team Chitwood in the semifinals 5-4 (Team Chitwood racing to 8).

You might say that going into the finals, Team Supershaft was aided and abetted by double the momentum of singles competition. However you describe it, Team Supershaft took the opening set of the true double elimination final 5-2. Team Yoshiaki, though, came back to win the second set 5-1 and claim the title; (according to our records) the first of any kind for either member of the team.

Tour director Herman Parker thanked the ownership and staff at Jac’s All-American Billiards for their hospitality, as well as title sponsor Viking Cues,, AZBilliards, Federal Savings Bank Mortgage Division and Dirty South Grind Apparel Co. The next stop on the Viking Cues’ Q City 9-Ball Tour, scheduled for this weekend, March 13-14, will be a $1,000-added ($1,500 with 64+) event, hosted by Sonny’s Billiards in Princeton, WV.

Frank and McGrady split top prizes on Viking Cues’ Q City 9-Ball Tour stop in Tennessee

Trey Frank

Scheduling tournaments can be tricky at times, because while most tour directors (TDs) look into whether there are going to be conflicting tournaments near a potential venue at a given point in time and attempt to schedule accordingly, they can’t predict what they don’t see at the time they solidify their own schedule. What can and often does happen is that after a schedule has been set and confirmed, sometimes months later, someone organizes a nearby conflicting tournament, or the TD who made the initial schedule realizes that there’s a tournament nearby that he/she didn’t know about when preparing their own schedule.
So it was that tour directors Herman and Angela Parker reckoned without an American Poolplayers Association regional league tournament that did, on the weekend of May 18-19, conflict with their made-months-ago-plans for a Viking Cues’ Q City 9-Ball Tour stop at Janet Atwell’s room, Borderline Billiards in Bristol, TN. The event drew a relatively small field of 25, who completed their competition at the conclusion of the first day when the undefeated occupant of the hot seat, Trey Frank, and his potential opponent in the finals, Sean McGrady, agreed to a split of the top two prizes.
They met first in the hot seat match after Frank had shut out Robert Ingold in one of the winners’ side semifinals and McGrady had sent Brian James to the loss side 5-5 (James racing to 7) in the other one. In what proved to be the deciding match, Frank claimed the hot seat 6-2.
On the loss side, James and Ingold were able to get right back on track. James drew Jackson Hurst, a junior player, who’d defeated 15-year Pro competitor and room owner, Janet Atwell 4-1 and Scott Howard 4-4 (Howard racing to 7). Ingold picked up Brady Brazell, who’d eliminated Dalton Messer 7-3 and Brian Francis 7-4.
James and Ingold advanced to the quarterfinals; James, 7-3 over Hurst and Ingold 5-5 over Brazell, who was racing to 7. James then ended up handing Ingold his second defeat by shutout in those quarterfinals.
The last match of the day went double hill, as James and McGrady battled to see who’d be splitting the top two prizes with Frank in the hot seat. McGrady prevailed 5-6, he and Frank opted out of the final, and everybody went home.
Tour directors Herman and Angela Parker thanked Janet Atwell and her Borderline Billiards staff, as well as title sponsor Viking Cues, Bar Pool Tables, Delta 13 Racks, AZ Billiards and Professor Q-Ball. The next stop on the Viking Cues’ Q City 9-Ball Tour, scheduled for this Memorial Day weekend (May 25-26) will be the $1,000-added, 5th Annual North Carolina State 9-Ball Open at Brown’s Billiards in Raleigh, NC, where defending champion Reymart Lim is expected to compete.