Niels Feijen outlasted 127 players

Determined to add a WPA world title to his resumé, Holland’s Niels Feijen outlasted 127 players to win the World 9-Ball Championship in Qatar.

An hour into the race-to-13 final for the 2014 World Pool-Billiard Association World 9-Ball Championship, Hall of Famer Ralf Souquet, sitting on the sidelines at the Al Saad Sports Club in Doha, Qatar, doing commentary for the worldwide television stream, provided fans with what amounted to be a brief, but perfect, summarization of what makes Niels Feijen such a special pool player.

Feijen had just clawed back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals against Austria’s Albin Ouschan, winning four straight racks to move ahead, 5-3. Nothing was coming easy for the Dutchman, but he now was clearly in his element after a slightly shaky start. Souquet, famously a battler himself, couldn’t help but take notice.

“He’s a grinder,” Souquet observed of Feijen. “He never gives up, no matter what. And that’s exactly what brings you far. If you hang in there no matter what happens, you take defeats, take tough losses and go from there, you build up stamina, and you come back even stronger the next time.”

Two tough and tortuous hours later, Feijen was drinking in the accolades as the new world 9-ball champion, having literally “grinded” his way to a hard fought, 13-10, win over the game Austrian. The victory was Feijen’s first ever World 9-Ball Championship title. It came 15 years after he first turned pro.
In many ways the finals win, and Feijen’s entire week in Doha, embodied the Dutchman’s brilliant 15 year pro career in microcosm. Admittedly lacking in natural pool talent, Feijen has worked for everything he has ever earned. And perhaps nobody in the game has logged more hours, and more effort over the years to learn and improve than Feijen.

Since 2000, Feijen’s hard work has made him a consistent name at the highest levels of the sport, winning tournaments and accolades around the globe. But he’s also had his share of near misses and bitter disappointments, most notably two straight finals losses at the World 8-Ball Championship, in 2010 and 2011, the former a hill-hill barn-burner against England’s Karl Boyes.

This had led to talk in some pool circles over the last few years that perhaps Feijen might never win “the big one,” and that he would be forever known as a great player who failed to reach the super elite. But as has been typical of his style for years, the 37-year-old kept his nose to the grindstone. This has been especially true over the last two years, as he has doubled down on his efforts, adding missing details like a tactical safety game learned from long training sessions, conducted with Dutch coach Alex Lely, and studying sports psychology.

Most importantly, perhaps, Feijen has dedicated himself to family life with his wife, Katrine, and young daughter, Lina. This, it turns out, has provided the Dutchman with a grounding and balance he didn’t have before, the perfect antidote to putting one’s faith in the pool gods day in and day out.

Anyone paying attention to Feijen’s results over the last two years could clearly see that something special was coming: two straight dominating European 9-ball championships, a convincing win at the 2013 World Pool Masters, two Euro Tour wins, runner up at the World Cup of Pool (teammed with Nick van den Berg), and MVP at the 2013 Mosconi Cup. Now that he has finally added the World 9-ball Championship to his already long resumé, pool clearly has a new member of its elite club.

Of course, as is usual when you gather 128 pool players from nearly 50 countries to vie for the sport’s most prestigious prize, nothing was even close to certain for Feijen, or any other of pool’s higher-ups as the long week began in burning hot Doha. The event, now in its fifth year hosted and organized by the Qatar Billiard and Snooker Federation (QBSF), has clearly established itself as perhaps the finest tournament on the pool map.

Each year Doha has attracted more and more players from more and more countries, all seeking 9-ball glory. This year, spots in the main draw were at such a premium that the 128-man qualifiers the week before attracted what surely would be considered a world-class field in any regular tournament. Even several former world champions had to enter the qualifiers to vie for one of 15 slots in Stage 2.

The QBSF, which will host the World 9-ball Championship at least through 2017, greatly upped their stature this time in the eyes of pool fans worldwide when they unveiled a high-definition, live online stream of all 14 tables in the Al Saad Sports Club, and offered it completely free to fans around the world, beginning with the qualifiers. The stream, provided by European company Kozoom, which regularly streams the Euro Tour, allowed fans the ability to switch between tables with a click of a mouse and chime in with their opinions on the chat feed.

The group stage, played out over four days, provided for the usual spectacle, as the big names looked to avoid embarrassment and quickly notch the two wins necessary to advance to the Final 64 knockout stage, and the upstarts hoped to sneak in and grab a slim chance at glory. By Day 4, Judgement Day in pool parlance, when all matches in the group stage become do or die, the tension and drama at the Al Saad became palpable. Eight of the 32 matches went down to the very last ball. Careers seemed to hang on the slightest turn. Elation and crushing disappointment comingled like teenagers at a high school prom.

Outsiders not close to the sport may wonder what is the big deal exactly, as on the surface they can see there are still dozens of players left in the event. But for those who follow championship pool at this level, Judgement Day holds a special significance. Once a player escapes the double-elimination stage with his two wins, the path to glory is laid out clearly: six wins to the title, six wins to pool immortality. Sure, only around 30 out of the final 64 players realistically had a chance at the title. Then again, pool is often a streak sport. Catch an incredible gear, and a player nobody expected could claim a stunning victory on the last day.

Even a passing glance at the Final 64 bracket was enough to make the most jaded pool fan stand up and take notice. As usual, Filipinos made up the largest contingent, with 11 players having passed the grade. The Taiwanese brought eight players to the knockout stage, while the Europeans took up nearly half the field with 27 players. Many of the big names from the sport who came to Doha made it through. So too did a host of up-and-coming sharp shooters and plenty of dark horses looking to upset the apple cart. Even a bunch of newcomers from countries not normally associated with pool — such as Iran and India — qualified.

Indeed, it was the upstarts who turned the tournament on its head the following day in the round of 64, as five former world 9-ball champions, including defending champion, Thorsten Hohmann, went down in defeat. Heavy favorites, like the Philippines’ Dennis Orcollo and Lee Vann Corteza, also were sent home early.
The tone was set in the first session by Qatar’s very own Waleed Majid. On paper, the 26-year-old Qatari had no chance against world No. 4, Vann Corteza. The match marked Majid’s first foray beyond the group stages.

Majid, though, played like he was the one pegged for greatness. Smooth, confident and fearless, the Qatari played near flawless 9-ball, putting the Filipino on the ropes early, and keeping him there until the very end with an impressive 11-6 victory. It’s was the first time a Qatari pool player had ever reached the round of 32 in the World Championship, proving that Qatar’s investment in pool was starting to pay dividends.

The Czech Republic’s Roman Hybler has been on the scene for more than 10 years, but hadn’t made much noise. Today, the 37-year-old Czech roared into the pool spotlight with an impressive outing against former world champ Mika Immonen, winning, 11-7.

“When I woke up today and went to the practice hall, I felt good. I felt I had a chance today,” Hybler said. “If I can beat Mika, I can beat anyone.”
Dutch newcomer Marc Teutscher was hanging around defending champion Thorsten Hohmann for much of their tense match. But absolutely nobody could imagine the 22-year-old, playing in his very first world championship, overtaking the great German. After trailing for most of the match, Teutscher finally took a late lead and held off Hohmann with some amazing pressure shots to pull off a shock win, 11-9.

Orcollo was a heavy favorite, but the Filipino star ran into a streaking Naoyuki Oi of Japan, losing 11-8. With two of their big names out so early, and legend Efren Reyes a casualty of the group stage, the Filipino fans who flocked to the Al Saad were in shock. But in keeping with the unfolding storyline, it was the lesser-known Filipino players who stepped into the void to grab the limelight: last year’s semi-finalist Carlo Biado, sharp-shooting Johann Chua and two relative unknowns, Raymond Faraon and Elmer D. Haya, both of whom toil as overseas workers teaching pool in the Middle East, all advanced.

After the surprise elimination of six world champions, along with several other big names the day before in the round of 64, the race to pool’s crowning glory the following day began more wide open than it had in years. With the field about to be whittled down from 32 to just four over three torturous sessions, the scenarios and possibilities ranged wildly. Would an improbable name emerge to suddenly snatch the crown? Or would a familiar name step up to make sure everything remained as it should be in the pool universe?

Early on it, seemed the former might come true as incredibly, Qatar’s Majid started things off by taking down 2012 World 9-ball Champion Darren Appleton, 11-9. However, just as the Qatari’s were thinking they had a miracle in the making, Majid fell to the Philippines’ Chua in the round of 16, 11-8.

The 21-year-old Chua is clearly one of the rising stars of the Philippines, as he plays practically without fear and can shoot lights-out pool. Chua, though, lost some steam in the quarterfinals against fellow Filipino Haya. The 35-year-old Haya is the very definition of a journeyman, living in Abu Dhabi and working as a house pro at a local pool hall, all to support his wife and five kids back in the Philippines. Haya had actually made it to this year’s main draw by winning one of the brutally tough qualifiers, and he played without a care throughout the main tournament. After outlasting Chua, 11-8, the surprising Haya became the lone Filipino left standing in the final four.

Haya clearly benefited from his place in the draw, which saw him face and beat three fellow Filipinos on the way to the semis. But fate would bring him a far more difficult challenge in the semi-finals in Feijen. The Dutchman logged a workmanlike performance over 12 hours on Day 6, and his game reflected the growing confidence that had been so evident over the last few months.

Feijen first took down Polish veteran Radislaw Babica, 11-6. He then handily beat Austria’s Mario He, 11-6. In the quarter finals, Feijen came up against the Philippine’s Biado, who had emerged from the carnage of the round of 64 as a favorite to go all the way. But Feijen doesn’t have many weaknesses in his game, and several mistakes by the Filipino were quickly punished. Feijen won without being touched, 11-7.

Afterwards, an obviously delighted Feijen talked of his pride in having worked so hard over the last few years and how that has started to pay dividends.
“I’m thrilled,” Feijen said. “I worked really hard for the last two years. I’m just doing everything right. I stepped up my practice a little bit more. I’m winning a lot of tactical battles, and that’s bringing me out of a lot of difficult spots when guys are coming back at me. It’s winning me more games than before, which is huge.”

Feijen would have been the favorite going into the final day’s semis, had it not been for the phenomenal play of Taiwan’s Chang Yu Leung. The 33-yearold from the southern Taiwan city of Tainin, has been one of the sport’s hottest players. Just two weeks before Doha, he won the brutally tough China Open in Shanghai for the second time.

Chang lost his first match in group play in Doha, but had been untouchable since. After handily taking down France’s Stephen Cohen in the round of 32, Chang dueled with 2005 World 9-Ball Champion Wu Jiaqing in the round of 16. The two engaged in a high-quality affair, trading amazing shots, difficult pots and brilliant safeties, with neither one giving an inch. The match went down to a final nervy safety battle, with Chang getting the last laugh and the victory, 11-10.

Chang then headed for the TV table in a quarterfinal showdown with the USA’s Shane Van Boening. The American was carrying the hopes of his nation on his shoulders, and had looked the goods earlier in the day with two impressive wins. Chang, however, continued on unabated with machine-like precision and confidence. Van Boening had no answer, and found himself down 10-4. The American fought back after several mistakes, but Chang held on to advance to the semis, 11-8.

Pool fans knew Austria’s Ouschan as an up-and-coming talent out of Europe, but not many were considering him for a spot in the semifinals of the World Championship at this stage in his young career. But the 23-year-old proved his mettle over 12 hours of play with three gritty come-from-behind performances that seemed to fill him with confidence.

After first coming from the rear to beat Hybler, the Austrian clawed back from 10-7 down to beat the Philippines’ Antonio Gabica, who lives in Qatar and coaches the national team and was runner-up last year to Hohmann.

The emotionally exhausted Austrian then headed off for a match with China’s Li He Wen. Again Ouschan fell behind, but gutted out the dark patches and bided his time until the tide turned. He won the match, 11-8.

The final day began with the two semifinals being played concurrently, and with a packed house of nearly all Filipino overseas workers there to cheer on the unlikely Haya in his bout against Feijen. The race-to-11 match stayed fairly even in the first half, as both players suffered from errors. But midway through the contest, Feijen pulled himself together, while Haya clearly was suffering under the gravity of the situation. The moment the Filipino missed a simple 9 in the side to tie it at 7, the match was basically over, and Feijen cruised to victory.

Ouschan came into his match with Chang an underdog but the Austrian capitalized on some early mistakes to take an early lead. Chang tied the match at 3-3, but Ouschan won the next three and never looked back. Chang didn’t find his wonderful stroke until the 14th rack, but by then, down 9-5, it was too late.

After an hour’s rest, Feijen and Ouschan came back for the race-to-13 final. Considering how both had played in the semis, as well as the previous days, it was difficult to predict who would come out on top. Feijen seemed to get the majority of nods, if only because he was so much more experienced than Ouschan. But all week Ouschan had shown the ability to persevere, and to take a lead when it counted most.

Right from the start, Ouschan continued his quiet and focused approach as he went up, 2 – 0, first with a break-and-run, then by forcing Feijen to foul. Feijen got one game back, but gifted Ouschan the next frame with a miss on the 5 ball.

Feijen finally started to find his rhythm, and his newly acquired tactical game, as he notched the next four frames to go up 5-3.

Ouschan grabbed the next two to tie at 5-5 as the two battled in the trenches for each and every ball. Feijen won a terrific safety battle in the next rack to regain the lead. Ouschan countered with two clears of his own to retake the lead, 7-6. Feijen returned the favor with a two-pack to go up, 8-7. He would never trail again.

Rack 16 encapsulated everything that Feijen’s game stands for these days; a vaunted offense backed up by a ferocious defense. After forcing Ouschan into a jump on the 1 ball, the Austrian left the 1 “on,” but long and very tricky. Feijen confidently potted the shot, then ran the table to move up, 9-7. Yes, he had been a bit lucky, but it was a luck created with a great safety earlier in the rack.

Just when Feijen looked to be in the zone and going up by three in the next rack, however, he missed a makeable 9 ball. Ouschan, cool as ever, nailed a dangerous long cut to keep the match close, 9-8.

At this point, the match was downright testy, as both players didn’t want to give an inch. But Feijen’s tactical maneuvering in the next two frames proved that his game had truly become world class and pretty much sealed the deal. After a safety battle, the Dutchman deftly potted a ball, and broke up a cluster to open the table for the clear. Then Feijen got Ouschan to foul off another terrific safety to get his first three-rack lead, 11-8. A subsequent break-and-run put Feijen on the hill, and one win from glory.

As was typical of Ouschan all week, the Austrian simply wouldn’t quit. After a break-and-run, he cleared off a mistake by Feijen to make the score 12-10, applying ample heat.

With the pressure building, the pair duked it out yet again in the next rack. Feijen, now clearly under duress, was forced to give up the table after leaving the 5 ball near the side pocket. Ouschan could have jumped and potted the 5, but he chose to kick down and up table to try to slide the 5 in. Instead, the cue missed the orange ball by a hair, resulting in a foul. With ball in hand, Feijen simply had to connect the dots. As the case 9 ball fell, Feijen let out a roar, and partially collapsed onto the table in sheer relief and disbelief that he had finally won the big one.

Afterwards, an overjoyed Feijen talked about the flood of emotions he had experienced throughout the match, and how he had to constantly fight the demons that were taunting him. He also rightfully wasn’t shy about taking personal credit for all the hard work that he had put in, and the many lessons learned along the way, to reach this momentous point in his career.

“The hardest thing in that match was not thinking about winning,” Feijen said. “I was so nervous in the beginning, because all those demons came back from those two losses in the 8-ball.

“My tactical game was huge. My break wasn’t working at all. I got hooked so many times. I was kicking safe, I was playing safe, so that got me in the match. It was a big old battle.

“From midway, I started playing real good, I think. A couple of mistakes, then I got up, 12-8. And then your mind’s going crazy. You start thinking about winning. You’re thinking, ‘please give me one chance and I can win.’ You’re daydreaming about the speech, the title. That’s the hardest thing, to stay composed.

“I think I really deserve it. You just gotta go grab it. Nobody’s going to give it to you. It was the fight of staying composed, patience, executing well and blocking out all those bad things and the good things. The hardest thing was staying in the moment. And I think I did really well, and in the end I finally snapped it off. “You don’t get many finals in your life. Some people never get one chance to get a final. It took me a couple of years to get a final again, and this is the first world 9-ball final I had. I was thrilled to get a chance, and I said, go ahead and take this chance.”

Ouschan, while clearly disappointed, remained as stoic after the match as he had been all week on the table.

“In the middle of the match I was a little bit too nervous,” Ouschan said. “In the beginning, everything was perfect. I made one bad mistake, and then everything turned. I couldn’t find my rhythm again. He got lucky two times, but that’s pool. He deserves to win.”

Indeed, everyone who watched the match, and who has followed the incredible progress of Feijen’s career, would agree with that last notion. With his solid work ethic and good attitude, Feijen epitomizes all that is great about the game. Naturally, when asked if the win would change his life, the new World 9-Ball Champion said, “No.” But he is certainly going to savor his hard-earned success for many years to come.

“Nothing’s going to change,” he said. “I go back to my girls. I’ll just be happy being home. Then, I’ll prepare for the next event. I don’t let things go to my head. When I get home, I’m just a regular dad. I get my daughter again, so I got work to do (laughs). My life’s not going to change. This is just the cherry on top of the ice cream to win it finally.”

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