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Silver Linings

Austria captured the World Cup of Pool title in London, but Team USA may have made the biggest statement.

Story by Ted Lerner Photos by JP Parmentier

The Austrian duo of Albin Ouschan and Mario He will never win any award for "Most Gregarious" in any event they enter. Whether in singles or doubles, Ouschan and He are all deadly serious and stone-faced business on the table. The no-nonsense Ouschan showed he was pool's new hard core man when he captured the WPA World 9-ball Championship in 2016, mercilessly smothering all comers on the way to the title. Mario He hasn't achieved that level of success, but the big, talented Austrian isn't afraid of grinding things out, and his success in Europe he's ranked No. 2 has proven that this hardnosed Austrian style of pool clearly has its just rewards.

So it certainly was no surprise that when the Austrian pair teamed up once again in Matchroom Sports' 11th edition of their scotch doubles World Cup of Pool in London in mid-June, they finally captured the prestigious doubles title, defeating the USA's Shane Van Boening and Skylar Woodward by a convincing 10-6 margin in the final.


Van Boening displayed emotion rarely seen during Team USA's World Cup run.

This was Ouschan and He's fifth time playing in the World Cup of Pool together. The Austrians aren't always the most exciting or prettiest team to watch, but when they are clicking, they tend to get the job done. Ouschan and He grinded out gritty and rather ugly wins in early matches, then found their top gear when it mattered most, crushing a favored China in the semis and deftly outlasting the USA in the final. Austria deservedly garnered the major headlines coming out of East London's venerable York Hall, but it was the performance of Van Boening and Woodward throughout the event that had many, especially promoter Barry Hearn and his hard -working Matchroom crew, in a rather excited state. For them, and fans of the USA, the Americans' performance in many ways was a victory in itself.

Now before we get accused of peddling the pool version of fake news, it's essential to offer a bit of context here. While the World Cup of Pool has become a much loved staple in Hearn's promotional line up, the Mosconi Cup is the clear flagship pool product under the Matchroom brand. Live Mosconi Cup crowds and television viewing numbers have never been bigger. But with the USA having lost seven straight times to Europe, and 10 out of the last 11, Hearn realizes that if things don't turn around soon for the Americans, the event will no longer have a reason to exist. You can have all the patriotic bluster in the world, but nobody wants to watch the same side waltz to the title each and every year. Lately Hearn has been touting an idea for a new event called the Reyes Cup. Named after the legendary Efren Reyes, the proposed event would see a five-man team from Europe square off against a five-man team from Asia. The Reyes Cup is still on the drawing board, but Hearn's enthusiasm for it shows just how desperate he is to have a competitive Mosconi-style event in his roster.

In the meantime Hearn knows he has to save his flagship tournament and this has led to some outside-of-the-box thinking. With former and seven-time winning European captain Johan Ruysink coming out of retirement to now coach Team USA, Matchroom is essentially throwing pool's version of a Hail Mary pass in the hopes of shaking things up.

Ruysink has generally kept his coaching methods close to his chest, but the intellectual Dutchman is certainly a master of psychology getting his players to relax and play their own games. Ruysink showed up in London for the World Cup of Pool ostensibly to watch the Russian pair of Konstantine Stepanov and Ruslan Chinakov, whom he trains in Moscow. But Ruysink was also there to check out Van Boening and Woodward, and to get a read on the potential make up of his new American squad for December.

The mission for both Ruysink and Matchroom with regard to the hapless American side is simple: Turn around the consistently miserable performances of Van Boening at the Mosconi Cup. How is it that one of the best players in the world over the last 10 years can't seem to even show up for the biggest team event on the planet? Certainly if Van Boening plays his best and wins matches at the Mosconi, the Americans' hopes of winning increase substantially.


Ouschan (front) and He were in sync throughout the doubles tournament.

According to Ruysink, the key to unlocking the Van Boening Mosconi mystery is to know who you are dealing with. As good as Van Boening is, the thinking goes, he is not a natural born leader. Having grown up deaf, the American likes to stay in the background and do his own thing. "I think it was a mistake by pushing Shane to be the leader, to do the heavy lifting," Ruysink said on the sidelines at York Hall. He was referring to previous American captains' insistence that Van Boening be the go-to guy for the team in every event. "You can't force Shane to the front. That's not his style. You have to let Shane be Shane."

Matchroom has clearly also come to this same conclusion and thus, when it came time to pick the two-man squads for this year's World Cup of Pool, they decided to let Shane do the choosing.

"I have played against Skyler in quite a few tournaments and he is a great player, which is why I decided to pick him as my partner," Van Boening said as the tournament kicked off. Van Boening and Woodward made for some fast friends, as from the outset they looked sharp and relaxed in dismantling Singapore, 7-0, in the round of 32.

At one point between TV sessions of first round matches, Matchroom held a press conference on Facebook Live to promote the release of tickets for December's Mosconi Cup. On one side of the dais sat European captain Marcus Chamat and Holland's Niels Feijen. Hearn sat in the middle, while Ruysink and Van Boening sat together on the other side. If anyone had previously doubted that Van Boening might not take to being coached by the Dutchman, it all dissipated right there. The American was clearly in awe of Ruysink and couldn't show enough respect, as several times he referred to his new coach as "Mr. Johan."


Defending champs Chang (left) and Ko fell to Team USA in the semis.

Ruysink revealed a few big plans for the American side in coming weeks. He wants to have his team picked by September more than a month ahead of the U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships and even plans to fly them to his training facility in Moscow for a week of Dutch-Russian-style boot camp.

As play resumed, the clearly relaxed Americans came up against a tough Spanish squad, and showed just how strong they could perform together. With Masters champion and perennial European top-five David Alcaide partnering with young rising talent Francisco Sanchez Ruiz, the Spanish side looked to be a strong contender in London. In the first half of the match against the Americans, the Spaniards played solid and confident pool, edging ahead at 5-4. The deficit seemed to turn Van Boening and Woodward into hungry lions, as they completely shut down the Spaniards with excellent safeties and pinpoint potting. The Americans stormed back to win the match, 7-5. As Van Boening pounded his chest and laughed it up with Woodward, there was a sense throughout the arena that this team had found its mojo and could easily win it all. In the quarterfinals, the USA came up against the always-tough Finish pair of Mika Immonen and Petri Makkonen, who won this event together in 2012 and twice reached the semifinals. The Americans, though, were in the zone and cruised to a 9-4 win. Woodward was proving to be quite the valuable surprise, clearly reveling in the opportunity to play alongside his boyhood hero. Even more interesting, though, was that Woodward showed that he wasn't afraid to take the lead, at times pointing out to Van Boening how he wanted things done.


The Dutch duo of Feijen (left) and van den Berg were upset early.

"I'm not afraid to tell him where I want the ball," Woodward said. "That's just the way I am. I tell it like it is." Of course Woodward didn't hesitate to take advice from Van Boening. "I think Sky is a good team player," Van Boening said. "He just likes having fun on the table and doesn't care about losing. He basically shows up to win. And when it comes to difficult shots, he asks me what would I do." In other words, this all means that Woodward can both take the heat off of Shane, and, at the same time let "Shane be Shane." It appears highly likely that Woodward will once again be a part of America's Mosconi Cup team. The semifinals, which took place on the final day, shaped up to be an all-time doubles shootout, with some of the strongest players in the pro game pairing up to shoot for the big silver trophy and the $60,000 first prize. After taking down Portugal in the first round, China's Jia-Qing Wu and Jinghu Dang looked positively unstoppable, whitewashing Germany's Ralf Souquet and Thorsten Hohmann in the round of 16 and crushing the young Philippines pair of Johann Chua and Carlo Biado, 9-2, in the quarters.


Van Boening (left) and Woodward played loose and confident during their impressive run to the title match.

Austria grinded out an ugly win against Sweden in the opening round, then had little trouble with Russia in the round of 16. In the quarters against England's Daryl Peach and Imran Majid, the Austrians looked tight, and even found themselves down, 7-6, in the race to 9 contest. But nobody fights out messy matches in the trenches better than the Austrians, and they bore down to crush England's last hope, 9-7. In the semis, the USA squared off against defending champion Chinese-Taipei, who had looked their usual proficient selves en route to the final four with no-drama wins over Kuwait, Poland and Japan. Pin-Yi Ko and Yu-Lueng Chang might have been the favorites due to their having won the event when it last played in 2015. But the Americans had several things going for them. For starters, no champion has ever repeated in the World Cup of Pool. And, more importantly, the Americans were playing like a well-oiled machine and would not be denied. The Taiwanese took an early 2-1 lead, but when the U.S. reeled off four straight racks, the match was in hand. The Americans cruised to the finals with an impressive 9-4 win. Any notion that Van Boening wasn't a team player was now a long forgotten talking point, as the American played up his partner.

"Oh man, I am very happy to be in the final," Van Boening said. "Especially to win against the No. 1 seed is just unreal. I am proud of Skyler."


While they sometimes struggled, the gritty Austrians were the best finishers.

After Austria's slog against England, the prodigious Chinese looked to be the heavy favorite in their semifinal match. Ouschan and He, however, discarded their usual dour cloak to play light and free. The result was breathtaking and the match wasn't even close, with Austria romping to a 9-1 win and a spot in the finals later that evening.

"We were a little bit more relaxed, played a little bit faster, didn't talk much with each other and just played our own game," Ouschan said. "We had fun and stayed cool and calm."

An unusual June heat wave had descended upon England and the conditions inside the century-old York Hall were past the boiling point. The heat and the pressure of the moment wouldn't allow either the U.S. or Austria the chance to assert themselves in the first half of the final, as the score stood at 2-2 and then 4-4, then 5-5, before the Americans grabbed a 6-5 lead.

The next game proved pivotal, as the U.S. was faced with a messy table and took the bolder option of a pot when the safety looked to be the better play. Woodward missed the pot and from there Austria leveled the score at 6-6. It proved to be the Americans last meaningful effort, as Austria seemed to get a lift while Van Boening and Woodward fell flat. Austria won the next four games to capture its first World Cup of Pool title.

Afterward a delighted Ouschan could only marvel at his team's victory after struggling so much early on. "It's crazy," Ouschan said. "After winning against England with such a bad performance in the quarterfinals, we didn't think about lifting the trophy. But I played two almost perfect sets, Mario played incredibly well and made some important shots. I am so proud of him and myself, it is an amazing feeling.

"I played this tournament for the first time five years ago and lost in the second round to USA. Last year we lost to Chinese Taipei and I said to Mario, 'Next year we will win' and here we are with the trophy."

For the Americans the result was surely a stinging defeat, especially after playing so well in the previous rounds. It was also the second big final where Van Boening had lost out to Ouschan, having finished second to the Austrian at the 2016 World 9-Ball Championship. But negativity and sadness were nowhere to be found from the Americans in London. Both Van Boening and Woodward had $15,000 in their pockets, they had played well together and they had the time of their lives over the six days. Even more importantly, Van Boening was finally able to relax and enjoy success playing as part of a team. Suddenly things bode well for the near future.

Said Van Boening: "We had them at 6-5, but we made a mistake when we should have played safe and that was the turn of the match. Only one team can win, that is part of the game.

"It has been tough for the last eight years, but Skyler, he shot better than me. He will definitely be my partner next year. He should be on the Mosconi Cup team. He would be my number one pick."

Woodward added, "It was a great week, I had fun, me and Shane played good all week. We got some back luck off the break, but it happens. We made that one error where we didn't think. We should have gone for the dead safety, but we thought too fast. I have to get points now for the Mosconi Cup (rankings) and make sure I get on that team."

Woodward will be there for sure, because in many ways this performance, while a bitter loss, was actually a victory in the long road to redemption for Team USA.

And that gives everyone hope come December in Vegas.

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