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World Pool Championship Preview: A Thrilla in Manila
Oct 30, 2007, 5:01 PM

"Who, me?" Yes, Efren, you're the odds-on favorite this year.
Event: 2007 World Pool Championship
Dates: Nov. 3-11
Location: Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Philippines
Field: 128 players from 40-plus countries
Top prize: $100,0000
Producer: Matchroom Sport
Sanctioning: World Pool-Billiard Association

When the World Pool Championship begins on Saturday in the Philippines, all eyes will be on favorite son Efren Reyes, the odds-on pick to seize the $100,000 9-ball title in front of the Manila fans.

But don't engrave the trophy just yet. This year’s field promises to be the strongest in history. Dozens of stellar talents from across Asia continue to ascend. Shane Van Boening, perhaps the hottest player on the planet after his U.S. Open win on Oct. 20, will headline the American squad. And 53-year-old Reyes himself isn’t always keen on being in the limelight.

“There is a lot of pressure playing in the Philippines,” Reyes said at last year’s tournament, just hours before losing to countryman Ronnie Alcano in the round-of-32. “People here in the Philippines are expecting me to win.”

The odds-makers certainly are. They’ve installed him atop the 128-man field this year at 14-to-1, along with Filipinos Francisco Bustamante and Marlon Manalo.

You can’t beat the homefield advantage, and this year the tournament will have as large and high-profile a location as possible for Filipino fans — the fabled Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, a section of Metro Manila. The Coliseum was the site of the storied “Thrilla in Manila” heavyweight bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975.

The wiry and wily Alcano benefited from the home cookin’ in 2006, defeating 1996 world champion Ralf Souquet in a lopsided final, 17-11. At the U.S. Open this October, both Alcano and Souquet signaled that they were ready for world meet, finishing second and fourth, respectively.

But the strongest message was sent by 24-year-old Van Boening, who beat Alcano not once, but twice in the event, 11-3 and then 13-10 in the final. The plain-spoken straight-shooter from Sioux Falls, S.D., staked a claim as the hottest and hungriest player of the moment, and his determined and single-minded attitude will serve him well among all the distractions that Manila has to offer.

“I’m going to try to win the tournament,” Van Boening said when asked about his strategy for the World Pool Championship.

Taiwan will send a formidable contingent of world-beaters across the South China Sea, led by 2005 champion Chia-Ching Wu and 1993 and 2000 champion Fong-Pang Chao. But the man to watch will be Jung-Lin Chang, who won the grand championship of the ultra-competitive Guinness 9-Ball Tour in September.

Taiwan initially posted 11 players in the field, but likely will earn several more positions when the final 10 spots are determined through an intense qualifier process. More than 160 players from 23 countries entered the qualifiers in Manila in late October. Forty-three hailed from Taiwan, while 47 registered from the Philippines.

In its second year of participation, China will send a relatively small group, but it will be anchored by the surprising 27-year-old Li He-wen, who finished tied for third in 2006 and helped give China the gold at the World Cup of Pool team event this September. Likewise, 22-year-old Luong Chi Dung of Vietnam has been playing like a veteran on the world stage after finishing tied-for-fifth at the WPC in 2006.

The traditional powers from Europe will be out in force, including 1995 champion Oliver Ortmann and 2003 titlist Thorsten Hohmann from Germany, and 2001 winner Mika Immonen from Finland. Niels Feijen of the Netherlands is poised to make a big move after a lucrative 2007, and Spaniard David Alcaide appears ready to blossom.

But the bottom line is that you have to go through the Filipinos — and the Philippines — to win the championship this year. It may be Reyes’ event to lose, but this is the world’s cradle for elite pool, and, like in 2006 with Alcano’s star-making turn, another legend could be born this year.