Manalo Blanks Opponents, Burns Through Bracket
by Mason King Jul 8, 2005, 12:22 PM EST

Marlon Manalo

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan, July 8 - Twenty-three games in a row.

Blanking an opponent in the World Pool Championship is impressive. Doing it twice, as Filipino Marlon Manalo has done now in two consecutive matches, is ungodly.

After winning the last two games in a 9-8 squeaker vs. Charles Bryant, Manolo has beaten Chien-Che Huang, 10-0, and Ying-Chieh Chen, 11-0. That's 23 straight games - 21 against two of Taiwan's powerhouse squad of play-alike sharpshooters.

You wouldn't know it from talking to 29-year-old Manalo, who keeps the same meek expression on his face that he did last year, when he slipped onto the international scene at the WPC by quietly meandering to the final 8.

"I just take it rack by rack," Manalo said after his win against Chen, in the same sort of shoulder-shrugging, ultra-humble manner of countryman Efren Reyes.

With every other Filipino out of the tournament by the round of 16, Manalo feels the pressure of being his country's flag-bearer. He welcomes it.

"All the responsibility is on my shoulders," he said. "But it helps me to concentrate now and raise my game to another level. I enjoy the pressure. When I don't have it, I usually lose to a weaker player."

It will be impossible for Manalo to sneak up on any more players at the WPC after steamrolling two of Taiwan's best hopes. His opponent in the quarterfinals tomorrow will be Finland's Mika Immonen, who beat American Cory Deuel, 11-8, to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since winning the world title in 2001.

"I have a lot of respect for [Manalo's] game, but I beat him last week in the Philippines," Immonen said.

After clawing back from an 8-2 deficit against Japan's Kunihiko Takahashi the previous night to win 10-8, Immonen felt no pressure against Deuel.

"I thought I was dead and buried [against Takahashi]," Immonen said. "I managed to dig deep and get some miracle shots. Today, I got to the table and it was 0-0, and I was like, 'Aaaaah.' I felt so light."

Deuel self-destructed in the end, after Immonen let him back to the table at 10-7 with a scratch on his break. Deuel mopped up for the win, and then tried a soft break on the next rack that failed to sink any balls. After Immonen pushed, Deuel tried a two-in-one shot that failed to either sink in the corner or travel far enough to be an effective safety.

"I'm playing so bad night now," said Deuel, wallowing in the humid night air outside the Kaohsiung Business Exhibition Center. "If I could have played bad, I would have won. But I played horrible."

Manalo might be playing the best pool of his life. It comes after a trip to the U.S. that resulted in a fifth-place finish at the BCA Open 9-Ball Championship in May, and a first-place trophy at the Sands Regency Open in June. The 40-day trip to America may have helped forge the tough mental attitude that is fueling Manalo's dominating play.

"I wanted to know the life of a pool player," said Manalo, who came to the States by himself, and relied on rides from people he met at poolhalls to get around the country. "It was very lonely. There was a time when I wanted to cry inside my hotel room. But I wanted to know the life of a pool player."

The trip served as a defacto tuneup for the World Championship. And he has in his corner Maltese player Tony Drago, another snooker player turned 9-baller, who serves as an inspiration.

"I like the mental attitude of Tony," Manalo said. "He never cares who he's playing. That's a good mental attitude."

Manalo is now the odds-on favorite to win the WPC. But he won't even consider the question of whether he can take the $75,000 first-place prize.

"Only God knows," he said, humble to the end.

***

Nick Van den Berg has equaled the best performance by a Dutchman in the World Pool Championship by slipping past Hungarian Vilmos Foldes and reserving a spot in the quarterfinals.

"I can't believe I'm in," the ebullient Van den Berg said, his face almost as bright as his orange Lacoste polo shirt. "It's not just a tournament. It's the world championship."

Foldes, who shocked the field the night before by eliminating reigning world 9-ball champ Alex Pagulayan, almost pulled off another upset against Van den Berg. Trailing 10-5, he fought back to 10-10 but ended up with wonky position on the 1 after the break. With a weak push, he dared Van den Berg to take a table-length cut on the 1, and his foe answered the bell.

"I thought, 'Just go for it,'? the 25-year-old Van den Berg said. "Don't die ducking, they say in America."

They also say you always could use a little luck, and Van den Berg got a couple of very fortunate rolls. He missed his cut on the 1, but the cue ball ended up nudging the 6 into the side pocket. He then sank another tough cut on the 1, and the cue ball hit the 9 on the way back up table, stopping in perfect position for his 2 ball shot.

With the match hanging in the balance, Van den Berg thought back to his tied-for-32nd finish in 2003, when Efren Reyes nipped him 9-8. It was his best finish in the WPC before his run this year to the round of 16.

"I was thinking, 'Look at every ball. Think of the basics on every shot,'" he said.

After some very loose position play, Van den Berg needed to execute an intense cut on the 9 to win. As the ball slipped into the hole, the normally stoic Dutchman let out a roaring, "Yes!"

By entering the final eight, Van den berg has equaled Neils Feijen's finish in the 2001 WPC, the best for a Dutchman so far.





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