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Fran the Man

Spain's Francisco Sanchez Ruiz capped an incredible 2022 campaign by securing a spot on Team Europe and winning the U.S. Open Pool Championship in the same week.

By Keith Paradise
Photos by Taka Wu

Five minutes before he was about to begin competition in the round-of-64 at this year's United States Open Pool Championship, Francisco Sanchez Ruiz received the news he had been working his entire career to hear.

The Spaniard had secured one of the three automatic spots on this year's European Mosconi Cup team, a first for the 30-year-old and the ultimate reward for a fantastic season of pool. Sanchez Ruiz opened 2022 by winning the 9-ball division of the Derby City Classic, capping off the tournament with a commanding 9-3 performance in the finals against former World 9-Ball and U.S. Open champion Joshua Filler of Germany. His hot play continued into the summer, as he teamed up with close friend and fellow Spaniard David Alcaide to win the World Cup of Pool over Singapore's Aloysius Yapp and Toh Lin Han, then claimed first place at the Euro Tour's Dynamic Billiard Petrich Open. Heading into the fall slate, he tacked on another victory at the PRP Nineball Open and finished second to Filler at the Slovenia Open in October.

”2022 is the year for Francisco,” said Alcaide, who was by his amigo's side throughout many of these events.

So, when representatives from Matchroom pulled him aside to tell him he was on Team Europe, a weight was lifted from his mind and his shoulders.

“I had fought so hard all year for this, and I finally made it,” he said.

He was so relaxed that he was almost too relaxed, and before he knew it, he was trailing Ralf Souquet, 3-0, in the first round of single elimination play before rallying to win, 9-4.

“After that match, I was much better because I didn't have any pressure,” said Sanchez Ruiz. “I was playing with too much pressure, thinking about Matchroom points.”

By the time the dust settled in the conference room at Harrah's Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, he would have even more reason to feel relief and excitement, as the Spaniard went undefeated through the six-day event and survived a late comeback by Austria's Max Lechner to win the 2022 U.S. Open, 13-10. The player who had always wanted to win on American soil now had two major titles in the same year. Overall, the $114,350 he's earned throughout the year more than tripled his previous best of $36,578, garnered in 2017.

“This is the best win in my career so far,” he said. “I won the World Cup of Pool with my partner and that was very important for me, but this is unbelievable.”

For the second straight year, Matchroom brought the Open back to the marina section of Jersey Shore beach and gambling destination and brought a few tweaks and enhancements from the previous edition. For the fans which have a phobia towards purchasing viewing access, the company provided free streaming matches on its Facebook and YouTube channels before switching to subscription based DAZN for the final two days of the tournament. Matchroom Multi Sport Chief Operating Officer Emily Frazer said the decision was made in order to offer spectators multiple ways to watch numerous matches, with many fans sometimes watching on more than one device, while also creating content for their television partners.

And those who were watching saw a mild format change, with the 256-player, double-elimination tournament switching to single-elimination a round earlier, with the final 64 competitors moving to the knockout phase instead of the remaining 32, which was the procedure in 2021. The change was made in order to bring the event in line with Matchroom's other franchises like the UK Open and European Open, which also switch to single-elimination for the final 64. Since the U.S. Open wasn't a Matchroom-created event, but instead a property that was acquired from the family of Open founder Barry Behrman, they didn't want to obtain the brand and immediately start making changes.

“It's been a successful event,” said Frazer. “The players speak very highly of it. That's why we really didn't play with it too much.”

However, as the company's vision for the game has evolved with the creation of the Matchroom Nineball tour, Frazer felt it was important to bring uniformity to all of the company's events.

“Open formats need to be consistent,” she said. “They all should have the same format. What we are trying to do is standardize our open-fielded events.”

Most of the game's top competitors remained in the event after three days of double elimination play had concluded. When the format switched to the knockout phase on Thursday, a handful of the game's best found themselves suddenly free for the weekend — including former World 9-Ball champions Fedor Gorst and Jayson Shaw, as well as current World 9-Ball champion Shane Van Boening, who lost a hill-hill thriller to Greece's Alex Kazakis.

Kazakis (left) showed heart in his thrilling 9-8 win over Van Boening (right).

The Greek used some clean shooting and a missed 9 ball in the third rack by Van Boening to build a comfortable 5-0 advantage in the race-to-nine. When Kazakis failed to pocket a ball on the break in the sixth game, the five-time U.S. Open champion capitalized, winning seven straight racks to storm back and build a 7-5 advantage, the pro-American crowd roaring its approval. With a chance to increase his lead, Van Boening scratched on the break. As Kazakis made his way back to the table, Shaw, who was watching in the crowd, yelled out, “Come on, Alex.”

“That gave me a little bit of courage,” he said. “I think I needed that. Two-hundred people were there, and they were all with Shane.”

The Greek tacked on two games to tie the score but a missed shot allowed Van Boening to reach the hill. Kazakis gutted out a victorious safety battle to tie the score. After breaking in the deciding game, Kazakis was faced with the option of a table-length kick shot on a 2 ball that was situated in the corner pocket's jaws or jumping a blocking ball. The Greek opted for the kick, pocketing the ball and ran out to secure the victory.

“That match I think was one of the most exciting matches I've ever played in my entire life because I was playing against all of the U.S. and I was basically alone,” said Kazakis. “And I won so it is even better.” Another player who was winning was Sanchez Ruiz, who seemed to be alternating between easy routs and nail-biters with regularity. After an opening round 9-0 shutout of Rohit Aggarwal of India, the Spaniard survived a hill-hill match of his own, coming from multiple games down late in the match to beat Jere Virtaranta of Finland. He cruised to a 9-1 defeat of another Finn, Jani Uski, before spotting Souquet the early advantage and pulling away. Playing on that upset-filled Thursday in the round of 32 against Chinese Taipei's Kun Lin Wu, Sanchez Ruiz again needed all 17 racks to secure one of the final 16 spots with a 9-8 victory.

After convincingly defeating former International Open champion Jung-Lin Chang, 10-5, the Spaniard matched up against Kazakis with a spot in the semifinals on the line. After splitting the first six games, Sanchez Ruiz tacked on a pair of wins to crawl out to a 5-3 advantage before missing the 2 ball in the ninth rack. The Greek cleared the table then won three more to build a 7-5 lead, then appeared positioned to add to his score before an attempt to break up a cluster resulted in the cue ball being blocked by both. After kicking at the object ball and missing, Sanchez Ruiz won four of the last five to secure an 10-8 win.

“I was really disappointed but afterwards I was feeling proud of myself,” said Kazakis about the loss and his fifth-place finish. “All of this year I'm playing really well. I'm very consistent.”

Waiting for Sanchez Ruiz in Saturday morning's first semifinal match was defending U.S. Open champion Carlo Biado, who had rebounded from an early loss and seemed to be getting stronger with each passing match. After early victories against Nikolin Dalibor of Serbia and Kristina Tkach by a combined score of 18-2, the Filipino lost to Filpino/American Joven Bustamante, 9-6. Now facing elimination, Biado cruised past Finland's Peti Makkonen, 9-4, squeaked by Japan's Naoyuki Oi, 9-6, bested Poland's Konrad Juszczyszyn, 10-6 and earned a spot in the semifinals with a 10-0 shutout of Chia Chen Hsieh of Chinese Taipei.

Biado was solid in his title defense until he saw that “the pool gods are on [Sanchez Ruiz] side.”

Biado would have a bit tougher go of it against Sanchez Ruiz, who took advantage of a pair of missed shots along with back-to-back breaks and runs to build an early 5-1 lead in a race-to-11. Sanchez Ruiz utilized back-to-back victorious safety exchanges to push his lead to 7-2. “I was struggling on the table because it was slick and also because he was leading and I needed to fight back,” said Biado.

Sanchez Ruiz again failed to pocket a ball on the break in the 10th game and Biado had the opportunity he needed, clearing the table then using a one-rail kick in of the 2 ball to run out again and cut the deficit to 7-4. The Filipino added consecutive breaks and runs to slice the lead to 7-6 but handed the table back to his opponent when he failed to pocket a ball on the break in the 14th game. After Biado missed the 1 ball following a push out, Sanchez Ruiz used a skillful jump shot to pocket the ball, run out and push the lead to 8-6.

“I had a tough shot at the 1 ball but didn't make it and he jumped the 1 ball and he made it,” said Biado after the match. “Right then, I thought the pool gods are on his side.”

After Biado missed a backdoor cut on the 2 ball in the 15th rack, the Spaniard cleared the table then added a break-and-run to build a commanding 10-6 lead in a race-to-11. He played a safety on the 2 ball after break in the 17th game, but Biado used the ball placement to rifle in a carom shot on the 9 ball to cut the lead to 10-7. After a victorious safety battle in the subsequent rack allowed him to clear the table again, the Filipino tacked on two breaks and runs to tie the match and cause the sold-out crowd of 600 to roar a bit more after each subsequent win.

Biado didn't have an open shot breaking in the deciding rack and played a safety. After a brief exchange, Sanchez Ruiz found an opening, pocketed the 4 ball and finished off the rack to secure a trip to the finals and end Biado's bid to be the first repeat champion since Shane Van Boening in 2014.

“I didn't have a lot of luck with the break,” said Biado. “Sometimes you play better and sometimes you play bad, but I still had a chance. I still fought back.”

“Little Ko ” frittered away a big lead and his title hopes in the semifinals against Lechner.

After having the first semifinal match come down to the deciding game, it was tough to imagine the second semifinal between Ping-Chung Ko and Lechner equaling the drama, especially when Ko jumped out to leads of 5-0 and 7-2. When Lechner kicked one-rail to try to sink a blocked the 3 ball and managed to deposit both the object and cue ball into the corner pocket and hand his opponent an 8-2 lead, Ko appeared to be in cruise control.

Someone apparently forgot to tell Lechner, playing with the additional motivation of being able to claim the third automatic spot on Team Europe if he could win the U.S. Open. He pulled to within 8-5, and after Ko took advantage of a scratch on the break to tack on another rack, Lechner capitalized in consecutive games to cut the deficit to 9-8.

“One thing that's a philosophy for me is that I don't have a problem with losing matches, but my opponent will never take away my will to win,” said Lechner. “I kept fighting and kept grinding and started to get momentum and things started to go my way.”

Ko climbed onto the hill when Lechner missed, but scratched on the break in the following game, allowing the Austrian to pocket a combination shot on the 9 ball and pull to within 10-9. Lechner won the next rack to send the match to another game-deciding 21st game and after several lengthy safety exchanges, Ko faced a long shot on the 4 ball that was blocked by the 8 ball. He reached for his jump cue and promptly pocketed the object ball, then watched as the cue ball deflected off of the 9 ball and scratched in the opposite corner pocket, handing his opponent the win.

Lechner's run nearly earned him a crown and a Mosconi spot.

“I wanted to jump off the roof when I saw that,” said Ko with a laugh after the match. “That hurt.”

“He got unlucky at least three times and that's how I came back,” said Lechner. “Without rolls, it's impossible to beat Ko Ping Chung.”

Facing Sanchez Ruiz in the finals, the two competitors split the first 12 games of the race-to-13 match until Lechner's miss of a 5 ball in the 13th game and three straight breaks and runs in the following rack allowed the Spaniard to build a 10-6 lead.

“I think I made a few wrong decisions in the beginning of the match,” said Lechner. “I made a couple of stupid shots, and I was too aggressive. I switched to play a little more defensive and that worked out pretty well most of the time.”

Recapturing some of his 9-ball magic, Melling made a spirited run.

The defensive play started in the 17th rack when he used a victorious safety followed by a break-and-run to trim the lead to 10-8, then used a successful push out after the break as well as a jump shot on the 7 ball to clear the table again and cut the deficit to a single game. Now at the table with a chance to tie the match, Lechner scratched on the break. Sanchez Ruiz cleared the table to increase the lead to two games but forfeited the table when he fouled during a safety exchange. Lechner cut the lead to 11-10 but again scratched on the break in the 22nd game, allowing his opponent to tack on another win. After nearly pocketing the ball on the break, Sanchez Ruiz used a successful combination shot on the 3 and 4 balls to break and run out one final time to secure the victory, raising both arms in victory and jumping on the table and letting out a triumphant yell. Moments later, Behrman's grandchildren Aiden Behrman-Paschal and Hailey Behrman assisted with presenting the champion with his trophy and ceremonial green jacket.

The runner-up finish for Lechner, who finished fifth at last year's Open, was his highest finish since placing second to Jayson Shaw at the 2019 International Open. The Austrian entered the last day of play undefeated and sailed through the single-elimination format with comfortable victories over Jonas Souto Comino of Spain, Filipino Roland Garcia and England's Chris Melling to earn a trip to the semifinals. Not bad for a guy who wasn't pleased with his performance.

“I'm not 100-percent happy with my game,” said Lechner after the finals. “I lost too much control over the cue ball a couple of times. I have a lot of things that I need to improve.”

“He played really well and broke better than me,” said Sanchez Ruiz. “Max played an amazing tournament.”

The U.S. Open title caps an unforgettable 2022 for Sanchez Ruiz, no longer “the other Spaniard.”

Another player who turned in a surprise finish was Melling, who finished tied for fifth after falling to Lechner in the quarterfinals. He had not competed in the United States since the Diamond Las Vegas Open in March of 2020 just before the pandemic shut down the industry. With pool on hiatus during COVID, Melling picked up a job at a printing company and opened a pub with a friend back home. Even when tournament play for American pool returned, it was more economical for him to remain in the United Kingdom and play in English 8-ball events, with one 250-pound entry fee netting him 10,000 when he won. He's earned three major titles and risen to number two in the world rankings in the discipline in recent months.

But with Matchroom expanding its roster of tournaments — and all of these coming with Mosconi Cup rankings points — this trip was too much for him to pass up.

“One of my aims is to get back to the Mosconi,” he said. “I think I have a lot to offer and, hopefully in the near future, I'll be able to play again.”

One player doesn't have to worry about making the event this year is Sanchez Ruiz, who lingered in the arena in his new green champion's sports coat after the match was completed trying to figure out what to do next.

“I want to call my father, my family, take a shower,” he said with a laugh. “I don't know what to do.”

Youth Is Served

An argument could be made that Khalid Alghamdi was destined to play in the inaugural Shane Van Boening Junior Open.

The 17-year-old from Saudi Arabia got his first taste of pool as a young child when he accompanied his father to the local pool club. Dad noticed two things over time: his kid was too small to reach the table and pocket balls but also relentlessly played an 8-ball video game on his phone when they weren't at the poolroom. He brought young Khalid back to the pool room in 2015, where he played recreationally for a year before the two traveled to Kuwait to watch a professional event — where the young man met Van Boening for the first time.

“I took a picture with him and from then on he was my idol,” he said.

When Matchroom announced plans to create the SVB Junior Open, Alghamdi was immediately interested, but when the 32-player field filled up immediately he started contacting everyone he knew to try and either get a spot or get onto a waitlist. Given his age, this would be the only year he would be eligible for the tournament.

Luckily for him, demand caused co-creators Van Boening and Matchroom's Emily Frazer to expand the event to 64 competitors and Alghamdi made the most of his fortuitousness, easily working his way through the single-elimination bracket and defeating American Trenton White, 9-3, in the finals. Although the event was created in part to help give the game's future a glimpse at the professional game under the same conditions as pool's best, the Saudi Arabian was already familiar with Matchroom's atmosphere having competed in the company's European Open in order to prepare for this event.

Alghamdi (left) traveled far to impress the event's namesake.

“Because of that I became better, and I learned from all of these champions,” said Alghamdi. “Everyone is telling me that I'm talented but I'm not sure about it.”

The word “juniors” had been sitting on the whiteboard in Matchroom's planning department for a while and when Frazer was looking for new ideas for existing events, she reached out to the five-time U.S. Open champion to gauge his interest in helping with an event. Van Boening was all ears, lending his name and support to the tournament while offering his time and mentorship to the players during the event itself.

“I think its important to get the juniors involved with the pros,” said Van Boening. “It would be a great experience for the juniors. They can learn from the best pool players in the world and get the experience of seeing top professional pool players.”

Runner-up White was one of 64 juniors to take part.

Originally, Matchroom planned on hosting an open, 32-player, double-elimination event due to distances many competitors would be traveling to compete in the tournament. But as buzz on social media and interest in the competition grew — with Frazer estimating around 100 players inquired about signing up for the event — the decision was made to switch the format to single-elimination but expand the field to 64 players. Next year, the field could expand again to 96 or 128 players.

“You're educating these players by having these juniors playing in the same conditions as the pros,” said Frazer.

Alghambi plans to continue his studies in college but isn't planning to give up the game, with dreams of turning professional and being ranked number one at some point in his career.

“I'm trying to learn a lot and I give a lot of time to this game because its really a nice game,” he said. “It's the best game ever.”

— Keith Paradise