Taking a cue from men

January 22, 1994|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer

Take a left at Speedy Muffler King on Eastern Avenue, drive until you hit Value City, cross the parking lot and step inside a brassy, upscale billiards room where Ewa Mataya is dropping them into the pockets with a stroke as smooth as a mouthful of Haagen Daz.

With her $4,500, silver-inlaid maple cue, she makes her way around the green felt playing field, putting the nine colored balls away until only the white cue ball remains.

"We're creating a new scene in America," she says confidently. "The women players used to be a sideshow in the back room. But we are as motivated and persistent as the great men players and with seasoning and time, we will be equal in talent."

And make their kind of money.

Rack 'em.

Ms. Mataya is one of 48 competitors in the Women's Professional Billiards Association (WPBA) national tour, which stops this weekend at Baltimore Billiards in the Eastpoint Mall. The finals will be tomorrow at 7 p.m.

The top-ranked players are shooting for shares of a $50,000 purse and hoping to improve their standings in the world rankings as they work their way to the December championships in Los Angeles.

To some women, pool shooting is in their blood. The current top-ranked player, Loree Jon Jones of Hillsborough, N.J., started shooting in her father's billiards room when she was 4 and won the world championship at 15. Her husband, Sammy, is also a professional pool player.

In the midst of this collection of billiard's best, local stars Linda Haywood and Lavata Phillips, both of Dundalk, are expected to make a respectable showing, tournament officials said.

"I am very intimidated, very," said Mrs. Phillips, who has never played on the national level before.

"For the last several nights I haven't slept so well. I've had these nightmares. I shoot my object ball, and as it rolls toward the pocket, the ball gets bigger and the pocket shrinks. I sit up in the bed in a sweat," she said.

The big time

For unsponsored tour players and local hopefuls, Ms. Mataya represents the big time. She's backed by Brunswick, which means she can play and practice full time. She has a high recognition factor in the nation's pool halls and lucrative professional endorsement contracts.

"I do well in the six figures, although I'm not a millionaire yet," Ms. Mataya said. "I love the game, but I'm also looking at financial security. I have an instructional video with two men players on the market and I do lots of exhibitions."

But fame has its downside. "I am thinking about hiring a bodyguard," she said.

Today's women's game, glitzy and growing rapidly enough to be televised on ESPN, has come a long way from the days of barroom leagues.

"Back in 1968, it took a very independent woman to compete in bars," said Louise Wolf, former co-owner of the Dew Drop Inn in Bradshaw and a player on the travel team it sponsored.

"They loved pool so much they'd fight about it," she recalled. "They would argue and the next thing you knew, somebody would throw a punch or hit somebody in the head with a cue. bTC Then both teams are rolling around on the floor, punching and kicking each other."

Image is everything

On today's national tour, image is everything. No jeans allowed -- ever. In the national championships, players must wear dresses or suits made of silk, satin, crepe or lace. And no smoking at the tables, thank you.

Shari Stauch, a ranked professional from Chicago and editor of Pool and Billiard Magazine, said the women's game -- nine-ball in particular -- is steadily gaining popularity in the United States, Europe and the Far East. In nine-ball, players try to drop nine balls in numeric sequence.

"You saw the upscale billiards parlors opening about five years ago," she said. "Women never looked at pool as a career opportunity until then. And for the players who grew up in the sport like me, that possibility became very appealing.

"I would venture to say every woman on the circuit, whether she's a full-time player with a sponsor or woman who has a primary career, is very organized and financially viable."

The WPBA distributed more than $400,000 in prize money last year, and Ms. Stauch expects that to top $600,000 this year -- not to mention money players get from endorsing pool tables, custom-made cues and now, three-fingered billiard gloves.

"We even get final results printed in the sports sections of newspapers now," she said with a laugh.

Earning a living

While the top-ranked players enjoy sponsorship and the luxury of full-time pool careers, they're constantly being challenged.

Bev Carrick, 47, an engineer from Dallas, is trying to persuade a sponsor to back her tournament play around the country.

"Between my family, job and pool tournaments, I have a grueling schedule," she said. "So it's a major goal for me to land a sponsor. I'm about $8,000 in debt from the travel and hotel bills I have to pay for out of my pocket."

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