One Monday night earlier this month, as I was flipping channels during the NBA finals (gimme a break, it was halftime), I wandered over to ESPN2 and became deeply engrossed in a sporting event in which I already knew the outcome. It was the final match of the Woman's Professional Billiards National Championship, between Vivian Villarreal, ranked No. 4 in the world, and Allison Fisher, the No. 1 player. They were playing best-of-seven nine-ball, which apparently has become the default pool game in both the men's and women's professional circuits. As you inveterate channel flippers already know, the game is played with the lowest nine balls, and the winner is the one who pockets the nine-ball. The trick, though, is that you have to hit the lowest numbered ball on the table first, and if you don't, it's a scratch. It's incredibly difficult to be a good nine-ball player, requiring near magical abilities to position the cue ball for the next shot. When good players are at the table, it can be a beautiful thing to watch.
Anyway, back to The Deuce. At the point at which I tuned in, the score was something like 2-0 to Fisher. Half an hour later (with lots of commercials thrown in), it was over: Fisher had won 7-0. What made the match mesmerizing, though, wasn't the score, but the fact that Villarreal—who is, remember, the fourth-best in the world—did not pocket a single ball all night! This isn't just rare; it's unheard of. And it's not that Villarreal played poorly; she never got a chance to play at all. Fisher played so perfectly running the table virtually every game that her opponent only got one chance in the entire match to pocket a ball. Unfortunately, she scratched, after which, needless to say, Fisher ran the table.
Allison Fisher is the Tiger Woods, the Michael Jordan, the Wayne Gretzky, of nine-ball. Like them, she makes the impossible look easy, and the difficult routine. She can make fancy shots, but she usually doesn't have to, because she has the best cue ball control of any player I've ever seen. In fact, that's the most mind-boggling aspect of her game. She doesn't just get the cue ball to go in the general area that she wants—she places it exactly where she wants it to go. Think of Tiger's short game vs. everyone else's at the U.S. Open. Fisher's cue control is on the same level compared with the other women pros. The commentators always say she owes this skill to her background as a snooker player in England. (She's a Brit.) I wouldn't know; I've never seen snooker played. All I know is that whenever I see her play on ESPN or The Deuce, I feel compelled to watch. She validates my channel-flipping self.
Of course, that's the problem: If you happen to like professional nine-ball, the only way you can ever find it is by stumbling upon it accidentally. And even then, you're likely to get a rerun (the Fisher-Villarreal match had actually taken place in January and was being shown for the third time), or the semifinals of some tournament where you never find out when the finals are or who finally wins the damn thing. Even a fan like me knows that televised nine-ball is filler; what's annoying is the way they rub your nose in it. But as a fan, it's painful to see a player of Allison Fisher's genius being reduced to filler.
So here's my proposal to cure this state of affairs: Create televised tournaments in which men play against women. Think about it. Billiards is one sport where brute strength is of no particular advantage (except when breaking, but even then the advantage is minimal). What matters is touch, creative shot-making, instincts, etc.—all qualities where men have no advantage over women. You could promote the hell out of it. You could offer purses that were higher than the paltry $15,000 or so that is the current norm. You could turn billiards into something that people might actually tune into and watch: The Nine-Ball Battle of the Sexes! Sure it's sheer hucksterism. But, hey, how many Americans watched tennis on television before Billie Jean King thrashed Bobby Riggs?
I've got a call in to the flack at the women's tour to get her reaction to this idea. When I hear from her, I'll report back. In the meantime, I note from the Women's Professional Billiards Association Web site that Allison Fisher will be playing Gerda Hofstatter (ranked No. 2) on ESPN July 25 at 9 p.m. (The actual tournament, of course, took place two months ago. But never mind.) If you happen to be channel flipping than night and come across it, I encourage you to watch some of it. You'll be amazed.
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