Big Break for the Game

Ewa Mataya, the No. 1-ranked woman in the U.S., brings a winning look to pocket billiards
April 19, 1992

Ewa Mataya is working the crowd. "Now on this shot," she says as she quickly moves around a pool table, arranging 15 numbered balls in an elaborate pattern, "I'm only going to pocket one ball—the eight. I did this shot last year in Italy, and a translator was explaining to the crowd what was supposed to happen." She buries the 8 ball amid a cluster of other balls. "I then go on to make the shot, and there's dead silence." She takes the cue ball and with it taps a few balls into place. "Turns out the translator told them that I was going to make all the balls. I was standing there grinning, and everyone thought that I had failed miserably."

The patter is smooth and practiced, and the crowd chuckles appreciatively. The spectators watch the tall, stunningly attractive woman continue her setup. "Of course," she says, "I then had to show them a shot where I did make all the balls."

It is close to midnight on this October evening, and the Women's Sports Foundation banquet, a black-tie affair celebrating women in athletics, is nearly at an end. Dinner has been eaten, speeches have been made, awards have been presented, and the banquet's attendees have retired to this small conference room in New York City's Marriott Marquis Hotel for champagne and pastries and a chance to mingle with the evening's honorees. Throughout the room, men in tuxedos and women in chic evening dresses mill about, meeting celebrities and athletes.

Mataya and her pool table are at one end of the room, drawing a small crowd away from the party's swirl. She finishes her setup and leans over the table to make the shot. After a few silky practice strokes, Mataya snaps the cue ball into the cluster, scattering the balls into a multicolored spray as the 8 ball scurries into the corner pocket. She smiles, acknowledging the "oohs" from the sleek and the chic. Mataya quickly moves on to her next shot. This may be a party, but Mataya is working.

Several hours earlier Mataya had taken her place onstage as one of the 69 athletes honored by the Women's Sports Foundation. She shared the limelight along with Dorothy Hamill, Tracy Austin and Nadia Comaneci, because for the past two years she has been the best female pool player in the country. In 1990 Mataya nearly ran the rack of tour events, winning five of the 10 tournaments sanctioned by the Women's Professional Billiard Association (WPBA) and finishing in the top four in the other five events. She earned $28,370 that year in prize money, the most ever by a woman pool player, and was named female Player of the Year by both Billiards Digest and Pool & Billiard Magazine. Last year Mataya had six top three finishes, including wins in the U.S. Open and the WPBA Nationals, two of the four majors on the tour. She finished as the No. 1-ranked woman player for the second year in a row.

But the status of professional pool in the U.S. is such that this evening only a few of her fellow sportswomen know who Mataya is. That is why she, along with her sponsor, Brunswick, the largest manufacturer of pool tables, had asked the Women's Sports Foundation for the opportunity to stage a trick-shot demonstration. In professional pool the No. 1 player is also the No. 1 salesperson for the game.

Pool, as a participatory pastime, is at an alltime high in this country. Last year nearly 40 million people chalked it up nationwide, making pool the third most popular sport in the U.S., ahead of soft-ball, golf, tennis and jogging. Glitzy multimillion-dollar poolrooms have been opening across the country at a rate of one each month. Six years ago there were 23 pool halls in all of New York City; today there are 85.

Much of the sport's resurgence can be traced to the success of the 1986 film The Color of Money, in which Mataya made a cameo appearance. But ironically, whereas the movie portrayed the pool world as a seedy subculture in which old sharks exchange sawbucks with feckless youths, the current incarnation of pool is uptown and upscale. Pool today is suspenders and double-breasted suits, cappuccino and focaccia, ferns and Fendi. Pool is cool.

But the resurgence of the game among Americans has not translated into increased attention for the professional billiards circuit. Industry observers agree that what is needed to pull professional billiards into the big time is a genuine superstar, someone who would galvanize the interest of weekend hackers everywhere. Enter Mataya.

Ewa—pronounced AY-vah, as in Gardner—Mataya is 28, glamorous (she was born and raised in Sweden and worked for a time in this country as a model) and hardworking (she balances her pro career with the demands of raising her seven-year-old daughter, Nikki). She is, by any standard, a bona fide yuppie. And it is yuppies who have brought new life to the U.S. game.

Mataya is also a poised and articulate salesperson who wants to help pool lose its gritty, streetwise image. In the '90s the big stakes are in respectability. "I've never hustled anybody in my life," she says. "Some people are still intrigued by the idea that you'd get your arm broken if you beat someone in pool, but it just doesn't happen. There's no such thing as a pool hustler. There are hustlers in life. You'll find them on the golf course, in bowling alleys, on the stock market. The hustler's job is to take your money. Pool has nothing to do with hustlers. That's a myth."

"Ewa has the best chance of anyone to take the sport to the next level," says Mike Panozzo, editor of Billiards Digest. "She keeps a high profile, she's willing to accept that role, and she's the Number One player in the world. And having a beautiful woman as your top player doesn't hurt. Look at the notoriety Jan Stephenson got in golf, and she wasn't even the best golfer on the tour. Anytime—in any sport—your top player is super sexy or super funny or a super personality, it's a big plus."

Mataya's mastery of billiards began with a case of puppy love. "When I was young I was a tomboy, and I used to hang around with my older brother, Mats, a lot," says Mataya, then known as Ewa Svensson. "If he and his friends went to a bowling alley, I'd follow along, mainly because I wanted to, but also because I had a crush on his best friend. One day when I was 14 they went to a bowling alley, but instead of bowling, they went upstairs to play pool. The first time I picked up a cue, it felt good. Within a couple of weeks it felt natural."

Ewa's affections soon shifted from her brother's friend to the world of green felt and blue chalk. "I started going to the pool hall every day, and I would play 10 hours a day," she says. "Within a year I was beating my brother."

Her pool skills weren't entirely surprising, since she had long been a good athlete. While growing up in Gävle, Mataya played on her junior high basketball team and was the goalie for her school's soccer team, which was ranked eighth in Sweden. "I always knew I wanted to do something with sports," she says. "I just didn't know which sport." Halfway through her freshman year at Borgar College in Gävle, she dropped out to play pool competitively. "Everyone thought I was crazy when I chose pool, because when you win a pool tournament in Sweden, you win a toaster. If you're lucky and you're playing in a big town, you might win a little black-and-white television."

In 1981, at the age of 17, she won the European straight pool championship in Switzerland. That victory earned her a trip to New York City to compete for the world title. Although she was promptly crushed at the worlds—she finished seventh out of a field of 12—Mataya discovered two things on her first trip to the U.S.: The level of competitive play as well as the prize money was much greater than in Europe; and Jim Mataya, a professional player from Grand Ledge, Mich. Before her parents back home knew what was going on, Ewa had fallen in love with and married Jim, entitling her to both the green card and the green felts of the U.S.

"My parents weren't happy," says Mataya. "But I knew I couldn't leave. Everybody here was so serious about this game. I couldn't believe you could do this legitimately."

But Mataya discovered that having the opportunity to do it legitimately and doing it were two different things. While she won the occasional tournament, she was hardly a major force on the tour. To bankroll her competitive career, she began modeling, and for a short while she worked as a bunny at a Playboy Club in Lansing, Mich.

She gave up modeling after the birth of Nikki, in 1985, and nearly gave up competitive pool as well. "Those were the down years," she says. "I kept asking myself, Is this an intelligent thing to do? Even if I become the best player in the game, then what? Is this a game worth being the best at?"

Then, in 1989, Brunswick Billiards, hoping to capitalize on pool's resurgence, offered to sponsor Mataya on the tour. "I knew that Ewa would fit in very well with the image that we wanted for pocket billiards," says Jim Bakula, vice-president of Brunswick. "The big boom was on, and new upscale rooms were opening across the country. This was a chance to show that pocket billiards does attract beautiful people like Ewa."

Relieved of the constant pressure to pay her own way on the tour, Mataya was able to concentrate on her game and steadily began improving her finishes. There was one other major factor that cleared the way for Mataya's rise: the departure of Jean Balukas from the competitive circuit.

Balukas, 32, is a legendary figure in pool, the "Little Princess" who at 13 won her first national title. At 16 she beat Willie Mosconi in a nationally televised exhibition match. In her 20's she picked up titles the way she picked off balls on a table. She won every U.S. Open from 1972 to '77, and again in 1983, and from 1986 to '88 she won 16 straight tournaments. Balukas so thoroughly dominated the women's circuit that by the early '80s she had begun entering the men's division at certain tournaments. Although she played respectably against the men, finishing as high as ninth in 1987, her presence at their events brought hostility from both male and female players, and in 1988 she left professional pool. "They just took all the heart out of me," said Balukas, who now runs a family-owned billiards room in Brooklyn. "They made me feel so rotten that I just dropped out."

Balukas's dominance had stifled competition, and her abdication brought new life to the women's tour. "The level of competitiveness has increased dramatically in the last five years," says Shari Stauch, managing editor of Pool & Billiard Magazine and a pro player herself. "When Jean was playing, everyone was intimidated when they played her. Now no one is intimidated by anyone."

The last three years have seen a pitched battle among Mataya, Robin Bell and Loree Jon Jones for the top spot among the women, with Mataya emerging as the front-runner. All three players are keenly aware of the considerable shadow that Balukas still casts. "Everybody wants to see Jean come back," says Stauch. "For someone like Ewa, the general perception about her is, 'Yeah, she won this, she won that, but she didn't have to play against Jean.' That's a tough ghost to fight against."

Of course Mataya is primed to accomplish something Balukas could never do. "As great a player as Jean was, she was never comfortable with that role of ambassador," says Panozzo. "It was just not her style. Jean was a raw competitor. She loved to play. But she hated exhibitions and giving speeches. She didn't go chum around during tournaments."

Already this year Mataya has launched a campaign for greater visibility. In the last two months she has appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, as well as on several nationally televised talk shows, chatting up the likes of David Letterman and Regis Philbin. Mataya understand that cultivating her visibility is as great a challenge as remaining her game's champion.

"I'd like to see pool get the recognition it should," says Mataya. "The top professionals should be able to make a good living from just the tournament circuit. I'd like to see the women playing on the same level as the men. I'd like to see more pool on TV. And I'd like to see pool become an Olympic sport."

Mataya clearly has her shots lined up. Now all she has to do is make them.

PHOTODAVID STRICKThe Swedish-born Mataya, who has worked as a model, is comfortable in the public eye. PHOTOJILL KREMENTZBalukas won her first U.S. title at 13 and dominated the sport for almost 20 years. PHOTOGREG CAVAMataya learned to play at 14, after following her brother and his friend to a pool room. PHOTOLANE STEWARTRecently, Mataya and daughter Nikki romped in a field near Ewa's family home in Gävle.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)