As 2013 drew to a close, and December approached, the buzz in the pool world was peaking. After all, the 20th PartyPoker.net Mosconi Cup was just around the corner.
The annual tournament pits five of the best players from Europe against their American counterparts in a series of Ryder Cup-style singles and doubles matches. And this year was set to be one of the most intriguing ever.
After winning five of the last six Mosconi Cups, which included a thrilling 11-9 victory at London’s iconic York Hall in 2012, Europe were aiming to defend their title.
Despite the European’s increasing dominance in the competition in recent years, though, the USA still held the advantage with 11 wins over Europe’s seven, and one tie.
Not that this worried Team Europe.
Indeed, nine-ball pool legend Mika ‘Iceman’ Immonen admitted in an exclusive interview with www.vaishalibhardwaj.com that he was confident Europe would retain the prestigious title weeks before the competition got underway.
“Considering the past [few] years and the European dominance, we are still the favourites,” the four-time Mosconi Cup winner told me.
“We have a bigger edge in York Hall [in London] because the European crowd can be even crazier than in America, but [this year’s competition in Las Vegas] does give Team USA a boost.
“It can’t wear us down as much as what the Americans experience in York Hall, though. I don’t think Americans ever get as crazy as us over here [in London].
“It’s good to get that kind of support at home, but, we’re expecting a lot of Europeans to be in Las Vegas to balance it out.”
Immonen was right. Not only did a significant number of European supporters make the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, but with the tag of favourites firmly placed on them, Europe romped to victory in Vegas.
And it was not just any win, either: Europe clinched the 20th title in superior fashion.
It all began on the first day when the visitors won all five of their matches, and in the process, completed the first-ever opening-day whitewash in the history of the event.
The Europeans then followed up their dominant day one performance with a further three victories on day two.
In fact, Europe were in such scintillating form — and, conversely, the Americans in such a poor state – that the team seized a 7-0 lead before the home side managed to record their first point.
After eventually ending the second day of play 8-2, Europe then won the first three matches of day three to clinch the 20th Mosconi Cup title with a record 11-2 scoreline.
It was imperious stuff from the visitors. But, how did Europe manage to wrap up the title in just three days and on American turf too?
Undoubtedly, an important factor was the impressive team, which comprised pool veteran Ralf ‘The Kaiser’ Souquet, Englishmen Darren ‘Dynamite’ Appleton and Karl Boyes, ‘The Terminator’ Niels Feijen, and of course, Immonen.
“It looks like all of us individually have been doing quite well,” the Finn said of his teammates’ form ahead of the tournament.
“Ralf was in a little bit of a rot for a moment, but, he just won a big European tour event, which is good news. And Niels won the World Pool Masters, and I’ve been doing pretty good this year too.
“I feel great, and of course, I’m honoured to be one of the team members,” Immonen added.
“I just finished a marathon in New York a couple of weeks ago, which is definitely contributing to a physical and mental strength. We are all, as a chain, pretty strong – there are no weak links.”
Looking back at the Europeans’ performance, Immonen was spot on. Feijen, in particular, was in magnificent form.
Indeed, the Dutchman followed up his World Pool Masters win in September to comfortably clinch the MVP [Most Valuable Player] award at the Mosconi Cup.
The accolade is one that Immonen is familiar with. Before Feijen collected the award in December, the Finn was the only player to have earned two MVP titles since the founding of the tournament 20 years ago.
That fact is hardly surprising given Immonen’s impressive career so far.
Immonen, who was born in London but now resides in New York, has won every major title in pool including two WPA World Championships, and back-to-back US Open titles in 2008 and 2009.
The 40-year-old’s rise to the top of the pool game resulted in Immonen becoming a regular member of Europe’s Mosconi Cup squad, with a 53% win record in 70 matches before the 2013 competition.
When asked what he would bring to the European team, Immonen said: “Physical presence, strength and my stats overall.
“It’s kind of ironic: I’ve won [the Mosconi Cup] only three times in 14 – this is my 15th appearance – but my personal stats are above the average for the times that I’ve played.
“I’ve always been a pretty good individual in the team. I’m consistent, I love the atmosphere and I love the pressure. I try to thrive under the pressure and that’s what we set out to do.
“It’s one of the things that when you are really feeling it, where else would you want to be at that moment? This is the pinnacle of anyone’s career.”
Although consistency and a cool character have been a major part of Immonen’s success, ‘The Iceman’ did not manage to achieve a flawless record in the competition this time around.
After winning twice on day one – once in the group game and once with a golden break in the deciding rack in his match over Shane van Boening – Immonen then suffered two defeats on day two.
First the pairing of Immonen and Appleton were beaten by Earl Strickland and Van Boening 6-5 before Rodney Morris and Van Boening clinched a narrow win over the Finn and Boyes by the same scoreline.
Immonen’s fortunes, however, did improve on day three when he and Feijen defeated Dennis Hatch and Morris 6-4 to clinch the title.
Although Immonen could not ensure a perfect record in the Cup this year, he proved to be an integral cog in the European machinery, which cruised to victory thanks to a harmonious collective spirit.
In contrast, the Americans – consisting of Johnny Archer, Earl ‘The Pearl’ Strickland, Hatch, Morris and Van Boening – struggled collectively and individually. Harmony and a team spirit seemed to, at times at least, be absent within the American side.
After a disappointing recent trend in the competition over the past few years, one of the big changes that the USA made was to recall legendary pool player Strickland to the team.
Ahead of the 2013 competition, the 53-year-old was the most successful player in the history of the Mosconi Cup and held an impressive 65% win record in 13 tournaments.
Last appearing in Malta in 2008, Strickland regained some of his best form over the past year and clinched a notable win at Turning Stone in September.
That victory proved instrumental in The Pearl’s call-up to the American Mosconi Cup squad – a recruitment that the Europeans would certainly have watched with eager interest.
However, Immonen – who trained under the North Carolina-born player earlier in his career – predicted that the presence of Strickland would only serve to hinder the USA rather than inspire them.
“He is a strong player, he’s always had good stats in the Mosconi Cup, and he’s a good individual,” the Finn said of Strickland, who is famous for provoking both European players and supporters alike.
“But, I don’t think he’s a team player so it never really threatens the European team when he’s on because he usually brings the rest of the [American] team down.
“He’s been playing good recently so it’s possible [that he’ll give Team USA an advantage] but none of us are afraid of him.
“We respect him as a player and it seems like he’s also been running a lot so he’s in good shape, which probably contributes to his game elevating to what it used to be.
“That’s why he’s on the team, and it’s not a surprise. All of those guys are strong but they don’t have anything that we can’t match.”
Despite Strickland’s imposing presence, ‘The Pearl’ ended up winning just one of his four matches – excluding the team game.
He also had several outbursts during the competition – which seemed to impact his own teammates as well as his competitors – with referee, Ken Schuman, even having to warn the legend for his continual talking on day three.
Strickland did, however, add an entertaining and competitive atmosphere to the Cup at a time when the authoritative performance by the Europeans was perhaps tedious for some to watch.
Indeed, another aspect which played its part in increasing the entertainment of the competition was the introduction of a narrow break box.
The tournament previously used the three-point rule, which required three balls to either be pocketed or pass the head string, or both, for a break shot to be deemed legal.
However, both team captains agreed to replace the practice in favour of a narrow break box, which all players had to take their break shot from.
“The Americans have had bad results [in the Mosconi Cup] the last four or five years so I think they are trying to change things to perhaps change momentum a little bit,” Immonen said about the narrow break box.
“They are trying to make the break tougher and it could get a little bit weird as there could be some dry breaks.
“I’m curious to see how it turns out because there could be a situation where you’d want to give up the break.”
That certainly seemed the case as there were a number of dry and even golden breaks throughout the tournament.
The rule change may not have improved the competitiveness of the 2013 Mosconi Cup on a grand level, but, it certainly did no harm in helping to spice things up a little.
Not that the competition needs much tweaking to attract more viewers. Indeed, Barry Hearn’s Matchroom Sport company, which first created the competition in conjunction with Sky Sports in 1994, have done an outstanding job in increasing awareness of 9-ball pool.
Immonen himself has witnessed the growth of the tournament first-hand, having competed in all but five Mosconi Cups.
After reflecting on his performances over the past 15 years, the 40-year-old had a clear aim for the 20th edition of the competition: to walk away with a win.
“When we [Team Europe] won in 2002 with Steve Davis as part of the team – I think he made the final pot – that was crazy. It was the beginning of turning the tide” Immonen said.
“Ironically in 2004, I was MVP, but, we lost even though I won all of my matches. That was a weird memory because I couldn’t really take much joy from getting the MVP.
“In ’06 I had a little blunder and I failed to clinch the title. It wasn’t the deciding match but it was near the deciding game which we could have won and then we lost the last two games.
“That was a major disappointment and I was very depressed for a while and then I was out of the team in 2007.
“I made it back for 2008 – I was having a great year – and then in Malta in December I managed to win all of my individual matches and I got MVP. That was one of my best memories in the Mosconi.
“2010 was great because it was in London. I was born in the city and I had all of my siblings there and it was great to win with the home crowd and my family there – and the whole York Hall madness.”
Immonen added: “I’m looking forward to another great experience [this year] and I know that America have a stronger team than they’ve had in a while because they are all very experienced players.
“We’ve taken that into consideration and we are really making our preparations to get ready.”
And Europe certainly did that. After a stunning performance in Las Vegas, the players will now be looking ahead to the 21st Mosconi Cup in Blackpool, England in December 2014.
With the selection criteria for the European players changing this year, Immonen and his colleagues know they have to perform well during the season to ensure their place in the squad.
The Americans, on the other hand, will need to regroup, and try and assemble a team which can realistically break the European hegemony of recent years.
Whether or not they can do this away from home remains to be seen. But what is certain is that as 2014 progresses, the buzz within the pool world will continue to grow, for the 21st Mosconi Cup looks set to be as intriguing as ever.
Interview: Vaishali Bhardwaj