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Torbjörn Blomdahl (50): everlasting love for billiards
© Harry van Nijlen/Kozoom
Torbjörn Blomdahl on the podium in Suwon: the gladiator is back, the number one is on his throne again.
BACKNANG – What the genius of Lionel Messi is to football fans all over the world, what Roger Federer’s majestic combination of power, speed and technique brings to tennis, and what Alberto Contador means to cycling afficionado’s with his piercing jumps, is what Torbjörn Blomdahl’s brilliance, fluency, unpredictability and incomparable class is to three-cushion fans worldwide.
The Swedish player, who turns 50 this week (26 october), did not pick a sport in his young years that would earn him millions, as Messi, Federer and Contador did. And like his great predecessor Raymond Ceulemans in the Johan Cruijff, Björn Borg and Eddy Merckx era, he never had the admiration of an audience of millions.
But in their sport, they are famous, unique, icons without equals.
Torbjörn Blomdahl, to whom this 50 year anniversary interview is dedicated, grew up in Sweden and billiards was his hobby. Growing up in a more beneficial era than Ceulemans, with prize money, premiums and contracts more advanced, Blomdahl embarked on a career as a professional sportsman. That is what he remained to this day: a sportsman with an undying love for billiards.
,,I am lucky enough to be able to do this much longer than athletes in physical sports.''
An end to his career is not in sight: the Swede, since recently is the nr. 1 in the world again, he won the overall World Cup for the 10th time in his career, he plays with the ambition of a young gun and is still – after all these years – one of the very greats in his sport.
Second only to that one legend, Raymond Ceulemans, his palmares is the most impressive in the international three-cushion. The Belgian ruled on his own. Torbjörn Blomdahl has to deal with other giants, such as Frédéric Caudron, Dick Jaspers, Dani Sánchez, Eddy Merckx, Marco Zanetti, Kyung-Roul Kim, Filippos Kasidokostas, Sung-Won Choi and Martin Horn.
With competition as tough as that, he still became the Ceulemans of the current generation. A small sample from his honor list: 40 World Cups, 4 individual World titles, nine world titles for Sweden, ten overall World Cup wins, eight European titless, nine times the Coupe d'Europe.
The Swede, who would later move to Backnang, Germany, briefly goes over his career on his website: ,,Balls have always been important in my life'', he says. ,,My father used to throw balls, sometimes even oranges. I took up soccer, but my talent was limited.''
,,When I was nine (1971) I first visited the Biljart Club Center in Göteborg, that had a ping-pong table. There I got acquainted with billiards and was instantly mesmerized.''
At age ten, he moved to Helsingborg. ,,My parents opened a billiard club there, with another family, it became the BK Borgen. I took up the game myself, but my talent did not show instantly. I was eighteen I think, when my dad said: if you want to become a good player, you’ll have to practice more, and especially with more dedication. That was not the first time he said it, but this time he got through to me.''
His hobby gradually turned into a profession. ,,Raymond Ceulemans ruled three cushion in the world. He showed up in my dreams from time to time, and I convincingly beat him in them. The first time that dream became a reality was at the European Championship in Amersfoort in 1985. I beat him in the semi-final and won the title in a final against Rini van Bracht.''
1994 was an important year in his private life, when he moved to Backnang and married Beate. ,,We had met at the German Open in Backnang in 1988, where I won the final against Ceulemans. My future wife was in the audience, rooting for... Ceulemans.''
Two sons were born from their marriage: Yannick in 1996, Henrik in 2001.
Kozoom asks the birthday-boy 15 questions, and will give you an overview of the palmares of the phenomenon that is Torbjörn Blomdahl.
Frits Bakker: Let me get back to the beginning: the little boy who plays soccer, table tennis, but at some point chooses billiards. What was your motivation, because soccer and table tennis must have been more popular. Which role did your father play?
Torbjörn Blomdahl: ,,My motivation was, no doubt, the beauty of the game, and my father always spoke about that. In his younger years he was a multiple Swedish champion in pin billiards, but with a passion for three cushion. When our family moved to Helsingborg and we had our own club, my father started to practice three cushion more often. His love for that game radiated on me. He was my coach, in a way, but also my opponent. We usually played on two adjacent tables, because my father was a totally different type of player. With his “thin” stroke, he was more of a Raimond Burgman type, who focussed on defense. I was always a more attacking player by nature.''
FB: Did you – or others in your environment – find out about your unusual talent quickly?
TB: ,,We had our doubts, my father and me, because in the first years my progression halted: a first year with 0.350, 0.490 the next, then 0.500. A jump to 0.650 was encouraging and a few years later I played 1 average at the Swedish championship. I never took lessons. The only time a great player showed up here, it was René Vingerhoedt, who taught a few Swedish youngsters, but I was mostly at school then. Until I won the European title, my father never said that I had the talent to grow further.''
FB: It was in the days of Raymond Ceulemans, who ruled in all disciplines, not just three cushion. Your route was a different one: how soon did you focus completely on three cushion?
TB: ,,I played pin billiards for a year, and then switched to three cushion. It was not even a switch, because I have always kept playing pool, pin, three cushion and snooker. The game in all its facets is fascinating to me, 1-cushion and balkline too. In recent years, I have even taken lessons from Eddy Leppens to improve my balkline, and now I can make runs of 200. I don’t do that to compete, but because everything that involves a cue is interesting to me.''
FB: How would you divide your career into stages: the first years, when was there a lapse, with what ambition did you manage to come back to the top? Which stage was the best so far?
TB: ,,I’ve had many great years: the one following the first time I beat Raymond Ceulemans, the ones when I won the World Cup a few times, around 1995, 2007 was a great year, and – after a short hiccup – I have recently come back to a good place. I have always had the ambition, because I love my sport and try to improve. There is always room for technical improvement because three cushion is limitless in its possibilities. My relapse at some point can be explained by the emerging competition: Jaspers, Sayginer, Sang Lee, Sánchez, Caudron and others grew stronger, I could not dominate as I did. The tougher the competition, the more pressure, the more tension. And, without advertising that, I can be pretty nervous during a match. I sometimes feel that in a close match, I suffer more from nerves than my opponent. I am not like Jaspers, who is made of ice. When I was still the dominant player, it was no different, but I could cover it up with a surplus of quality. Not anymore. Maybe I get that from my father, who cannot even watch a match on Kozoom when I am playing. He will ask my mother what the result was, and then he’ll watch the video.''
FB: You have tried and played every discipline on a billiard; is three cushion the most beautiful game there is?
TB: ,,I have turned it into my profession, I love it, I’m good at it. But there is always more to learn. I love playing anything, but three cushion will always be nr. 1.''
FB: For those who do not know your style of play, your style of life and the person you are: how would you describe yourself with regard to:
Technique: ,,I try to keep it simple, to avoid big mistakes. I basically only have only one technique, pull the cue back and stroke forward. Marco Zanetti may have as many as 20 different strokes: accellerate, decellerate, long stroke, short stroke, right, left, he has an amazing arsenal. I only have one, like Dani Sánchez and Frédéric Caudron: pull the cue, wait, stroke straight. Caudron once said: the ball has no memory, it does not know what you do before you stroke. He is quite right.''
Tactics: ,,Very important to me, but I am not referring to defense, but to constructing runs. Place the balls in such a way that your next point will be easier. Sometimes, you use more speed to push a ball out of a specific zone. A feel for that only comes with years of practice and watching and experimenting. You know some points require more speed to achieve a position. Sometimes it looks as if a point played with speed rolls favorably because of luck. That is not true, I get those positions on purpose. Sometimes it is just that three feet extra, sometimes you have to put everything into it. I often know before I hit, where I do not want the second ball to end up. It is not like many think, that you must end up on the third ball with controlled speed, or that you should place ball three into a corner. That type of player will complain about the positions he gets, but they do it to themselves by pushing the third ball into the corner.''
Ambition: ,,I always want to win, no matter what tournament or match. It is about my love for the game, and my ability to never give up. You could call that ambition. Sometimes it is not even my opponent I want to beat, but three cushion, the game itself. Sometimes nothing goes right, like in this year’s WC in Porto. You don’t understand what the table is doing, the balls roll unfavorably, nerves tighten, everything starts to go wrong. Then, I think: this is not me playing here, and I can get over it pretty quickly.''
Speed: ,,My style is quick, but sometimes I need time to get ready for a “big, heavy” point, to keep a run going. Sometimes you need an innovation in the middle of a match. That can be tricky if you have 40 seconds to play. It is who I am, I sometimes play an entire tournament without asking for a time-out. Stupid, probably. But still, the time pressure has taken away from my analytical style. There can be such a difference, with 20 cm more or 10 cm less. The resulting position can be pure gold, or an unmakeable.''
Concentration: ,,Good concentration comes from playing well. When I play poorly, my concentration can sometimes go out the window.''
Sportsmanship: ,,I see it as part of the beauty of our sport: the way we respect each other. In soccer, you can score a goal with your hand. In our sport, we walk to our chair, we correct the referee if we get awarded an incorrect point. It sometimes happens that players complain about the opponent on the chair, that he moves, or makes gestures. That is nerves, not a deliberate thing. People who say that, also move. If you watch a billiard match, everything moves, we sometimes play on 4 tables at once, there is movement everywhere, nobody is a total mummy. One moves a bit more than the other. Dani Sánchez, for example, he is like an angel on his chair.''
Lifestyle: ,,I like to travel. Music, films and books are important to me. When I am home, I enjoy with my family. Barbecue in the garden. A bike-ride, or just sit and chat together. I also like other sports: walking, table tennis, and watching sports on TV.''
Mentality: ,,I would like to be stronger mentally. Sometimes fear creeps in, and I do not dare to play like I should. The final stages of a match can be gruelling. I envy those players with iron mentality.''
FB: Who are the top players that excel in:
1 technique, 2 ambition, 3 concentration/mentaliteit, 4 sportsmanship, 5 gameplan.
1: ,,Dick Jaspers, Frédéric Caudron, Tayfun Tasdemir, Dani Sánchez, Eddy Merckx.''
2: ,,Frédéric Caudron, Dick Jaspers, Jérémy Bury.''
3: ,,Sung-Won Choi, Eddy Merckx, Dick Jaspers, Martin Horn.''
4: ,,Kyung-Roul Kim, Martin Horn.''
5: ,,Frédéric Caudron, Marco Zanetti, Martin Horn.''
FB: Can you give us a top-5 of the most beautiful, emotional moments in your career?
1: ,,My victory in the Scandinavian championship in 1981, my first big title. The Danes, with players like Peter and Kurt Thögersen and Hans Laursen were stronger than we were. Sweden had just my father and myself, but I won the final.''
2: ,,My first victory over Raymond Ceulemans, the icon of our sport, in 1985.''
3: ,,The victory in the European Championship in 1985, that same weekend, winning the final against Rini van Bracht.''
4: ,,My first overall World Cup win in 1988.''
5: ,,My tenth overall World Cup this year.''
FB: What has more meaning for you, being world champion or winning the overall World Cup.
TB: ,,No doubt, winning the World Cup.''
FB: How has three cushion developed in, say, the last ten years? Which innovations have amazed or surprised you. What can spectators and afficionado’s expect? Can it become more beautiful, still better? Will the averages go up even more?
TB: ,,Averages do not go up a lot anymore, because matches are contested so fiercely. Players are more on a comparable level. Quality did go up, especially in terms of position play. High runs are more frequent. It does not surprise me, because I am in the middle of it, and I am part of the development of the game.''
FB: What was your reaction to that monumental match Eddy Merckx played: 50 in 6. For long, top players would have considered that impossible.
TB: ,,I said spontaneously: there, all that is left now is the high run record. 50 points in 5 innings, that is not going to happen in my lifetime, that is utopian. It was no surprise to me that Eddy Merckx was the one who did it. He can play with superior precision and flawless feeling for every table. I am positive that he can play with 6 average on a small table, his position play is that good. And he never misses a makeable point.''
FB: How did you feel about your return to the absolute summit of the game: was it a liberating feeling, a confirmation of your class?
TB: ,,I must admit I had my doubts. Now that I am back at nr. 1, I can only say I have regained my old level of play. Even more so, now that I play with my new Molinari cue, which fits perfectly into my type of game.''
FB: What is your opinion about the innovations of the formats: 40, 50 pts, set system, equalising inning?
TB: ,,I can’t tell you what is best. One thing certainly isn’t: team matches to 30 or 40 pts without equalising inning. That eliminates a 5 – 3 result, which is not good. No equalising inning in individual competition and in knock-out situations, that is perfect. I understand that we cannot keep playing tournaments in sets, even though it is much better for us (three chances to win). But organizers cannot have these time-schedules force upon them. Caudron finishes in 45 minutes, other players take three and a half hours for a match.''
FB: We sometimes hear doomsday stories about the future of billiards. What is your opinion?
TB: ,,I am optimistic, billiards will always be there because it is such a beautiful game. It is still extremely popular in countries like Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, Colombia, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey. So no need for desperation.''
FB: Finally: Could you have imagined a better life than you have now, as a profesional player with a beautiful family, world class palmares and the reputation of the player who was the best in the world for many years, following the Ceulemans era?
TB: ,,I have a wonderful profession, I enjoy life with my family and I am still succesfull as a professional sportsman. It does not get much better.
The most important successes of Torbjörn Blomdahl:
1987: WK in Caïro
1988: 1e BWA worldcup ranking
1991: 1e BWA worldcup ranking
1997: WK in Grubbenvorst
1987/1990: with Lennart Blomdahl
in Madrid en Vierssen
with Michael Nilsson in Vierssen
Overall World Cup
Player of the year
1986: Mondorf les Bains
1985/1991 with Lennart
1984, 1985, 1989, 1990 with BK Borgen
1998, 1999, 2000 with Pelgrim Profs
2002 with Van Wanrooij
40 World Cup titels
23 Swedish titels.
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