In a way, Eklent Kaci’s biggest victory of 2021 was the fact that he made it to Las Vegas at all.
The big Albanian had spent more time in his home country than he had hoped, missing a spring Matchroom event in England when his teammate couldn’t get a visa in time then missing a handful of additional events while waiting nearly three months for his “expedited” visa. Once he finally secured the proper credentials, Kaci was denied the opportunity to board his flight to the United States on August 29 due to a reservation mix-up and was forced to skip the Diamond Las Vegas Open.
Finally, three days later, Kaci was cleared to travel and made the most of his opportunity, working his way through a field of 64 of the world’s best pocket billiards competitors and took home the World 10-Ball Championship, defeating Naoyuki Oi 10-6 for the title at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino.
“This hasn’t been the best year,” he said after the finals were completed. “But this makes it worth the trouble.”
Although 2021 won’t be one that Kaci looks back on with much fondness, it was a revolutionary year for professional pool overall with the creation of numerous new tournaments throughout the world – including the U.S. Pro Billiard Series.
When billiard equipment manufacturer Predator Group and worldwide pool league operator CueSports International announced plans to launch the Series last summer, the strategy could have been interpreted as both aggressive and unconventional. The Pro Billiard Series launched with four new competitions spread out over three months while also producing the World 10-Ball Championships. Adding intrigue was the fact that the Series would be eschewing longer race formats which have long been a staple at major events and opting instead to implement a two-set, race-to-four that concluded with a sudden-death shootout if two competitors finished tied. As an added bonus, the champion of each Pro Billiard Series event in 2021 earned automatic entry into this week’s 2022 Predator World 10-Ball Championships, held again at the Rio beginning today.
“We need to make the sport more exciting,” said Predator Owner Karim Belhaj over the summer. “We’re trying to find outside sponsors while keeping people’s attention.”
It was only fitting that some of the most exciting young players today in professional pool brought home championships in this first season of the Series, as rising stars like Taiwan’s Kun-Lin Wu, Singapore’s Aloysius Yapp and Austria’s Mario He earned breakthrough titles. Even more impressive than the roster of champions was the quality of play, as competitors used a variety of methods to earn their championships – clutch shot making, pinpoint position play and stifling safeties.
“I believe we will one day look back on the inaugural season of the US Pro Billiard Series as a historic turning point for professional pool,” said Ozzy Reynolds, owner of CueSports International, the co-creator of the Series. “Several companies joined forces, bringing their own unique assets to the table, to build a better sport.”
The year was also a historic turning point for Wu, who had flirted with victory at big events in recent years only to come up short – finishing in third at the 2016 China Open and turning in a handful of top-10 performances at the Japan Open.
Competing at September’s Diamond Las Vegas Open, the 25-year-old notched his first win of his career, defeating Kuwait’s Omar Al Shaheen in straight sets, 4-3, 4-1. The young man from Taiwan, who posted an undefeated record during the four-day, 128-player event, eliminated Kremlin Cup champion Tyler Styer and Spain’s Francisco Sanchez-Ruiz to reach the semi-finals. Facing Estonia’s Dennis Grabe with a chance to go to the finals, he watched as his opponent pocketed back-to-back pocketed 10 balls on the break to sail to an opening set 4-0 win. Wu bounced back, closing out the second set with back-to-back victories after Grabe missed a jump shot in the fifth game and then the deciding shootout to advance to the finals where he took down Al Shaheen.
“I talked to myself to get off of the pressure in the final day,” said Wu. “I felt much pressure because of the title match. Both me and Omar had not won a title yet.”
That drought ended for Wu thanks to a break-and-run paired with two victorious safety exchanges, as he built a 3-0 advantage in the first set. The Kuwaiti battled back to tie the score but missed a combination shot in the seventh game, allowing his opponent to clear the table and take the set. In the next frame, the young man from Taiwan capitalized on a handful of missed shots by Al Shaheen, who earlier this year placed second at the World Pool Championships, to coast a 4-1 victory and earn his first victory.
Last September, Yapp grabbed the attention of the pool world when the 25-year-old reached the finals of September’s U.S. Open Pool Championships and built an 8-3 lead in the title match before ultimately falling to Carlo Biado. The young man from Singapore continued his ascension at the CSI Michigan Open, bouncing back from an early round loss to Roberto Gomez Jr. to defeat the Filipino in the championship match in straight sets, 4-0, 4-2.
Yapp, who struggled with his break throughout the day, gutted out victories against World Pool Masters champion Alex Kazakis of Greece and Konrad Juszczyszyn of Poland, then survived a second half scare in the semifinals against Hungary’s Oliver Szolnoki. After Yapp won the first set, the match appeared headed to a sudden death shootout as the Hungarian controlled the table with an open table layout. That was before Szolnoki missed the 3 ball, allowing Yapp to run out and advance to the finals, where he capitalized on a handful of Gomez errors to breeze to his first championship on United States soil.
At the Pro Billiard Series season finale, October’s FargoRate Ohio Open in Dayton, Mario He continued to survive but struggled to get a feel for the table being used to televise matches, with the radiant lights causing a different playing condition than he was accustomed to on the outside tables. In the finals against Gomez, the Austrian would barely need to shoot at times, pocketing back-to-back 10 balls on the break to build a quick 3-0 lead in the first set. The Austrian would during a Gomez comeback and win the frame 4-3, then take advantage of a handful of missed shots by the Filipino to pitch a 4-0 shutout and secure the championship.
All three 2021 Pro Billiard Series champions will be in competition this week along with reigning Mosconi Cup Most Valuable Player Jayson Shaw, five-time U.S. Open 9-Ball Champion Shane Van Boening, 2019 World 10-Ball champion Ping-Chung Ko and his older brother, 2015 World 10-Ball champion Pin-Yi Ko. Also competing will be World Pool Masters champion Alex Kazakis, reigning World Pool and International Open champion Albin Ouschan and U.S. Open pool champion Biado.
Find the Predator World 10-Ball Championship brackets on the Predator Pro Billiard Series website.
The Predator Pro Billiard Series is a series of open, professional events held around the world to provide more opportunities for professional and aspiring pool players to compete in high-quality events, earn more income, sharpen their skills, and earn their way into the Predator World 10-Ball Championship held in Las Vegas each year as part of the CueSports International Expo.
These events are played on Predator Apex Pro tables covered with Predator Arcadia Performance Cloth, with Predator Arcos II balls, and under the Predator Arena billiard lights.
CueSports International (CSI) is an international pool league and event leader and is currently comprised of three divisions: CSI Leagues, CSI Events and CSI Media. CSI Leagues manages the BCA Pool League and USA Pool League, CSI Events produces numerous amateur and professional events around the globe and CSI Media creates live streaming and digital content. Through its vision and strategic alliances, CSI is “shaping the future of pool.” For more information about CSI or any of its divisions, visit www.playcsipool.com.
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