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.