Osaka, Japan- Finland's mighty Mika Immonen has won the 41st All Japan Championships, prolonging a winning streak that started out in October and hasn't stopped yet. Asia has been considered ,in the new millennium, the continent with the strongest players. At this year's event, this field was truly littered with Asia's best with names such as Taiwan's World Champion Wu Chia Ching, Kuo Po Cheng, China's Li He-wen and Challenge of Champions Winner Fu Jianbo, Japan's former World 9-Ball Champion Kunihiko Takahashi, and Korean Champions Young Hwa Jeong and Seung Woo Ryu. Throw in western counterparts World 9-Ball and 14.1 Champ Thorsten Hohmann (GER), World 9-ball and 8-Ball Champ Ralf Souquet (GER), and USA top pros Rodney Morris, Charlie Williams, and Max Eberle. Then add in arguably the toughest country, the Phillippines, with Efren Reyes, Francisco Bustamente, Alex Pagualyan, Ronnie Alcano, Dennis Orcullo, Marlon Manalo, Antonio Gabica, Warren Kiamco, Ramil Gallego, Lee Van Corteza, and Antonio Lining.In this 128 man super elite field, even the hottest pool player in the world could easily settle for a top 10 finish and be happy. That is why currently Mika Immonen is the world's strongest player.
The Ice Man started the day with a close 11-9 win over Japan's #1 Satoshi Kawabata, whom was Japan's favorite for a win. Immonen won despite the crowd support for Kawabata. Next he took on Japan's last and final hope, Naoyuki Oi currently ranked #3. Oi had no answer for Mika's tremendous break and offense and succumbed 11-3 with a smile on his face and a shrug of helplessness. This put Mika in the finals waiting and fighting his own inner demons of finishing 2nd place a record four times at the All Japan.
Mika looked up with a smile and said aloud, "Well, here we are again!" referring to his 5th trip the finals at the All Japan in 10 years.
On the top brackets, Ronnie Alcano defeated fellow Filipino World Champion Efren Reyes while Antonio Gabica escaped 11-10 against Alex Pagulayan. The semi-finals with Alcano and Gabica saw the match see-saw as neither was able to gain a significant lead. Gabica reached the hill first at 10-9 and made a perfect break making two balls on the break but hooking himself with no shot on the 2-ball. He pushed to a kick which Alcano gave back. Gabica played a near perfect 2 rail kick and played the ball up table leaving Alcano a long off angle shot with cue ball near frozen to the rail. Alcano fired in the table length shot and then came short on the 3ball. With a possible bankshot or natural safe, the crowd gasped at a razor thin cut shot on the 3ball that sent the cueball zigzagging 3 rails. Making the shot was hard, but now Alcano faced his third tricky shot with another backrail frozen cueball shot on the four ball. Again Alcano came with it! Then he got too straight on the 6ball and had to play it leaving a funny angled cut shot on the 7-ball, but Alcano didn't hesistate on the shot and ran out. At 10-10, Alcano made a ball on the break and started off again with a tough one ball cut shot which he made with extreme inside english creating position for the 3ball. By the time he reached the 6ball which again was too straight, he again faced the same off angle cut shot on the 7ball with the cueball near the siderail. He again held his nerve with his smooth styled stroke but after making the 8-ball he drifted too far down and left himself a backward cut on the 9-ball which would naturally be a scratch in the side. Laughing aloud with a smile, he chalked his cue and smoothly finessed stroked the cueball and avoided the side pocket scratch with draw while the 9ball slid into the back of the corner pocket for the win, ending with Alcano's heavy sigh of relief.
On the ladies side, Xiao Ting Pan cruised undefeated to the finals for her third time here. In a field of women that would rival the WPBA in talent and skill, the Taiwanese and Chinese were dominant in the 75 player field. Japan's Chihiro Kawahara , recent winner in Korea at the Asia 10-Ball Championships, was Japan's highest finishing female and in the semi-finals had given Pan a hard time with the score at 8-7. With an open table run, Kawahara miscued and fouled giving Pan a sigh of relief and the win without going through the headache of a hill hill match. The finals had Taiwan's Chieh Yu Chou against Pan. Pan's experience in winning this event ,as well as international wins, was too much for the inexperienced #2 Taiwanese player and Pan crushed her 9-2 for her third All Japan Championship title. Taiwan's top bet Yuan Chun Lin, the reigning World 9-Ball Champ, was eliminated to 9th place by Korea's Yun Mi Lim.
The men's finals would be a re-match of the US Open Championship match, and also Alcano and Immonen's 3rd match against each other in 30 days. Alcano could easily be considered the hottest Filipino player with a multitude of consistent finishes including runner-up at the 2007 US Open, 2nd in 2008 World 8-Ball Championships, 2nd in 2008 US Open, and now again in the finals. Immonen of course is the definition of hot with wins at the US Open, IPT Challenge, 2nd in Asia 10-Ball Championships, and now the finals of the All Japan.
"I hope Mika wins. He's gotten 2nd place so many times here." answered one Japanese pro when asked who was the crowd pulling for.
Knowing the meaning of this title to Immonen, many people were more heart felt than usual in well wishing Immonen. Rodney Morris, Charlie Williams, and Yu Ram Cha , (Mika's fellow compatriots in Dragon Promotions) could all be seen giving fist bumps and words of encouragement before the match. His sponsor Kaz Miki of Mezz Cues gave Immonen a new break cue prototype that Immonen said he tried and gave him a boost of confidence.
Immonen jumped out to a 3-0 lead, looking strong and determined to overcome the close calls of the past. Then Immonen made his first error leaving Alcano an out to get on the board 3-1. Mika clearly looked irritated at his carelessness and could be seen reinforcing himself to bear down. Then Immonen went on an offensive tear giving Alcano no chance or open shots, with Mika breaking and running out and playing superb safeties. Almost as if he could sense the sweet taste of victory, Immonen finally made an error missing the 1ball . By that time Immonen had surmounted a 10-1 lead before Alcano had any real chance. Alcano made a great effort with a tricky out to add one more game and people wondered if there would be any real match. Alcano faced an easy 8-ball stop shot with the 9-ball sitting pretty next, but Alcano fired too hard and popped the 8-ball out. Immonen sensing the closeness of a finality to his goal, raised his eyebrows, seemingly to slowly realize this could be it. After making the final 9-ball, Immonen brought both hands together down in a pump, as if to forever push away the demons that haunted him in this event.
After a few moments, Immonen sat down in his chair and could be seen with his hands pinching away the tears from his eyes. After sitting frozen in his chair blocking the tears, Immonen gathered himself together to be embraced and congratulated by his friends and fans.
"I can't believe I got wins in both events I've wanted to win so long in the same year!" said the jubilant Immonen. When asked how did he prepare for the finals this time, Immonen answered, "I just went to my room and relaxed. I knew I was playing well and I shouldn't change anything. The key was just staying focused and not worry about anything else. At the very least i put myself in the best possible position to win by just getting to the finals."
"When Mika gets behind he knows how to come back. But when he gets out in front, he can whiz right by you better than anyone I ever seen." observed Rodney Morris.
"That guy (Mika) might be the greatest front runner ever. It's dangerous to let him lead, he shoots straighter than anyone I know." commented Alex Pagulayan.
Immonen will head next to Manila to participate in the Quezon City Invasion which will pit the World Team against Team Philippines. Immonen will partner up with Morris, Williams, Raj Hundal, and Thorsten Hohmann. The home team will consist of Reyes, Bustamante, Pagulayan, Orcullo, Alcano, Kiamco, Van Corteza, and Gomez. Immonen's hot streak will be a welcomed key force for the World Team. Immonen adds his win at the All Japan to his impressive list for 2008 including 2nd Place World Pool Masters, 5th Place World 10-Ball, 1st Place US Open, 1st Place IPT Challenge, 2nd Place Asia 10-Ball.
"Mika's playing his absolute best game right now. Even better than I've ever seen before, and as the level of play gets stronger, he still finds a way to rise up. I think it's safe to say right now he's the world's greatest player." said Charlie Williams.