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Ladies of the Cloth

In a sport with few financial rewards, professional pool players play for the love of the game.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

Helena "The Sledgehammer" Thornfeldt isn't satisfied with the rack. Jennifer Barretta, her opponent in a fourth-round pool match at the Cuetec Cues Florida Classic, a nine-ball tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, is trying to get each of the nine object balls to be in contact with the adjacent balls. Tight racks are important, but the Iwan Simonis cloth on the Brunswick Gold Crown table isn't cooperating.

"Helena is sharking Jennifer," says a player who is watching the match. "Sharking" means that Thornfeldt, known for her powerful break, is trying to shake Barretta's focus. Ranked sixth in the world, Thornfeldt is losing to Barretta, a relative newcomer to the game and the tour, who was ranked 18th coming into the tournamnet, the final event of the 2004 Women's Professional Billiards Association season. Barretta is only slightly distracted by Thornfeldt's gamesmanship. She calls out, "Steve!" for the tournament director to come to table number five and take over racking the balls, something he routinely does beginning in the semifinal round. Thornfeldt is silenced and ultimately vanquished nine games to four. Barretta is in the quarterfinals. That means ESPN. That means exposure. That means playing Karen Corr, the "Irish Invader," at that moment, the world's number one.

Nearly 150 hours of women's pool is on ESPN and ESPN2 annually, including re-runs. The Women's Professional Billiards Association's (WPBA) budget has doubled, to more than $1 million dollars a year over the past six years. The nonprofit association uses the money to promote the women's game and stage tournaments like the one in Florida. Barretta, Corr and Thornfeldt are three in the field of 64 players that compete in most events put on by the WPBA each year. They are representative of the draw pool has on women around the world. Corr is Irish, but resides near Philadelphia. Thornfeldt is from Sweden, but lives in Georgia. Barretta lives and trains in New York City, but grew up in Pennsylvania, where she was a competitive tennis player. When she moved to New York, she found court time to be too expensive and looked for something more affordable.

"I started searching for some competitive outlet," Barretta says. "And I tried ballroom dancing, I tried to get back into tennis and I tried a few other things. Professional snowboarding was my other aspiration. I was, like, obsessively snowboarding for a while there until I realized you have to break things and get hurt to go pro with that, so I was, like, 'No, I don't wanna do that.' Then I started playing pool just casually and I got sucked into a league and next thing you know that's all I wanted to do, play pool. And then when I turned pro I quit my job and now this is all I do."

The blonde and buff 36-year-old Barretta (she has posed wearing a bikini for a magazine) started playing pool in 1997 at the relatively advanced age of 29. For eight hours every day, Barretta practices at Amsterdam Billiards, a pool hall on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which is one of her sponsors. It's paid off.

"I turned pro October 2003," Barretta explains. She entered 2004 ranked 29 on the tour. "And right now I'm in a virtual tie for 17th. My goal is to get into the top 10 and see what happens from that."

Barretta comes into 2005 ranked 12. Being in the top 16 has competitive advantages. "It means that you don't draw another top 16 [player] for two rounds instead of one" she says. "So, it's easier to have a better tournament."

And maybe make more money. Barretta left a successful career as a fashion designer to make $19,150 in 2004's tournaments. Being married to a successful personal trainer—her husband works with a lot of celebrities—makes it possible for her to pursue pool as a career.

"It's very difficult getting sponsors and the prize money isn't enough," Barretta says. "It may cover your expenses, but it doesn't give you much to live on. To cover your expenses you have to make about $1,500 every tournament. If you have a bad tournament, that can put you in some financial trouble. But anyone who ever gets into pool knows that you don't do it for money. You do it because you love it."

Loving pool is a common reason given by the women for turning pro, but more is needed to make the pro game flourish. Women's pool, the ethos of which is nothing like what you've seen in The Hustler or The Color of Money, exists in an American sports world that, outside of football, basketball and baseball, is looking for something that can described using the word "extreme." Many of the players themselves will tell you quietly that two main things need to happen to meet the marketing challenge. First, snowboarding aside, the game needs to become more outwardly exciting. Second, to have even a chance of accomplishing the first thing, stronger personalities need to emerge among the women, most of whom are more comfortable focusing intently—and silently—on pocketing the next ball.

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