Composed teen leads talent pool

Rhythm is crucial to the world junior champion who finds music on tables

IN THE strangest of places, music is found. In Amadeus, the film, an absent-minded Mozart rolls an ivory ball across a billiard table as he scribbles the notes to some fantastic symphony. In Klassic, a Jalan Berseh pool club, a different and very precise composition is being arranged by Aloysius Yapp.

The world junior 9-ball pool champion folds his body over a table and then stills. It is the pause of pure concentration which precedes the intricate act. Then he deftly hits the ball, it leaps over one ball, collides with another in front of it, which rolls into the pocket. Yapp doesn't smile, yet he lives for such flawless geometry and loves the clatter of colliding balls. Pool, you see, is his music.

But it is a few seconds of perfection on a slightly imperfect practice day. Paul Pang, his generous mentor, is watching. Ralph Eckert, the new German coach, is running him through drills. But Yapp is finding the ball a trifle disobedient as he tries to make it dance, spin, rebound, stop.

"Bad," Yapp wryly says later. Then he starts again, one shot, then a hundred, then a thousand, like some mad, unending symphony of strokes. Quietly he says: "Everything can be done. I just have to find out how to do it." It is a voice strong with conviction, it is a belief rooted in courage.

This is a boy whose father died when he was nine, who had no bevy of sponsors, played an uncelebrated sport, owned no world-class coach and dropped out of school at 14 to chase greatness. Now he's world junior champion the hard way, a pathbreaker his own way. Forget those European footballers, for inspiration with floppy hair can be found right here in Jalan Berseh.

It's nearly 5pm and Yapp has just arrived from Coleman College where he's pursuing his O-levels. Dark T-shirt on, dark case with seven cues in his hand, dark outside when he leaves every day. Often he's here till midnight, passion glowing under shaded lights and Eckert can see it. "His desire to win is really high. He's fascinated by the game and a very good learner. I showed him a new form (of pool) the other day and he beat me in the second game."

This pool hall is the dungeon of sport where sunlight is uninvited, athleticism unpopular, toned bodies rare, just a picture of Ronnie O'Sullivan and a sign that reads "Don't drink and drive". Across more than 20 tables, men play each other and perhaps for money; in a corner, Yapp plays alone and for history.

One day he wants to be "world No. 1, world champion, Asian Games champion". On a June day he'd be happy to just be SEA Games champion. "I really want to win," says the player who knows how to win.

In November, nine years after he first gets a pool cue, Yapp, 18, is in the world junior final. A day that starts calmly with a latte and music, descends into madness. Four frames gone, 0-4 down.

The first to 11 will win and so Yapp takes a timeout and in the toilet "scolds" himself, for he's let chances slip and he's letting the final go. All that work, all for this? "Forget it," he calms his young self, "just put pressure."

The score moves from 0-4 to 1-5 to 6-6. "I never thought of losing," Yapp says, "but I never thought of winning. I just focused." All match he will not lead, except once, when he wins the final frame, 11-10.

It hasn't made him famous, for as we walk to dinner in the gently dying light of 7pm, he's just an anonymous stranger on the Singaporean sidewalk. He doesn't care, this soft-spoken boy-man with an even softer smile hovering across his face. "I love competing," he says. "I love beating people."

Pool players require an embroiderer's deftness, a surgeon's technique and a skin thicker than the cloth they play on. The pauses between shots make it golf's psychologically testing cousin. Its sheer injustice - you can pot the first eight balls but if you don't sink the 9 you're sunk - frustrates. And the unfair disrespect - oh, it's a gambler's pastime - can be demeaning.

But it doesn't matter to Yapp because being a wandering geometrician is his chosen life. No. 52 in a ranking chart which has roughly 500 names, studying YouTube videos of players every day, he shines his strokes till he can produce what he calls "God-like pool".

When I leave, night has fallen, yet he's still there, alone at table No. 24, a praying man practising in his alternative church. No cameras, no applause, no respite.

This is the athlete's life, just shot after shot after shot. It may look boring yet there is a brilliant music to it that only Aloysius Yapp can hear.

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