SWEDISH-BORN EWA MATAYA WILL NEVER forget 1981. Only 17, Mataya—then Svensson—had just won the first European women’s billiards championship, prompting the Swedish Billiards Federation to send her to New York City to compete against the Americans. “I was life-hungry,” says Ewa, her jade-green eyes ignited by the memory. “I was going 100 miles an hour. I wanted to try things, to see what I could do there.”
Eleven years later, Ewa (pronounced Ava) is the top female pool player in the world, preparing to compete in the Women’s Professional Billiard Association (WPBA) National Championships in Milwaukee next week. And though she is still “life-hungry,” she is no longer the shy, gawky teenager who moved in with Jim Mataya, a street-smart pool pro 14 years her senior, five days after she arrived in the U.S.
Nowadays, Ewa, 28—who was divorced from Mataya last year—is trying to force a transformation on the world of pool itself. Stunning and statuesque, she is out to redeem the game she loves—to retrieve it from its traditional association with the shadowy netherworld of men. Ewa’s sponsor, Brunswick Billiards, which perceives Mataya as a walking billboard for the New Billiards, is hoping to convert her charm and grace into—what else? The color of money.
Ewa began flirting with pool as a 14-year-old. Born in Gävle, Sweden, about two hours north of Stockholm—near where her parents, Ing Britt and Lennart Svensson, owned an awning factory—Ewa was an unabashed tom-boy. “Whatever my brother Mats did, I did,” she says. One day in 1978 she trailed Mats, who was three years older, and his friend, Peter, whom she had a crush on, into a pool hall. “I never even knew what pool was,” she says. “But after I played two times, I forgot about everything else—even Peter.” By year’s end, Ewa was the fourth-ranked woman in the country.
Her friend, Vicki Paski, now president of the WPBA, remembers meeting Ewa in 1981′, on the day she arrived in New York. “She was pretty,” says Paski, “but she didn’t have the presence she has now.” Jim Mataya also noticed Ewa. He promised Paski a dinner if she would bring the teenager along.
“It was exciting,” remembers Ewa, who was instantly smitten. “On my first date with Jim, he took me to watch the Yankees. I had never heard of baseball before. I called my parents and said I wanted to stay in America.” Before the week was out, Ewa had moved with Jim to Holt, Mich. She married him in 1982 and spent the next three years trying to get her bearings.
The first challenge was learning the language. “My teacher was the TV,” she says. “I did it like Daryl Hannah in Splash. I started with The Flintstones and moved on to The Brady Bunch and TV news. Even then, I had trouble with idioms. I’d say, ‘Look at those horse-puppies,’ when I should have said colts.”
Struggling to pay the bills, she did some modeling and worked as a hostess in the Lansing, Mich., Playboy Club. In 1985, when daughter Nikki was born, Ewa stopped playing pool almost completely.
It look a heart-to-heart talk with brother Mats in 1988 to get her back to the table. In 1990 she won five of the top nine pro tournaments and took over the world’s No. I ranking. Maritally, though, she was behind the eight ball. “We changed, we grew apart,” is all she will say about the divorce.
These days, Nikki, 7, and pool are Ewa’s abiding concerns. They live in a three-bedroom ranch-style house in Grand Ledge, Mich. “Nikki thinks her mom is no! normal,” says Ewa, who tours half the year. “She wants me to work at the local Quality Dairy, a sort of 7-Eleven.”
Ewa, however, will not be quitting pool again anytime soon—especially not now when she sees the game growing up and smoothing out, much the way she has. “It’s amazing to see the interest,” says Ewa. “Next year there will be 12 or more WPBA events with $25,000 purses.”
Ewa herself makes about $100,000 a year playing pool. But winning, not money, is what drives her. “Every time I win, it’s an incredible high,” she says. “It’s like…like two days’ worth of falling in love with someone.”
JULIE GREENWALT in Grand Ledge