Ahmad Taufiq Murni was two agonising frames away from a 9-ball men's singles bronze medal after losing 9-7 to China's World No 4 Li Hewen in a tough tactical battle at the 4th Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games last night.
The Sultanate's best bet for a medal in Incheon, Taufiq progressed to the quarter-finals after beating United Arab Emirates' Mohamed Hasan Ebrahim Al Hosani 9-6 in the afternoon before defiantly bowing out to the tournament's top seed.
Li is the top seed and defending champion since he won the same event at the last edition of the Games in 2009, when it was known as it's predecessor, the Asian Indoor Games. A win for the underdog Taufiq, who isn't even in the World Pool-Billiards Association's (WPA) list of 420 top players in the world though he was 65th two years ago would have been a huge upset at the Songdo Convensia, where a semi-final berth would have guaranteed him joint-bronze at the very least.
And at 7-7 after nearly two hours of intense sparring and cautious safety play, the victory looked probable, especially since Taufiq who was doing well to force Li into shots he didn't want to take had just won three consecutive frames to take a 7-6 lead.
But a scratch on the 5-ball after Taufiq pocketed it allowed Li back on the table, and he banked the 7-ball, slowly rolled in the 8 and confidently hit the 9 for a 8-7 lead.
Tellingly, that was when Li's experience and already shining positional play really stood out, and he would clear the whole table after the break but not before Taufiq made him sweat.
"I saw his hand shake on that final 9-ball... But yeah, he made it," said Taufiq after a performance that showed why he deserves to be in Incheon.
"He was not confident (as the match progressed). I could see that.
"That scratch was the turning point... That and when he slowly rolled the 8-ball in," he added.
Despite sending Ralf Souquet crashing out of the 2011 Beijing Open the German a former World No 1 who was then ranked No 8 and is No 5 now Taufiq felt a win against Li would have been more memorable.
"It would have been my biggest win. This was my only chance to win a medal... And this is the Asian Games, bigger than the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games," said Taufiq, who only competed in the 9-ball singles.
"I could have been on there," he said as he pointed to the podium while walking past it on his way to catch a shuttle back to the Athletes' Village.
The way Taufiq took the loss in his stride is commendable, but even more so is the way he calmly carried himself during the clash against Li who looked uncomfortable as the minutes turned into hours.
A miscue on the 7-ball allowed Taufiq back on the table to win the first frame, though Li would produce a clear break in the next frame to make it 1-1.
Li's scratch on the 7-ball saw Taufiq win the next frame, and after a early mistake on a push by Li, Taufiq would extend his lead to 3-1.
A botched safety on the 1-ball after Taufiq's break meant Li was back up and cut the gap to 3-2, and it was 3-3 after more safety play saw Li get the better of Taufiq.
A scratch on the 6-ball was all it took for Li to clear the next frame and go up 4-3, though Taufiq evened the scores at 4-4 straight after.
More sparring on safety play ensued until Taufiq commited a foul after Li hid the 7-ball behind the 9, and the latter would go on to make it 5-4 after enjoying a ball in hand.
It was 6-4 when Li cleared the table after Taufiq was unable to trap his opponent by hiding the 3-ball, but Taufiq won the next two frames to force a 6-6 stalemate.
Li's miss on the 8-ball seemed to be a sign that it was Taufiq's day, and the Bruneian stepped up to secure a 7-6 lead before going down to the World No 4 in what will probably be Team Brunei's most heart-breaking two hours in Incheon.