Jeanette Lee's biggest challenger always has been herself.
Before the billiards tour began last season, Lee made a confident move. Despite not owning a single tournament title, she signed a contract for a bonus if she became the No. 1 player in the world and the tour's Player of the Year.
Not only did Lee win her first title on the tour's first stop, the Baltimore Billiards Classic, she finished the year as the No. 1 player in the world and the 1994 Player of the Year.
"I was confident when I put it in my contract," said Lee, 23, of New York. "But if I had to bet on it, I wouldn't. I used to tell everyone two years ago, in my first year on the tour, that I would be the top player and I got laughed at. I was bold enough to talk the talk, and now I had to walk the talk."
Lee defends her first title at the third annual $50,000 Baltimore Billiards Classic at Eastpoint Mall, which starts today and kicks off the 1995 Women's Professional Billiards Association Tour.
Last year, Lee, the sixth seed, had to twice defeat top-seeded Loree Jon Jones, who beat Lee in the world championships a month before, for the title.
"I came into the final against Loree Jon more angry than afraid," Lee said. "I told myself if I didn't win this match that I was a loser. I was so emotional that match that I nearly fainted moving around the table."
That tournament victory propelled her to wins in Minneapolis and San Francisco and at the U.S. Open and the National Championships.
"That title in Baltimore gave me a lot more confidence," she said. "I always had the hunger, but never knew what it tasted like. Once I tasted it, I knew I could get used to it."
Lee started playing billiards seven years ago at the age of 16 in pool halls around Manhattan. Drawn in by the game's finesse, she found that for her pool evolved from a social activity into an obsession.
Lee learned the basics of billiards from her mentor Gene Nagy at Chelsey's Billiards in Manhattan. Practicing 13 to 15 hours a day, Lee polished her skills and started playing in local tournaments.
In 1992, she met a top professional, Bob Hunter, who advised her about entering the major tournaments.
"I was really lucky to meet these two guys and they helped me out tremendously," Lee said. "But I'm not saying I wouldn't be here now, because I've worked hard. I make others sick by how much I practice. It just would have taken longer without them."
Through her intense practice sessions, she has developed an aggressive style of play. Lee is known on the circuit for never taking the easy shot, always testing her ability.
That's why Lee cringes after easy victories.
"I hate to win when I don't play my best," Lee said. "I can't accept it when my worst game happens to be better than another's average game. After those types of wins, I go back to my hotel room and cry because I didn't play my best. That's how I survive."
What: More than 40 of the top professional women's billiards players will return to compete for more than $50,000 in prize money at the third annual Baltimore Classic. Portions of the event proceeds benefit the House of Ruth, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.
Where: Baltimore Billiards at Eastpoint Mall.
When: Today through Saturday, tournament match play will be held from 11 a.m. to midnight. On Sunday, the semifinals begin at 1 p.m., and the finals are scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
Tickets: $8 per person per day through Saturday, $10 on Sunday. A weekend pass can be purchased for $30. Call (410) 282-7968.