Ronnie starts his 2020 UK Championship campaign tonight against Leo Fernandez. Leo is a very capable player, but has suffered a lot of injuries during recent years. It’s hard to predict what form he will show coming into the match
There’s no reason why Ronnie O’Sullivan cannot compete at the very top of snooker for another decade, believes Chris Henry.
The Rocket won his sixth World Championship title this year at the age of 44, climbing back up to number two in the world rankings.
He turns 45 in December, which would traditionally be long past the age of a player challenging for the biggest prizes in the sport.
However, the world champion shows few signs of slowing down and is among the favourites to win the UK Championship over the next two weeks in Milton Keynes.
Henry, who coaches Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy among others, believes that if O’Sullivan continues to look after himself physically, as he has been doing, then he still has many years in the game.
The renowned coach has also worked with top golfers, including Lee Westwood and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, and it is an example from the world of golf that has convinced him the Rocket can continue to soar for a long time to come.
‘If these guys look after themselves…I was talking to Mark Selby about this the other day. I was in Holland a few years ago and I had about an hour with Tom Watson, talking about all kind of things,’ Henry told Metro.co.uk.
‘Look at what he did, he almost won the Open at 59! 59 years of age and he missed out by one shot [at the 2009 Open].
‘Snooker isn’t anywhere near as physical, you’ve got to be strong physically because it helps mentally, but if Tom Watson can do that at 59, there’s no reason why Ronnie O’Sullivan can’t be very competitive in his mid-50s.
‘Bernhard Langer, he was going round with [Rory] McIlroy at the Masters, he’s 63! Fantastic! If you look after yourself, and you’re still motivated to put the practice and work in, snooker and things like golf, there’s no reason you can’t go into your 50s and be competing.’
Not only does Henry feel O’Sullivan can keep going for another 10 or more years, but parts of his game will continue to improve with time and he may be even harder to beat than he is now.
Mentally the Rocket appears in as good a place with his game as ever and the safety and tactical side of his game is not far behind his incredible break-building.
‘I think as he gets older his temperament will get even better,’ Henry explained. ‘I think he’ll calm down a little more, I think he’ll stop taking it as serious and just go out and enjoy it a little bit more.
‘That’s when he’ll play his best, when he’s feeling relaxed.
‘He’s a brilliant safety player. He’s not just playing safe, he’s putting side spin on, he’s coming off two or three cushions, he’s always trying to get you in serious trouble, not just playing safe.
‘He plays a lot of safety shots completely like anyone else, he’s very clever.’
O’Sullivan has predicted similar longevity for himself in the past, saying at last year’s Scottish Open that he can see himself still competing at 55 years old.
‘I can probably do it till I’m about 55, to be honest with you,’ said O’Sullivan after a whitewash win over James Cahill.
‘I feel better now than when I did in my 20s and 30s so, for another 10 years I can’t see a reason why I can’t play like that.
‘Which is nice, I’m not going to be sat at home getting bored, at least I can go out and hit a few balls and enjoy myself. If I feel like I can continue to play like that, I don’t find the game difficult sometimes.’
Social media abuse has become commonplace for stars of all sports and snooker is not immune, with Mark King receiving the vilest of messages imaginable, and he says enough is enough.
Public figures have long been targeted by online trolls and sportsmen and women have been victims since social media first allowed strangers to contact them directly.
Numerous snooker players have publicised the grim comments that are directed at them and some have chosen to step away from social media as a result, which is a great shame for genuine fans.
King has received messages ranging from the mildly irritating to the eye-wateringly hideous and it is a completely unnecessary stress that no one should have to deal with.
‘I was talking to Mark Allen at the Championship League and he’s come off all social media, he said he just can’t bear it,’ King told Metro.co.uk. ‘There are so many idiots on there and all they want to do is slag you off.
‘People on there will say I played crap, and I agree with them, I’ll have a bad day at the office, but I’ve put the practice in and just had a bad day, that’s it.
‘But you get people who’ve gambled on the game and say, “I hope your kids die and my wife dies of cancer” and you just want to rip them apart.
‘If you want to say things like that, get in a room with me and I’ll smash you all over the place, absolute scumbags. If you’re going to have a bet, take the consequences.
‘I’d have more respect for them if someone said it to my face, I’d probably shake their hand and say, “I agree with you, I played shit.”’
The anonymous nature of many Twitter accounts makes it all the easier for trolls to do their work, and while the most horrific messages have an obvious impact, it can be seemingly less offensive remarks that can also cut deep.
King was brought up in a recent discussion over snooker journeymen, something he is clearly not as a former Northern Ireland Open champion and top 16 player, but the comment rankled with the 46-year-old.
‘All these people are just trolls, they’ve got a picture of a dog so you don’t know who they are and you just think, “go and annoy someone else.” If you ain’t got something good to say or worth talking about then don’t bother saying it,’ King continued.
‘A guy recently said I was a journeyman, I thought, “I ain’t no one really, but in my sport I feel like I’ve accomplished more than a journeyman.”
‘A journeyman turns up gets beat, goes home, turns up gets beat, just makes the numbers up. Being a ranking event winner puts that out the water, I’ve been in the top 16 a few times. It’s just disrespectful. That’s why I said I don’t agree, it’s just rude.’
The fiendishly difficult game is hard enough without the added pressure and abuse read on your phone after a defeat.
Matches are not just matches, but how players earn money and pay the bills and they are there to win for their family and their career, which makes the attacks all the more tough to take.
‘All the players try. You practice hours and days on end, what’s the point in not trying?’ King said.
‘Sometimes you’re having a bad day but being a professional sportsman kicks in. You can roll over and give up or you can try. 99 out of 100 will try.
‘On the odd occasion you’ve got nothing in the tank, we’ve all been there when the luck’s against you, you’re playing bad anyway and they fluke a ball and you just think, “Take me now! Put me in the car and drive me home.”
‘The game is just so frustrating. We’re all trying. Especially when you know why you’ve missed. It’s just so annoying, but there we go.’
King is looking forward to getting back on the table after missing the German Masters qualifiers this week due to a positive coronavirus test.
‘Berlin is one of the best ones we’ve got,’ he said. ‘It’s such a shame, I’ve missed the last couple of years and to miss out again through no fault of my own, is disappointing but hey ho.
‘I was playing really poorly so I really put some hours in the last few weeks and was really looking forward to playing some better snooker.
‘This has happened so I’ve had to put me cue down for a week which is really frustrating, but it is what it is.’
With his wife testing negative for the virus, King has been confined to his bedroom in a bid to not pass it on to his family and admits that he has been ‘bouncing off the walls’ in isolation.
He will return next week at a special event for the veteran, the Northern Ireland Open, which was his first ranking event success four years ago in Belfast.
It was an emotional victory for him when he downed Barry Hawkins 9-8 in an epic final, 25 years after he turned pro, but he does not see it as a one-off, wanting to add more silverware to his collection.
‘Four years ago this year, it’s gone really quick, really quick,’ King said of his Northern Ireland triumph. ‘It’ll be nice to get another win under my belt or a decent run in something because my results haven’t been that good.
‘I’ve got pictures in my bedroom, the trophy is in the house, I see it every day and they are fantastic memories.
‘The main thing was having my whole family there, apart from winning, it was having everyone there and hopefully another one is just around the corner.’
The Northern Ireland Open will be held in Milton Keynes his year, as has every other event so far this season as the pandemic rolls on, but despite the monotony of the trips to the Marshall Arena, King is raring to get going and regain his form after a slow start to the campaign.
‘No matter where you are, you want to get higher. My world ranking at the minute ain’t where I wanna be, so, it’s a case of knuckling down, getting a few wins under my belt and my confidence back up,’ said the world number 43.
‘If you’re not winning it’s hard to get any confidence going. Winning brings pressure for other players to beat you.
‘If you play someone who ain’t winning much you don’t feel the nerves like when you’re playing a [Ronnie] O’Sullivan or a [Judd] Trump. You can get nervous playing them sort of players, but players that aren’t winning a lot, there’s less pressure.
‘I feel like I’ve still got a lot to give the game. I’ve got a chance of doing some big things again when I knuckle down.’
King is back in action on Tuesday 17 November against Zak Surety in the Northern Ireland Open first round.
This really is an excellent interview – thank you Phil Haigh – and one that tackles what has become an Internet plague: extreme abuse by anonymous cowards. In sports, people losing bets are a big part of that. Fans should understand and accept that sportspersons are not robots that can be turned on to perform and win. Form is not a tap that can be opened/closed at will. They have good and bad days, just like everyone of us. When they go through a bad spell, doubts and anxiety creep in and often it will further undermine their performances. It may take time, and sometimes external help, to get back to where they want to be.
Mark King, Rod Lawler, Fraser Patrick and Riley Parsons have pulled out of this week’s BetVictor German Masters qualifying rounds in Milton Keynes.
King has tested positive for Covid-19 while Patrick and Parsons both came into close contact with someone who has tested positive. Lawler is suffering from a back injury.
All four were due to play on the first day of qualifying on Tuesday at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes. Their opponents – Jimmy White, Stephen Maguire, Graeme Dott and Kacper Filipiak – all receive a bye to the second qualifying round later in the week.
The qualifiers run from Tuesday to Saturday, with players needing to win two matches to make it to the final stages in January. Fans can watch the action live on the Eurosport App.
King, Patrick and Parsons are undergoing a period of self isolation and will receive the support of WST.
Since WST events restarted in June, strict Covid-19 regulations have been and continue to be followed, under UK Government guidance.
While we wait for the action to start here are two interesting interviews.
Ding Hoping To Inspire New Generation With Academy
China’s number one Ding Junhui believes his new state of the art snooker academy in Sheffield can help a new generation of Chinese talent to prosper on the World Snooker Tour.
The Ding Junhui Snooker Academy opened earlier this year and hosts a number of China’s best young talents, including WSF Junior Open winner Gao Yang, as well as more experienced players such as two-time ranking event finalist Xiao Guodong and Thailand’s number two Noppon Saengkham.
The facility is right in the heart of city and is just five minutes walk from the Crucible Theatre. There are 18 Star tables in total, all spaced apart with tournament level lighting installed. The academy owns accommodation nearby which can be used by its younger Chinese professionals.
Ding said: “I need a good facility for the rest of my career, as I have been practising in a club for the last two seasons. I didn’t feel good about that and wanted my own academy. It is great for the other Chinese players, who there are more of on the tour every year.
“A lot of them are young and they need good tables and conditions. It needs to feel like a tournament for them. There is no point in them coming over here and wasting their time. When I was young I had good tables to play on. I want to see them have the same things and make improvements while they are young. What I don’t want to see is them travel to the UK for one or two seasons and then have to go back. That is no good for snooker or snooker’s history.
“It was so difficult to find the right place. We were searching for over a year. We put all of the tables in, got the lighting sorted and this is perfect. When I walk in, I just want to start playing straight away. We’ve tried to keep a big distance between each table, a little bit like they are set up at qualifiers for professional tournaments. It is like that so if there ever was a chance, we would be capable of hosting a qualifier here. To win tournaments, practising is vital. It is so important to get the conditions right.”
Ding hopes that as well as providing the facilities for his fledgling compatriots to work on their game, he can impart his own wisdom whilst practising with them. The 33-year-old also believes that they are pushing him on to reach greater heights with his own game.
“I can help and talk to them about some of my experiences because we are playing together. When they lose or win a match I can help them to understand why it happened. It is also good for me, because they all keep improving so I need to keep my own standards very high. Every day the matches are so hard and it is really pushing me to improve my game going forward. I have many different opponents to play against, and the quality of the tables is very high. These are things that I can control and I am happy to play here.”
Ding is now starting to set his sights on defending the Betway UK Championship title, which he won for the third time 12 months ago. He’ll face amateur Jamie Curtis-Barrett in the opening round of this year’s event, which runs from November 23rd to December 6th in Milton Keynes.
The 2011 Masters champion downed Scotland’s Stephen Maguire 10-6 in last year’s UK final, to claim the fourth piece of Triple Crown silverware in his career. It was an emotional victory for Ding, who had been going through a barren spell of two years without a ranking title. Looking back he admits that beating Ronnie O’Sullivan in the last 16 was a key turning point mentally.
“When I beat Ronnie, I then had confidence to win the tournament. He is the most difficult player to beat. You have to play so well for the entire match to have a chance against him. After that I had a different level of confidence. I think at that point I was probably 80% confident that I could win the whole thing.
“Stephen was playing very well. I watched his semi-final and he was brilliant. It was a difficult match in the final. I just tried to get in front at the start of the game and I did. He had a couple of mistakes. He had been through a few seasons not playing as well and hadn’t had many chances to be in finals. He maybe wanted to win more than me and when the match started he had the most pressure.
“It is difficult because I had been losing a lot of matches myself and the confidence was going. It is very difficult to get back. It was a very good time for me to win. Years go by and you get older, I am travelling between China and the UK and this time it was more difficult because I had just had a new baby and had to leave her. I always enjoy the UK Championship and I will be looking to try and win it again this year. I am confident with how I am playing that I can win.”
Very honest and positive. Ding has matured so much, and so well, since I first met him, more than 10 years ago at the Premier League Snooker. Back then he was a very shy young man. He was very uncomfortable around people he didn’t know, and barely spoke two words of English…
Talented Chinese cueman Zhao Xintong believes he can follow Judd Trump’s example by improving his consistency and shot selection, in order to continue his ascent up the world rankings.
Zhao, age 23, has jumped from 77th in the world to 29th within the past three years. He is one of the fastest players on tour, averaging less than 19 seconds a shot, and has already made over 60 century breaks.
He has been compared to naturally gifted players like Trump and Jimmy White. Given Trump’s recent success, it’s easy to forget that he took time to find his feet on the tour and to learn the tactical side of snooker to add to his obvious break-building ability. Trump turned pro in 2005 but didn’t win a ranking title until 2011.
Zhao, whose best run to date took him to the semi-finals if the 2018 China Championship, said: “One might think my style is a bit like a young Judd Trump. He has made a lot of changes to improve and he’s now world number one. I could learn a lot from him, to be more consistent, making fewer mistakes.
“I watch a lot of matches, especially when a tournament comes to the later stages. I could learn from the best players just by watching them. Consistency – that’s the major difference between me and the top 16 guys, or the event winners. I need more experience and better shot selection.I’m not careful enough while among the balls – I can be really good when I’m in form, and I could miss anything when I’m not in form.”
Zhao, from China’s Shaanxi Province, enjoyed a fine run in the recent BetVictor Championship League, coming through two group phases before losing out to Trump in the third and final group stage.
“Playing in a tournament with a league format has brought me a lot of experience as I had to play against numerous opponents,” he said. “It feels like I’ve learned a lot from them and built some confidence.
“I have had a couple of good seasons and I’m now ranked in top 30 and I hope to keep rising. I’m trying to win my first ranking title within the next two seasons, ideally this year! It’s a short-term goal and I’m working on it hard. It’s not convenient to live under lockdown but I feel fine and we are doing well to protect ourselves. I don’t go out much, I just practise and work out at home.”
It’s good to read that Zhao is fully aware of his own weaknesses and determined to work on them and learn from the top players.
RONNIE O’SULLIVAN ‘DEVASTATED’ UK CHAMPIONSHIP HAS BEEN MOVED FROM HIS FAVOURITE CITY
Ronnie O’Sullivan admits he is “devastated” that the UK Championship has been moved from his favourite city of York to Milton Keynes later this month due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The reigning world champion has won four of his seven UK titles at the Barbican in York including victories in 2001, 2014, 2017 and 2018 that saw him overtake Steve Davis as the most prolific UK winner of all time.
By Desmond Kane
World champion Ronnie O’Sullivan admits he is “devastated” the UK Championship will not be going ahead in his favourite city of York later this month due to the global health pandemic.
Due to strict UK government health guidelines, the 2020/21 season has been shifted behind closed doors to a temporary set-up at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes with players subjected to regular Covid-19 testing at events.
The European Masters, English Open, Championship League and this week’s Champion of Champions event have all been staged in Milton Keynes with the UK Championship set to join the Northern Irish Open, Scottish Open and World Grand Prix in being moved near the home of English League One football club MK Dons before Christmas.
“This year’s Betway UK Championship will be staged in Milton Keynes for the first time, in line with Government Covid-19 regulations,” said tournament organisers World Snooker Tour in a statement on Wednesday.
“One of snooker’s most prestigious events and part of the Triple Crown Series, the tournament has been staged at York Barbican since 2011. However this year all rounds will take place at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes, running from November 23rd to December 6th.”
O’Sullivan lifted his sixth world title in Sheffield in August with only a few hundred fans admitted at the Crucible for the final two days, but says playing every tournament behind closed doors in one town is not ideal for the sport.
The seven-times UK champion would prefer to compete at the KT Leisure Centre in Crawley – a venue he berated for smelling of urine at the English Open in 2018 – than being forced to travel to every tournament in Milton Keynes.
“It is what it is, but at some point you want the fans to come back because without the fans it is hard,” said O’Sullivan, who became the youngest winner of a ranking event at the age of 17 when he defeated Stephen Hendry 10-6 in the UK final in 1993. “Listen, you feed off them sometimes and it is nice to come out and play in front of a crowd.
“It’s a shame we aren’t going back to York. I’m devastated because that is my favourite city in the whole country, even in the whole world,” the world number two told Eurosport.
“To not be going there and back to Milton Keynes – that’s just as hard in many ways as having to just keep going to Milton Keynes.
“I think I’d even take a little tournament at Crawley over Milton Keynes.”
WST chairman Barry Hearn is adamant the UK Championship will return to the York Barbican next year.
“We are disappointed not to be going to York Barbican for the Betway UK Championship this year because it is a fantastic venue in a wonderful city,” said Hearn. “The people of York can rest assured that we fully intend to be back in York next year and in fact we have already agreed dates for 2021 and 2022 with the venue.
“Following extensive consultation with the UK Government and the relevant public health bodies, the decision has been made to stage all matches in Milton Keynes this time. It is an ideal venue, we are working with an exceptional team there and we have proved over the past few months that we can stage major tournaments there, involving 128 players, safely and successfully.
“In the circumstances we face today, our crucial objective is to keep our events going, provide competitive action and prize money for our players, and top class sport for the many millions of television viewers around the world who are in need of inspiration.”
That state of mind will not help Ronnie as it seems that we will be stuck in Milton Keynes for some more time. I wouldn’t be surprised if it lasted for most of the season.
RONNIE O’SULLIVAN: ‘MARCUS RASHFORD HAS RUN RINGS AROUND GOVERNMENT, THEY’VE GOT IT BADLY WRONG’
By Desmond Kane
Ronnie O’Sullivan has joined the growing chorus of support for Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford’s “fantastic” campaign for free school meals. The six-times defending world snooker champion feels it should be used as part of a wider movement to end the scourge of hunger and homelessness in the UK.
The superficial thirst for success in professional sport is left trailing by the very real hunger for social justice. The very real chance to affect meaningful change in society.
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford and world snooker champion Ronnie O’Sullivan are among the favourites for this year’s Sports Personality of the Year award – and both sing from the same hymn sheet in calling for an end to child poverty in the UK.
Scoring goals, potting balls or holing putts for a living means little when you consider what is going on in the wider world at large. Real drama looms far away from playing games.
Rashford was awarded an MBE for his campaign to extend free school meals for the most vulnerable during the summer holidays, but has so far been rebuffed in his bid to see the government support his calls for an extension until Easter 2021.
In the year of a global pandemic, O’Sullivan has applauded the England forward’s passion in his campaign for free school meals during school holidays, but can’t understand why hunger and homelessness has not been properly addressed in the UK.
“I think the campaign is fantastic. It is brilliant,” said O’Sullivan. “I’ve been there and know what it is like to have to rely on free school dinners.
“This is very important to families up and down the country. No kid or person should go hungry in this country I believe.
“Homelessness has always been a big bugbear of mine. Why do some people have so much yet some people can’t even get a sandwich or a cup of tea?
“I could never quite fathom that out or how that was allowed to happen.
“Unless people like Marcus Rashford stand up and speak for these families who are struggling then their voice doesn’t get heard.
“I think he’s used his platform, especially for someone so young to come out and speak and be so passionate and proactive in his campaign.”
O’Sullivan feels the government should “admit defeat”, change their position and make Rashford the focal point of the campaign to eradicate child poverty.
“I think the government have really got this one badly wrong. If I was advising the government, the first thing I’d be telling them is to get Marcus Rashford in to talk to him and be wanting to work with him,” O’Sullivan told Eurosport.
“We want him representing us as a government and us as a country. We want the whole world to see what a brilliant job we are doing.
“At the moment, they’ve got it wrong. The best thing they can do is admit defeat and admit we can all be teachable.
“Someone like Marcus Rashford is running rings around them at the moment. If they want the embarrassment to stop then the smartest thing to do is bring him on side.”
O’Sullivan – who returns to action at the Champion of Champions event in Milton Keynes next week – is also dismayed to see investment being spent on railway projects such as HS2 when there are people living below the breadline.
“I think at the moment, it’s about unity. When you watch what is going on in America, there is so much division,” said the seven-times UK and Masters winner.
“That’s never really a good thing. Hopefully as a country at this time, it’s about uniting and supporting the vulnerable.
“With the free school meals, they can find millions to get help you get from the North of England to the South of England 20 minutes quicker yet you can’t find £20 million for some school dinners and an extra £5m for the people of Liverpool and Manchester at this time.
“You think something is quite not right there and again wonder where are we at? How can you not find that money? Yet you can find £100 million for a train to get you from north to south quicker.
“This is a time to support the vulnerable. A lot of people are going through hardship at the moment, and this is when you want your government and country to support you.”
Ronnie was with Jason Francis at the Fan Cave doing a “social distancing” signing whilst answering fans questions.
This was shared live by Jason on Facebook. The actual footage starts after about 12 minutes.
So, Ronnie will play next at the Champion of Champions, Northern Ireland Open, and the UK Championship.
He also names his Mount Rushmore of snooker. It’s “Joe Davis, Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and himself” or, not taking himself into account “Joe Davis, Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and Steve Davis”
The Mount Rushmore national memorial was carved into the South Dakotan mountain side 70 years ago to commemorate four legendary US presidents.
What if snooker were to have a similar monument to the players who have best served and represented the sport?
Of course, it isn’t going to happen unless some lunatic is let loose with a chisel on Snowdon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss who should appear on such a memorial.
The rules: there is only room for four players. In fact that’s the only rule.
So here are the main contenders, considered objectively, not based on personal favourites…
Joe Davis was the father of professional snooker. It was he who saw its potential in the age of billiards. It was he who began the World Championship, buying the trophy still presented to this day using half the original entry fees from the inaugural championship in 1927.
Davis won the world title 15 times in succession before retiring from the professional game in 1946. His style of play was the textbook followed by many who took up snooker in his wake.
Ray Reardon was the most successful player of the 1970s as the professional game was revived and started to receive TV attention.
He was six times a world champion, having not had the chance to play professionally at the early age modern players now do.
Alex Higgins was a firebrand and a rebel and these characteristics, coupled with his electrifying style of play, brought a new audience to snooker, attracted television coverage and sponsorship and helped lead to a burgeoning professional circuit.
In the snooker soap opera of the 1980s, he was a much loved villain who put the sport on the front pages and kept up the remarkable levels of interest.
Steve Davis lived a much more placid life and was completely dedicated to being the best, which he was for a decade.
Davis has won more titles than anyone else and is still capable, into his 50s, of producing high quality performances. As an ambassador for snooker, he remains unsurpassed.
Jimmy White’s enduring popularity and cheerful optimism in the face of many knocks means he is still a draw more than 30 years after turning professional.
Never a world champion, he won ten ranking titles, including the UK Championship, plus the Masters and has provided many a fan with the sort of emotional rollercoaster ride which means they remain loyal to him long after his peak.
Stephen Hendry raised playing standards and ushered in a new era of attacking snooker. He has won more of what matters than any other player.
There were 90 ranking events played in the 1990s. Hendry won 27 of them, just under a third of the total. He is still more than 100 centuries ahead of the field.
Ronnie O’Sullivan is a rare natural talent whose brand of entertaining snooker has drawn many new fans to the game during the last 15 years.
Perhaps the best break builder snooker has ever seen, his many controversies have only added to his status as flawed genius but his achievements stand for themselves.
John Higgins has proved himself as the toughest match-player of the current time, with four world titles to his name and an almost innate knowledge of every aspect of the game.
Brilliant under pressure, he remains every bit as difficult to beat as when he first emerged two decades ago.
I realise some will argue for others, such as Fred Davis, John Spencer and Mark Williams, but this is the list from which I will select my four.
The first face who earns a place in our imaginary mountainside is Steve Davis.
It is hard to believe now the attention he had in the 1980s, when snooker bestrode TV sport like a colossus – and Steve did the same on the green baize.
He never went off the rails, never shirked from his professional responsibilities and, despite the odd famous slip-up, just kept on winning.
He could have walked away happy with hit lot but, such is his love of the game, that he carried on and is still delighting fans now, as well as providing inspiration for a whole group of much younger players.
Davis was always the model player to look up to. He is to snooker what Jack Nicklaus is to golf.
The second face the carvers had better set about constructing is that of Hendry, who decided from a frighteningly young age that he was going to be the best.
Sport thrives on the fluff and intrigue that surrounds it, but the true test of greatness is achievement. For this alone Hendry deserves his place, but the quality of snooker he has produced down the years speaks for itself.
My third face will be that of Alex Higgins. He didn’t win as much as Reardon but he had an alchemy that meant he was an absolutely vital figure to snooker’s growth and development.
People admired the Reardons and Spencers but they loved Higgins. Many hated him too, but nobody who watched him play could fail to be excited by his charisma, his shot making and his theatrical style of death-or-glory snooker.
So one face left to be carved and, for me, it should be O’Sullivan.
It was Joe Davis’s misfortune not to be playing in the colour television age. Snooker owes him a huge debt of gratitude but that is not the whole story.
He created the professional game but he also killed it when he retired but continued to play exhibitions. Everyone knew the best player in the world wasn’t in the World Championship and it was eventually discontinued for a decade before being revived, largely due to the efforts of Rex Williams.
In truth, professional snooker had two beginnings. The first was under the auspices of Davis in 1926. The second was in 1969 when the World Championship reverted from challenge system to knock-out and Pot Black began. It was this latter beginning which was more significant to the sport as it is today.
Reardon’s modern day tally of world titles was equalled by Steve Davis and surpassed by Hendry. He may have won more than Alex Higgins but Higgins’s contribution off the table cannot be overlooked.
The only mark against White is that he never won the world title, which has to count him out.
John Higgins is a great player but ultimately O’Sullivan has been responsible for keeping interest levels up in an era in which snooker’s survival as a top level sport has been under threat following the loss of the tobacco millions.
New viewers around the world watching snooker for the first time on TV have been drawn in by O’Sullivan, whose talent and changeable personality have created a heady mix and sustained the game in the media. He is, by any definition, a star.
So my four for snooker’s Mount Rushmore are Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Alex Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Something tells me not everyone will agree with these choices.
I agreed with David at the time. Today I would kick out Alex Higgins and put Joe Davis there instead. Of course it’s all about why, in your opinion, a player should be included in that snooker pantheon. Form me it’s about a combination of their achievements and their contribution to the evolution of the game.
For me, it’s about what they brought to our sport
Joe Davis transformed a game into a sport. He set up the foundations of a professional approach to snooker.
Steve Davis was the first “complete professional” in the current understanding of what a professional sportsperson should be. He was dedicated, a student of his sport, and someone who paid attention to every detail.
Stephen Hendry started a revolution. He forever changed the way the game is played with his extremely aggressive, attacking approach and the way he delelopped the pack from the blue at the first opportunity.
Ronnie brought Stephen Hendry’s game to a new level, whilst also integrating a very strong tactical side. He was probably the first player to gain true international superstar status strongly contributing to growing the popularity of snooker beyond the British/Irish traditional hotbed.
Snooker coach Stephen Feeney, who has been working alongside Stephen Hendry ahead of his return to the professional scene, believes the seven-time World Champion will have doubters to prove wrong when he takes to the baize.
King of the Crucible Hendry was afforded the opportunity to return to the World Snooker Tour last month, taking up the offer of a two-year invitational tourcard. However, the Scot is yet to make his first appearance of the season. Hendry’s last professional appearance came at the 2012 World Championship, after which he announced he was retiring.
SightRight coach Feeney has been working with 51-year-old Hendry for a number of months and has been instrumental in his decision to return to the circuit.
We’ve caught up with Feeney to find out how Hendry’s preparations are going on the practice table…
First of all Steve, how has the work you’ve been doing with Stephen been going so far?
“In terms of play, the sessions that we are having are regular. He is going through the same process as Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams. We have a fixed plan. The planning for what we need to do is robust. The one main objective is for him to enjoy it. Every session we have, there is disciplined stuff and there is fun stuff.
“He still knows the shots to play. He still knows the game inside out. So he still has all of that knowledge. All that had happened is that the skill had deteriorated. His long game in practice has been phenomenal. I know when I can put somebody’s long game back together, it can translate into the rest of the game as well.”
What do you feel are achievable objectives for Stephen this season?
“Can we do what Peter Wright did in darts and win the world title at the age of 50? Stephen wouldn’t talk that way. He just loves playing the game. He is deeply competitive though. As the work goes forward, I would hope he would believe that even if it is a small one, there is a chance. The first thing is to help him really continue enjoying the game. Such is the spirit and competitiveness of this guy that winning will help him enjoy it more. For him to compete at the top level would be the icing on the cake. If he feels he can compete at the top level, he will probably feel he can win at the top level.”
How much work do you feel needs to be done for Stephen to reach his best level?
“There is work to be done, you almost look at it like a boxing match. How many hours does a person need to train to be able to put up with three minute rounds of boxing? Snooker is a worldwide competitive sport now. We know that there are some strong competitors ahead. We know he will not play until he is ready to go in at the top level. We know he is not going to want to lose and only wants to win. There is a part of it which is making me want to up my game even more than with Mark and with Ronnie. We are having great fun. I love seeing him pump the chest out when things are going right.
“I think for my part we are having conversations that matter. Conversations that respect the huge legacy that he has. To continue it in any way shape or form is about winning. In the process if he could win big, that would be pretty special. Just to see him happy in the game we are already winning. He is playing some shots that he has said he couldn’t play before. I think we are adding to the mix that this guy knows how to win. The other guys at the top of the game know he knows how to win. If we can do our stuff right and he can carry the same composure out there into matches, people will have a problem on their hands and won’t want to be drawing him in the first round at tournaments. I’ve seen the best at work, close up, and this guy is special.”
How motivated are you to help Stephen to achieve and be a success on his return?
“I look at it as a fairly exciting opportunity ahead. There is a fair bit of responsibility, in terms of delivering on promises. Stephen has trusted me in terms of what I’ve said I believe can be done. I trust in him as the individual and champion that he is. Is there stuff to prove? There probably is. The fans will love to see him play. Many of the pros will be waiting for proof. We are well aware of that.
“There are some top players who will believe Stephen can never win another ranking title again. When people say to me things can’t be done I tend to think, lets have a go. Can he? There is incredible skill there. He is a seven-time World Champion and we will see how the journey evolves.”
When do you anticipate Stephen entering his first event?
“I’d be prepared to wait as long as we need to. As long as the conditions are right. If the conditions are right in terms of the venue and the opportunity, as soon as he is ready, we go. My view with Stephen is that we want to get him back into top 16 status with the standard of his play as soon as possible. That is the only way that we can be comfortable. Every practice session is geared and targeted that way and we are working hard.
“If he was to win another title, or at least if he was to be in the mix at the Crucible. Wouldn’t that be a special thing for the sport? If Stephen making the Crucible again in his career, in his 50s, isn’t special enough for the sport, I don’t know what is. If he was to come out and be the player that everybody remembers him for, or even better, wouldn’t that be good.”
Can Stephen Hendry really get back to top 16 level? I’m not sure.
When Hendry came on the scene as a young lad, he started a revolution. No pro player at the very start of the 90th had an answer to his ultra attacking game, to his exceptional ability to slot long ones from the baulk cushion, hold for blue or black, and clear the table in one visit. But of course, the younger aspiring players learned from him and copied his game. Answers were found. Ken Doherty beating Stephen Hendry by 18-12 in the 1997 World Final, with a high break of just 85, whilst Hendry had five centuries was a huge moment although it may not have felt that way there and then. Before that match, Hendry had reached 37 ranking finals, won 28, lost 9. From there he still reached 20 ranking finals, won 8, lost 12. He only won one “major” after that defeat, the 1999 World Championship, he had won 17 of them previously. Hendry was only 28 when Ken beat him, there is no way he was “past it”. What happened? Well, in my oponion, two things: a number of younger players came on the scene when the game was opened, became able to “copy” Stephen’s game and play it at a high level whilst they also developped the safety side of their game, something Hendry was reluctant to do AND Hendry’s confidence – which played a huge part in his ability to be a serial winner – was seriously damaged. Countless times in the noughties, I have seen him start a match strongly, miss just the one shot, and spiralling down from there. And he hated it. It was all about winning and he wasn’t winning.
Can he accept that he will make mistakes, that he will be beaten and still be able to enjoy his snooker? If the answer is yes, it could be very interesting, if not, I can’t see him playing competitively much at all.
Alex Ursenbacher recently created headlines by becoming the first German-speaker to qualify for the snooker World Championships. But can Switzerland’s first and only professional potter earn a living from what remains a niche sport in the country?
“Well I’m still living with my mum, so I think that says it all,” Ursenbacher tells swissinfo.ch in a break between playing challengers at an exhibition event in Bern.
The 24-year-old comes across more like a chirpy Cockney than someone from Rheinfelden in northern Switzerland. This is because, despite still living in Basel, he’s spent many hours in British snooker clubs, home to the world’s best players – and practice partners.
Ursenbacher says he settled in straight away. “I like the mentality. I like the banter. There’s nothing like English humour – it’s just hilarious.”
Enjoy Ursenbacher admitting, in this interview after qualifying for the World Championships, to feeling the pressure and “twitching all over the gaff” – something you probably won’t hear Roger Federer say (a gaff is London slang for a room or house).
Ursenbacher has come a long way since picking up a snooker cue for the first time aged 11. He explains how he used to play a bit of pool with his father and one day, having seen snooker on television, he suggested they try that.
“The game went on for about three hours! But I just loved everything about it. I didn’t know the rules and I couldn’t pot a ball for I don’t know how long. But when you do pot a ball it’s a good feeling. And I thought it must be an even better feeling at snooker [than at pool] because the table’s bigger.”
What is snooker, and who plays it?
The balls soon started flying in – and motivation wasn’t a problem, despite having plenty of other things on his plate. “I played tennis. I did martial arts. I played a few instruments. Football. But when I entered the snooker club in Basel there was just something about it. It was so much fun. I just wanted to keep playing all the time – I was up until 3am every night watching snooker on YouTube,” he says.
This day-and-night devotion soon paid off. “Yeah, I started winning some junior club tournaments and a year later I played my first international tournament, in Malta,” he says. “That was the under-19 European Championships. I was standing at the airport with my cue in my hand at the age of 13 and I thought, ‘I could get used to this’.”
Lack of competition
Ursenbacher became Swiss champion aged just 15, which reflects not only his obvious talent but also the lack of serious competition in Switzerland.
“For me, personally, there is no competition,” Ursenbacher says, sounding honest rather than arrogant. “I started winning everything here when I was 14. So that just shows you the standard. I mean, I’m not saying I was crap at the age of 14, but I certainly wasn’t a professional.”
Franz Stähli, president of Swiss Snooker, the national snooker association, says there are about 55 licensed players in Switzerland and about 200 players who take part in small tournaments. “So there are maybe around 250 people who play every week. Pool is a lot more popular because it’s easier, there are more places to play and there are more tables.”
Stähli, who has known Ursenbacher since he was a junior, owns Benteli’s, the snooker and pool hall just outside Bern where Ursenbacher has agreed to appear for several hours and play anyone who fancies a good thrashing. There are five snooker tables and 11 pool tables.
“Although people in Switzerland knew about snooker and played it in the 1970s and 1980s – there were some private tables in clubs – the start of the big time in Switzerland was the early 1990s,” Stähli says.
“Now it’s more the older people who play – 30 plus or the people like me who started in the 1990s. The point is that Alex has nobody to play [of his own generation].”
Ursenbacher left school at 16 but didn’t start an apprenticeship like many Swiss school-leavers. “If you’re Swiss and you finish school, you can always work. You’re probably not going to have a lot of options, but you can always earn money. So I thought why not just give snooker a good go?”
He turned pro in 2013 aged 17, having won a two-year card on the World Snooker Tour. He lost this in 2015, but in 2017 he won the European Under-21 Snooker Championship and re-qualified for the main tour.
Since then Ursenbacher has beaten many of the game’s biggest names, including former world champions Shaun Murphy, Ken Doherty and even snooker’s Roger Federer, Ronnie O’Sullivan.
And then, the Crucible. The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, northern England, has hosted the World Championships since 1977 and is considered the spiritual home of snooker – the sport’s Wimbledon.
At the end of July, Ursenbacher, then ranked 86 in the world, held his nerve during a gruelling qualification process to knock out several higher-ranked players and become the first Swiss player to reach the World Championship. Something very few non-Brits – and no German or Austrian – have achieved.
“I’d never been to the Crucible. I said to myself, ‘You’re only going to go there if you’re playing’.”
One possible dampener was the fact that, being held during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was no live audience – just two players, two camera operators and the referee.
“When I walked out, it was good. I was excited. But once I sat down, I realised that actually it was quite sad.” Was he nervous? “Nothing. I was surprised, actually. I didn’t feel anything. When I was 9-2 down that’s when the nerves started kicking in because I realised that one mistake now and I could be out of the tournament. But before that, I was as cool as a cucumber.”
Despite taking the first game, Ursenbacher ended up losing 10-2 to the experienced former finalist Barry Hawkins. “But overall it was definitely a positive experience,” he says.
In this video he looks back at his Crucible experience and explains what separates the men from the boys:
Earning a living
As a first-round loser in Sheffield, Ursenbacher pocketed £20,000 (CHF23,700). Eventual winner O’Sullivan left with £500,000. This is very good money compared with pool: the winner of the US Open 9-Ball gets $60,000 (CHF54,600). Mind you, these sums are dwarfed by the cheque for $3 million written to the winner of the US Open tennis championship.
He says it’s certainly possible to earn a good living from snooker, but you probably have to be in the top 30. “Obviously your goal isn’t to earn just four grand a month because there’s no pension in snooker. So you need to earn a few quid before you retire.”
To that end, Ursenbacher practises up to six hours a day, five or six days a week. “You don’t want to go to a tournament and feel rusty. You need to be hungry and push yourself all the time.” He adds that it’s very much a psychological game and confidence is vital. “In my opinion, more than 85% [of snooker] is inside the head.”
Ursenbacher’s achievement in Sheffield was no surprise in expert circles. “Insiders have long believed him capable of this. It’s very impressive to see such a talent come out of little Switzerland. Everything he did was of a really, really high standard. Even though he lost in the World Championships, it was still a very impressive match,” Stähli says.
“But he is still nowhere. His goal must be to establish himself in the top 50 over a longer period.”
Stähli, 49, used to be a strong player himself, boasting a top break of 139 (out of a possible 147 – Ursenbacher’s top break is 141). Having himself played against O’Sullivan and Scottish star Stephen Hendry, he stresses the importance of moving to Britain for young ambitious players.
“Alex still spends a lot of time in Switzerland. But what he needs is a perfect practice table. He needs competition. He needs a club with a high standard where he knows he could walk in and maybe lose ten times in one day. That’s what’s missing here.”
Whereas the snooker scene in Switzerland is “small but healthy”, as Stähli put it, in Asia it’s booming, especially in China. Snooker is so popular in mainland China that it’s on the school sports curriculum. More and more young Chinese players are breaking into the top 100.
“I’ve been to China seven or eight times,” Ursenbacher says. “We’re treated like kings! It’s actually quite confusing sometimes because I don’t feel like I’m a great player yet – I know I’m professional and there are only 128 professionals in the world and only 64 go to China for each event. But still, they treat us very well. Snooker’s very, very big in China.”
But all the travelling required of professional athletes is not only physically but also financially demanding. Four years ago swissinfo.ch spoke to an up-and-coming 19-year-old Swiss tennis player ranked 527 in the world (he was the highest-ranked Swiss player under 21). He said that if he was 26 and still ranked only 400 or so, he’d probably give up tennis because of the money (he’s currently ranked 549). Does Ursenbacher, now ranked 66 after his success in Sheffield, have a similar target or a plan B in case the snooker doesn’t work out?
“I’m just trying to do what I love, because if I couldn’t make a living out of snooker, I don’t know if I’d care what I’d have to do to earn money – whether it was behind a bar or behind a desk. I’m a sociable person, so I’d probably be behind a bar somewhere in a club,” he says.
“But as long as I can play snooker and make a few quid, I’m going to do that.”
[A previous version of this article said Alex Ursenbacher was not the first Swiss snooker professional because Darren Paris had played on the pro circuit in the mid-1990s. In fact Darren Paris represented England on the pro circuit before moving to Switzerland, becoming Swiss and playing in amateur tournaments. Alex Ursenbacher is the first and only Swiss snooker professional.]
It’s nice to see snooker making it into the Swiss media, and in such a positive way.