This week-end, after weeks without professional snooker, we will welcome the 2022 Mixed Doubles. The event is on ITV main channel. Of course this isn’t available outside the UK (unless you use a VPN). It will also be on the Eurosport player (outside UK).
The tournament features only 8 players and is played over only two days, but David Hendon reckons that it is a very important milestone when it comes to promoting women in snooker and, possibly, attracting more girls and women to the sport.
WORLD MIXED DOUBLES IS ‘GIANT LEAP’ FOR WOMEN’S SNOOKER – AND CAN INSPIRE GIRLS TO PICK UP A CUE
The exciting World Mixed Doubles will see snooker’s top four women paired with the top four men as Reanne Evans, Ng On Yee, Mink Nutcharut and Rebecca Kenna receive equal billing with Ronnie O’Sullivan, Judd Trump, Neil Robertson and Mark Selby, In his latest column, David Hendon says the event will underline that the sport is open for all and inspire the next generation of female players.
BY DAVE HENDON
This week’s World Mixed Doubles is the biggest showcase women’s snooker has ever had.
The game’s leading four female players have been paired with the world’s top four ranked professionals for the two-day event in Milton Keynes, which starts on Saturday.
This is an opportunity to show a different side of snooker at a time when women’s sport has arguably never been more popular. Indeed, the MK Dons stadium which forms part of the Marshall Arena complex hosted several games in the recent European Championship won so memorably by the Lionesses of England.
Well used to big tournaments, it’s one small step for the men. But it’s a giant leap for women’s snooker as Reanne Evans, Ng On Yee, Mink Nutcharut and Rebecca Kenna enjoy equal billing with Ronnie O’Sullivan, Judd Trump, Neil Robertson and Mark Selby, who between them have won 105 ranking titles.
Evans is the most successful female player in history. She won her first world title at the age of 19 in 2005, the start of a remarkable run of 10 consecutive victories in the tournament. Evans has since won two more world titles and 59 ranking events in total.
In the 2013 Wuxi Classic, she became the first woman to qualify for the final stages of a ranking event on the pro tour. She beat Robin Hull in the 2017 World Championship qualifiers, ran Shaun Murphy to a decider in the 2019 Champion of Champions and came close to beating Mark Allen, her former partner, in a somewhat rancorous match at last season’s British Open.
At the mixed doubles, Evans is drawn to play with O’Sullivan and this star pairing must start as title favourites, not least because they know each other well from several years of exhibitions, legends events and working together in the Eurosport studio.
Evans, who was awarded an MBE in 2020, has been a fine ambassador for snooker and women’s sport. In more recent times, though, her supremacy has been threatened by the emergence of two talents from Asia, Hong Kong’s On Yee and Mink of Thailand.
It was On Yee who broke the Evans stranglehold on the World Championship in 2015. She has since won the premier women’s title on a further two occasions.
Enthusiastic and vivacious, On Yee has a strong support network in Hong Kong, including former top 16 player David Roe and the coach Wayne Griffiths, son of the 1979 world champion Terry. She has practised with Marco Fu and recently defeated former world champion Ken Doherty in the British Open qualifiers.
On Yee is partnered with Trump, who said of her: “Each time I see her, she seems like she is improving. I think she is spearheading the women’s game at the moment and managing to get the wins against the men. It’s a brilliant draw for me.”
Mink, who has just joined the pro tour, enjoyed success last month when she beat Mitchell Mann to qualify for the Northern Ireland Open.
The 22 year-old is the only female player to have made a witnessed maximum break and underlined her growing potential by winning the world title earlier this year.
Her mother worked in a snooker club in Thailand and her father enjoyed playing as a hobby, so she grew up around the sport, first picking up a cue at the age of 10. She is sponsored by the Hi-End club in Bangkok, which hosted the 2019 World Championship.
Mink will partner Robertson in Milton Keynes. She is at least guaranteed a better time than at the 2020 Shootout when she travelled thousands of miles to play, broke off, and sat out a total clearance of 133 from Thor Chuan Leong, therefore playing just one shot in the whole event.
Kenna runs Cue Sports Yorkshire, an equipment and accessories shop in Keighley, and her back story sums up the power of sport to connect and inspire people.
She began playing because her father was a huge fan of the game. He took her to clubs and snooker became a thing they did together at weekends.
Kenna was a promising footballer but dislocated her shoulder at around the time her dad died. Unable to play football or any other physical sport, and wanting to honour her father, she entered a local snooker tournament. It didn’t go well but she felt she could improve so joined the women’s circuit at the relatively late age of 26.
She has made good progress and won the Hong Kong Masters in 2019. Last month she was runner-up in the US Open.
Kenna is paired with Selby, who recently invited her for practise sessions at the Atack club in Nuneaton.
“I never saw any women playing snooker on TV growing up. If I’d have seen women playing in a mixed doubles event with the world’s top four as a five-year-old, I would have gone, ‘wow, I want to do that now,’” she said last week.
Kenna’s comment crystalises why this new event is important to snooker. Nobody is disputing the gulf in standard between the top male and female players, but this is missing the point. The mixed doubles has been introduced in part to change the way the sport is viewed from the outside.
The first women’s World Championship was staged in 1934 and competitions came and went until the ladies’ game went into abeyance in the 1970s just as the professional circuit began to thrive.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Mandy Fisher, now president of Women’s World Snooker, the women’s game came back to life in the early 1980s. It has since enjoyed moments of profile, notably when Allison Fisher reigned supreme by winning seven world titles between 1985 and 1994, and endured times of struggle.
Fisher partnered Steve Davis in previous iterations of the mixed doubles event, winning the pairs title at the 1991 World Masters, the World Championship later that year and again in 1993, when she made the first century on television by a woman.
Fisher and several other leading players headed to the USA in the 1990s to compete on the more lucrative 9-ball pool circuit. Women’s snooker suffered as a result but since being taken over by the WPBSA in 2015, their association has seen its membership rise from 38 players to 177 from 29 countries and this season will stage tournaments in the USA, Australia, Thailand, Belgium and the UK.
Last year, World Snooker Tour designated the women’s circuit a feeder tour for the professional ranks, with two tour cards available each year for the best female players.
This progressive decision has not found universal favour within the game, but makes commercial sense as snooker – like all sports – fights for airtime, relevance and credibility.
This week, Evans, On Yee, Mink and Kenna will enjoy equal status with four greats of the sport. In doing so they will demonstrate that snooker is open to all and hopefully inspire girls who thought the sport wasn’t for them to give it a try.
As Evans said last week: “Last year when I played on TV, I had a message from a father saying his daughter had seen me and wanted to play snooker. She’d only thought there were female referees, not players. Hopefully now people will see that women can do it, and will do it.”
What Mandy Fisher did for snooker as an inclusive sport is often underestimated… and that’s an understatement. I’m certain that most fans don’t even know her name, let alone her face. But the truth is that she kept women snooker going, for over 35 years, mostly alone, against all odds, despite prejudices, hurdles and lack of resources.
The main tour is open to all, but at grassroots level, girls and women have often felt unwelcome. Even now, some clubs and some leagues don’t allow them to play. Even now, parents introducing their daughter to snooker are the exception, whilst most top players started as kids and were introduced to the game and/or supported by a family member.
Make no mistake, gender prejudices exist in many sports and boys can be at the wrong end of it too. When we were kids, my brother had a classmate who wanted to be a dancer. He was mocked at school, he was bullied. But he didn’t let go of his dream. He was supported by his family. He dared to go and speak to Maurice Béjart himself, who encouraged him to continue to work on his skills. He ended up making a career as lead dancer at the “Ballet du XXe siècle”.
Support and exposure are key.