A wonderful interview with Alexander Ursenbacher

I stumbled upon this excellent interview with Alexander Ursenbacher and thought it is well worth sharing.

Swiss snooker star challenges British domination

Alexander UrsenbacherAlex Ursenbacher (right) shakes hands with Ronnie O’Sullivan before their match at the Welsh Open in 2019. Ursenbacher caused an upset by defeating arguably the greatest snooker player of all time. Swiss Snooker

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?”

Turning pro

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.”

Plan B?

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.

Reanne Evans honoured

Reanne Evans MBE… Congratulations Reanne!

Here is the story by WST

Reanne Evans, snooker’s most successful ever female player, has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Women’s world number one Evans, age 34, becomes the second female player to receive an MBE, after Vera Selby.

During her 18-year career on the World Women’s Snooker Tour, Dudley’s Evans has established herself as the circuit’s all-time greatest, with 57 ranking tournament wins to her name, including an unprecedented 12 World Championship titles.

Her most recent World Championship success came in 2019 in Thailand as she continues to rewrite the record books on the women’s circuit.

She compiled an unprecedented 90-match winning streak between 2008-2011, and also holds the record for the highest ever break made at a WWS tournament, compiling runs of 140  in 2008 and 2010.

Alongside her dominance of the women’s circuit, Evans has also broken new ground on the mixed gender World Snooker Tour.

At the 2013 Wuxi Classic she defeated Thailand Thepchaiya Un-Nooh 5-4 to become the first woman to reach the final stages of a professional ranking event. Two years later she competed at the 2015 World Championship, narrowly losing out 10-8 to 1997 world champion Ken Doherty, before returning two years later to defeat top 64 player Robin Hull by the same scoreline in Sheffield.

With further opportunities afforded to the best women players to compete at the highest level in recent years than ever before, Evans has become an increasingly familiar face on television screens. Last year on her debut at the Champion of Champions, she came from 3-0 down against Shaun Murphy to level at 3-3, before losing 4-3.

Mandy Fisher, WWS President said: “I am absolutely thrilled to see that Reanne’s unparalleled achievements on the World Women’s Snooker Tour recognised in this way.

“During the past 40 years we have seen many great players compete on our circuit, but few can argue that Reanne’s incredible record puts her at the very top of the list of women to have ever played our sport.

“Still only 34, I am sure that – even with 12 world titles under her belt already – the best is still to come from Reanne, and she will have many years of success ahead of her. I am looking forward to see her continue to compete both on the women’s circuit and of course being a trailblazer for female snooker players everywhere by competing with the very best male players in the world on the professional World Snooker Tour.”

and by WWS (Women Snooker)

WWS Welcomes Evans Honour

World Women’s Snooker (WWS) has today welcomed the news that its world number one Reanne Evans is to become an MBE for services to women’s snooker in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

During her 18-year career on the World Women’s Snooker Tour, Dudley’s Evans has established herself as the circuit’s most successful ever player with 57 ranking tournament wins to her name, including an unprecedented 12 World Championship titles.

Evans, who hails from a ‘snooker family’ with her elder brother having also played the sport to a high standard, entered her first WWS competition as a 16-year-old at the 2002 World Women’s Championship. There she made an immediate impression by stunning the previous year’s runner-up Lynette Horsburgh in the quarter-finals, before losing out to Kelly Fisher at the Crucible Theatre.

Tour Dominance

She would repeat the feat the following year, but it was the 2004/05 season where she would hit her stride as she claimed maiden titles at the Connie Gough Nationals, and British Open, before going on to claim her first world title with a 6-4 victory against Horsburgh in 2005.

Little did she know it, but her success would prove to be the first of an unprecedented ten successive World Championship titles, with further successes coming in 2016 and most recently 2019 in Thailand as she continues to rewrite the record books on the women’s circuit.

As of 2020 Evans has more world (12) and UK (9) titles than any other female player, coupled with an unprecedented 90-match winning streak to her name between 2008-2011. She also holds the record for the highest-ever break made at a WWS tournament of 140, compiled twice in 2008 and 2010.

In recent years she has had to battle new challengers, most notably Hong Kong’s Ng On Yee, who dethroned Evans at the 2015 semi-finals and has since gone on to claim three world titles of her own. It is however the Englishwoman who remains the benchmark in our sport and set records that will surely stand for many years to come.

Trailblazer

Alongside her dominance of the women’s circuit, Evans has also broken new ground on the mixed gender World Snooker Tour as she has sought to prove herself among the best players in the world – of any gender.

At the 2013 Wuxi Classic she defeated Thailand Thepchaiya Un-Nooh 5-4 to become the first woman to reach the final stages of a professional ranking event. Two years later she competed at the 2015 World Championship, narrowly losing out 10-8 to 1997 world champion Ken Doherty, before returning two years later to defeat top 64 player Robin Hull by the same scoreline in Sheffield.

With further opportunities afforded to the best women players to compete at the highest level in recent years than ever before, Evans has become an increasingly familiar face on television screens. Last year she recovered a 3-0 deficit against Shaun Murphy on her debut at the Champion of Champions, before the former world champion ended hopes of a landmark victory with a century break in the decider.

“The best is still to come”

Mandy Fisher, WWS President said: “I am absolutely thrilled to see that Reanne’s unparalleled achievements on the World Women’s Snooker Tour are to be recognised in this way.

“During the past 40 years we have seen many great players compete on our circuit, but few can argue that Reanne’s incredible record puts her at the very top of the list of women players to have ever played our sport.

“Still only 34, I am sure that – even with 12 world titles under her belt already – the best is still to come from Reanne, and she will have many years of success ahead of her. I am looking forward to see her continue to compete both on the women’s circuit and of course being a trailblazer for female snooker players everywhere by competing with the very best male players in the world on the professional World Snooker Tour.”

This is fantastic news, first of all for Reanne of course, but also for snooker as an inclusive sport, and for all women in snooker. Hopefully it will inspire some more girls, and put to shame those clubs that still ban women from playing in their premises.

 

Thoughts about a poll

Starting yesterday, I put a 24 hours poll on twitter. Here you see it, and its outcome:

Poll

Why did I do that? Well, because I wondered how “marketable” the young players are as it stands. The answer clearly is: not at all. To keep the game afloat, and the sponsors happy, WST has to maximise the viewing figures, and to get the sport in the paper. Promoting the young players isn’t high in that agenda.

What the above poll seems to reveal is that half of the viewers want to see the top players, even if they are involved in a one-sided, not very interesting match. The vast majority of the other half actually wants to see a “real” match, not caring about who is involved.

Very few would chose to watch a match because a young player is in it. There is no real interest in those who are, or should be, in effect, the future of the game, and this is worrying.

It is even more worrying because, unless my memory betrays me, it wasn’t that way when I started to get seriously interested in snooker. There was excitement and anticipation when the likes of Judd Trump and Michael White turned pro. People on forums were discussing the up-and-coming amateurs. It doesn’t feel like that nowadays.

There are surely many reasons for that. One that comes to my mind is that there were a lot more big pro-ams back then, The Paul Hunter Classic was huge for instance. Some were streamed. There was no need to have Worldsnooker’s sanction back then. Later came the PTCs. We got to see the young amateurs mixing with the pros in a much less “formal” environment. Quite often, there was a players’ party, where everyone was “mixing”, pros, amateurs and fans. There was a social side to it that I feel has disappeared, or, at least, partially disappeared.

One other reason I can see – and I thought long and hard before writing this – is that the majority of really young upcoming players, the under 25 ones, are no more British whilst snooker remains profoundly UK centric. All qualifiers are held in the UK, the Q-school is held in the UK.  As a result, most non UK players have no choice but to come and live in the UK. It’s also likely that the majority of people discussing snooker on social media – usually in English – are from the UK/Ireland, and most of the feedback WST gets comes from them. There is almost always a tribal side to sport. People – most of them anyway – will support sportspersons originated from their contry/nation/region …

Thoughts?

 

More about Stephen Hendry’s return

The announcement yesterday that Stephen Hendry is returning to the professional game was of course a big, big talking point.

It was of course all over the press, so here are a few links you may want to follow

BBC: Stephen Hendry: Seven-time world champion says Crucible return would be ‘incredible’

Eurosport: Stephen Hendry wants to temper expectations, but believes he can compete

And this excellent interview for “A Bola” by my very good friend Antonio Barroso.

The original is in Portuguese, but you can probably get a reasonable translation using google.

In short…

  • Stephen had been working with Steve Feeney before the lockdown and was starting both to enjoy playing again and hitting the ball well. Their work was interrupted by the lockdown, but he went back to practice just ahead of the Seniors 2020 World Snooker Championship, where he reached the semi-finals. Stephen is never satisfied with his game, but recognised that he was playing better and missing the buzz of competing.
  • His return to competition was discussed during a round of golf with Barry Hearn and Mark Williams. BH of course wanted an swift decision … and Stephen is still not sure he understands all the implications of what he has agreed to.
  • He will definitely pick and choose. It’s not a full time return, and he won’t be practising 8 hours/day. Also, he does not want to go to qualifiers. But Barry Hearn warned him that he has to play otherwise he won’t get another chance.
  • Stephen is determined to prepare seriously for the events he decides to enter. He believes that he can still compete, and that, except for Ronnie and Judd Trump, there is nobody on the tour playing at a higher level than the one he had in his prime. He knows that he will be an underdog, and he doesn’t want to put pressure on himself, by entertaining high expectations. But he dreams to be able to play at the Crucible again, to walk down the stairs, and fell the buzz emanating from the place and the crowd.
  • For the immediate future he just wants to be able to play well, enjoy it and see where it takes him. He admits that if he plays badly and embarasses himself, it will be hard to take.
  • His first event will probably be the UK championship. Being at the bottom of the rankings, he’s likely to play one of the very top players on the TV table in the first round. He relishes the challenge, but is not sure how it will go.
  • He insists that the comeback has nothing to do with Ronnie taking his records away from him.

Now, there were too many reactions on social media to mention them all . But I can’t resist to share Mike Dunn’s take on Hendry’s return

MikeDunnWhiteShark

There were fans arguing that those spots should go to deserving young players instead of returning “past glories”. But of course, there is a commercial side to it: Stephen will put bums on seats, he will get lines in the media. He still has many fans. On thing that is often overlooked is that it’s those players who attract sponsors and audience who make it possible to offer decent prize money for all. Every player on the tour benefits from what they bring.

Interesting article and great interview with Ronnie talking life, pressure, expectations and the younger generation.

The Independent published this nice article today 

It covers only a  very small part of a fantastic and fascinating interview published by the Blank Podcast. The link to the full interview can be found in the article and it’s well worth the listen.

Ronnie O’Sullivan: Snooker’s younger generation needed a ‘kick up the a***’

Reigning world champion provoked controversy when he claimed that snooker’s younger players ‘are not that good’

Ronnie O’Sullivan insists he wasn’t trying to offend snooker’s younger generation but give them a “kick up the a***” when he claimed they “are not very good” during last month’s World Championships.

O’Sullivan clinched his sixth title at the Crucible, becoming the tournament’s second-oldest winner at 44, and stirred controversy en route to victory when he claimed: “If you look at the younger players coming through, they are not that good really. Most of them would do well as half-decent amateurs, not even amateurs. They are so bad.”

However, speaking on at The Blank Podcast, O’Sullivan said his comments had been overblown and were in fact an attempt to “inspire” the younger players and provoke them to “prove him wrong”.

“They’re not good enough…whatever I said. I think it’s okay to say stuff like that, I wasn’t slagging anyone off,” he said. “In fact, I was hoping that in some ways it would inspire a lot of the younger generation to kind of go ‘you know what I’m going to prove him wrong’. Because that’s all I’ve done all my life when I was a kid growing up, I’d get knocks and every time I got a knock that just made me more and more determined to what to become better and a better player so for me a knock was fantastic.

“So yeah, I’m knocking them, but I’m also hoping that it gives them a nudge to go you know what I’m going to go and watch a Tiger Woods documentary, I’m going to go and watch a Michael Jordan documentary and see what it takes to be the best and then once I’ve studied them I’m going to take that into my world and I’m going to become the next snooker player I can possibly be. And that’s what I’m saying.”

O’Sullivan singled out Kyren Wilson – who he thrashed 18-8 in the final in Sheffield – for praise but admitted he believes the calibre and quantity of players coming into the game are still in decline.

“Every player on this tour is capable of beating anyone on their day but it’s not good enough to just have a good day, you’ve got to have good months, good years, good decades,” he continued. “We’re not talking about being good enough on the day, we’re talking about having a good career really and days aren’t enough. You have to have good months and years to hang around long enough and that’s what I’m hoping by saying what I said in a way is going to give these youngsters a kick up the a***.

“There are a couple on the circuit; Kyren Wilson is definitely one of them and another guy is Louis Heathcote, I spot that they have what it takes to hang around and get the most out of their career. I just wish there was more players like me, John Higgins, Mark Williams, Steven Maguire, Barry Hawkins that generation of players, I just wish there was an influx of those players coming in but I just don’t see it.”

The story about Ebdon made me laugh.

The whole interview is excellent. Every young aspiring sportsperson should listen to it and most of the advice applies to life in general, not just sports.

Ronnie seems to be in a very good place.

And I’m happy because he pretty much perceives the reasons for the young professionals’ level relative “weakness” the same way I do. It’s not all their fault, and frankly it’s just common sense: to improve the situation invest in the junior amateur scene and go back to a tiered system in most if not all tournaments. Allow for progressive improvement.

The Chalk – issue 5 – is out.

HigginsChalk

“The Chalk” is a free online magazine, written by people who just love their cue sports.

Issue 5 is out today and I have contributed to it with reviews of the 2020 World Snooker Championship and the 2020 World Seniors Snooker Championship. But there is much more to it. Barry Stark, who coaches Kyren Wilson, shares his experience and knowledge on video, Rodney Goggins remembers “Team Events”, Tom Moorcroft talks about Ronnie speed record, Snookerbacker shares his highlights of the championship and life as usual gets in the way of snooker for Max Potter. Enjoy!

You can subscribe to The Chalk here and it will be delivered to your mailbox.