Desmond Kane

Neil Robertson interview: ‘Snooker no longer a sport where idle, greedy or lazy can prosper’

Desmond Kane

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Back in the supposed halcyon days of the late 1970s and 1980s, when the advent of television catapulted snooker into the mainstream and ‘Steady’ Eddie Charlton was one of Australia’s most recognised sporting sons, the wants and needs of audiences barely entered into the equation.

In keeping with the accepted approach of the era, Charlton was a laborious and committed grinder who would refuse to attempt pots into pockets as big as buckets when an obvious safety shot was available.

He was apparently once quizzed in a press conference about his slow play during a match and the negative effect it may have had on the watching crowd. The man from New South Wales, a figure who reached the World Championship final three times, losing the 1975 final 31-30 to Ray Reardon, is said to have replied: “F*** the crowd”.

The world's number one ranked snooker player Neil Robertson is not quite ready to commit to such a single-minded use of industrial language, but for an Aussie used to winning with some pomp, flair and tactical nous, he also recognises a losing battle when he sees one.

Robertson has more or less given up attempting to raise the popularity of the sport in his native Australia. The country has hosted a ranking event in Victoria over the past few years, in the relatively unheralded town of Bendigo, but there is not a China-style clamour for more of the same Down Under.

Despite being the most successful man from outside of Britain and Ireland to pick up a cue, the dashing Melbournian remains a relative unknown in his homeland. Certainly in comparison to those who earn their living from rugby league, rugby union, cricket, tennis or Australian rules football. Or the British method of football.

Robertson's predicament is perhaps never better illustrated than in January. The Masters tournament finds itself pencilled in the diary at the same juncture as the Australian Open, the first tennis Grand Slam of the year.

Robertson has snagged the 2010 World Championship, the 2012 Masters and the UK Championship a month ago. He is one of only eight men to carry off snooker's three most celebrated events. He is the only non-British player to achieve the feat. But such trinkets mean little when people have little or no interest in the wares you are selling.

Before facing Mark Selby in last year's Masters final, Robertson said: "If I make six straight centuries, I might make a small piece in the papers back home depending on what else is going on.”

Robertson realises when he is snookered.

“It is so hard in Australia because a week is such a long time in sport. As soon as I win a tournament, it is forgotten about quickly,” comments Robertson.

“There was very little recognition when I won the UK Championship. Like in the UK with football, it is the same in Australia with Aussie Rules and cricket. They just dominate everything. Snooker just doesn’t get a look in.

“I’m also out of the country for 11 months of the year, and the time difference doesn’t help.

“They showed the Champion of Champions tournament live in Australia in November. That was the first time I had been on live since I played in the world final.

“It is very difficult because of the outdoor nature of sport in Australia.”

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Neil Robertson after winning the world title in 2010

Robertson was one of the more outspoken players when fellow professional Stephen Lee was banned for 12 years for match-fixing in September.

Barring overturning an appeal to lift the ban, Robertson will be content never to come across Lee in a match again. He has no time for cheats.

He also has no time for laziness. Lee seemed to encompass all that is bad about snooker stereotypes being obese, lazy and greedy in his bid to pick up easy money.

Robertson is of a mind that snooker is about to become the survival of the fittest as players scramble to gain supremacy at the very elite levels. He has a gym at his home where he goes to work away from the green baize.

Shaun Murphy has admirably shed three stones in around five months. It appeared to do him little harm in his 6-4 win yesterday over Ding Junhui in the first round of the Masters.

Ronnie O’Sullivan continues to advocate the benefits of running. His autobiography is titled Running. It has hardly hindered his game in landing the world title five times, most impressively over the past two years.

If Robertson, 31, is to be believed, the days of players being the size of Lee will soon be consigned to snooker’s dustbin of history alongside cigarette sponsors, ice boxes and guys sinking vodka and lager before attempting a long pot.

Lee made another eighties icon ‘Big’ Bill Werbeniuk, look svelte. They used to joke Big Bill drunk ‘Canada Dry’.

Despite the obvious talent, Lee’s size made it almost impossible for him to survive the marathon of a World Championship tournament, a mental and physical examination of stamina that becomes a rigorous test of mind, body and soul.

Whoever says snooker is not a sport, not a physical strain, should try staying the course over 17 days at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. It is not for the faint-hearted as once colourful chaps end up looking whiter than the cueball under severe heat.

“I’ve been going to the gym over the Christmas break, and doing some running which I’ve never really done before,” says Robertson. “I’m trying to get myself physically fit before the World Championship.

“I think being fit helps. We play so many more tournaments nowadays that the fresher and fitter you feel, it is going to be more positive for your snooker.

“There is probably not that many really fit players on the Tour, but I think that is going to change over the next few years.

“Shaun (Murphy) has lost a lot of weight, and is looking really good. He’s clearly identified what he needed to do to improve his game.

“There’s not much between the players at the top of the game, so every one or two percent you can gain on your can probably multiply that by 10 really at that level. “

Despite owning a Ferrari, a talkative Judd Trump prompted some derision 12 months ago when he claimed that the prize money in snooker was “embarrassing” compared to football and golf.

Snooker will never recover the popularity it commanded in the UK in the 1980s, a period when it was said Steve Davis spent more time on terrestrial TV than Maggie Thatcher, but that may be no bad thing.

There remains a stoic and loyal following for snooker here, but there are fresh markets emerging elsewhere. There is no China crisis.

Robertson is not complaining about the standard of living snooker has provided for him over the past decade. He has won almost £2 million in prize money alone.

Robertson begins his bid to reach the Masters final for a third straight year against Mark Allen having won it in 2012 and lost the final a year ago. £200,000 is available to the winner.

“Playing snooker has worked out well for me,” says Robertson. “If you win tournaments and reach finals, you do pick up good cheques from snooker.

“It can be tough for some of the middle-ranked guys, but the sport is going in the right direction. The prize money is always going up. We will get there.

“You have to live within your means.

“If you want to buy a lot of expensive watches and cars, you need to win a lot of tournaments to do that. That is a lifestyle choice that is up to the individual, but all it does is put pressure on you.

“I have a fantastic lifestyle due to snooker, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t really feel the need to be flashy or anything like that.

“Obviously, if you were given the opportunity to earn more money I think everybody would want that, but you just have to live the best you can with the money you are earning.”

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Neil Robertson is the greatest Australian player of all-time

A firm traditionalist, Robertson baulks at the idea of snooker trying to sell itself by copying darts. Snooker players have adopted nicknames and walk on music while the Masters is staged at the same Alexandra Palace in London that hosted last month’s World Darts tournament, but Robertson does not think snooker should forgo its origins.

He is skipping the one-frame shoot-out at the Blackpool Tower later this month because he feels it is slightly crass.

“There is no need to change anything with the game of snooker,” he points out. “You can’t compare darts to snooker. It is a different sport, a different ethos. You wouldn’t change rugby to make it more like football..people like different sports for different reasons. It is one of the reasons why I haven’t entered the shoot-out. It is just not the atmosphere for me.

“People have to try to put on a show, and act like a clown really. You get people shouting out in the crowd. It is all a bit of a fun I guess, but is not really for me. It is the same as last year. I’m giving it a miss. I don't think Judd Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan have entered it.

“It is a lottery over one frame. I’d rather have that weekend off to spend time with my son and family.”

Robertson is titled the 'Thunder from Down Under', but his amiable persona is hardly a 'southerly buster'. He is more a mild breeze from Melbourne.

“I’ve already achieved everything I’ve wanted to achieve in the game,” he says. “I just have to stay motivated to keep winning tournaments until I’ve played my last shot in the sport.”

As they say in Aussie, here is a bloke who is travelling well.

Neil Robertson faces Mark Allen in the first round at 1pm on Wednesday afternoon. Follow LIVE daily coverage as the world's top 16 players compete for the Dafabet Masters on British Eurosport TV and online from January 12-19.

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