Broadway to the Crucible: Cliff Thorburn hails first USA star to hit snooker's biggest stage

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If you can make it in New York, the theory goes that you can make it anywhere, so the path from Broadway to Sheffield's Crucible Theatre should hold no fear for Ahmed Aly Elsayed.

Aly is a new face to many on snooker’s expanding veterans' circuit, as the sport builds on the prosperity of its golden age by rolling out stars of yesteryear on its most famous stage.

As well as undisputed legends Jimmy White, Stephen Hendry and Ken Doherty, regional title winners from all corners of the globe are rocking up in Sheffield for the World Seniors Championship, an annual jamboree that begins on Wednesday. Aly will become the first American to compete at the Crucible.

Life will replicate art when Egypt-born Brooklynite Aly competes, after he acted out two snooker player parts in the 2018 Broadway production The Nap, one of which was that of a finalist at the World Championship.

Aly's day job is that of billiard room manager at the New York Athletic Club, a renowned 24-story pile at 180 Central Park South.

"He's a very good player," Cliff Thorburn, the 1980 world champion, tells Stats Perform. "One of his functions at the New York Athletic Club is looking after the billiard room. They've got possibly the nicest snooker room in the world. It overlooks Central Park and I would highly recommend having a Sunday brunch there in the fall, as the leaves are changing.

"The park's right there and you look down on it. With your breakfast you get a Bloody Mary for starters, and it's just a fabulous place."

Thorburn, a Canadian with a 'Magnum PI' moustache, remembers Aly looking "rough around the edges" when he first set eyes on his cue action.

"But when I saw him in Toronto he had gained a polish to his game," said Thorburn. "He wears a suit very well, like Ronnie O'Sullivan or Judd Trump.

"Ahmed polished his game, and he's taken it to a new level, but you're only as good as the players around you unless you've got that special thing about you. He does, he's very sharp, and I expect something good from him, but this is the deep end. That's pressure, isn’t it!”

Performing shots to order on a table in front of Broadway audiences is one thing, but facing gritty rivals at the theatre venue in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, that has hosted the main tour's World Championship since 1977, will be a whole new test of Aly's stage presence.

"He had to play certain shots on Broadway, and of course the stage is live," said Thorburn. "He looks like a prince, he's got that air about him: well groomed, a good guy, a gentleman, competitive, and he loves his snooker. I hope he gives himself a fair shot at it."

Aly, the 2021 Pan American senior champion, who picked up that title at the Corner Bank venue in Toronto, will play Bradford's Wayne Cooper for the right to tackle 1997 world champion Doherty at the last-16 stage.

Snooker's emergence as a viable senior spectacle has reflected a growth market in sports where it is feasible to remain competitive long after a sportsperson's usual shelf life.

Golf's PGA Champions Tour is sport's ultimate veterans' circuit, with over $62million in prize money due to be paid out this year. Germany's Bernhard Langer has earned over $30million on that tour, mind-boggling considering this is not sport at its highest level.

Snooker is not aiming to compete at that level, but its equivalent tour is soaring in popularity, with the World Seniors Championship being broadcast by the BBC and staged at snooker's most established venue. Crowds will flock, just as they have to the elite World Championship over the past fortnight.

"They're at the Crucible and rightfully so," said Thorburn. "I think it's the right place to have it, and there's a lot of memories that have come from these players that are going to be playing now."

Thorburn's great chum Bob Chaperon is returning to the Crucible stage, some 32 years since he became the last Canadian winner of an individual ranking title, beating Alex Higgins in the 1990 British Open final. Three weeks after that, Chaperon teamed up with Thorburn, who was recovering from a burst appendix, and Alain Robidoux to win snooker's World Cup for Canada.

Naturally, Thorburn is pulling for Chaperon, who faces Welshman Philip Williams first up.

"Bob was supposed to be here two years ago, but COVID stopped him," Thorburn says. "He’s playing Philip, who beat me here once before. So let me think, who do I want to win? Bob, yes Bob. I'm so glad I'm going to be here. Bob's got the chance to cause some damage."

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