This week’s Turkish Masters sees snooker land in the beautiful surroundings of Antalya, the latest stop in a sport that is becoming increasingly global.
After a year behind closed doors in Milton Keynes, the stunning scenery and warm weather of Turkey’s south coast must almost seem like a hallucination to pool players used to staring out of their hotel windows at the local Wagamama.
Snooker was invented by British Army officers in India before settling in the UK. Early travel to foreign climes tended to be limited to Commonwealth countries. The World Championship was held in Australia in 1970 and 1975, but the tournaments were mostly held in the familiar surroundings of Blighty.
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The first ranking event held outside the UK was the 1988 Canadian Masters. At the time, there were still several top players from Canada on tour. Later that season, snooker bosses took the bizarre decision to hold a new tournament, the European Open, at a casino in Deauville, France – a country with no snooker heritage. It didn’t go well.
The crowd was almost non-existent. There was a session with only four spectators. After the French emcee finished his introductions, a woman stood up and said, “Can you repeat that, please?” We come from Portsmouth.
Dressed in their vests, more than one player was mistaken by casino customers for a waiter. The event moved the following year to Lyon, where it also failed to win. Both were won by John Parrott, who created a niche by winning titles at various outposts outside the UK.
This was partly because Parrott was such a domestic bird that he viewed foreign travel solely as work. He was not interested in tourism. In Bangkok, where players were tempted by the bright city lights at night, Parrott would be happily cuddled up in bed with a newspaper crossword faxed in from the UK.
It could also cope brilliantly with the slow table conditions often associated with humid climates. He would eventually win titles in Dubai, Thailand, China, Monaco, Belgium, Malta and Germany.
After the Deauville mess in 1989, snooker looked ahead with a deal struck for an Australian Open. Suspicions grew that the deal might not be watertight when the address given by the developer turned out to be a bus shelter in Melbourne. The event was transferred at the last minute to Hong Kong.
It was Barry Hearn’s Matchroom stable that established snooker’s footprint outside of Britain’s shores with groundbreaking overseas trips such as China, Malaysia and Japan in the 1980s.
Knowing how to keep the authorities on his side, he once invited Rex Williams, then president of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, to tour the Far East. Williams was known to appreciate the finer things in life and was always impeccably dressed. When players spent a particularly hot day exploring the Great Wall of China, he appeared in a brand new cashmere coat. Hearn pointed out that the dress code was casual, to which Williams replied, “Dear boy, it’s casual.”
Eventually, the WPBSA built on Hearn’s work to open up new markets and moved into itself, hosting ranking events in the territories Matchroom had first explored.
Thailand has become a popular destination, helped by the success of local man James Wattana. Thanks to Ding Junhui, China later became an important market for the game, with up to five major events held each season before the Covid pandemic hit.
James Wattana of Thailand plays a shot during his match against Ding Junhui of China World Snooker China Open – Day 2 on April 2, 2019 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)
Image credit: Getty Images
Snooker has also seen events in European countries such as Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Gibraltar and, of course, the Germany, where Berlin’s Tempodrom has become one of the sport’s most popular venues. during the last years.
Additionally, tournaments have been held in Bahrain, India, Brazil and Australia, with discussions of North America as a potential new area for growth.
The players have therefore become international sportsmen, accustomed to airport terminals, bad hotel TV and chronic jet lag.
Graeme Dott suffered from the latter illness at the 2002 China Open. His original flight from Glasgow to Heathrow was delayed so he missed his connecting flight to Shanghai. After several hours, he took a later plane and arrived in China in the middle of the night, exhausted after 18 hours of travel.
Collapsing on arrival, he slept through two alarm calls and woke up just 15 minutes before his game. Jumping out of bed – without even having time to put on a pair of underwear – he put on his cardigan and ran outside to get a taxi.
The taxi first got stuck in traffic before the driver admitted he had gotten lost. Dott finally got out and walked half a mile to the site. He was docked two frames for late arrival and lost the match. The trip home must have been even longer, especially for the person sitting next to him on the plane.
It was at this same event that an 18-year-old Mark Selby, unaccustomed to traveling abroad, was so bewildered that he got up at one o’clock, put on his billiard equipment and tried to organize transport to the place of his match. together. You had to point out to him that it was dark outside because it was night, not afternoon, and his match wasn’t until 12 o’clock.
Barry Hearn played a key role in the global growth of snooker
Image credit: Getty Images
A player even booked a hotel once in a completely different country from the one in which the event was taking place, but despite these misadventures, sports professionals have an opportunity that is not offered to most: to travel and discover different cultures. In doing so, they take snooker to new audiences.
Under Hearn’s stewardship for a decade of the World Snooker Tour, the game is run more professionally than ever. It still has a UK base but its global reach has expanded, as evidenced by some of the circuit’s recent winners, including Zhao Xintong and Fan Zhengyi (China), Neil Robertson (Australia), Luca Brecel (Belgium) and Hossein Vafaei ( Iran). The women’s world title was won by Nutcharat Wongharuthai (Thailand) and the world junior title by Anton Kasakov (Ukraine).
Eurosport can take much of the credit for spreading the gospel of snooker to territories previously underexposed to the sport. Global online streaming now means major events in the game can be watched anywhere on the planet.
The Turkish Masters marks another step forward for snooker into another promising territory. It’s a five-year deal with a top prize of £100,000. Plus, it’s a chance for players and fans to experience something different.
This new event is sponsored by a hotel chain called Nirvana. So, here we are now. Entertain us.
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