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The world-class play which returned to our shores at the prestigious Australian Goldfields Open in Bendigo was vastly different to the snooker you might remember...

An edited version of this article appeared in Inside Sport in October 2012

It’s not every day you see two sportsmen tucking in to a friendly pub lunch together just hours before they’re due to battle it out for a prize pot worth $70,000 and a place in the final at one of their sport’s newest and most important ranking events. But that’s exactly what two professional English snooker players, Mark Davis and Barry ‘The Hawk’ Hawkins, did one rainy day in July just gone in Bendigo, Victoria, at the Australian Snooker Goldfields Open.

This is the second year running that the historic gold rush town, located just 150 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, has hosted the Goldfields Open. Last year it was Englishman Stuart Bingham who took the trophy, and this year?

Hang on, mate. Patience – along with mental focus, gamesmanship and professionalism – are considered virtues in snooker, which has undergone a global renaissance since sports promoter Barry Hearn acquired majority ownership of the Association of World Snooker and Billiards in 2010, and set about revitalising the flagging sport.

"Barry Hearn's done wonders for snooker," says our man on the baize Neil Robertson, who is excited to be playing in front of a home crowd along with an impressive assortment of snooker's leading lights in a topsy-turvy competition for a total prize pool of $435,000.

Topsy-turvy? In a perfect illustration of one of the known knowns of snooker – weird shit happens – the players expected to strike gold at the tournament put in what turned out to be surprisingly brief appearances, while the long-suffering underdogs – those blokes who seem destined to stand one step shy of the limelight – come to the fore. Current world no.1 Mark Selby doesn’t even make it past the first round, losing 5-3 to 37-seeded Scot Jamie Burnett. Last year’s golden boy Stuart Bingham has a similar first round nightmare when he goes down 5-4 to Matthew Selt, while Friday the 13th proves unlucky for no.7 seed Shaun Murphy, who falls 5-4 to Peter ‘The Ebdonator’ Ebdon.

Ebdon is no newcomer, but ever since he turned vegan and started putting away around a dozen organic bananas a day, his game has improved. The day after dispatching Murphy he sends Ding ‘the Star of the East’ Junhui home early 5-4, and the day after that, the clean-living Englishman sails through his semi-final match with Hong Kong’s Marco Fu, winning 6-2, and pots himself a place in the final.

Since we last wrote about Neil ‘the Thunder from Down Under’ Robertson back in 2007, he’s won the 2007 Welsh Open, the 2008 Bahrain Snooker Championship, and the 2009 Grand Prix (which he also potted in 2006). In the 2009/2010 season he won the World Championship and World Open. In 2011/2012 he won snooker's most prestigious invitation event, The Masters, and championed two Players Tour Championship events. In the last two seasons he's banked more than $450,000. In short, life is looking good for Robertson, and the blond left-hander from Melbourne fronts up to the Goldfields Open feeling confident.

He gets off to a good start, scoring a comfortable 5-1 first round win over Englishman Nigel Bond with impressive breaks of 135, 81, 92 and 113 in front of a jubilant home crowd. "It's really special to be playing in Australia,” he comments afterwards. “I've got all my family up here as well and all my closest friends. It's fantastic to catch up with everyone; I'm really enjoying the experience."

But the catching up an amiable Robertson does before his next game against Davis (that’s the bloke asking Hawkins to pass the salt) turns out to be his undoing; his pre-match practice routine goes out the window, along with his game and his place in the tournament. Robertson wins the first frame but a kick on the black in the second on 39 lets Davis, fresh from winning the Six Reds in Thailand, onto the baize, and the Sussex born and bred player with a penchant for fish n chips makes the most of it, taking the next four frames with breaks of 67, 65, 81 and 61.

"It's always disappointing to lose, and I guess it’s more disappointing to go out on home soil. I went out in the last 16 last year, and unfortunately I've gone out in the last 16 again," says Robertson, who is determined to win an Australian Goldfields Open, and has resolved to leave the catching up until after his game next year. 

Used to be there were just six UK-based ranking tournaments and the big one, the World Championship at the Crucible in Sheffield. Now, there are 28 spread across Europe (Germany, Belgium, Poland, Bulgaria), Thailand, China, Brazil and, since 2011, Australia. Snooker’s international television audience has grown from 75 million in 2006 to an estimated 350 million this year, the prize money is growing, and players are encouraged to achieve high breaks with cash incentives. They get more for the televised breaks – all part of Hearn's marketing savvy master plan to make snooker a spectator-favourite world sport.

It’s another of sport’s known knowns that sometimes, the fans are more committed than the players, and there’s at least one chap in the audience at the Goldfields Open who has travelled from the UK to get amongst it Down Under. But if he’s expecting the fiery showmanship and high drama we’ve come to expect from the likes of Ronnie ‘the Rocket’ O’Sullivan he’s going to be a bit peeved, because O’Sullivan isn’t here.

Truth be told, everyone’s disappointed that O’Sullivan chose not to make the trip Down Under – except O’Sullivan himself, who announced after winning last year’s World Championship that he’s taking a six-month break (last we heard, he’s broken his foot). It’s as much an indication of O’Sullivan’s state of mind as it is a reflection of the sport’s state of play:  the increased opportunities offered by Hearn’s snooker shake up means that, more than ever, the top players can pick and choose when and where they appear. In fact, the long haul flight to Australia and concerns about jetlag means that O’Sullivan’s not the only big name no-show: no.2 seed Judd Trump, no.3 Mark Williams, no. 4 John Higgins, no.7 Stephen Maguire, no.13 Mark Allen, and no.14 Graeme Dott are others top sixteeners who decided not to come.

“Obviously any tournament that doesn't have Ronnie O'Sullivan in it is a bit of a miss,” says Robertson, who is right behind snooker's globalisation and reckons we’ll be seeing more world class snooker in Australia. He’s just waiting for his big name mates to clock on, pointing out that as the prize money grows (which seems likely, given that the prize pool for the China Open has doubled from $300,000 to $600,000 since it was first held in 2004/2005), so will their interest.

If we take the phenomenal growth of snooker in China as an indicator of Hearn’s brave new snooker world, we can expect to see more international competitors coming through. China makes up more than 50 per cent of snooker’s global television audience, and its star player, 25-year-old Ding, is worth millions. He might be the only Chinese player currently in the top 16, but five (or six, counting Hong Kong’s Marco Fu) of his fellow countrymen are in the top 60 (more than any other non-British country).

For now, the Englishmen dominate, and the biggest drama of this year’s Goldfields Open is arguably The Ebdonator’s characteristically slow, intense and methodical style. He averages a shot time of 38 seconds against Ding (who averages 25), and gets a share of the blame from the crowd for Robertson’s poor form when his long-winded match, which precedes Robertson’s second-round match against Davis, causes the home favourite’s game to run two hours behind schedule.

Criticism comes from his colleagues too. “How Peter Ebdon is allowed to play that slow is a joke,' tweets Judd Trump, snooker’s second seed and its current young upstart. But it was water off a duck’s back for Ebdon, who’s been here before: at the Crucible in 2005, he inspired O’Sullivan to draw blood scratching his own forehead in frustration, and makes no apologies.

‘C’mon England’, some smartarse shouts from the stands two days later, as a nervous-looking Hawkins and a philosophical Davis, who wisely went their separate ways after lunch, get started on their semi-final game. The match starts well for The Hawk, and he goes into the interval with a 3-1 lead. Davis finds some form after the break, and levels the match with breaks of 98 and 93. Hawkins takes the seventh frame, ninth and tenth frames – and the match, 6-4.

It was a bittersweet moment for Davis, who “really fancied” winning the tournament. “I didn't play badly, but I missed a couple of balls that I should’ve got. My safety let me down; it just wasn't good enough, all the way through the game.”

"Playing a friend in a semi-final, I tried to treat it like another game. I didn't win but obviously I'm over the moon that Barry is in the final, he's a great mate of mine and he's a great lad."

The Goldfields Open final between Hawkins and Ebdon takes place the next afternoon, Sunday, in front of a full house. Davis is sitting up in the players’ lounge watching, and Robertson swings by with his Mum for a spot of commentating and a look see.

There’s a lot riding on this match. For Ebdon, a chance to secure his tenth ranking crown and cement his place as the vegan poster boy and comeback king, and for softly-spoken Hawkins, who has been playing professionally since 1996 but never won a major event, the chance to finally go all the way.
Ebdon takes the first frame, despite fouling after mistaking the brown for a red, then hands over to Hawkins, who comfortably wins the next four frames with breaks of 57, 74, 106 and 114.

A tight-faced Ebdon hasn't sunk a ball for just over an hour when he wins the sixth frame, helped by a 63, to reduce the deficit by one. Both players win a further frame each before the session ends, going into the interval with Hawkins leading 5-3.

In the evening session the Hawk soars, winning all four frames and achieving a break of 133, to seal a memorable maiden victory. “Barry’s been a winner waiting to happen for quite some time,” says Ebdon afterwards, who succinctly describes his own form as “crap”, and no match for Hawkins’ on the money touch, feel and cue ball control.

Hawkins, a man of few words at the best of times, is both thrilled and stunned and comes close to cracking up on camera at the thought of his wife and preschooler son, Harrison, back home. "Even during the good times there's still doubt, you start questioning yourself, thinking am I ever going to win a big tournament? I've come close quite a few times, but that was a few years ago now, and I hadn't reached a quarter-final for a while. To be the last one standing is unbelievable.”

Hawkins commitment illustrates another, more recent known knowns: there’s not much time for slacking on Hearn’s new and improved snooker scene. "Barry Hearn's given us all a big kick up the backside,” says Robertson. “In the past when I won a tournament I could take a couple of months off just chill out and not do anything.”

Now, the former champ won’t take his foot off the gas. ”I was a little bit lazy before, not going to the club when I should have, but I have learnt from that and I have to keep going because we are playing so many tournaments."

Hawkins is singing the same tune, and is heading home with tournaments lined up arse to ear for the rest of the season. But first: the pub. Earlier in the week he put his success in Australia down to having a few pints of an evening, and he and Davis are off to celebrate with the locals – despite all their success, it’s where these ordinary blokes are most at home. Let’s hope they don’t lose touch.