How our top snooker player's career came together right on cue. By Richard Cooke.

Credit: Felix Clay

Taking his breaks: Neil Robertson, 32, snooker player

Neil Robertson is Australia’s most successful snooker player. He was crowned world snooker champion in 2010 and this season broke the record for the most century breaks. This month he competes for the 2014 World Snooker Championship at the Crucible, Sheffield.

Richard Cooke: You’re one of Australia’s most successful sportspeople, but we’re an outdoor sports nation and it looks like it will stay that way.

Neil Robertson: Yeah, it’s something I’ve always kind of accepted. Snooker’s always going to be on the backfoot in Australia in terms of boosting its popularity. I don’t really see it as a negative view towards Australia or anything like that – I just understand that the climate’s just completely different, and there aren’t that many facilities to play. There’s a lot of places where you can play pool and stuff like that, but it’s seen more as a social, fun kind of game rather than a lot of people taking it seriously. 

RC: In the transition between amateur and professional you almost ended up in the dole queue.

NR: I had no money at all, absolutely nothing, obviously no qualifications. It’s too hard to make a living playing snooker in Australia – you had to win the tournaments to really make any money out of it, so it was always very much like minimum wage kind of stuff anyway. So yeah, I just thought, ‘Well, is this it? Is this the way my future’s going to go?’ And I was in Centrelink, I was actually in the queue – and I was just looking at all these people, and, you know, there’s parents with two toddlers under their arms kicking and screaming, and you’ve obviously got people who aren’t in the best mental health throwing abuse at people behind the counter. And I just was looking around and thinking to myself, ‘Is this really my destiny? Is this really what I’m going to do?’ I couldn’t do it. I turned around and I left there and went home. 

RC: You turned pro very young. 

NR: Yeah. I turned professional when I was 16, which was way too early for me. I had to live in the UK, and that’s when I really struggled with homesickness and
I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to live there to play snooker. It was a real struggle. I didn’t know anyone, no family or anything like that. So yeah, it was a big struggle up until I was about 21, until I won the world under-21s. That was like my last go at it really, and I really dedicated myself to playing. 

RC: You’ve said that you think snooker may be the most difficult individual sport.

NR: Snooker’s not really the type of sport, especially when you’re low-ranked, where you can afford to have coaches and things like that on board. You’re all on your own. There’s no teammates who make the mistake, or to make it up if you’re playing a bad game. It’s all on yourself – every mistake you make is very crucial, and it’s all your own fault. You can play a great safety shot and your opponent could come to the table and pot an incredible long pot. So it’s very much different to something like tennis, where generally if you play better than your opponent at tennis, or if you are better than them, generally you win. Snooker’s a sport where you have to deal with a lot more different sorts of mental toughness, I suppose. 

RC: Now you’re a more mature player, has your practice regimen changed?

NR: I’ve always been about the quality of the practice rather than the quantity. I think that a lot of players used to practise way too much. Some players would play five or six hours on their own, thinking that they had to do that, and the quality of the practice wasn’t that good. Myself, I’ve sort of built more around doing maybe three hours solo practice, but I play every shot as if I’d be playing it in a tournament.  There’s a lot of mental strain required to do that, but I think it holds me in really good stead. Not everyone’s capable of practising like that, at that kind of intensity of concentration. A lot of the time after practice I’ve got a pounding headache and just need to chill out and relax. 

RC: Your last world championship win coincided with a match-fixing scandal breaking. Did it overshadow it at all?

NR: No, not really. I mean, it’s very typical of, I guess, of the UK media to always look for the controversial story rather than a good story about someone winning. And a friend of mine who was in the media gave me a heads-up the night before the paper was out saying that this was going to be the – well, I think it was even a front-page story. It wasn’t a surprise to me, especially when all the guys in the media were asking me the questions and stuff. So I was well prepared for it and it didn’t really overshadow the result for me. I think especially the press in Australia was probably what I cared most about, and that was overwhelming.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 26, 2014 as "Taking his breaks".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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