Michaela Tabb admitted that she might not be in the refereeing business for as long as her peers when I caught up with her at the PTC Grand Finals in Galway last week.
Snooker’s first female referee and one of the most popular characters around the circuit, Tabb began her career in 9-ball pool after being asked to officiate in a tournament her future husband was participating in.
Thrown in at the deep end, Tabb, a capable pool player herself, excelled in her new role, mimicking the actions of snooker referees she had seen in the 1970s and 80s to help her “get away with it in the beginning”.
Little did she realise that not many years later she would make history in snooker in more ways than one – culminating in overseeing the 2009 World Championship final between John Higgins and Shaun Murphy.
However, even though everyone now recognises Tabb as being one of, if not, the best referee in the game at the moment, there was a time when it was more important to stay alive rather than fathom the achievements that would come her way in the not too distant future.
“World Snooker got in touch and head-hunted me at the beginning of 2001 and I started in the October of the 2001/02 season.
“It was very difficult in the beginning because I was head-hunted and didn’t come through the normal route that all the other referees came through. There were people who were against me being brought in – the fellow refs mainly which I can completely understand because they knew the procedures and standards that they had to adopt to get that far and I was just basically picked out and given a contract.
“I was really intimidated by the whole situation because, in the beginning, the aggression from some of my fellow refs was really quite nasty. There was a number that took me under their wings and they are the ones that I’m still working with today – my friends – but it was still very difficult. Nobody can imagine what it’s like to be the first person put into that situation because I would actually have to listen to people talking about me. They weren’t even that bothered to make sure that other people couldn’t hear.
“It really was hard and I had to toughen up very quickly. It made me turn around and say ‘well I’m going to show you’ and it made me into the ref that I became because I had to concentrate so much harder. I felt as if I had to give more than anyone else just so I could come out on the same level of ability. At that stage, all I wanted to do was survive and I had never, at that point, even thought about the World final. I didn’t think I would last that long because it was just so difficult for those first two years and it was exhausting.
“What I would say is that the players were all very supportive on the whole, that I know of anyway, because I had reffed a number of them at the 9-ball tournaments and they knew that I was capable of doing the job. I had reffed in front of millions of people on TV before I did the snooker so they knew I could do it.
“In the back of my head I always say it took two years for me to feel comfortable with everything because it took a long time to actually referee each player. Every time I went out with somebody I had never reffed before I was conscious of them not being used to a female and obviously I wear perfume so I smelt differently than the guys. It took me two years to kind of get around to everybody and by then I felt accepted.”
More than a decade later, Tabb is now 44 years-old and realises that time is not on the side of someone whose appearance is of the utmost importance.
Indeed, while the mother of two has no immediate plans to fold away her white gloves, Tabb doesn’t envisage officiating at the top-level for another prolonged period.
“To be honest I don’t see it as many years to come. I’m not ready to give up yet and I still think I’ve got a good few years in me but I’m finding it harder, how shall I say, to age gracefully. My thought process is that I don’t want to be that older woman around the table.
“I think it is quite acceptable to see an older man because nobody would think anything of it. The appearance is very important to me and that’s not going to stay like it is forever so I don’t want to be that older woman around the table. As soon as I think that I can’t do it any more then I’ll bow out gracefully but in the meantime I’ll keep going to the gym and keep trying to look healthy.”
If appearance is what is concerning Tabb then, let’s face it, she has absolutely nothing to worry about after introducing an entirely new level of glamour into a sport traditionally associated with betting, booze and smoke-filled clubs.
Her family is a consideration, though, and it has proven difficult at times to juggle both her professional career and a young five year-old son.
“My older son grew up with me reffing anyway so he was used to it. What I found very difficult was with my young one because he’s only five now and we went through a period when he didn’t understand and hated the fact that I had to go off to work. A couple of years ago it became so hard that we ended up just not telling him. He’d wake up in the morning and I’d be gone because if you told him in advance you had a period of mourning almost. It was horrific and it’s hard for me because it makes you feel guilty but then I realise that this is what I’ve got to do – bills have to be paid for. But it’s better now thankfully.”
Tabb’s dedication to often put snooker first has certainly paid off and one of her lasting accomplishments will be the inspiration she has provided for the emergence of a new generation of female referees – most notably China’s “Ivy” Zhu Ying.
“I have seen such a massive increase throughout the whole of the world – it’s obviously great with Ivy who has come through from China and there’s a number in Europe as well. It’s amazing because I know that most of them have actually started it because they have seen what I have achieved which is brilliant. If I leave with a legacy of introducing more ladies into the game then I can only take great credit from that. I love that I have had such an impact in that respect – it means a lot to me.”
Tabb described being introduced for the very first time at the Crucible and walking out into the arena for her World Championship final as her two most memorable moments.
It is unlikely that she’ll fail to be given that opportunity again and it will be interesting to see how many more female referees follow in her footsteps in years to come.
Update: It has since been confirmed that Michaela will officiate in her second World Championship final this year in Sheffield.