By Colin Bell
It was time for the annual Goldfields Open in Bendigo, Victoria – the only snooker ranking event in Australia. There had been some negative publicity prior to the event. Top ranking players not entering, complaints about the distance, prize money and the tax all got mentioned. In order to attend I also had to fly from Sydney to Melbourne (over an hour by plane), hire a car and drive the 150kms to the event. Although not the extent of the players, it still required some effort. However, the event needed as much support as possible, and therefore I planned to be there for all the sessions.
My main aim of attending was to give support to the event but also raise the profile of the game in Australia. Over the last few months I had been working with Neil and had been in contact with some of the other players to work out the best way to promote the game in Australia. Bendigo itself, even for a ‘native’ Ozzie, is a strange choice to host a venue. It’s a country town in the state of Victoria. It doesn’t have flash accommodation but does have a very laid back approach and a friendly atmosphere. The reason this town was chosen in the first place was to bring revenue to the area after the flood damage a few years ago, which has been backed by the Victorian government.
The first thing I decided was to try to get some of the professional players involved with the local clubs. At the end of the day, the players are here to win so you don’t want to distract them too much from that, and being in the location we were, you cannot expect a player to travel a 4-hour roundtrip to Melbourne for an exhibition. Anyway, Stuart Bingham kindly made himself available to visit a local club in the area – Eaglehawk Snooker & Billiards Club. He played three frames and engaged with the members quite freely. In the UK it’s just about possible to go into any snooker club and see a professional or top amateur playing. In Australia it’s not, so to see such a calibre of player will I’m sure be the talk of the club for many years to come.
At the tournament itself there was a very good set-up. I think only the Wembley Conference Centre in the UK, where they used to hold the Masters, has a viewing area like this. There are three STAR tables available for practicing in the Players’ lounge which is useful as not only can you practice but you monitor the TV match on either screen as well as look and see what is happening out in the arena. To see how hard the tournament director, referees and officials work, and it’s not a big team by all accounts, is commendable. IMG who run the event also have a lot to do. The MC is very passionate about his work and gets really involved even though this is not his foremost sport.
The opportunity to spend time with the players also showed they were very human. Some love to sleep, some love to explore, others have strong opinions. Sometimes as ‘joe-public’, due to the social media environment, we think that we know the players personally and what’s going on, but don’t believe everything you read or hear. Nowadays there is a lot of banter on social networks and you can form opinions, but it’s not always true. Like any community there are those that get on and those that don’t. Some definitely have their ear to the ground even though they don’t go making a ‘big song and dance about it.’ They know what’s going on, behaviour and attitude is noted!
In comparison to last year, even though there was a lack of top players, the way the competition was run had certainly improved. The audience was a lot quieter and didn’t tend to eat food and drink to the same extent as before, although some of the Aussies suggested to me that alcohol should be allowed as that’s the Aussie way! The support staff provided by the venue were very helpful and engaging. They happily organise returns to the airport, take the players backwards and forwards to the venue, even taking some of the players out to look for kangaroos or to the occasional golf course. The only real disappointment for the volunteers is that some of them didn’t know the first thing about snooker. Although they would have liked to learn more they said it was too hard.
In the venue itself people didn’t hassle the players too much. Most of the players actually were able to wonder about quite freely, enjoying a drink in the bar or a meal in peace. When Neil was in the venue the atmosphere was slightly different, they were there to support him, and a stronger Aussie spirit came to the fore. To the point that one supporter said good luck to his opponent, whereby the player replied ‘You don’t really mean that’, a hearty and no denial he was an Aussie supporting Neil that day!
Although this is a competition in Australia not many spectators came outside the state of Victoria, as there was hardly any promotion of the tournament on any media – only local press. In and around the stadium people were generally friendly. When visiting the local establishments, when they discovered you were there for the snooker, there was a genuine interest about the game and a lot of questions asked. Some bizarre conversations would be struck up in places like supermarkets and restaurants, all in good humour with some good banter. It was reported that a member of the public rang the stadium and asked if Peter Ebdon was coming, as if he was they were cancelling their ticket! Having attended a few tournaments in China, players specifically remarked that, even with the time difference and location, they felt comfortable and more at ease. It was a very different atmosphere and something they could get used to.
Over the course of the week, the standard of play was very good and crowds were fair. There were many deciders during the competition and a few surprise results. It will always be difficult to determine if jet lag played a factor in anyone’s game. It is a long way to come, some players handle it very well, others do struggle, but this is now the modern tour. It’s on a worldwide scale like never before. As a frequent traveller myself, I can sympathise with the players as it’s impossible to keep a diet or eat decently on a regular basis, although some of them try.
It was great to hang out in the players’ lounge. Being around the top players but also talking to past players, mentors and Neil’s family really shows how far Neil has come from his Melbourne roots to the No. 1 player in the world, but it also showed why he needed to practice his snooker in the UK. In Australia there is a tendency to complain about the lack of support from World Snooker and non-Australian players for the game here. As was pointed out to me by one of the players, Australian snooker as a whole needs to get its house in order – the governing bodies are disjointed across the country. There are a few individuals doing their best but more needs to be done as a whole.
As someone who has followed and played the game for a number of years, I profess to know something about the game, but if you don’t play it on a regular basis you really don’t know it as well as you think! By being around the players and listening to their ‘alternative commentary’ (it really should be streamed although it might have to be censored!), I gained a much deeper insight into shot selection and the psyche behind the game. When speaking to players after a match had concluded their post-match analysis was impressive. They could remember most of their shots and some of the players could re-enact the whole scenario from the match again on the practice tables. It doesn’t really matter what level you play to but if you can learn from your mistakes and the way you played you can become a better player. Even the top players are always looking at ways to improve their game.
As the week progressed the mood in the players’ lounge changes. As players lose they leave while some don’t return to the venue at all and are on the first flight back. Others stick around to help out with commentary or ‘fill-in’ between matches, etc. It’s also possible to learn a player’s practice schedule and routines, whether the practice set-up is a ‘mock’ game or just a few long pots. Some are practicing every day, whilst others rock up just before a game and hit a few balls with no other practice at all.
So thanks to all the players and officials who made my week enjoyable. It was great to have the opportunity to discuss snooker every day and gain a different perspective on the game and understand what is really happening. It was an invaluable experience and I felt I was looked after and everyone was decent enough, although not sure what they would say about me.
The big question is will there be another tournament in Australia next year? Well, first of all it’s going to be a flat 128 draw next year, so there is no guarantee of all the top players attending. Maybe even Neil will not be given any special consideration? It was unfortunate that the head of snooker in Australia didn’t attend and I’m not sure if he has ever attended. There were, though, quite a few other representatives at the venue, local snooker players and organisers from other events.
Although some of the criticism levied at World Snooker is justified, it is important to remember a few things. First of all, the WS team has 40 staff with 32 tournaments compared to, say, the PGA which has 2700 staff and 42 tournaments! Therefore, WS cannot always do everything they would like to as well as contractual issues. There has been a big shake up on the game and the mentality is changing. There are initiatives going on behind the scenes but maybe there could be better transparency. However, the choice as to whether there is another tournament in Bendigo and indeed Australia is up to sports promoters IMG as well as WS. They will invite tenders from various companies when organising a tournament. There are rumours as where bids have come from, but at this time still no decision has been made.
Although these may not be all the pros and cons that come to mind, these are some I thought of:-
# The only country outside of UK where they speak English as a first language(sort of).
# A small country town, maximum local exposure, personal service.
# Clean air.
# Less crazy fans.
# Enthusiasm for a sporting event.
# Ozzie spirit.
# Long way away from home.
# Prize money hasn’t increased with the other events.
# Location – only 100,000 population.
# Tax (although a way to reduce tax has been provided).
# Accommodation is not five-star.
# Lack of entertainment for the players.
The final word must go to Marco Fu. Everyone says he is one of the nicest guys on the tour – well, he really is. During the week he wasn’t demanding, eagerly willing to have a chat, practiced hard, missed his family and always was very pleasant. After his match he graciously had pictures with so many of the fans, embraced the Aussie banter and not once complained the whole week.
Well done Marco, congratulations on becoming Goldfields Australian Open Champion 2013. I hope to welcome you and the tournament back next year.