The phrase “you’re snookered” means you’re stuffed – and that’s exactly what Neil Robertson’s teachers thought when, at the age of 15, he dropped out of school to pursue a career as a professional snooker player.
Back then Robertson was just another sneaky kid hustling the customers at his dad’s Ringwood pool hall, fleecing them of $20 a pop, listening to Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. For fun he’d cheer the Magpies and admired the magic of Peter Daicos, the Macedonian Marvel.
But the metal fan was far from being snookered; in fact, he was on cue to become Australia’s most successful snooker player, a world champion and a millionaire. Robertson has gone on to eclipse homegrown snooker legend Eddie Charlton; he is now regarded as Australia’s best-ever player.
In the same year that Robertson dropped out of school, he became the youngest Australian to put together a century break in an Australian ranking event. To put this into perspective, if you sink one red ball then the black ball, then repeat this with all 15 reds, and after that the coloured balls in order, you end up with 147 points. Try that next time you’re in a snooker hall or the local RSL and if you can do that, you too might become a snooker star. I tried it and failed miserably, reaching a score of just 15.
Robertson’s talent, however, impressed his peers, who then convinced his parents to send him to England to compete in the World Snooker Championship. The hat was passed around and his parents scraped together enough money for the airfare. There was not enough left to buy a vest or shoes in which to compete, so he borrowed a vest from a fellow competitor and found a referee with the same shoe size. In the borrowed attire, he made the semi-finals.
That was the most positive result of what was a disastrous start to his professional career, for a string of heavy and humiliating losses to his mostly English competitors followed. Robertson returned home for another two years to practise on the Australian circuit.
SUPPLIED COURTESY AUSTRALIAN GOLDFIELD OPEN
“That’s when my game improved, but those early years were hard on mum and dad,” he says.
“They did everything they could; they were stretched financially and it was tough to get money together for all of my expenses. Mum was building websites and dad had sold the pool hall and was working for one of the charities.
“For years I had ‘You’re not going to make any money playing snooker’ etched into my brain as a motivator. I wanted to drive back to the school in a sports car and say ‘Ha ha, I told you so’ but luckily I’ve matured and realised that the teachers had my best interests at heart.”
Robertson acknowledges that it is hard to make it in any sport, let alone snooker; he points out that for every good story, there are 50 hard-luck stories that go unheard.
“Some players handle pressure better than others and fortunately handling pressure is a strength of mine.”
“For an Australian it is tough because it is a sport that means you need to move away from Australia to reach a high level, because the majority of tournaments are in the UK and Europe … (and) you need to be practising with them (the best players),” he says.
So, at the age of 21, Robertson returned to Britain, set up home in Cambridge and steadily improved his game each year. His wins on the highly lucrative European circuit made him a millionaire by his mid-20s.
But it wasn’t until Robertson turned 28 that his career peaked and he realised his lifelong dream. He won the world championship and the 2010 World Open; his son, Alexander, was also born just a few days after the championship.
“That was a massive thing and then I played in too many tournaments, I should have had a rest. That season I faded out and got burnt out,” he says.
“In the season just gone, I accumulated more ranking points than anyone else and will officially be ranked No.7 in the season coming up. Winning the Masters in January was a massive confidence booster. It is the most prestigious event after the world championships and only the top 16 players in the world are invited to it.
“I’m pretty laid-back, which helps in snooker. Some players handle pressure better than others and fortunately handling pressure is a strength of mine. No two frames are the same, so I’m always thinking quite a few shots ahead and that sequence is always changing. That side of my game has developed well.”
But there’s no yearning to return home just yet. In Cambridge, he’s known as the “Thunder from Down Under”, and plays to sold-out venues. World championship snooker is rating better than world championship tennis on Eurosport.
The game is rising rapidly in China and at the moment snooker is king, with five major tournaments based there over the next 12 months. And world championship prize money is expected to reach £1 million within the next three years. Robertson plans to be there to collect.
“I miss family and friends and the footy,” he says. “I used to make Melbourne home for three months of the year but these days I barely get a month back here in Australia.”
Robertson will be back in town in July to compete in the Australian Goldfields Open, which attracts the top 16 players in the world, including defending champion Stuart Bingham and two Australian wildcard entrants.
“The atmosphere for last year’s Australian Goldfields Open final was one of the best I have ever witnessed and I am really looking forward to the 2012 event,’’ he says.
Australian Snooker Goldfields Open
July 9-15, 2012 Bendigo Stadium,
134 Marong Road West Bendigo. 5440 6201