10.11.10

THE BIG INTERVIEW: NEIL ROBERTSON (PART ONE)

It’s not just what you see at the Crucible that’s important, not just the endless frames, the drama, the close finishes, the key balls potted. It’s also what you don’t see: the long hours in the hotel or dressing room, staring into the mirror, racked with self doubt, telling yourself not to blow it, not to squander this chance that comes by but once a year. The chance to be the best in the world.

Snooker’s biggest event lasts 17 days so there’s plenty of time for a mental implosion or two. The matches are split into sessions and can span several days. Sleep is in short supply. Worry hangs heavy in the air.

But Neil Robertson is made of stern stuff, Aussie steel, an inbuilt belief in his own abilities. Competitive he may be in the arena, possessed of that trademark Australian grit, but off table he is as laidback as they come, so much so that to chat to him is like chewing the fat with a mate, not talking to a world champion, a world no.1.

He isn’t starry and he isn’t conceited. He’s just Neil, the guy from Melbourne who came to try his luck at snooker and ended up the best in the world.

He doesn't do anxiety and this relaxed persona means that nerves do not affect him as badly as some. It showed last season at the venue that really counts.

He trailed Martin Gould 11-5 heading into the final session of their second round match. It looked as if his World Championship title bid was over, a defeat as heavy as it was unexpected.

But Robertson’s glass is half full. Scrap that: he refuses to believe it isn’t overflowing. He felt he still had a chance and did it, won 13-12 and nine days later beat Graeme Dott 18-13 to become world champion.

It’s an attitude you can’t teach. You’re either made that way or you’re not.

“My dad’s very laidback and I guess I take after him,” Robertson told me.

“In fact my girlfriend thinks I’m too laidback and hates it sometimes. She can’t understand how I can stay relaxed all the time and it almost annoys her that I don’t get annoyed by certain things.

“Someone could be really rude to me, where other people would want to say something back, but I’m, like, ‘who cares?’ I’ve always been like that. I’m not one for fights and even admit I’m wrong when I’m not just to avoid confrontation. I think all that’s a waste of time.

“I think it helps with dealing with pressure in the game. Some players mutter things under their breath, particularly in the PTCs where there’s no TV. They’ll go into the pack off the blue and not land on a red and you’ll hear them say, ‘that’s typical of my luck.’ I’ll just get on with it. Just play the balls where they are. You can’t complain about being unlucky or getting a kick. It’s part of the game, just as in football you’ll get decisions going your way sometimes and at other times they won’t. You just have to accept it.”

Easier said than done to most, but Robertson’s career has been underscored by his innate positivity.

To come to the UK with £500 in his back pocket, convinced he could make a go of professional snooker. To live in Cambridge thousands of miles from his family. To mix it with the best in the world and not feel overawed. To win his first six ranking tournament finals. To become world champion and world no.1.

All these require talent, of course, but also the right attitude. The 28 year-old is the model of mental clarity.

And he recognises his achievement. He knows more than me, more than you and more than anyone other than those who have done it or come heartbreakingly close to doing it just how hard it is to win the World Championship.

For all the talk of new formats and quickfire snooker, the Crucible’s unique testing ground is what really matters. To win in Sheffield marks you out as something special.

“It’s good to have different formats and refresh your mind and your game but the tournaments the players really want to win are the BBC ones and the World Championship is the one we all target. That’s such a great test,” Robertson said.

“There are so many things that run through your head at the Crucible. I was in my first final and wanted to win it so badly that there was a big battle going on in my own mind as well as with my opponent.

“It’s such a long match. You know you’ll be there for two days. It’s not like it’s all over in a couple of hours. You have to be so strong mentally. It’s not just a different format to what we’re used to, it’s almost like a different game.

“You can’t compare it to playing best of nines. You’re there for the long haul.

“It’s the true test of snooker on the table and psychology as well, which is what sport is all about. It has to be a test of mental strength and the ability to play under pressure. You have to do that consistently well. There’ll be times when you’re behind and have to make big clearances under pressure. You can either do it or you can’t.

“There’s no other tournament like it. Between sessions is what the public don’t see, where you’re sat thinking you should be further ahead or that you’re lucky you’re not further behind.

“It’s all about convincing yourself that you’ve got a good result at the end of the session. Even when I was 11-5 down to Martin Gould I thought, well, I could be out of the match. I was doing everything possible to convince myself that I still had a chance to win.

“When Steve Davis beat John Higgins the morning before we played our final session I knew Martin would be thinking – no disrespect to Steve – that he had a great chance to get to the semi-finals of the World Championship. Yeah, I knew he’d be thinking that so I came out full of confidence that if I could nick the first two or three frames I’d put him right under pressure.

“These are the things that go on between sessions. You have to try and relax, calm yourself down, get some sleep. It’s all about your mind. TV viewers don’t see all that but it’s what makes the tournament what it is.”

The world title was Robertson’s fifth ranking success. The World Open swiftly followed as his sixth this season.

He knows there are always those on the fringes ready to carp and criticise. For some, a tournament victory is not enough, it’s how you do it that matters – as if players can handpick their opponents. Surely winning should suffice.

“In my first couple of finals I beat players outside the top 16 and people pointed the finger as if I’d had it easy,” Robertson said.

“I beat Ronnie in the quarter-finals in the first two tournaments I won, but people don’t remember that.

“If you beat the world no.1 you take over that seeding. You can’t beat the top eight in the world to win a tournament. It’s not possible.

“And just because you get a good draw, that doesn’t mean anything. You still have to win and people who have got so-called good draws have let it slip.

“In the Welsh Open I beat Andrew Higginson, who had knocked out a number of top players, including John Higgins, Ali Carter and Stephen Maguire. He was playing brilliantly. There wouldn’t have been too many top players who could have come back from 6-2 down to lead 8-6 playing like that.

“In my last three finals I’ve beaten Ding Junhui, Graeme Dott and Ronnie O’Sullivan. Nobody can say I didn’t deserve those.”

And no one will surely argue with the notion that more silverware beckons for this talented left-hander. His game is better than ever, his mind is clear, he relishes his moment.

“I guess a lot of questions were asked of me since I became world champion as to how I would react," Robertson said.

"If you win a tournament you feel that you have to back it up and I couldn’t have responded any quicker. Winning the World Open showed any doubters that were out there that I could handle the pressures of being world champion."

In part two tomorrow: an insight into how Neil Robertson approached the world final, juggling life as a father and family man and why he thinks England may win the Ashes down under.

20 comments:

TazMania said...

when Robertson won the World Championships i wasn't convinced he deserved it personally. But after the world open i think it proved he deserves it and deserves to be No.1

Anonymous said...

how can anyone not be convinced about Neil? He is so much better than o'sullivan

Anonymous said...

Dave, thanks a lot for all you’re trying to do. But I dare say that this interview is rather standard, like those of WS's. The problem, IMHO, is not lack of information about snooker in newspapers, but the quality of published one. Truth to be told, we all know the Neal's answer about his win over Martin Gould (no offence, please) or answer on the question about Hearn's plan of sport development. But really interesting thing is his answer on the question: "What do you think about Murphy having been named "fat b**" or Carter having been asked "to pot the brown". Especially in the light of your early statements that "snooker is not circus" or "snooker is a gentlemen's game".

You see, that is not like "we (fans or papers) need scandal to be interested", but "we need your point of view. Ideally the honest one”. Because all journalists, exept for Matthew Syed, and few players (because few were asked) showed us very muted reaction, speaking only about results or general impression, and telling not a word about minuses need to be corrected.

The problem is not lack of interest of newspapers. The problem is that you're sinking in your stadardized politness, allowing every second fan knows exactly what he (or she) is going to read in article even before the front page is turned over

Serg/Ukrain

Steve K said...

Great interview, gives a real insight into the players minds. Cant wait for the rest!

Anonymous said...

is there a picture of neils wife online?

dont think ive seen her

Anonymous said...

Great Interview!
Serg: Go and read the Sun

Ray said...

Thanks Dave for the innovative and comprehensive interview.Could I suggest 2 for the future - Frank Callan and Doug Mountjoy, both are inextricably linked because Mountjoy's career was completely turned around because of Callan's involvement.

What planet is Serg on? The one beacon of light in this cynical and dissembling age is that you and Clive Everton only deal in the truth. Whether it be Snooker Scene, interviews or the blog. Sometimes the truth hurts ...... too bad! Says everything about the way you approach your profession.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous

I don't want to read about Neal's private life. Not inetersted.

And if you don't want to understand what I'm talking about, then don't complain about lack of characters. Cos if you are ready to read only about general items over and over again considering that hard questions equals to the Sun's "hot stories" , you'll never see any character in the game at all. It's impossible on the basis of answers "it's great". "I think it'll be new era". "Great new fresh idea". "WC is a dream of every pro". "I felt great pressure". "I played well". Try to guess, whose these words are...

Serg/Ukrain

Dave H said...

That's unfair. You've taken a few words out of context and attempted to make them look like cliches.

You're free not to like the interview but don't misrepresent it.

Anonymous said...

so, nobody has a pic or seen his girlfriend?

Betty Logan said...

To be fair to Dave that's only half an interview, let's wait and see what's in the next part.

Greg P said...

"and why he thinks England may win the Ashes down under."

Aah... the pressure of being World Champion has driven him insane. Okay.

Mark said...

Great interview, thanks Dave!

jamie brannon said...

I really like what he had to say in the first few paragraphs about being philosophical about things, if you only you could tell that to the football community that referee's are only human beings.

I thinking winning is of primary importance, but the style in which it is acheieved especially outside of the game's biggest occasions is of some importance to me, I like to think of sport as an entertainment and even an art form, which some may find pretentious, but I think sport can be that when you witness say Barcelona at their gorgeous best.

Greg P said...

Funny you should mention football Jamies because I was just thinking, isn't it funny how in snooker which is a sport that is struggling, so many of the players are seemingly so phlegmatic (at the table, anyway), but in football where they have a whole nation slavishly devoted to them, and very few of them have money worries, they act so miserable and unpleasantly towards each other on the pitch...

We're all sitting here congratulating Neil on being so cool and laid back but a lot of people say snooker's problem is the players don't do anything to distinguish themselves. Indeed Neil said himself this year, snooker players are "too nice" to each other.

The great Ted Lowe himself said something in the Alex Higgins documentary on BBC2 a couple of months ago, that went something like "it seems like the more crazy things you do the more famous you are these days." Of course many of us have known that for a while now.

Traditional wisdom has been that bad behaviour was unacceptable because it would alienate sponsors. But seeing as how snooker hardly has any sponsors that aren't betting firms now, you have to wonder if we're going to see silly drama and spats actually being somehow encouraged some time in the future...

TazMania said...

I think Dave is going on the right track by trying to interview players. Snooker supporters normally only get views of ronnie before the world championships and thats it. I think in the future more deeper, questions could be asked, more of the top 16 needs to be interviewed. I cant remember the last time i heard players like Hendry, Maguire or even Williams getting a proper interview. This step is the way of the future for this blog to be the best for fans to get all the info on snooker

Anonymous said...

hopefully the second part gets us some insight into his family life with the invisble lady

jamie brannon said...

Tennis and golf don't struggle to attract sponsors, and there is very little trouble in those sports.

I am all for an edgy character, but not a bastard. I like those who are bit playboyish, but Alex Higgins seemed just unpleasant, although he had redeeming qualities.

On the field of play I always like to see fine sportsmanship and dealing with defeat in good grace.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have showed that you can be a first class person and still find endorsements coming your way.

Greg P said...

Completely different sports.

Anonymous said...

jamie, thats the funniest, ironic, moronic post from a Ronnie fan ive ever read on here.