What was Dennis Taylor thinking about as Steve Davis won frame after frame, threatening to turn their 1985 World Championship final into a damp squib?
Taylor played that season in a haze of grief following the sudden death of his mother at the age of 62. He withdrew from a tournament when the sad news came through and was not going to play in the next one, the Grand Prix at Reading, until urged to do so by his family.
Driven by pure emotion, he beat Cliff Thorburn 10-2 to win his first ranking title. A few months later he was facing Davis in snooker’s showpiece match at the Crucible.
Taylor had first seen a snooker table as an excited eight year-old in Coalisland, Northern Ireland. He was from a typically close-knit Catholic family, the bonds of which could not be broken. As Davis piled on the misery, Taylor talked in his head to his mother. Finding calm amid the Sheffield storm, he staged a memorable recovery from 8-0 down to win on the final black of the match.
Taylor’s story underlines something fundamental. The world of modern sport endlessly analyses technique and performance but can often forget the human realities which lie behind every competitor.
In snooker, we routinely obsess about cue actions, a player’s long game, their safety prowess and how many centuries they are knocking in. We rarely stop to consider the external factors which could be affecting all of the above.
Every life is informed by a heady mix of experiences, some exhilaratingly good, some heartbreakingly bad.
It’s no surprise these are widely overlooked because we go to sport to escape the very pressures which burden us in everyday life. But peel back the surface and you will find that snooker players, like anyone else, are human.
Mark Selby has long been regarded as snooker’s iron man, at times impossible to break down, yet he has dealt with considerable pain away from the baize. His parents divorced when he was young and, at 16, his father passed away, leaving Selby to rely on help from friends at the snooker club.
He rose to the top of the sport but has been battling mental health issues stemming from unresolved grief. During the last year his wife, Vikki, has been undergoing treatment for cancer. A close friend of the couple died recently from the same cancer at the age of 44.
Given all of this, how does Selby concentrate on a snooker match?
Perhaps the table can serve as a refuge. In some ways it’s as far away from real life as you can get, a cocoon away from the cruelty of fate where the only concern is whether you can successfully get a ball into a hole.
Neil Robertson has spoken of his wife, Mille’s, struggles with mental health and his pride in how she has overcome them. It was a difficult time for the couple, with Robertson attempting to juggle family with a high profile career.
Ronnie O’Sullivan has been through several emotional maelstroms and somehow still come out not only standing tall but arguably stronger than ever.
His father’s imprisonment just as O’Sullivan became a national figure precipitated a spiral of depression and substance abuse. It took him years to find a way to cope. Snooker was both an anchor and a weight around his feet. He needed it but at the same time it exacerbated the very problems he was dealing with.
Even Stephen Hendry, the iceman of the 1990s with a seemingly impenetrable shield of invincibility wrapped around his shoulders, was not immune to real life.
He spent long hours playing snooker as a boy in part as a distraction from his parents’ divorce. In his autobiography, Me and the Table, Hendry writes of this unhappy part of his childhood: “Now, more than ever, snooker is a fixation. I discover that the physical and emotional disturbance caused by the split can be pushed away into a corner when I’m at the table.”
It’s sad to hear exciting talents such as Jack Lisowski and world champion Luca Brecel recently talking about how they are not enjoying their snooker. Lisowski said at the World Grand Prix that he was longing for a break. When Brecel was asked before walking out at the Masters if he was looking forward to it, he sounded as if he’d rather be anywhere else.
To the watching world this sounds strange, but we are only watching. The media, social media, the wider public – all of us – are guilty of judging without really knowing what is going on underneath the shiny surface. Maybe we don’t really want to know, because sport is where we go to escape our own pain.
To some, it is ephemeral, a distraction to be switched on or off, its performers there for our benefit and entertainment. Others regard sportspeople as superheroes. They aren’t. They bruise like the rest of us.
In a world that could use more empathy, maybe sport is where we should start.
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