You know you’re English (half-English in my case), when:
- You skip the new glass Reichstag tour and scour Berlin for a copy of the Spectator.
- You cannot adapt to the European breakfast tradition of sixty unrelated foodstuffs on a buffet table (“der caramel nutella is next to the anchovies”)
- You leave a cabaret bar where the main act is two metal clad women attacking each other with angle grinders to catch the last hour of the snooker.
Thus it was that your correspondent settled into the Pension Klackenfurs to catch the fourth match of the first round of the world championships “live” from the Crucible Theatre Sheffield, to cheer on Aussie lad Neal Robertson and see how he would do against … oh no. No. NOOOOOOOO! Not Steve Davis!
There’s only three people worth barracking for in snooker: Robertson cos he’s a local, the “Melbourne machine” and may yet become one of the greats; Ronnie O’Sullivan, because he is the greatest living sportsman, the Bradman/Pele/Tiger Woods of his game, a man who is always only ever playing against himself and his tormented depressive psyche; and Steve “Interesting” Davis, the undoubted sensei master of the green baize, a force of nature capable of coming from five, six games behind to leave more naturally talented opponents befuddled at their sudden loss.
A fixture in the competition for thirty five years, Davis, 51, is testament to why snooker is so damn thrilling — a contest in which a game on a table is secondary to the Oedipal struggle of grizzled champion against young buck, absurd natural talent against disciplined workhorse, the works.*
I wanted to see him up against Ronnie O’Sullivan because I thought he was the only one who could turn Ronnie’s neurotic perfectionism against him and leave him a gibbering wreck. With Robertson a close third. Who the frig was I going to barrack for now?
Robinson is in his early 20s, with decades ahead of him. Davis is pushing the age limit at which a player can function at the championship level — he’s only got a few more in and deserves a last hurrah. But Robertson’s phenomenal natural talent — especially for the long diagonal pot, at which he can be spookily unerring — has not been matched by mental toughness.
In past years he has shown a complete capacity to go to pieces at the first reversal in a game. He’s the only player capable of getting shots no other human could do and failing at those no-one should miss. At those moments you can see in his eyes the snooker’s player’s worst enemy — a deep sense of failure, of all talent draining away to the other guy. Covering this a couple of years ago, I suggested that what he needed, being from Melbourne, was attention from ex-pat Argentinean Lacanian psychoanalysts, since you could throw a smoothed pebble in Lygon Street, and hit two of them on any given day.
Well, whatever he did, it’s working, because Robinson cleaned up Davis in a manner that was more Sophoclean than off-the-cushion. Though Davis did his best to get Robinson into the sort of game — heavily defensive, snookers-dominated — in which Robertson’s blonded skeg head would blow like a popcorn maker, he couldn’t contain him. The Melbourne Machine demolished Interesting 10-2 (in a 19 frame match), with Davis barely getting on the table and fluffing easy chances when he did.
Ah God it was hard to watch at times. You never see this sort of career exit in a more physical game, because sheer muscular decay gets you deselected or knocked out in early rounds. But in snooker, the balance of experience and natural endowment that an experienced player can get through to the finals on the strength of the former alone — at which point they come up against someone who has both. It’s like watching a young ape see off the old silverback, who will then starve in the wilderness. Beneath the sponsored waiter’s outfits and the dickie bow-ties there’s a merciless animality which leaves cage wrestling for dead.
But there is also grace descending as well — as seen in one of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s maximum breaks for example (147 — 15 blacks off 15 reds)** that is also essentially perfect, a control of physical elements unimprovable upon. That grace seems to extend to the conduct itself — O’Sullivan once confronted audience members who were making racist remarks at his Chinese opponent and when he lost, in a welter of tears, hugged him long and hard (he has also of course taken Prozac for his mammoth depressions, converted to Islam, deconverted, draped a towel over his head while his opponent plays, and invited journalists to blow him so … y’know).
After this match it was Davis himself who noted that Robinson has the capacity to be one of the true greats — presuming that he doesn’t come up against a player with Davis’s cool psych out skills combined with ability as yet undiminished by age. Or he’ll come up against O’Sullivan and they’ll both fall apart.
God knows how people find this game boring. Beats angle grinders. Nothing compares. Except of course darts.
*In the Oedipal triangle, the mother is represented by the table itself.
**Curiously, a maximum break is not the highest break possible in a single snooker frame — that is 155. The record is 152, I believe.