Wednesday, October 5

Neil Robertson: ‘From job center to playing on TV was just amazing’ | World Snooker Championship

“These are the things that made me a really strong person and competitor,” Neil Robertson says in a secluded corner of a snooker club in Cambridge.

The friendly Australian is ranked as the third best snooker player in the world, but Robertson has spent a chunk of the afternoon showing me how many empty glasses he could carry when working as a bus-boy in a Melbourne pub, what it felt like to be unemployed and how his career was almost derailed for three years when he struggled to help his wife cope with mental-health issues.

Robertson has won the three biggest tournaments of the year so far, and he enters the world championship, which starts in Sheffield on Saturday, as the favourite. But as a few stray punters around us line up their shots and add to the soft click and rustle of balls being missed or potted, Robertson also details the prejudice that international players endure on tour.

Before then, Robertson takes me back almost 20 years to a sultry Melbourne day. He had returned from a failed first crack at making it as a professional snooker player in England, when he had been miserable while living in Leicester during a dark winter, and he was unemployed. “I said to my mum and dad: ‘What am I going to do?’ My dad was like: ‘Go to the job centre.’ I dragged myself there and the queue was full of people struggling mentally or personally. To get your weekly dole check you had to prove you’d applied for jobs. The guy in front of me came up with all kinds of crazy excuses and he was told he was not getting his dole check from him. He was screaming and insulting the woman behind the counter so he got told to leave. I turned around and went home.

“I was thinking: ‘Is this it? Is this my destiny?’” Robertson found work in a pub. “I was collecting glasses and all us bus-boys had shaved heads because we were running around and sweating so much. I got really good after seeing the other guys. They could hold the mop and bucket in one hand and use their other thumb to carry the jugs of beer and then you’d have the small finger with shot glasses rolling all the way up your arm. Then it would be spirit glasses from this [index] finger going all the way up and next to them were empty schooners. Your arm would be stacked with so many glasses and you’d run over and bang them in the dishwasher.

“I was like a hawk around the bar because everyone’s drunk. They would be paying and a note would fall on the ground. I’d get in there with a mop and yoick! $10 in my pocket. Sometimes it would be $20 and we’d scrounge together like vultures. I also remember being the one rolling up the urinal mat at the end of the night, putting on big thick gloves, and it was just awful. But it gave me a really good perspective – like this is what you could be doing unless you dedicate yourself to snooker.”

Robertson with the world championship trophy after his 2010 win. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

Soon afterwards, in July 2003, he won the World Under-21 Championship in New Zealand. Robertson returned to England, bolstered by the company of two other young Australian players, and nine months after his job center experience he faced Jimmy White in the Masters at Wembley Arena. Robertson had won the tough qualifiers to make it into the tournament.

“I was like a rabbit in the headlights because I wasn’t used to being on television in front of massive crowds. It felt like the Colosseum and you were facing a gladiator like Jimmy. When he came out it felt shivers through my bones. It was 2-2 at the interval but he was just too good. From being in a queue in the job center to playing Jimmy White was amazing.”

It was less amazing when, later that night, the car driven by Matt Selt, another young pro, ran out of petrol on the way back to Cambridge. Robertson ended up pushing it to a petrol station. Life was still hard.

“I remember playing Terry Murphy in the first round of a qualifier. The winner got £1,500 and the loser got nothing. Matt goes: ‘I’ll give you £50 if you lose but if you win you have to give me £100. I thought: ‘£50 will cover my food for a couple of weeks,’ so I agreed. When I won I had to give him £100 but I didn’t mind because I’d won £1,400, which covered two months’ rent in that house.”

As Robertson describes it, that surreal house in Cambridge “was in the middle of a car park on an industrial estate. The only other building was the snooker club where we played. We’d be watching TV, with the curtains open, and people would pull up in their cars. They’d look inside and say: ‘People live there!’” In 2010 Robertson became only the second player outside the UK or Ireland to win the world championship when he beat Graeme Dott in the final.

His reputation since then has grown steadily and he is now acknowledged as one of the most naturally gifted and aggressive players in the history of snooker. Robertson has inspired many overseas players but he makes a sobering point about the parochial nature of the sport in England.

“Lots of English players don’t understand how hard it is for an overseas player. They just don’t get it and don’t try to get it either. They’re not interested in these stories. Like Ding Junhui coming from China, not being able to speak a word of English, and look at what he’s achieved. I always found it really sad that the tour was dominated by British players who would constantly mock overseas players from other countries where snooker wasn’t popular. They would see them in the draw and go: ‘Oh, beautiful, I’ve got him first round.’ I’m looking at them like: ‘Really? This guy is trying to do his best and he’s not as privileged as you.’

“It annoys me to this day because a lot of English players still have that attitude. It’s only been in the last 15 years that myself and some of the others have made snooker more international.”

There are also plenty of far more generous English players – led by Ronnie O’Sullivan who feels a real bond with Robertson despite playing and losing to him so often. O’Sullivan was the first player to whom Robertson turned when he felt at his most helpless after years in which his wife, Mille, suffered from acute anxiety and depression.

“Ronnie had been through depression and so he was really amazing, as he put us in touch with these really nice people who deal with these issues. That was the start of us getting out of that dark place.” For almost three years, as his world ranking fell out of the top 16, Robertson had tried to cope with Mille’s illness on his own and in secret.

“It was very lonely because her family is in Norway, mine’s in Australia, and we were on our own. It had a big impact on my results and the worst thing I did was trying to keep playing, because I didn’t want anyone to find out. I remember subconsciously checking out of the event and getting beat because I knew Mille needed me at home. When I watched the [2018] Tyson Fury documentary about his depression it was amazing. Hearing him talk was like hearing Mille talk.”

Robertson with his wife, Mille, and two children, Penelope and Alexander, after winning the Champion of Champions final in 2019 in Coventry.
Robertson with his wife, Mille, and two children, Penelope and Alexander, after winning the Champion of Champions final in 2019 in Coventry. Photograph: Tai Chengzhe/VCG/Getty Images

Did she, like Fury, also feel suicidal? “Absolutely. I remember having to stay home a lot of the time. It was incredibly tough and just the most awful experience you can ever go through. But I’d still win a tournament with literally no practice. I’d just go because Mille would be like: ‘You can’t miss three or four tournaments in a row.’ It was tough for our son too. But I did as good a job as possible to get him through that. He looks back on that time and there’s actually no negative impact at all. One of the big things that turned us around was when we found out that we were going to have [their young daughter] Penelope. That accelerated the process of Mille getting help.”

Robertson smiles proudly when he explains how well Mille has recovered. “She got a first class Masters degree in criminology at Cambridge University and she’s done incredibly. To do that and raise our daughter the way she has done shows such resilience. I’m inspired by her de ella and looking at the pictures of us as a family after I won the Masters de ella made me even more proud of her as a person and an incredible mum and support to me now. When I was struggling a bit during the first lockdown she managed to get my dad over from Australia to see me. It gave me such a lift.”

The 40-year-old begins his first round match in Sheffield on Monday, against the debutant Ashley Hugill, and Robertson believes he can overcome recent history, which, over the past three years, has seen him lose to grinding Crucible specialists in John Higgins , Mark Selby and Kyren Wilson.

“I’ve gone wrong in the quarter-finals where I let little things creep in and affect me mentally. It’s a tighter space at the Crucible because we have two tables, the dividing wall and all the cameras. It’s only when you get to the semis that there’s just one table. The whole space opens up and I can play freely. So when it’s a quarter-final I’ve fallen away from my natural game, which is to be aggressive, and I’ve lost to players who are very good at slowing the pace and taking the sting out of a match. I always walk away thinking: ‘Why wasn’t I just a bit more aggressive?’ That’s something I’ve got to really try and do this year.”

Should he reach the semi-finals he is seeded to play O’Sullivan. Robertson beat the world No 1 10-9 in the semis of the Tour Championship this month and says: “The first session was probably the best snooker you can see. I started off with a century, he then had three centuries to go 4-1 up. I could have crumbled but I’ve had such a brilliant season I still had that resilience and confidence. I went bang, bang, bang and it was 4-4. I remember going to the car park and he was outside with his friends from him. Ronnie was like: ‘All right?’ I said: ‘Yeah. Great match, mate.’ He was: ‘Yeah, yeah.’ We were both thriving and it went all the way. There’s always something extra special when you play Ronnie.”

Whether or not he plays O’Sullivan, or wins the second world title that will cement his legacy, Robertson sounds happy. “I’ve got a completely different outlook on life now. It’s amazing how hard or terrible things can impact you in a positive way. You can use them and realize how lucky you are after all.”

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