On 10 March, with Covid-19 ravaging the north of Italy, the Cheltenham festival just getting under way, uncertainty descending like a fog across the rest of Europe, his daughter exhibiting flu-like symptoms and his own health in doubt, Neil Robertson decided to pull out of the Gibraltar Open. “Health comes first before any bonus on offer,” he said at the time.
It proved a costly decision, at least financially. The Australian was so far ahead in the race to the BetVictor European Series – a £150,000 bonus handed to the top performer across four tournaments – that the only way he would miss out on the cheque was for him to pull out, Judd Trump to travel to Gibraltar, and the world No 1 to win the final event. This he duly did.
“I took coronavirus very seriously,” Robertson says. “I’d been travelling quite a lot – I’d had a successful few weeks, getting into three finals in three different countries, and felt like I was coming down with a little something. I saw what was happening in China and Italy and decided I wouldn’t travel to Gibraltar. Then obviously he went there and pinched the money off me. I was a little surprised that the tournament went ahead, but I think I did the right thing by not going.”
Robertson has had nearly three months to stew on that decision, but has a chance for delayed revenge when he and Trump compete in the first top-level post-lockdown snooker tournament, the Championship League event which starts in Milton Keynes on Monday.
Other than the complete absence of spectators, a slightly standoffish referee and the presence of two sets of rests to ensure there is no need for sharing, television viewers might not notice much of a difference from any ordinary competition. For players, however, life will be quite unusual. “I don’t think we’re going to be shaking hands, but apart from that it’s not much different – we sit pretty far away from each other anyway,” says Robertson. “But everyone will get tested before they play, and there’ll be a hotel which is just for the players and people involved in the event. They’ve taken every measure possible to make sure it can go ahead.”
The action will take place at the Marshall Arena, with everyone involved in playing, organising and broadcasting it staying in the on-site hotel, which will be open only to them. Arrivals will be tested and then isolated in their room, with meals brought to the door, until results arrive the following morning. Players who test negative will then get access to the practice area before playing their group games in a single day, while anyone who tests positive will leave immediately.
Ken Doherty and Dominic Dale, who combine playing with commentating and whose groups are scheduled for the final two days of the opening stage, will be on hand to take the place of anyone forced to depart, giving organisers time to bring in a reserve player. After their group players will leave, with qualifiers returning to start the process again for the next stage, which begins next Tuesday.
“I am confident that there is no other major sport which can meet health and safety criteria on isolation and social distancing as stringently as snooker can, so we are able to return more quickly than others,” said Barry Hearn, whose Matchroom Sport organisation is behind the event. “These are challenging times but as always we are looking at the opportunities rather than the limitations.”
The event gives players and organisers a chance to restart preparations for the world championships, which will be played in Sheffield from 31 July to 16 August, having been rescheduled from late April to nestle in a gap in the BBC schedules handily vacated by the Olympics. “I think qualifying will be the toughest challenge – it’s easier to play the championships themselves with 32 players than nearly 100 at the qualifiers, but this event will give them a lot of data,” says Robertson.
Since lockdown the 38-year-old has been practising at the academy owned by his agent, Django Fung, who has operated a rota system to allow all his clients – also including Trump – to use the facilities without coming into contact with each other. “I’m one of the very small percentage of people in this country that hasn’t been affected too much by coronavirus – what I’ve been doing since lockdown is what I’d have been doing anyway: relaxing, spending time with my family, all those sorts of things,” Robertson says. “But I was on pretty restricted practice. Not many players have tables at home, they like going to a club and feeling like they’re going to a place of work. But for most of the time I’ve been able to play twice a week, driving from my house to the office, being buzzed in, sanitisers, washing hands, following every procedure and not seeing anyone.
“With snooker, having three months off could have a huge long-term effect on your game. It’s not like football, where there’s a huge margin of error with touch and passing and shooting. With snooker you’re talking about millimetre precision and your technique can vary a lot if you don’t retain muscle memory. Snooker is probably one of the most technical sports in the world, which is why it’s so important to get the guys playing and practising again.”