The result of the match didn’t matter. The true result was that there was a match at all.
Ali Carter’s return to competitive action in a televised event may have ended in a literal defeat in Coventry on Friday but everything else about the day confirmed him as a winner.
Cancer is a physical condition but the after-effects are emotional. While his rivals were potting balls around the world, Carter had been through painful treatment, surrounded by family and friends and with the best wishes of all in the snooker world, but in essence having to face his ordeal alone.
But he was not alone at the Ricoh Arena, where the packed audience rose to give him a standing ovation as he entered to play Neil Robertson in the Champion of Champions. Such goodwill may have stirred emotions too strong to contain but Carter had other things on his mind, namely the fact he had forgotten to bring his dress suit and was introduced for his comeback wearing a cobbled together outfit.
He played the first frame in Ricky Walden’s waistcoat – a little on the big side – and a hastily purchased shirt. A friend had been dispatched to bring Carter gear that actually fit him and arrived in time for him to change into it for the second frame.
“It was a disaster from the world go,” Carter said afterwards. “I left my suit at home. My head’s all over the place at the moment.
“I was looking forward to it and was so wrapped up in the emotion of being back playing. I’d got everything ready last night and put it by the door and then my manager Steve came to pick me up and I wanted to get here so ran out of the door. I got three quarters of the way here and realised I didn’t have my suit.
“I thought I would get emotional out there but I didn’t, I was more concerned that I looked a complete state. The first two frames, I was stressed. I was shaking, but I felt all right after that.”
Robertson, a great professional, made two centuries on the way to completing the whitewash. He treated Carter not with pity but respect, playing the way he would have done against anyone else.
Although he won the General Cup, it will likely take some time for Carter to get match fit again but this was an important first step to getting back to normality.
Backstage there were handshakes and interviews, including a particularly insightful one with Alan McManus for ITV4. Carter is keen to talk as much as he can about what he has gone through to provide inspiration to others suffering in the same way. But it’s not only those who have faced illness who feel inspired by the way he has conducted himself throughout the last few months. His is a story which needs to be told because it proves that there is light amid the greatest darkness.
“I’ve been really busy since I won the General Cup with loads of media stuff,” Carter said. “There’s a bigger picture than playing snooker at the moment. I hope people can look at me and think that I’ve done it, got through it and am still at the top level. I’ve seriously been to hell and back these last six months. I’m glad it’s behind me now.
“It’s an honour to be back playing. It was always meant to be that I’d be in this tournament and it was meant to be that I’d win the General Cup.
“I think there’s something on the horizon for me that’s going to happen in snooker, or in something else. There’s good things to come for me. I’m still fighting.”
Some more interviews, some more handshakes and he was off, not with threats to retire or groans about the system as with some players but with the same positivity he has displayed throughout this emotionally bruising time.
He’d lost and yet he’d won. You don’t often get to say that in sport, but this is no ordinary story.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.