Say what you like about Newport – and plenty of people do say things about the city, usually derogatory – but it has supported snooker very well over the years and I found this to be true as I ventured to the BetVictor Welsh Open yesterday.
Well, I found it to be true after I actually found the Newport Centre. The area around it seems to have been constantly dug up and rebuilt for the last ten years, with access points closed and heavy machinery providing a constant thudding soundtrack.
This is the last year for the Welsh Open in Newport before it moves, so it is planned, to Cardiff. It has to be said that not everyone will miss the place. The event is currently played in a municipal leisure centre with a swimming pool and loads of people milling about with no interest in the tournament.
However, the arena itself is excellent. There is plenty of room for the four tables and – crucially – plenty of people wanting to come and watch.
Some of these are pretty hardcore. I overheard one guy yesterday expressing his satisfaction at having secured an autograph from a referee. There was a fair sized queue later for photos and signatures from the players and plenty of spectators had clearly been coming for years.
This is a group of people usually described as ‘traditionalists,’ a word which has curiously come to be used as an insult. In fact, they are the sport’s backbone, turning out for matches when the rest have long since departed.
They, and Newport itself, are considered to be part of snooker’s past, not future. Well, Preston Guild Hall, a venue from snooker’s past, has bailed out the PTC grand finals, proving that tradition sometimes has its uses.
As for the tournament itself, it seems a long time until the final, chiefly because it is a long time until the final. Since everyone has come in at round one, a slow trickle of new names are coming through but it’s mainly the same old faces winning matches.
There was almost a shock yesterday when Sydney Wilson, an amateur, led Mark Allen 3-0 and by 37 with 51 remaining. He then missed a pink. A player stood next to me said, “This’ll be 4-3 to Allen.” And it was.
At the end of the match another player commented, “Welcome to the hurt locker. We’ve all been there.” The point being that no matter what the format or how long the matches, killing off that last frame, with all the pressure coming to bear, especially in sight of a career best victory, remains really difficult, which is why the best players still ultimately win.
So far the main impact of the flat draws with 128 players at the venue has been to make tournaments which should be shorter far longer.
In the early 2000s the event was played at Cardiff International Arena but because it was so hard to book the venue it was compressed into five days, with a round a day from the last 32. And it was excellent: a real sense of momentum and the feeling that there was always something happening.
The more standard length of event in recent times has been seven days. This tournament lasts for 12 days from gun to tape, testing the loyalty even of the Welsh snooker public.
I don’t envy my media colleagues such a long stint, not that there are many of them to envy. Credit, though, to China’s Xinhua news agency, which has sent three staff to cover the tournament. This is in shaming contrast to the UK’s own Press Association, which hasn’t sent anyone to cover a single day of snooker on site since the World Championship last year.
The PA – whose material used to be written on site by freelances or staff men – now rewrites copy from worldsnooker.com. Except, if you compare their stories to some of ours over the last couple of days you will notice there is plenty they did not report, in particular the comments of Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Selby.
And I can completely understand why. They are the governing body so it’s not in their interests to flag up the fact top players don’t actually want to play in certain tournaments. However, it’s not in snooker’s interests either for the game to go largely unreported.
Twice yesterday I heard someone banging on about ‘the importance of social media.’ How about the importance of the actual media, the one which is regulated and has a focus on journalism rather than ending every sentence in exclamation marks and hashtags?
The daily press cuttings these days – despite the very best efforts of a very small band – are frankly embarrassing. This is because newspapers give scant coverage to snooker. But it is 2014 and the media doesn’t end with newspapers. The cuttings would be a lot bulkier if they included credible stories posted online by people with a passion for the sport.
Yes, this looks like naked self-interest from someone who has just started a new snooker website, but there are a number of well maintained sites actually covering the event with the best of intentions – and unlike many newspapers also mentioning the tournament sponsor (an enthusiastic bunch, incidentally, who spent much of yesterday filming video interviews and features with players).
The Welsh Open might have shorter matches than in years gone by but it’s now a long haul. World Snooker’s staff are the sort to roll up their sleeves and get on with it, but all the talk is of long flights coming up to China, days ahead rigging venues and the endless toil of a very busy circuit. They also have to attend to the various whims and complaints of players, usually for decisions they have had no actual responsibility for.
They get on with it because they always have. It’s what they do. But these first few days feel a bit like pre-season football friendlies before the main action begins. From Monday, when TV starts, there will feel like there’s a bit more happening.
So it’s farewell to Newport. It should be thanks as well. This is where the Welsh Open was born in 1992. It’s easy to forget this is now the third longest running ranking event on the circuit and one which, despite the various ways it has been made to feel inferior, has produced some terrific snooker down the years.