AMONG THE PLAYERS cueing up for the Betfred World Championship qualifiers is Reanne Evans, the ten times women’s world champion, whose inclusion in this year’s event has attracted plenty of pre-publicity.
And of course this was the reason she was invited, as the only woman in the 144-player field. As a commercial move it cannot be faulted. It creates interest, gives women’s snooker a focus and Evans is not taking anyone else’s spot but one of the new 16 places awarded in the game’s Blue Riband event this year.
The World Snooker Championship is one of the few leading events in sport open to both men and women. Evans has played in it before, in 2011 when she was a member of the main tour.
Indeed, she has played at the Crucible itself. Around the turn of the millennium World Snooker began promoting the women’s game, holding its finals at major venues (Evans played at the home of snooker in a semi-final in 2002). They failed to attract huge support from spectators, which is one of the reasons the women’s game has struggled for sponsorship.
The last time the women’s final was staged at the Crucible, the two finalists turned up only to find the balls were locked in a cupboard and there was nobody around with a key. This vignette seemed to symbolise the uphill battle for recognition.
The ladies circuit is stuck in a Catch-22 situation. People will only watch if the standard is of a sufficient quality but the quality won’t rise without greater participation, and this only comes from there being plenty of interest.
This is why Evans’s high profile appearance in the qualifiers is an important moment for women’s snooker because it provides inspiration to young girls perhaps interested in taking up the sport.
It is certainly true that women and girls have not always been made welcome in snooker clubs or felt that they are environments where they wish to be.
Snooker has however long been a sport popular with female spectators, on both television and in arenas. And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with just wanting to watch. Well-meaning advertising campaigns promote participation in sport but it isn’t for everyone, male or female. Some prefer to admire the excellence of others.
Evans has represented women’s snooker with great distinction. Her frustrations about the disparity between the prize money she receives and that of the professional game are perfectly understandable but she is this year in the unique position of playing in both World Championships.
However, the real step forward will come when a woman qualifies for the main tour through one of the numerous channels open to players of whichever gender. If they are seen playing regularly on television it would surely inspire others to try and do the same.
As for her World Championship prospects, Evans has been handed a tough draw on Thursday against Ken Doherty, the vastly experienced Irishman who triumphed in Sheffield in 1997 and reached two more finals. Last year he qualified and reached the last 16.
Doherty is a wily, accomplished match-player with table-craft to spare. But, this is the World Championship and everyone will be nervous. Everyone will be under pressure, regardless of their status in the sport - or their gender.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.