NEIL ROBERTSON has won all the titles a player targets when they are starting out but there is one trophy remaining on his wish list.
Robertson is the reason there is an Australian Goldfields Open, which will be staged for the fifth time this week.
The Melbourne left-hander has won the World Championship, UK Championship, Masters plus plenty more and been world no.1. In most countries this would make him a household name but snooker is not one of Australia’s major sports.
Still, an event like the one in Bendigo this week can only boost its profile and there would be no more popular winner than Robertson.
He was runner-up two years ago to Marco Fu and again last year to Judd Trump. This year he will have to hold off the strongest field assembled yet if he is to triumph on home soil.
Only four top 16 players have opted out. There’s no Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ding Junhui, Barry Hawkins or Mark Williams but plenty of quality, not least among the qualifiers.
In the first round, Robertson will most likely have to play his good friend Matt Selt, who must first beat wildcard Ben Judge.
Selt was one of the most improved players last season. We saw the confidence he gained from a run to the European Tour final in Portugal. He won a group of Championship League and produced good consistent performances right up until the Crucible.
In the first round there he struggled early on against Hawkins, falling 7-2 and 9-4 behind but the way he played to get back to 9-9 was world class. Robertson won’t be taking him for granted.
One of Selt’s assets is undoubtedly self-confidence which is so important in a mentally tough sport such as snooker where, for all the advice and support you may get off table, you are basically on your own.
Among the other qualifiers is Hossein Vafaei Ayouri, Iran’s first professional, who survived four qualifying rounds and will play Michael White in the first round.
He had great problems obtaining a visa to play in the UK after winning the IBSF world amateur title but has been given special dispensation now to play on the tour and is clearly one to watch.
The main match on day one pits Trump against his former housemate Jack Lisowski, now a married man and also in the Terry Griffiths camp for the new season.
Lisowski won an entertaining match against Trump at the 2013 China Open, a kind of modern day version of Jimmy White v Kirk Stevens. However, Trump’s all round game is so strong that tactical play in this match of two talented potters may be the difference.
One of the stand-out ties in the last 32 is Shaun Murphy v Ali Carter. This is Murphy’s first competitive outing since he was beaten in the world final by Stuart Bingham.
Not for Murphy the moaning and complaining about having to get his cue out in the summer (which of course it isn’t in Australia, or most of the rest of the world). Knowing him, he’ll have been counting down the days.
Carter’s seeding is no longer protected so he has much ground to make up in the world rankings and this isn’t a kind opening round draw, although it will be interesting to see how much rustiness there is in the games of those top 16 players who weren’t in the World Cup.
Bingham starts out against the durable Irishman Fergal O’Brien. Mark Selby faces Mark King and though Selby has a much superior record against him, King has beaten him at the Masters and the Crucible.
The Australian Open always comes across well on television due to the production from IMG Australia. Crowds usually start slow but build up during the week. Playing conditions, certainly not always perfect elsewhere, tend to be very good.
It’s a long way to go for British players but a chance to see a part of the world they may never have done but for snooker, a sport which has given a lot of them a life they could only have dreamed of in boyhood.
Meanwhile, Australia’s snooker community look to Robertson, a man of whom they are justly proud.
Robertson embodies the exact qualities required to be a champion. He has the game, of course, but he also has the belief, something which has deserted many players in the heat of battle. He is not a herd follower but is his own man with his own interests. Like so many of the game’s great players he is personable off table but a warrior on it.
It isn’t his fault he doesn’t get more recognition back home but this week is a chance to shine in the spotlight and perhaps inspire some young Australians to give snooker a go.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.