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Finnish Beginnings

Aki Kauppinen

Aki Kauppinen: Finland’s Mr Snooker

Snooker’s popularity has grown massively in Europe over the past 13 years, since widespread coverage on Eurosport started in 2003.

These days, Eurosport is one of snooker’s most significant global broadcasters, with nearly 1,500 hours of televised hours last season across 19 different tournaments. Tens of millions of people across the continent are watching snooker.

And World Snooker and Eurosport recently signed a new long term contract which will allow this trend to continue to flourish.

The next phase in terms of Europe’s success on the international stage will depend on local players. In any sport, the fixation of the masses hinges on the fortunes of home grown talent. Hence China’s interest in snooker exploded when Ding Junhui, just a few days after his 18th birthday, won the 2005 China Open by beating all-time great Stephen Hendry in the final.

Germany fell in love with tennis when Boris Becker and Steffi Graf were thriving in the 1980s. Now they have embraced snooker and the German Masters in Berlin attracts sell-out crowds of 2,500. They need a player to pin their hopes on and teenager Lukas Kleckers offers potential. He took seven frames off Rory McLeod in the qualifying rounds of this year’s Betfred World Championship.

Belgium’s Luca Brecel is well on the way to becoming the most successful ever player from continental Europe. Four years ago, age 17, he became the youngest player to compete at the Crucible. Last season his progress accelerated as he climbed into the world’s top 32 and reached his first ranking final at the German Masters, where he was denied the trophy by Martin Gould. It surely won’t be long before he goes one step further.

And Finland’s Robin Hull also made a breakthrough, winning his first professional title at the one frame Shoot Out. In the fast and furious tournament in Reading in February, Hull beat Brecel in the final to take the £32,000 top prize.

Aki Kauppinen is known as Mr Snooker in Finland as he is the country’s lead Eurosport commentator and coach. He hopes that Hull’s success can spark a surge of interest in the sport in his homeland.

“It was a very proud moment for us Finns when Robin lifted the trophy at the Shoot Out,” said Aki. “To win any pro tournament is a great achievement because the standard is so high. He has also qualified for the Crucible in each of the last two years. People here feel he should have achieved more but of course he has had health problems over the years which have held him back.

“There are newspapers in Finland which often carry stories about Robin and Ronnie O’Sullivan, particularly around the World Championship. Some 20 years ago, Finnish people didn’t know what snooker was, but now it is one of the top three most-watched sports on Eurosport.”

Participation levels across Europe are not as strong as the viewing figures. There is a chicken-and-egg situation as many countries only have a small handful of snooker clubs, and the talent will only emerge once participation increases. But Aki can see signs of development in Finland and he hopes it’s a pattern that will be repeated across the continent.

“The standard at amateur level here is growing nicely and people are playing,” he said. “The last Finnish ranking event was won by a player called Antti Mannila and he made a break of 118 in the final. The runner-up, Antti Tolvanen, is also a promising player.

“I’m coaching one guy called Heikki Niva who is 22 years old and he has a lot of potential. He practises with Robin and he’ll take four or five frames off him in a best of 19. Heikki is actually one of the best gymnasts in Finland and he is preparing for the Olympics, but he wants to be a snooker player too and he might compete in Q School next year.

“There’s also a 15-year-old called Patrick Tiihonen who is making a lot of centuries. These guys are not at professional standard yet but it is coming and I hope in the next few years we will see that happening around Europe.”

But for the time being Aki is looking forward to another season in the commentary booth. “I love it,” he said. “Snooker is my hobby as well as my profession so I’m very lucky.”