First The Tardis, Now The Crucible?
By Shabnam Younus-Jewell
This is the year the Doctor regenerated as a woman for the first time, landing in Sheffield and declaring: “Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman.”
Well, the city’s very own Tardis that is the Crucible Theatre has seen plenty of steely Scottish men playing indomitable snooker over the years, one of them holding a record seven world titles. But is it an alien thought to imagine a woman joining the cast at the World Championship one day soon?
The eleven-time World Women’s champion Reanne Evans has come the closest. She has competed on the professional circuit and became the first woman to qualify for the venue stages of a full-ranking event at the 2013 Wuxi Classic. In 2017 she was just two wins away from making more history, after beating Robin Hull 10-8 in World Championship qualifying at Pond’s Forge. She called it her “best win.”
Evans remains the greatest player the women’s game has seen but she’s had to relinquish her number one status to a new, worthy rival, Hong Kong’s Ng On Yee. Could she now be the one to break through the snooker stratosphere and go where no woman has gone before?
The petite potter has won three world women’s titles and four UK championships. She’s also been recognised in her country by being named ‘Best of the Best’ at the Samsung Hong Kong Sports Star awards twice. However she hasn’t yet managed to beat a male player during any of her three opportunities to qualify for the World Championship in Sheffield.
One of the game’s greats, six-time world champion Steve Davis once commented that women may not be as “obsessive” as men, which could be why they are not reaching the higher levels of the game yet. On Yee believes men and women are not on different planets mentally, they just need to play against each other more. “We need experience at the same venues and environment, everything,” she said. “The first time I went to the World Championship qualifiers everything was new to me. The audience, the big venue, cameras. If we can have more experience and practice, then we can be the same.”
The sport’s governing body, The World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, continues to encourage women to play the sport and insists there is nothing stopping them from going to the top.
Chairman Jason Ferguson said at this year’s Ladies’ Day at the Crucible in May: “There is no reason why a woman can’t achieve the same as a man in snooker. There are no physical barriers. We’re trying to remove any barriers. We just want more women to play.
“This is an amazing sport, a mixed gender sport, our World Snooker Tour is open to anyone, it’s all about being good enough. We’ve had progress, the players have been around for many years, it’s just clubs and facilities haven’t been attractive for women to take up the sport.”
The World Women’s Snooker Championship started running in 1976. For six of those years, around the turn of the century, the final stages were held alongside its professional equivalent, at the Crucible Theatre. The name Selby is a familiar one in today’s game and funnily enough, it was one Vera Selby MBE who lifted the first World Women’s trophy. She did it again in 1981, beating Mandy Fisher, who went on to win her title three years later.
Fisher has been instrumental in creating World Ladies Billiards and Snooker and is now President of the body. “Back in the 80s, I would go to challenge matches and exhibitions all around the country and very often I’d go to clubs where it said no women allowed in the snooker room,” she said. “Thankfully the world has moved on a lot since then.”
If the sport is now more welcoming to women, what is preventing them from turning professional and reaching the top of the game? Fisher said: “We need to see more women playing on the television so they are role models for other girls. It will also attract more sponsorship.”
So how soon could we see a female player in the first round of the World Championship? She added: “I’ve been involved in women’s snooker and running it for the past 40 years. I just hope in my lifetime I will see that happen.”
The chance to perform on the game’s biggest stage is earned only by the most consistent and resilient of players. They all want to play under the spotlight at the Crucible Theatre, where stars can shine. But the majority admit it’s the most intimidating of spaces, where they feel like they’re doing battle in a parallel universe.
On Yee touches the goosebumps on her arms as soon as the iconic venue is mentioned and her eyes light up brighter than her eccentric yellow-framed glasses. Does she want to be the next Time Lord, with her cue a formidable weapon in the snooker galaxy? “Of course my ultimate goal will be playing at the Crucible, with the live broadcast, so my family and fans can watch me back home,” she says, with her endearing giggle. “I don’t know if I can be the first woman to do that, but I’m working on it. I also have a slogan. If you believe it you can achieve it.”
On Yee will be defending her world title as part of the World Snooker Federation Championships at the Dubai World Trade Centre in the UAE from 28-31 March 2019. The winner will earn a place at the Betfred World Championship qualifiers in Sheffield in April.