Joe Perry has missed out on the Crucible just twice since 2001. After an up-and-down season he’s out of the top 16 and faces the Betfred World Championship qualifiers at Ponds Forge this week. His appetite for snooker was restored by a run to the final of the Masters in January, and the Cambridgeshire ace is dreaming of another big run in Sheffield, as he tells Tony Rushmer.
FORM IN sport has long been renowned as a fickle thing. There is nothing better for professionals than a purple patch when it all seems to come easy and results duly click into place.
In contrast, when a player is on a losing run, the quest for form can frustrate even the most patient. And yet it can turn with a single shot, in a single moment.
Joe Perry proved that such reversals in fortune can be swift and appear when seeming least likely with a brilliant and heartening run at the Masters in January. Off the back of some depressing performances in previous months, the Cambridgeshire star made his first final in a ‘Major’ more than 25 years after turning professional. It wasn’t quite the fairytale ending at Alexandra Palace as Joe lost 7-10 to Ronnie O’Sullivan but the positives from the week far outweighed the negatives.
“I tried not to worry about missing, about losing,” reflects Perry. “I expressed that in the form of ‘I don’t care’ – and I said a couple of times I should have stopped caring years ago because I played great snooker!
“It has turned things round and I’ve got a big appetite back for playing in those big arenas and big occasions.”
As Perry knows, there is no grander stage in snooker than the Betfred World Championship at the Crucible Theatre. The 42-year-old has enjoyed plenty of memorable matches there over the years and in 2008 came within two frames of making the final, eventually losing out to Ali Carter.
“I beat Graham Dott 10-7 (in the first round)” remembers Joe. “It was a fantastic game and he said to me afterwards, ‘If you play like that, you can win it’. And it stuck with me. I beat Stuart Bingham comfortably in the next round.
“Stephen Maguire was tipped as the only person that could possibly beat Ronnie that year and I beat him in the quarter-finals. But it just wasn’t quite to be. I lost 17-15 against Ali. We came out at 14-14 and I made a century to go 15-14. I can’t really remember what happened at the end…it was a tight game.
“The dream is to win the world title but I would love to get back to that one-table set-up again – it’s another occasion in itself, a different venue altogether. I would love to use that experience and maybe go one or two steps further.”
Perry has been involved in several memorable matches at the Crucible, not least when he had O’Sullivan on the ropes three years ago. In an epic second-round duel, Joe looked to have the defending champion in real trouble when he went into an 11-9 lead…
“I was playing some great snooker,” says Joe, taking up the story. “There was one shot at 11-9, I went into the pack off the blue, didn’t quite get the cannon properly and lost the white – it went in-off. I was on the verge of going 12-9 up, half an hour later I was shaking hands. It all just went in a blink.”
On that occasion, Ronnie crashed home a couple of centuries and made two further decent contributions to advance past Perry. It was a trademark devastating spell of scoring from O’Sullivan, but he didn’t hit those heights when the pair met in London three months ago. That’s why Joe looks back on a marvellous Masters with just a tinge of disappointment, despite his 6-1 wins over Bingham and Ding Junhui, as well as a decider triumph over Barry Hawkins in the semi’s.
“It was a fantastic week for me – my best ever in a major – but as the match unfolded, I think I missed a trick there, a little bit,” says the man who led 4-1 and had chances to extend his advantage in the first session. In particular, he looked favourite to win the sixth frame but missed a red down a rail to let his opponent back in.
“I can honestly say I didn’t see the winning line, but I knew how big it was. I knew it meant I was taking a lead into the evening session. Ronnie didn’t look comfortable at all. I wouldn’t like to say I had him but I was definitely on top – it was a definite chance to really push on and get a real good foothold in the match.”
As it was, O’Sullivan reeled off seven frames on the bounce. The early part of the evening session was particularly bleak for Perry – “for the first time that week, the whole emotion of it got to me” – but he rallied in inspiring style, refusing to go down without a fight.
“The interval came to my rescue; I had a little word with myself,” he says. “I never had anyone in the dressing-room all week. I went back, sat there on my own and thought about things. I didn’t want to bow out from probably my best week in a major in a whimper. I wanted to go for it.”
Sure enough, he claimed three of the next four frames from the resumption and had chances to close to within one of the Rocket. Ultimately vanquished, Perry still came away with his head held high and an army of new supporters. Perry’s oldest fan, father Peter, was there watching and must have had a warm glow as his son played his heart out.
“He absolutely loved it,” says Joe. ”That was another real bonus for me just to see that. To put a smile on his face and make him feel proud again was good.”
Perry is hoping that the confidence and form he showed at Ally Pally can be replicated in Sheffield over the next four weeks. If that happens, the biggest days of his career may yet still be to come.
Perry and Robertson – rivals on the baize – pals away from the table
Perry and Robertson embrace after the 2014 Wuxi Classic final, which Robertson won 10-9
WT’S in Cambridge is the snooker home of both Joe Perry and Neil Robertson. The pair have their own tables alongside each other and – over the years – have played countless practice ‘sets’ together at the club.
When Robertson first turned up as an aspiring young professional, he spent quite a lot of time picking balls out for Perry. But it soon became apparent to the older man that that the Aussie left-hander was going to become a major force in the sport.
“It was great fun for me,” says Perry. “I had some young kid willing to pick the balls out all day. But I knew Neil was different to a lot of the others I’d practised with. You could see that every time he did get a bit of a thumping it was making him more determined.
“I could see the improvement he was making – it was rapid. He was just getting better as the days went by. I was never in any doubt that he would go on to win.”
Perry is a diehard Arsenal fan, while Robertson is true-blue Chelsea – that kind of sums up the pair. According to Perry, they have very little in common, bar snooker, and yet are firm friends.
“It’s a funny relationship we’ve got,” says Joe. “I know I have got the utmost respect for Neil and I really like him – but I never give him that impression! I’ve always tried to keep it like the master and his apprentice…that’s what it was when he first came over.
“I’ve got the greatest respect for what he has achieved – it’s incredible, the standard of play he produces is phenomenal. But we are very different people. I think that’s why we get on the way we do. We’ve got a bit of a unique friendship.”
Perry also says he likes to see Robertson win. “It’s great for the club – great for me. It spurs me on when I see him doing really well.”
However, the friendship may just have to placed ‘on hold’ should the duo end up clashing on the baize in Sheffield.
Watch Joe and other top stars play in the qualifying rounds this week – for details click here