This week we are enjoying the return of live snooker to our screens with the Matchroom.Live Championship League. We’re looking behind the scenes at one of the first sporting events to take place, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
First up, we find out what it has been like to start edging towards a ‘new normal’ from a player’s perspective…
World Champion and world number one Judd Trump was appropriately at centre stage for the sport’s long awaited return, with his opening group fixture on Monday being broadcast to every single nation in the world. It was the first match on the World Snooker Tour since Trump’s Gibraltar Open final victory against Kyren Wilson on March 15th.
Yorkshire cueman David Grace was tasked with tackling Trump in what was a historic opening day tie. However, his first hurdle was to undergo the extensive Covid-19 testing procedure, required for entry to the venue.
World number 85 Grace arrived for the behind-closed-doors event in Milton Keynes a day prior to action commencing, to be tested and then quarantined overnight while he waited for his results. He admits it is a process which will take some getting used to.
Grace said: “It is a different world we are living in at the moment and it was just something we will need to go through for a while. We all arrived at the venue and were sat outside, at a social distance, waiting to be called inside. Nobody knew what to expect, it was a bit like being in an outdoor doctor’s waiting room. My name was eventually called and I went inside. The test only lasts a minute but that was enough. It wasn’t very pleasant at all. I had no idea it was possible to get something that far up your nose!
“It was really professionally done. We all went in one by one. We had masks on and had to sanitise our hands. Once you had been through the testing room you are escorted by security, at a social distance, to your hotel room and you don’t come across anyone on the way. The hotel is attached to the venue, so you don’t go outside at all. I had to take everything in with me, as soon as you enter the building you are past the point of no return and we were told that we wouldn’t be allowed outside again. I instantly regretted not taking more snacks, but they do provide you with three meals throughout the day and it is a waiting game for the results. The hotel room was lovely, but it is amazing being stuck in one place knowing you can’t get out. It is an odd sensation knowing you aren’t allowed to go anywhere.”
The following morning Grace received the all-clear and prepared to do battle with the World Champion. It was a match that didn’t go Grace’s way, with rustiness playing a factor in a 3-0 defeat. Despite having reached the UK Championship semi-finals in 2015, where he lost out to Liang Wenbo, Grace concedes that the surreal circumstances of the match made it one of biggest stages he has competed on.
“It probably was one of the highest profile matches I have ever played in, even though it isn’t the biggest tournament. People have been crying out for live sport and wanting snooker to come back. All eyes were going to be on the TV with Judd bringing back the sport as World Champion and I was the opponent. I had a few chances to clear up from behind and if you don’t take those chances you will get punished against Judd Trump.
“You miss the tournaments and it is nice to be back playing. It isn’t just a question of missing playing, you miss the whole process. The tournaments work backwards in many ways, all of the build up, practising and sorting travel arrangements. I enjoy the whole thing. I have just had ten weeks without hitting a ball. I first picked up a cue at the age of ten and I’ve never gone that long without playing since then. You just don’t have that sort of period without snooker.”
It was fellow group member Elliot Slessor, who provided Trump’s sternest challenge. The world number 70 recorded 3-1 wins over Grace and Daniel Wells, but crucially lost out 3-1 to Trump. Finishing second in the group saw Slessor pocket £2,000. He says that the extensive safety procedures put him at ease and welcomed the opportunity to continue plying his trade
“It is probably the safest place on planet Earth. Eight players who have all tested negative and all the staff doing the same. You are probably more at risk going to the shops. If you go to the supermarket there are lots of people you have never met before that could have it. The way I thought of it was that it was probably the safest place to be,” said 25-year-old Slessor.
He added: “I really fancied winning against Judd, as I felt he would be rusty as well. It was probably the best time to catch him. I just thought if I could take my chances I could win. I missed a few sloppy balls and played some loose shots, you can’t do that against players of his class.
“I am delighted to have something to play in and something to get my arm going. Having not played a shot in two months I felt pretty rusty in the first few games and started to find my feet towards the end. The mortgage always needs to be paid and the car always needs diesel. I’ve got a little girl that eats everything and grows out of clothes like they are going out of fashion. I don’t care if you are high up in the game or lower in the sport, everybody needs to keep going to keep the financial side under control.”
Slessor celebrated becoming a father in February with the birth of daughter Hallie. The recent lockdown and halting of everyday life across the globe has produced harsh difficulties for many. However, it has provided an opportunity for Slessor to be with his daughter in her first months on the planet and has also refreshed his passion for snooker.
He said: “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve seen her laugh for the first time and smile for the first time. I may well not have had that if I was away playing. I think those experiences are priceless. It is a horrible time for everybody, but I have been lucky from the aspect that I’ve seen a bit more of her than I would if tournaments were on.
“For a while I found being on the tour was getting very monotonous. I would go to every tournament, hopefully pick some wages up and then just go home. I didn’t really want to be there if I am truthful. I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible. After a while of lockdown I was wanting to play. I got a bit of enthusiasm back for playing and this event gave me something to work for.”