During recent seasons, current world number one Neil Robertson has been one of the most consistent winners on the professional circuit, last year completing a career ‘triple crown’ with his victory at the UK Championship in York, as well as famously becoming the first player ever to compile more than 100 competitive century breaks during a single season.
With the return of professional snooker now just around the corner, I recently caught up with the Australian to talk about a wide range of subjects from his achievements on the table, the opportunities now available to younger players, ranking lists and playing conditions, to his off-table interests such as football, video games and HBO’s Game of Thrones saga.
Click below for part one of my chat with Neil…
PSB: Hi Neil, are you enjoying the summer break at the moment? It is a strange start to the season with a couple of tournaments, then a break, before you are back at it again…
Neil Robertson: Yeah, I think it has been a much better break compared to last season, when it felt like we didn’t really have much time off at all.
I think last year we had Bulgaria, then a week later we had the Wuxi Classic, then a week later it was Australia. Whereas this year there weren’t any PTCs, it was straight to Wuxi and then Australia, without any weeks in between. You played the two tournaments consecutively and then you have time off again, so I think this year the players will be much happier going into the rest of the season now that they have had a really good break.
Even though I went really far in the World Championship, I had a good three weeks where I didn’t play at all, which was really nice. I had my dad over which was good, and then headed to Wuxi with about 10 days practice. I felt pretty good and I couldn’t really have asked for much better results than what I got, getting to a final and winning another one, so that’s a tremendous start to the season.
Since then I’ve had a break again, just chilling out, relaxing and recharging the batteries and looking forward to starting the season again.
PSB: Were you not tempted to stay out in Australia a bit longer after the final?
NR: Probably the only reason was because I didn’t bring Alexander [Neil’s son] out this year, so next year I’d say should everything go well, if the calendar is the same, then yeah I would probably stay out in Australia for a little bit longer before coming back.
Neil with his son Alexander after winning the Masters title in 2012
PSB: How do you approach practice when you have had a break after the World Championship and then you are starting for a short period again. Are you almost relying on memory or do you practice hard?
NR: I think a lot of players need that good two to three weeks before they feel good going into a tournament, where I can do a lot less than that.
I think that probably goes down to the fact that when I do practice, I practice really well and the quality of my practice is at the highest standard in terms of my focus and concentration. When I am practising it is 100%. I don’t practice for a few hours where I am just knocking balls around without any sort of purpose. Every shot has a purpose so whenever I do practice, I’m getting the most out of it.
Heading into Wuxi I felt in a pretty happy place and then obviously the tournament was very hard because the conditions were extremely tough to play on, so it was all about just getting the job done really.
I played a couple of good matches, the second session with Joe in the final was a really high standard. The start was a bit of a struggle for both of us, it was very strange playing each other in a final. In the semis against Barry Hawkins I played pretty well too.
Then in Australia I played pretty decent getting to the final. I played really well against Jamie Jones, other than that I played ok against Mark Davis in the semis but against Judd in the final, it was very difficult following up the performance in Wuxi because it was such a tough tournament to win.
2014 Wuxi Classic champion
It was my first experience of trying to win two major ranking tournaments in the space of a week pretty much. I think Mark Williams is the only player who has done that before, many years ago in China and Thailand with just a couple of hours flight in between.
From Wuxi to Australia was like a 10 hour flight, so it was very demanding, but a great experience and I gave it a really good shot to try and be the second man to win two in a week, so I couldn’t be happier with my start to the season.
PSB: You touched on it, but how odd was to play Joe in the final in Wuxi, obviously you go back a long way…
NR: Yeah it was really strange. I mean we have played each other before quite a few times, in quarter-final matches, but never in a big semi-final or final. He has been so close during the last couple of years, especially last season and really knocking on the door of winning his first major title.
I knew that Joe is a very popular player on the tour, he’s a fantastic guy and a great friend of mine, so I knew that every snooker fan would love to see Joe win. I didn’t have any problems with that because if he was playing anyone else, then I would want him to win as well.
Knocking on the door – Joe Perry
Obviously I knew how much it would mean to him, he’s had a big influence on my career and I have been incredibly successful over the last six or seven years, so I think he’s a player worthy of winning big titles.
I had to block a lot of thoughts in my head, towards the end. Especially in the decider when I was on about 30 or 40, I knew that barring a bad mistake that I was definitely going to win, so I had to focus on getting the job done and not think about Joe too much during that time.
PSB: How frustrating is it that you haven’t been able to just get over the line in one of those finals in Australia during the past couple of years?
NR: It’s quite funny that both times I have lost in the final, I have actually won the previous tournament in Wuxi. Last year in Australia I came down with a bit of a virus, I didn’t feel that well and sort of felt flat on my feet in the final.
It was a similar thing this year, it’s really tough when you win a tournament and the next one is so close. I played the final against Judd and I was under no pressure whatsoever, I had no drive. It was different when I played Ding Junhui in the final of the China Open, where it was an incredible achievement just getting to the final given how I was, that was a different scenario.
But against Judd it was a very flat performance from myself. He played very well, I thought he played really well, probably the best I’ve seen him play I think in a big match. I didn’t really put him under pressure, not until I won a couple of frames from 8-2 down or whatever it was. I could sense there was an opportunity there if I could win that frame to go 8-6.
I felt like at 8-6 who knows what might have happened, but it was just hard to get anything going. I didn’t feel any sort of buzz, any adrenalin, any sort of nerves kicking in to get focused on the right areas that it needed to be. It was just a bit of a flat performance really, even though Judd played fantastically well, I couldn’t get anything going in the final.
PSB: Looking back to the 2013/14 season, obvious highs include completing the ‘triple crown’ in York, as well as making the century of centuries, but how do you view it as a whole?
NR: I said before that at the start of the season you would take winning a couple of ranking event titles, a hundred centuries, some really good performances in other tournaments. I’d obviously take that.
But the fact that I did win Wuxi, I did win the UK and I was sitting on two ranking titles by December, I was hoping for a bit more than what I ended up with. I felt that I played better than what the results suggested. In particular a couple of the tournaments before the UK Championship, I felt I had big opportunities to win and I let them slip, so it was good to win the UK to make amends for those.
The next few tournaments I just, I don’t know, maybe subconsciously I was sort of preparing myself for the World Championship, I’m not really too sure.
There was a lot of focus on the century of centuries, where pretty much anyone, people I didn’t even know who I’m bumping into at the club were asking me how many I was on. The pressure sort of came from outside of myself. I wasn’t really putting myself under that much pressure to make the century of centuries, it was coming from a lot of other people.
It’s a record that I’m sure will probably be broken one day, it could happen this season, 10 years, 20 years, who knows. It was the fact that nobody had done it before, obviously there was a lot of pressure on me being the first person to do it.
Neil wins the UK Championship
I think it probably had an effect on some of the matches that I lost, a couple of deciders in succession and it was like I was trying not to lose the match, so that I could play another match and hopefully make a couple of centuries.
I wanted to get the century of centuries out of the way before the World Championship so there would be no focus on it, especially at Sheffield with all the media attention and everything like that. Obviously it did turn out really well and the fact that I did do it at the Crucible was amazing.
One of the reasons I celebrated so much was because of the outside pressures, the papers. Some of the papers did some headlines about whether I would bottle it or not and comparing it to Don Bradman being stuck on 99 and all that kind of stuff.
There was a lot more pressure to deal with as well as competing in the World Championship, so to do it as the Crucible was a fantastic memory. The whole arena was full, the other match had finished before so we had the whole arena to ourselves and yeah the roar when I knocked it in – because obviously everyone was aware. Rob Walker was talking the crowd up before that I was on 99 so they all knew. It was a feeling that I will definitely remember for the rest of my life.
PSB: Yeah, I was in there was well [NR: Yeah, you were], I don’t know if you noticed people like Rob sneaking up the tunnel as you got to 60 or 70. I’ve been going there since 2005 and I’ve been there for 147s and never experienced anything like that there, it was something else wasn’t it?
NR: Yeah it was, especially building up and the fact that I had wobbled the black against Mark Allen on 94 and I didn’t think too much of it at the time because I thought at least I would have another best of 25, surely I will make one.
But the way the match went with Judd, at the start in particular, the signs were there that I was still struggling to put that out of my mind. The further I went behind against Judd, the more I started to think about ‘am I not even going to make a century here?’
So to pull back and make a century at such a crucial time in the match was very pleasing.
PSB: I was saying in the media room afterwards, how would you have reacted had you lost the match but still made the century? It would have been a strange situation!
NR: I would have been much happier doing that than losing and not making the century of centuries.
I was kinda working out different scenarios, I was saying to myself that I would rather make the century of centuries and lose in the quarter-finals than be stuck on 99 and lose in the semi-finals. I think that’s the sort of scenario that I put together in my head, that I was pretty happy with.
But it was a disappointing end to the World Championship I think. I played really well, I had a very tough draw with Mark Allen and Judd Trump where towards the end of both I played my best snooker and I just never really got going against Mark [Selby].
I threatened a couple of times to get a lead in the match, but he kept pegging me back and I just couldn’t really get the momentum and I couldn’t really play quite as well as I did in the final of the UK in the second session against him to get two, three or four frames in front of him. That’s to his credit and that’s why he’s such a great player and why he has won the World Championship. He is a very tough opponent to shake off if you are not playing well.
PSB: It was some final session though wasn’t it, some standard…
NR: Yeah it was a brilliant final session, it really was.
He played very, very well. I thought that at times in that final session I gathered the momentum and things were with me, but the last few frames were decided by a little bit of misfortune and Mark’s really good play, taking advantage of that when I went into the pack a few times off the black and didn’t really get any joy. I potted a black and somehow I split the reds open nicely and somehow went in-off in the corner pocket which I have never ever done before.
Neil takes a photo of son Alexander in his chair ahead of the final session of his World Championship semi-final with Mark Selby
So I didn’t really do anything wrong actually, I don’t think I missed a crucial ball or anything like that. Mark played really well and the decisive bits of misfortune went against me, so it was probably one of the better World Championships I have had for a few years, considering in two of the last three I had lost in the first round.
PSB: It’s a strange rivalry that you have with Mark because you didn’t play each other for years in a big ranking event and then you have played a lot during the last year or so…
NR: Yeah, I think with our seedings were are always going to play each other in the later stages, in the semis or finals, so you always look forward to those sorts of matches against a tough player like Mark.
You know that win or lose, you have been in for a really tough encounter and he’s a fantastic bloke as well. He was very nice after our semi-final, he sent me a really nice text message as well saying that it was such a great match and it was a shame that there had to be a loser, so I was really pleased for him to see him win.
PSB: Looking back generally, over the past 6-7 years, of anyone you have probably been the most consistent, winning at least one ranking event almost every year. Do you put that down to anything in particular?
NR: Not really, I guess I’m pretty good at taking my opportunities at the business end of tournaments from the semi-finals onwards, I think my record has been really good compared to most players.
I think especially the finals that have an interval, the PTC Finals which are best of out 7 are pretty tough to gauge on, but my finals over the longer distances or that had an interval in them I am probably something like 11 out of 14, so it’s a really good record. Some players they’ll play in 13 or 14 finals and sometimes only win three or four tournaments.
A common sight – Neil with a trophy
I think that maybe I don’t play my best snooker towards the end of a tournament, usually I do, but even if I don’t play my best, I always seem to find a way of getting a result and finding a win from somewhere.
That’s probably the most important thing about winning tournaments; you have got to win the close matches when you are not playing well. There’s no point in playing really, really well in one match and then the next round you don’t quite perform and you happen to lose. It’s important to win when you are playing well and when you are not performing well.
PSB: At this stage in your career you have won the big three, been ranked number 1, do you have any particular targets going forwards?
NR: Just trying to win as many tournaments as I can really. We play so many tournaments now and I would obviously love to win the Australian Open, but I have got to two finals which is still pretty good, great for the tournament.
There are no tournaments I am singling out and thinking ‘right I’m at a point in my career where I can only focus on these ones’. Snooker is not really like golf or like tennis where you can kinda get yourself physically right for certain events. It’s not really as straining as that, you don’t really put your body under too much, unless you are travelling a lot.
I’m certainly not at a point now where I am thinking about sacrificing tournaments to prepare better. Probably the only one that comes to mind is maybe like the China Open or something to really focus on the World Championship. That’s one and it was the case even last season where some players pulled out of it to try and better prepare themselves for the World Championship.
Other than that, I think I’ll play in as many tournaments as I see fit. I haven’t entered the 6 Reds as I don’t think it’s brilliant preparation for the Shanghai Masters. You are playing in Thailand for a week on completely different tables. Last year was a good experience but I’m not going to be playing in it this year.
I want to try and do well in Shanghai, that’s one tournament that I haven’t won, so I would like to keep my good record in China going and try to win all the China tournaments. I’ve won the China Open, Wuxi a couple of times now so Shanghai, the International and the World Open as well, would be really nice to do a clean sweep.
But like I say, you can’t really say that I’ll try hard for this one and not for this one. All of the major tournaments are really important.
PSB: Your record in China has improved a lot over the past couple of years, would you put that down to anything in particular?
NR: I think getting used to the travel, because we play five times there every season now should you enter all of the ranking tournaments. Getting used to playing in the time zones and trying to figure out what works for you in terms of your sleep patterns.
I’ve experimented with all sorts of different ways of trying to get to sleep, but I think I’ve found one that works pretty well. I think that definitely the most important thing is to find a sleeping pattern, or schedule that suits you best.
Big in China
There is no point in trying to force yourself to sleep for eight hours or something before a match if you are not tired. That can be the worst thing you can do, to sit down in your room trying to get to sleep for three hours with the lights off and you just can’t get to sleep, so that’s one thing I’ve figured out.
Another thing is that the internet has improved a lot in the major cities in China and that helps a lot when I am trying to play my videogames and stuff like that, so it makes it more enjoyable out there! I always bring my gaming laptop with me and catch up on TV series, there’s a lot of good stuff to watch at the moment which keeps me ticking by and makes the trips more enjoyable.
Sometimes, many years ago the players would go out there and there would be next to nothing to do and a lot of players would almost defeat themselves before they have even played a match and think that ‘I want to go home, I don’t like it here at all.’
PSB: You have covered this a bit already but do you think that now we have got a money based ranking list, players will be tempted to pick and choose their events a little more?
NR: Yeah I think so, I guess if you are quite high up on the money list you have a bit more freedom in terms of what you can pick and choose, knowing that your ranking is going to be protected pretty well.
But it depends on how long term you think about that. If you are really high up on the money list, it means that you are going to have an awful lot of points coming off at some point. While you can be really high up on the money list, you can plummet down very quickly as well if you are not defending the prize money you are earning.
I think it will maybe be next season, probably even this season actually, where we will see a lot of jumps up and jumps down in the rankings because players who have won big tournaments, if they don’t come anywhere close to defending them then they are going to lose so many points.
I know Ronnie is really high up on the money list at the moment, but he has got a World Championship to defend and the amount of points is that even if he got to a semi-final, you would think that is a pretty good defence, but with the prize money list he would get 50-odd thousand for the semis, so he’s dropping 200,000 points and dropping an awful lot in the rankings.
With Ding Junhui
That’s the thing I don’t like about the money list. I don’t like that in the same way you can win the World Championship and it is like winning four or five ranking titles, in my opinion I don’t think that’s right. I’m number one now so it’s not like I am complaining about my personal situation. I’m saying it because I really liked the old system. I thought that it was perfect. I don’t think that it needed changing at all.
There was something that you did actually that I really, really liked, the consecutive weeks at world number one and total weeks at world number one. I mean obviously it’s tough when under the old system you were basically there for a whole year (laughs), but the last four years we have had the rolling system.
I think it’s really good and that’s something that when I got to number one last season, my goal was to try and stay there for as many weeks as possible because I love it when you are watching the tennis and you see Federer, how many consecutive weeks he has been at number one, Tiger Woods in the golf, total weeks, consecutive weeks, all those statistics I really like in sport. I felt that using the money list it just makes it a bit harder to do that but we’ll see, maybe not.
PSB: Looking at the rankings you have a top four of yourself, Mark, Ding, Ronnie, how would you say that four compares to for example the four that I grew up watching of Ronnie, Higgins, Hendry, Williams?
NR: There’s a lot of talk about that, how the top four today, I guess myself, Ding, Selby and… I mean Stephen Hendry said to me that Ronnie is a better player now than 10 years ago and he said that during the World Championship.
It’s really tough to gauge the standard now because it depends which tournament you are watching. If you watch a tournament in China, or in Europe where it is no secret about the players disappointment in the current playing conditions and the inconsistency that we play in, it is very tough to judge some matches, comparing them to 10, 15 years ago when Hendry used to a play a semi-final.
Also, you had a lot more time to prepare for tournaments. I found that say five or six years ago you had three, four, five or six weeks to prepare for every tournament. You were going into every tournament at the absolute top of your game. The only thing that could affect the way that you played was maybe confidence if you hadn’t had a good season up to that point.
But now it’s much harder to prepare for events. There is a lot more travelling and you don’t have much time to improve as a player and to work on your game so it’s tough to gauge it.
I think that all you have to do is to look at the World Championship this year, some of the quarter-final, last 16 matches. I thought that mine and Mark Selby’s semi-final was worthy of any great semi-final that has ever been played at the Crucible, in the second half of the match especially. Ronnie and that match he played against Joe Perry was one of the greatest matches that has ever been played at the Crucible, without any doubt.
The all-stars, Mark Williams and John Higgins
So I think the standard is pretty comparable, but you probably won’t have that all-star cast of Hendry, Higgins, Ronnie and Williams. They are just four incredibly talented players that have won nearly 20 world titles between the lot of them.
But the strength in depth of the players is so much better than it ever has been. It’s harder to go far in tournaments, you are facing much tougher opposition straight from the off and actually also, players are so much better under pressure than they used to be as well, so much better.
I remember watching people playing a top four player, six or seven years ago and they would be missing blacks off the spot, making errors and making it easy for them, whereas now you have got players who even low down in the rankings are causing upsets and acquitting themselves very well on television because they have got the experience of playing on the Euro Tours, playing on TV and seeing all of the top players at the venues.
They are not afraid of them any more and they are not in awe and thinking ‘oh wow that’s Ronnie O’Sullivan’ or ‘oh my God that’s John Higgins’, they are seeing these players all the time and even interacting with them on the social point of view as well.
It’s like that I think with a lot of sports now, there is a lot more unpredictability so I think it’s pretty comparable. The current top four would have competed very well with the top four of ten years ago, but that was a very special group of players.
I guess the fact that people are talking about it is pretty positive. I compare that top four of ten years ago to the top four in the tennis with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. It’s a really special era and I think the current one like myself, Mark, Ding and someone like Judd Trump or whoever that fourth person would be, is a pretty special group of players as well.
I think myself and Ding have won a lot of tournaments over the last couple of year. I think that we have either competed in a final or won the ranking titles over the past two seasons.
PSB Yeah, of course last season there was not a British winner for a long time because it was you and Ding sharing everything!
NR: Yeah that’s right and that’s also really positive for the game as well, that two overseas players are doing so well, where there was a real British dominance over the sport many years ago. It was very, very tough for overseas players to do well.
Neil and Ding
I wish that when I had first come over when I was 16, that it was as comfortable to settle down as it is now. You have the Academy in Sheffield, a lot more playing opportunities and stuff like that.
PSB: How do you think that the tour compares for a young player starting out now, to when you did?
NR: I think that the exposure of the top players to the younger players is great. It just lets them feel a lot more comfortable, like I say you are not in awe of them.
I remember when I played Jimmy White at the Masters. It was the first time that I had actually seen him live, I think it was in the practice room before we were going to go and play and I was so nervous practising because I was in the same room as him. I went out there and I was such a bag of nerves, it was my first experience playing at a big venue, the Wembley Conference Centre, about 2,000 people nearly, my first time on TV.
Whereas if I had played him at the Masters now, I would have had a lot more experience in today’s terms of playing at the Euro Tours, having experience against other top players, seeing them in the flesh and then having a little chat with them and I would have felt more comfortable.
A young Robertson at the Grand Prix
So from that point of view it is a massive improvement and that can only be good for the game. You want to see younger players coming through and doing well and causing upsets and winning tournaments.
PSB: Are there any younger players in particular that stand out for you?
NR: It depends how young you go. I would look at players like a couple of the Chinese players, like Lyu Haotian and the other one Zhao Xintong, the left-handed player. He looks very natural, probably the most talented young player I have seen.
I think that Oliver Lines as well, there is something about him. I really like his dad a lot Peter, he’s a really good professional and he will be keeping Oliver on the right path and he seems like a really nice kid as well, so I would love to see him do really well. It’s brilliant that father and son are on the tour, I think that’s amazing, it’s a really good story.
So yeah I hope Oliver does well. I think it is important that more Chinese players come through and can replicate Ding and win tournaments as well because Ding can’t keep flying the flag forever. Obviously last season he had an amazing season and won five tournaments, but you need more Chinese players coming through and sharing the load.
One to watch – Oliver Lines
I know Liang Wenbo has turned his career around a little bit last season by playing a lot better than what he has done, but they do need a few more coming through, Xiao Guodong as well. It’s going to take a little bit of time for them to come through I think.
PSB: Yeah, it’s almost like we had Ding Junhui, then you had the second wave of players like Tian Pengfei and Xiao and now we have this third wave of the teenagers like Lyu Haotian and Zhao Xintong…
NR: Yeah that’s right, I mean none of them really compare to Ding I guess, he almost looked like a complete player by the time he was 17, 18 and no-one for me has done that yet out of the other Chinese players.
Stay tuned for part two of my chat with Neil, as we discuss the development of his game, the current playing conditions, his 2010 world title and also some of his off-table interests…