‘There are no characters on the game any more’ is the tedious refrain often heard regarding snooker today.
Well, Neil Robertson is far more of a character – and a lot more attractive to watch – than half of the ‘personalities’ associated with snooker’s so-called golden age of the 1980s.
Last night, the Australian won group 5 of the Championship League and thus joins Stephen Maguire, John Higgins, Judd Trump and Marco Fu in the winners’ group next month, the eventual winner of which will be in the Premier League next season.
Neil, laid back and without ego, is well liked on the circuit but, as is usual in Aussie sportsmen, possesses a fierce competitive streak once he’s out on the arena.
He turned up for his first match yesterday just four minutes before it was due to start. He had done similar in the Premier League itself last year and once went to the World Championship without his shoes and had to buy a pair 15 minutes before play began.
This doesn’t point to the best preparation but, on the other hand, it shows how relaxed he is. Some players shrink from the pressure, Robertson seems to thrive on it.
His run to the World Championship semi-finals last season gave a global dimension to what remains a UK-dominated event.
And he will go to the Crucible this season as one of the favourites to lift the title.
Snooker struggles as a participation sport in Australia because of the country’s favourable climate, which sees most youngsters take up sports that are played outside.
Robertson got into snooker because his father ran a club in Melbourne. He was talented from a young age. At 14, he became the youngest player ever to make a century break in an Australian ranking event.
He turned professional at just 16 and headed for the UK but found it tough financially and emotionally and was eventually relegated.
In 2003, he beat Liu Song to win the IBSF world amateur title and returned to the circuit.
Robertson set up home in Cambridge but found the British weather to be so cold that he struggled to get out of bed in the early days.
Progress was rapid. He won the Masters qualifying tournament to earn a Wembley bow in 2004 and shortly afterwards reached his first quarter-final, at the European Open in Malta.
He became the fifth Australian to play at the Crucible in 2005 and won his first ranking title in 2006 at the Grand Prix. He has since won three more and is yet to lose in a ranking tournament final.
This season, he did little wrong to lose 9-8 to John Higgins in the UK Championship or 6-4 to Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Wembley Masters.
He lies third in the provisional rankings and has made more centuries this season than anyone else.
He also has a refreshingly postive outlook in a sport where almost everyone seems to have an axe to grind about something.
So Robertson, 28 tomorrow, seems to be at the peak of his powers and that can only be good for a sport that needs strong personalities, particularly from a country such as Australia where snooker has slipped into abeyance since the 1970s and 80s when Eddie Charlton was a big name.
His is a story that proves how hard work and talent can pay off.