It’s not just what you see at the Crucible that’s important, not just the endless frames, the drama, the close finishes, the key balls potted. It’s also what you don’t see: the long hours in the hotel or dressing room, staring into the mirror, racked with self doubt, telling yourself not to blow it, not to squander this chance that comes by but once a year. The chance to be the best in the world.
Snooker’s biggest event lasts 17 days so there’s plenty of time for a mental implosion or two. The matches are split into sessions and can span several days. Sleep is in short supply. Worry hangs heavy in the air.
But Neil Robertson is made of stern stuff, Aussie steel, an inbuilt belief in his own abilities. Competitive he may be in the arena, possessed of that trademark Australian grit, but off table he is as laidback as they come, so much so that to chat to him is like chewing the fat with a mate, not talking to a world champion, a world no.1.
He isn’t starry and he isn’t conceited. He’s just Neil, the guy from Melbourne who came to try his luck at snooker and ended up the best in the world.
He doesn't do anxiety and this relaxed persona means that nerves do not affect him as badly as some. It showed last season at the venue that really counts.
He trailed Martin Gould 11-5 heading into the final session of their second round match. It looked as if his World Championship title bid was over, a defeat as heavy as it was unexpected.
But Robertson’s glass is half full. Scrap that: he refuses to believe it isn’t overflowing. He felt he still had a chance and did it, won 13-12 and nine days later beat Graeme Dott 18-13 to become world champion.
It’s an attitude you can’t teach. You’re either made that way or you’re not.
“My dad’s very laidback and I guess I take after him,” Robertson told me.
“In fact my girlfriend thinks I’m too laidback and hates it sometimes. She can’t understand how I can stay relaxed all the time and it almost annoys her that I don’t get annoyed by certain things.
“Someone could be really rude to me, where other people would want to say something back, but I’m, like, ‘who cares?’ I’ve always been like that. I’m not one for fights and even admit I’m wrong when I’m not just to avoid confrontation. I think all that’s a waste of time.
“I think it helps with dealing with pressure in the game. Some players mutter things under their breath, particularly in the PTCs where there’s no TV. They’ll go into the pack off the blue and not land on a red and you’ll hear them say, ‘that’s typical of my luck.’ I’ll just get on with it. Just play the balls where they are. You can’t complain about being unlucky or getting a kick. It’s part of the game, just as in football you’ll get decisions going your way sometimes and at other times they won’t. You just have to accept it.”
Easier said than done to most, but Robertson’s career has been underscored by his innate positivity.
To come to the UK with £500 in his back pocket, convinced he could make a go of professional snooker. To live in Cambridge thousands of miles from his family. To mix it with the best in the world and not feel overawed. To win his first six ranking tournament finals. To become world champion and world no.1.
All these require talent, of course, but also the right attitude. The 28 year-old is the model of mental clarity.
And he recognises his achievement. He knows more than me, more than you and more than anyone other than those who have done it or come heartbreakingly close to doing it just how hard it is to win the World Championship.
For all the talk of new formats and quickfire snooker, the Crucible’s unique testing ground is what really matters. To win in Sheffield marks you out as something special.
“It’s good to have different formats and refresh your mind and your game but the tournaments the players really want to win are the BBC ones and the World Championship is the one we all target. That’s such a great test,” Robertson said.
“There are so many things that run through your head at the Crucible. I was in my first final and wanted to win it so badly that there was a big battle going on in my own mind as well as with my opponent.
“It’s such a long match. You know you’ll be there for two days. It’s not like it’s all over in a couple of hours. You have to be so strong mentally. It’s not just a different format to what we’re used to, it’s almost like a different game.
“You can’t compare it to playing best of nines. You’re there for the long haul.
“It’s the true test of snooker on the table and psychology as well, which is what sport is all about. It has to be a test of mental strength and the ability to play under pressure. You have to do that consistently well. There’ll be times when you’re behind and have to make big clearances under pressure. You can either do it or you can’t.
“There’s no other tournament like it. Between sessions is what the public don’t see, where you’re sat thinking you should be further ahead or that you’re lucky you’re not further behind.
“It’s all about convincing yourself that you’ve got a good result at the end of the session. Even when I was 11-5 down to Martin Gould I thought, well, I could be out of the match. I was doing everything possible to convince myself that I still had a chance to win.
“When Steve Davis beat John Higgins the morning before we played our final session I knew Martin would be thinking – no disrespect to Steve – that he had a great chance to get to the semi-finals of the World Championship. Yeah, I knew he’d be thinking that so I came out full of confidence that if I could nick the first two or three frames I’d put him right under pressure.
“These are the things that go on between sessions. You have to try and relax, calm yourself down, get some sleep. It’s all about your mind. TV viewers don’t see all that but it’s what makes the tournament what it is.”
The world title was Robertson’s fifth ranking success. The World Open swiftly followed as his sixth this season.
He knows there are always those on the fringes ready to carp and criticise. For some, a tournament victory is not enough, it’s how you do it that matters – as if players can handpick their opponents. Surely winning should suffice.
“In my first couple of finals I beat players outside the top 16 and people pointed the finger as if I’d had it easy,” Robertson said.
“I beat Ronnie in the quarter-finals in the first two tournaments I won, but people don’t remember that.
“If you beat the world no.1 you take over that seeding. You can’t beat the top eight in the world to win a tournament. It’s not possible.
“And just because you get a good draw, that doesn’t mean anything. You still have to win and people who have got so-called good draws have let it slip.
“In the Welsh Open I beat Andrew Higginson, who had knocked out a number of top players, including John Higgins, Ali Carter and Stephen Maguire. He was playing brilliantly. There wouldn’t have been too many top players who could have come back from 6-2 down to lead 8-6 playing like that.
“In my last three finals I’ve beaten Ding Junhui, Graeme Dott and Ronnie O’Sullivan. Nobody can say I didn’t deserve those.”
And no one will surely argue with the notion that more silverware beckons for this talented left-hander. His game is better than ever, his mind is clear, he relishes his moment.
“I guess a lot of questions were asked of me since I became world champion as to how I would react," Robertson said.
"If you win a tournament you feel that you have to back it up and I couldn’t have responded any quicker. Winning the World Open showed any doubters that were out there that I could handle the pressures of being world champion."
In part two tomorrow: an insight into how Neil Robertson approached the world final, juggling life as a father and family man and why he thinks England may win the Ashes down under.