I was pleased to see James Wattana qualify for the Shanghai Masters, not least because a couple of years ago it looked like we had seen the last of him on the professional circuit.

James – or Ratchapol Pu-Ob-Orm to give him his full name – was relegated from the main tour but returned by winning the Asian Championship, a title he first won as a 16 year-old in 1986.

That same year a promoter called Barry Hearn took his stable of players to Thailand for a tournament and Wattana won it.

Two years later he was world amateur champion and qualified for the 1989/90 circuit through the old Pro-Ticket play-offs.

Wattana made an extraordinary start to his pro career by reaching the final of the 1989 Asian Open in his native Bangkok, beating vastly more experienced players to do so: Mike Hallett, Doug Mountjoy, Silvino Francisco and Terry Griffiths.

He acquitted himself well in the final but was beaten 9-6 by Stephen Hendry. Nevertheless, a star was born and so was a snooker boom in Thailand.

Wattana was to his home country in a snooker sense what Ding Junhui has been to China: a superstar and the catalyst for the various ranking events that have been staged in his home land.

In the first half of the 1990s, Wattana was one of the best four of five players in the world, constantly in contention for titles.

However, like Ding he had to make sacrifices that simply don’t apply to British players. He moved to the UK and based himself in Bradford, where he got good practice opposition but also had to contend with homesickness.

Determined to make the best of things, though, he learned English through games of Scrabble and became a great favourite with his fellow players for his even tempered manner and modest demeanour.

There was a time when he looked set to become the first Asian world champion but it didn’t quite happen. He reached two Crucible semi-finals but lost out first to Jimmy White (1993) and then to Hendry (1997).

He also reached the Masters final but, surprisingly looking back, failed to win one of snooker’s ‘big three’ titles.

Wattana did capture three ranking titles, though. The first was the long forgotten 1992 Strachan Open, a non-televised event which some top players didn’t enter.

His two biggest successes came on home soil. Wattana beat Steve Davis to win the 1994 Thailand Open, a victory which really did capture the imagination of the viewing public.

Bangkok's night life is legendary but even in the bars they had the TVs tuned to the snooker.

A year later he defeated Ronnie O’Sullivan to retain the title and confirm his reputation as one of Thailand’s favourite sporting sons.

Wattana also won the non-ranking but prestigious World Matchplay in 1992.

In the 1991 World Masters in Birmingham, Hearn's one-off Wimbledon style event, Wattana made a 147 break on his 21st birthday but Sky were unable to get their cameras to his table in time to record a ball of it and so got around this by simply not mentioning it.

There was no special prize for the feat, either. Wattana, in his then broken English, confessed: “I had been thinking of a big money.”

But it was Wattana’s 147 at the 1992 British Open for which many remember him.

Maximum breaks in those days really were a big deal. His was only the fourth on television.

What was remarkable, though, was that Wattana made it just hours after hearing his father had been shot in Bangkok. When he finished his match he learned his dad had died of his injuries.

Wattana is now 41 and though not the player he was, is clearly still capable of good performances. To qualify for the final stages of a ranking event from the first round is an achievement in itself.

If he wins his wildcard match he will play O’Sullivan, who he beat 5-0 at the same stage of the 2006 China Open in Beijing.

Wattana’s decline was mirrored by a slipping away of interest in Thailand, where the game’s popularity was always pinned to his.

But he remains Thailand’s top player more than two decades after first bursting on to the scene.

And he remains a player worthy of much respect for the way he has conducted his career.

I remember being in Thailand when Wattana received a death threat along the lines of “if you don’t lose this match, we’ll kill you.”

He shrugged it off with a smile: “I’m thankful they didn’t say I’d have to win. Then I would be in trouble.”

Good luck to James next week.


@pietros1 said...

Good article, I remember his amazing middle pocket potting in the 1990's a great player to watch, part of the then-new attacking breed!

Anonymous said...

Tony Drago was runner-up in the 1991 World Masters to Jimmy White, not Wattana.

Dave H said...

You're quite correct, no idea why I thought that.

I've amended the story.

jamie brannon said...

Wattana won a few years back. It was held in Asia, and Five showed highlights a few months later.

The name was something like 'Asia v Euro all-stars'.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see a few words on the Phuket Dynamo.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, its also great to see fergal o brien coming back t o a decent bit of form such a tough oppenent to beat! I reaken he will bit ebdon at shanghai and make it to quarters , ebdon really struggling

Anonymous said...

the ratchet