UK Championship: Judd Trump to snooker's rescue?
UK SNOOKER CHAMPIONSHIP
- Venue: Barbican Centre, York
- Date: Saturday 1 - Sunday 9 December
- Start times: Sessions at 11:00, 13:00/14:00 & 19:00 GMT
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC TV and BBC Sport website
When the top-ranked player finds watching his own sport boring, wishes he had taken up something else as a kid and wants people to hate him to bump up the interest, it is safe to assume that the sport he excels in has problems.
Hand on heart, I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to interview Judd Trump. Well, snooker players are a bit dull nowadays, aren't they? But it turns out there is more to this Great Redeemer of the baize than the vitality of his potting, a few flash motors and the exuberance of his hair.
As an example, here's Trump, who starts the defence of his UK Championship crown in York on Sunday, explaining how he approaches each match: "I want to destroy my opponent, I want to ruin them for the rest of the season."
I wouldn't want you to get the impression Trump was frothing at the chops and making a cut-throat gesture as he said this. In truth, the 23-year-old out of Romford via Bristol is rather dry. But this is the sort of chat snooker chiefs should be encouraging in order to get a few more lines in the papers and a few more bums on seats.
"People aren't allowed to be themselves in snooker," says Trump, who became the sport's new number one on the way to winning the International Championship in Chengdu, China earlier this month.
"If you hit the table after missing a ball, you get fined. If you swear, you get fined. You can't even tweet what you're thinking without getting fined. Players can't show their personality and therefore fans can't relate to them.
"I don't feel people are that interested in snooker any more and the only thing that will get snooker back into the limelight is more controversy."
Snooker chief Barry Hearn knows it. Following Mark Allen's disparaging comments about Chinese players at this year's World Championship, Hearn gave the Northern Irishman a public dressing down and vowed to punish him - before flashing that winning smile and reminding the assembled press that Allen's obliging gobbiness at least grabbed the sport one or two headlines.
"You can't just write that everything's nice," said Hearn. "Who's going to read that? No-one. That's why the reporters have done a good job this year, because they've gleaned it out of these boys - the rascals."
But with Ronnie O'Sullivan recently announcing he was extending his sabbatical from snooker, Hearn has got a serious image problem on his hands.
A recent ITV documentary revealed four-time world champion O'Sullivan to be more of a snooker geek than the wild man of the baize he is often portrayed as: scratch a 'natural genius' and the chances are you'll find an unhealthy obsessive underneath. But O'Sullivan makes for compelling viewing, whether he's playing well or not.
“Snooker needs rivalries, rivalries sell: people hating each other, wanting to beat each other up. I want people to hate me, if that's going to attract more people to the sport”
"When I got to number one, I did a few interviews and they didn't want to know about me or snooker, all they wanted to know about was Ronnie retiring," says Trump.
"I can see why. There are only one or two people I can watch on TV without getting bored - Ronnie and maybe John Higgins."
When I ask Trump, beaten by Higgins in the 2011 World Championship final, where the sport would be if everyone played what might be deemed 'proper' snooker, he replies: "Not on TV for a start. But with Ronnie gone, there's a chance for me to shine a new light on the game.
"Over the last couple of years, I've had a lot of people saying they only really watch it because of me and my style of play. The way I play will change things, there will be a lot more attacking snooker in the future."
But not everyone is a fan of Trump's free-wheeling style. At the Crucible this year, Ali Carter rather priggishly announced the sport was about more than just potting balls after beating a sick Trump in the second round. Carter, an old-fashioned grinder, was effectively accusing Trump of playing 'fluke' snooker.
"I've played a lot of younger players who play how I played in the World Championship and, to be honest, it is quite frustrating," says Trump. "You're thinking 'you shouldn't be going for that'.
"I've had to adapt my game a little bit but I think that's the style that's going to take over, people taking on as many balls as possible."
As for the criticism? "I felt the opinions were harsh," he says.
"The main players, like Ronnie, Higgins and Mark Williams, let you do your thing. But a lot of players hoped no-one else was going to come through after Ronnie and they were going to replace him. I've got a lot of rivalries now with players who don't want to see me do well.
"But snooker needs rivalries. Rivalries sell - people hating each other, wanting to beat each other up. In a way, I do want people to hate me. If that's going to attract more people to the sport, it's got to be done."
Nobody in their right mind would endorse some of the behaviour of Alex Higgins, a man who escalated his rivalries to the level of terrorism - he once threatened to have fellow Northern Irishman Dennis Taylor shot. But a bit of baize-related beef might get a few more kids on board. Intriguingly, Trump could play Carter in the second round in York if both players win their opening matches.
"It's a rough time for snooker and something still needs to be done to change the image of the game," says Trump. "The World Championship needs to be left alone but some of the other tournaments should be more relaxed, a lot quicker, with more shot clocks.
"I don't want to be dressed in a bow tie and waistcoat - and kids younger than me certainly don't want to be wearing that sort of thing.
"It is a great time to be Judd Trump. He is world number one, full of confidence and he seems to be enjoying the game, his life and is a young, single guy who can travel around the world and play in tournaments. You expect him to be world number one for the next 10-15 years if he applies himself. He has age on his side. I don't see where the challenge to Judd is going to come from."
"It's all just a bit boring. If I was seven or eight again, why would I choose snooker? I'd want to be a footballer or a golfer or a tennis player, who are earning millions and millions in prize money and sponsorship. I'm number one in the world and I'm earning between £300,000 and £400,000 a year.
"It's a lot to most people, but prize money in snooker was at its peak in 2003 [Mark Williams earned £270,000 for winning the 2003 World Championship, while this year's winner O'Sullivan earned £20,000 less]. Every other sport has been raising its money, snooker has gone backwards."
In fact, Hearn has doubled prize money on his revamped snooker tour since taking over as chairman in 2010 and this season there are now 10 ranking events on the calendar, five of them in China. Which tells its own story.
"The money is in China and the fans are in China," says Trump. "There's not a lot of people who want to watch snooker in the UK at the moment. Snooker will be back but there isn't going to be the interest like there was in the 1980s. We've got to battle for every single person and something needs to change."
After our chat, our camerawoman gets Trump to play a few shots for a TV package. Four minutes later, Trump has completed a total clearance. In the final stages of the break, I find myself peering round a partition, trying to stay out of camera shot, imagining I'm Bill Werbeniuk and Trump is a super-charged Cliff Thorburn.
"When Alex Higgins left and when Jimmy White left, somebody came through," says Trump, as if to reassure me. "And after Ronnie, there will be somebody else." That somebody, Judd my boy, would be you.