Pot shot genius

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 December, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 December, 1993, 12:00am

FIRST there was a Hurricane that took snooker by storm in the 1970s, then a Whirlwind blew through in the 1980s and out of Asia in the 1990s comes a Thai-phoon.

Irishman Alex Higgins took professional snooker out of the smoke-filled halls and on to the front pages of newspapers throughout Britain in the 1970s with a combination of quick-fire breaks and often outlandish behaviour.

Englishman Jimmy White emulated the deeds of Higgins during the 1980s and still remains a force at the highest level.

While Thai-born James Wattana may not match the flamboyance of Higgins and White, he has done for snooker in Asia what Michael Chang did for tennis.

Bangkok-born Wattana turned professional just over five years ago but is already ranked fifth in the world behind Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, John Parrott and Jimmy White, all household names in the sport.

Wattana has beaten all the top players during his rise to stardom and, at 23, has ample time to realise his prime ambition, to be world champion.

Feted throughout Thailand as a national hero, Wattana has worked hard for his success.

His manager and long-time friend, Yorkshireman Tom Moran, candidly admits he has no claim to his young champion's success.

''He is 100 per cent his own man,'' he said.

A big title has eluded Wattana this year but he beat Hendry in the semi-finals of the British Open at Derby - his second consecutive year in the final.

Wattana had a rare lapse of form in the final, losing to Davis 10-2.

He also defeated Parrott in the quarter-finals of the World Championship in Sheffield before losing to White.

His performances against the world's best clearly demonstrate the quietly spoken Wattana has unlimited potential.

And as Wattana hones his game, Moran is quietly working behind the scenes taking care of his financial security.

He already has sponsorship and endorsements for the next five years totalling around GBP5 million (about $52.7 million).

Probably one of the most important elements to Wattana's game is his typically unflappable Asian temperament borne out of his early days when he played the seedy snooker halls in Bangkok for money.

Wattana is a high-flier these days but he has not forgotten his roots.

He talks proudly of how he and a group of friends raised GBP100 which he turned into GBP12,000 in four weeks.

He then paid for new air-conditioners in his mother's snooker hall.

He was emotionally shattered last year when his father was shot.

''We were very close. I still feel his presence,'' Wattana said.

In the years ahead, he looks destined to become the highest-paid player in the sport - not a bad achievement for a boy who left school at 15 and played for ''fun'' when he was a teenager.