Silence of the fans a telling tribute

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2007, 12:00am

That nearly 3,000 Hong Kongers could sit perfectly still was a feat in itself. That they remained there for three hours, in the dimly lit Queen Elizabeth Stadium, was another.

But the silence was so pervasive that when a mobile phone went off during the final between world champion John Higgins and Thailand's James Wattana, darkness and snooker etiquette may have saved the offender from any physical harm.

'Thank you,' the referee said sternly, although the combination of silence and acoustics made his voice boom more like that of an omnipresent god.

Watching snooker live is more akin to watching a theatrical production than a sporting event. The refined referee, replete with bowtie and white gloves, hushes noise between play with a simple, 'thank you'. There are no whistles, bright lights sneezes, coughs or throat-clearing until player changes. The audience gasps, sighs and applauds, but, during play, they are ever so still as if the boyish Higgins is a Stratford actor offering a Shakespeare soliloquy.

Hong Kong is continually abuzz, but here, during last weekend's finals of the Euro-Asia Masters Challenge, the requisite silence comes with an uncommon intensity. A few heads nod off during the final, just as they must have during the earlier round robin when some of the matches lasted until midnight. But these same heads pop back up to life whenever either player goes on a run, potting ball after ball, while the other one sits in his chair, hands clasped together as if in prayer. 'When it's not your turn, there's nothing you can do,' seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry says. 'It doesn't matter how good you are.'

Perhaps that is the draw of snooker, where everything can be controlled until a mistake of a mere millimetre sends you straight back to the role of spectator. 'When I first watched, I was attracted by the way people played,' Hong Kong star Marco Fu Ka-chun said. 'It's a tough game, an interesting game, but my dad was the main reason. My dad would bring me to the snooker club.'

In the 1980s, Fu said, there was an abundance of snooker clubs in Hong Kong, but today the number has decreased to about 50. In recent years, Hong Kong has hosted just three other top-line events - the Millennium Cup in 1999, the Asian Championship in 2000 and the Euro-Asia Masters Challenge in 2003.

However, Danny Mak Yiu-hoi, the chairman of the Hong Kong Billiard Sports Control Council, says his association will look at the possibility of a regular tour stop in Hong Kong.

'We have always been interested in [a tour stop],' Mak said. 'But there are many issues to resolve in terms of scheduling and financing before we can contemplate having more regular events or an actual tour stop.'

The success of this tournament, Mak says, 'has given us much to think about'.

'To come and play every match in front of a 3,000 sell-out crowd, there's no where else in the world that can generate that sort of publicity,' Higgins said.

Hendry added: 'We don't normally play in places as big as this. There are a couple places in London with 2,000, but normally it's in a smaller venue, maybe 1,000 people.'

The HK$400,000 Higgins won as the champion wasn't a deterrent either. The prize money, HK$680,000 in total, helped draw four Europeans (Higgins, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Hendry and Ken Doherty) who have won a combined career-prize total of GBP20,842,610 (HK$333,828,134). The Asian players were Wattana, Supoj Saenla, Fu and rising star Ding Junhui, a 20-year-old who has quickly become one of China's most recognised sportsmen. Fan Sulia Sin lined up an hour before a noon giveaway time to make sure she would get one of the 100 tickets for an autograph signing after the night's final. She clutched a programme with signatures and photographs she had taken the day before with two players. Sin emerged from the final not craving a nap, but energised. She started watching because of her friends, but couldn't articulate what held her attention.

She could, however, identify her favourite player - Ronnie 'Rocket' O'Sullivan, the player who was fined GBP20,800 for walking out in the quarter-finals at the Maplin UK Championship in December last year against Hendry. He said he quit because of frustration at his own poor play.

O'Sullivan's fast and ruthless approach is something of a reflection of Hong Kong's own character. O'Sullivan is the man who, in 1997, became the fastest player to reach 147. With lethal accuracy, O'Sullivan broke and then potted the balls calmly and quickly, moving around the table until they disappeared. He finished in five minutes and 20 seconds and then casually strode over to one of the pockets, picked up the black ball and tossed it into the crowd. 'He was just born to be a snooker player,' Sin said.

Novelist Mordecai Richler chronicled snooker in his 1991 book, On Snooker: The Game and the Characters Who Play It, writing about players such as noted 'bad boys' Alex Higgins, O'Sullivan, and Hendry, who may be the greatest of them all.

Hendry said he hadn't read the book, in which he is a principal character, but it is easy to understand why Hong Kong has taken to snooker because of its multitude of colourful characters.

Without a hint of arrogance that could accompany a decade-long dominance in the sport and being made a Member of the British Empire in 1994, Hendry willingly explained the basics to the uninitiated, including the order of potting the balls (yellow, green, brown, blue, pink and black) and his take on the uptight formality of the uniform, black pants, white shirt, vest and bowtie. 'We'd much rather be playing in jeans and a T-shirt,' Hendry said. 'But it's tradition.'