Hong Kong’s snooker world champion Ng On-yee ‘still learning’ as she prepares to defend title – and take on the men
It’s been a life-changing year for the athlete voted Hong Kong’s ‘Best of the Best’
It’s been quite a year for Ng On-yee. From an unknown playing a sport seen by many in Hong Kong as more a path to crime than to success, to a world champion stopped in the streets by fans, feted by the BBC and crowned Hong Kong’s ‘Best of the Best’ athlete.
On-yee, 25, returns to where it started next weekend when she defends her title at the World Ladies Snooker Championships – and then takes on the men at their own worlds immediately afterwards.
Her latest title came on Monday at the Sports Stars awards, when she was voted Hong Kong’s top sportsperson, ending a six-year run of dominance by cyclists.
It wasn’t the first long reign she’s ended, having dethroned Reanne Evans – women’s world champion 10 years in a row – last year.
Despite her new fame, little has changed for the smiley, bespectacled Ng, who only took up the sport because she liked the outfits. She still lives at home in Sheung Wan with her parents – father Yam-shui runs a snooker club nearby – likes nothing more than taking her labrador for a walk, and collected her Sports Stars awards in a Hong Kong girl’s primary school uniform-style outfit, symbolising how much she still has to learn.
“There is no big change – I am still an ordinary athlete,” Ng says at the impressive new snooker training room at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, where she is paid to train full-time. “Yes it was a very big result last year.
“Lots of people asked me whether it defines the peak of my career but quite the opposite – I believe this is only the beginning of a very long journey for myself.
“I think there’s still a lot for me to learn on and off the table and if I keep on learning I can get better and better.”
WATCH: Ng On-yee on how it all got started
The next challenge, having broken Evans’ dominance, is to stop her from re-establishing it in Leeds from March 31st. The day after the April 5 final, Ng goes down the road to Sheffield for the qualifiers for the men’s event; three wins are necessary to seal an unlikely place at the main event in the famed Crucible Theatre.
WATCH: Ng On-yee receives her Sports Stars award
“I played with some [men] professional players last year, like Ding [Junhui] and [2015 world champion] Stuart Bingham and James Wattana, and I feel like I learned something from them,” adds Ng.
“The first tournament that I played, with James Wattana, I was very nervous and couldn’t even pot an easy shot, but after I played a few matches with them I got used to it.
“I think I need to start to learn to play with the top players and get used to the atmosphere and I think I will learn something from them.”
WATCH: Ng On-yee on defending her title and facing the men
Ng has found herself in demand from local TV and radio, and even the BBC, who invited her to their prestigious annual Sports Personality of the Year Awards last December, the first Hong Kong athlete to do so.
“[People] are still the same to me,” she insists, though she can’t always walk the streets in anonymity any more. “I was in Wan Chai [recently] and there was a local market seller with his microphone and some people around him and he said, ‘Oh if you look back there, you’ll see a world champion across the road’ and I waved.
“Some people stop me to say, ‘keep going, we support you’ and take photos. It makes me happy because it encourages me to do better and keep going.”
Ng hopes her new-found celebrity encourages others to take up the sport and helps banish the stereotype of smoke-filled billiards halls filled with reprobates.
“I think in Hong Kong snooker has always been a male sport, and many parents have the impression that the snooker club is place for bad people to hang out.
“Now I believe I have demonstrated to these people that snooker is a healthy sport and ladies can also be good at it. After I won the World Champs I had the chance to visit schools to promote the sport and some schools had purchased one or two tables.
“My father teaches a lot of young students to play – one of the youngest is a five-year-old girl, she’s so cute. She’s not tall enough but my father made a step for her to stand on and cut short the cue for her to learn the basic technique.”
Another of Ng’s father’s proteges is ‘Kobe’ Cheung Ka-wai, who won a junior award at the Sports Stars event after winning the Under-18 World Championships this year. He’ll be joining Ng at the qualifiers for the Betfred World Championships. It should be a terrific learning experience for both, although Ng is realistic about her chances of becoming one of the 16 players who make the main draw.
“For defending the [women’s] title On -yee is one of the favourites for sure,” says HKSI head coach Wayne Griffiths, who has brought former men’s world championship quarter-finalist and coach Lee Walker and five-time women’s champion Kelly Fisher to Hong Kong to help Ng prepare.
“[Reanne Evans] will be hungry to get it back – but On-yee is definitely up to the challenge.
“[As] for the men’s event this is a huge challenge and will be an acid test for where her game stands. Reanne played a whole season on tour and didn’t win one match. She was supremely dominant in the ladies game at that time. This lays out the task that faces On-yee.
“However, I know On-yee will learn from the experience, give her all before and during the competition and represent Hong King and the ladies game with style and determination.
“Whatever her results, to be the first Asian lady to play in the modern men’s world championships is an amazing achievement and all of Hong Kong will be supporting and following her.”
Watch: Ng On-yee in a face-off against Stuart Bingham
For her part, On-yee doesn’t have a particular man she’d like to face – “Maybe someone I could beat!” she jokes – but there’s definitely one she wants to avoid.
“There is someone I don’t want to play – Marco Fu – at least until the final because then Hong Kong would be guaranteed a winner!”