Snooker: Germany goes snooker loopy for new tournament
Stars like Ding Junhui, John Higgins and Neil Robertson hit the baize in Berlin Thursday in a rare major snooker tournament staged on German soil, as the sport seeks to broaden its horizons.
The world's top 16 break off in a high quality field including local talent in the 280,000 euro competition that climaxes Sunday, as players eye Germany, better known for its passion for football, as a potentially huge market.
"We've seen snooker become massive in China, and in Germany it could be just as big," said former World Champion Shaun Murphy.
Murphy's confidence appeared borne out by the popularity of the tournament, the German Masters. Tickets have been selling fast, with organisers saying they had sold 14,000 before the first cue ball was even struck.
Despite a last-minute blow, when the mercurial but ever-controversial British player Ronnie O'Sullivan pulled out, the tournament organiser said the interest in snooker in Germany was enormous.
London : Australia's world champion Neil Robertson plays a shot against Mark Allen of Northern Ireland during the Quarter-final at the Masters Snooker tournament at the Wembley Conference Centre in London
"The demand has been sensational. The Germans have been starved of live snooker and they are lapping it up now," said promoter Brandon Parker.
More than one million Germans are glued to their televisions during major tournaments, he added.
And the new tournament, the first major competition in Germany since the 1990s, has also proved popular with players.
Current World number one John Higgins told AFP: "It's fantastic we're playing a ranking tournament here in Berlin."
"I believe the attendance figures we're going to get will be good for the five days we are here, so all in all it's great," he added.
On the playing front, Germany has no one on the main snooker tour, but three of its top players have qualified to pit their potting skills against the best in the world, including 13-year-old Berlin-based "wunderkind" Pawel Leyk.
Sebastian Hein, 30, who runs a 21-table centre a few hundred metres from where the tournament is being held, said Germany was the perfect place to host the latest addition to the snooker calendar.
"I think it's the biggest potential market in continental Europe," Hein told AFP amid the clacking balls and low lighting at his club, which he believes is the largest in Europe outside Britain.
"It's already very popular on television in Germany. When they show major tournaments, I think it's in the top five most watched."
At this tournament at least, the German players failed to make a major impact. Stefan Kasper from Memmingen in southern Germany, lost 5-2 to Nigel Bond.
And despite huge support, with his every shot being applauded amid cries of "Jawohl", Leyk himself went down 5-1 to Anthony Hamilton, the self-styled "Sheriff of Pottingham."
Wembley : Ding Junhui of China plays a shot during the match against Mark Williams of Wales during the last 16 round at the Masters Snooker tournament at the Wembley Conference Centre, in London, on 10 January 2011
Under the leadership of Barry Hearn, chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, snooker is bidding to widen its appeal away from its main popularity base in Britain and, increasingly, Asia.
Hearn recently announced that the first major tournament in Brazil would be staged later this year, in a bid to shift focus from the major competitions such as the World Championship, held at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
As for Germany, there are about 4,000 people playing in regular tournaments, but it will be some while before the nation produces a Stephen Hendry or an O'Sullivan, club manager Hein said.
"You need a regular pro player. What we really need is a snooker equivalent of Boris Becker that everyone can see on TV. Then the game could really take off."
AFP/ Richard Carter