Real lives: Cue new babes on the baize

Snooker was a lads' preserve until JANE HOLLAND elbowed her way to the top. It was a struggle but well worth the sweat, she says
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Sport is like any form of addiction. You kid yourself you can quit at any time, but somehow it never happens. Honestly, one of these days I'm going to kick the snooker habit, but not now, not yet.

For most of the past ten years I've spent my life thinking, sleeping, dreaming snooker. At its peak I practised for eight hours a day. I played a world-ranking tournament every month. I ran a time-consuming local Women's Snooker Association. The fact that I had two children and a husband didn't stop me. I was a woman obsessed.

These days, my obsessions have expanded to include poetry, fiction writing, and now an English degree at Oxford. But even now I'm still bewitched by the game; several of my more controversial poems are about snooker, and my first novel, Kissing The Pink, is about a woman player called Zoe. I even represent my Oxford college, Brasenose, at intercollegiate pool.

So how does a young housewife and mother get hooked on snooker? At 23, I'd never even picked up a cue in my life. Then my husband challenged me to a game of pub pool one evening. I cleared the table at one visit. I then beat all his friends, one by one, and only then did I realise it wasn't a fluke. I was promptly dragged off to a snooker club, to see if the larger table would throw me. It didn't. I made a 25 break straight off. For some reason, I was born to hold a cue.

I didn't have a clue about tactics or advanced technique, though. So I started watching professional snooker players on television, trying to work out how they manage those impossible shots. A few months later, I entered the Women's World Snooker Championships. I was pregnant, hormonal and absolutely terrified. I lost in the first round, to the Belgium champion, but by then I was obsessed by the idea of winning. I went home and practised solidly on my own for hours. But there's more to snooker than just potting balls. I studied second-hand manuals for hints on spin-shot techniques. Tactical play in the closing stage. How to get out of a snooker safely. My next tournament was coming up. I needed to learn, and fast.

I didn't play at all in the last month of my pregnancy. Everything dissolved into that milk-haze of impending birth, where all you can think about are bootees and nursery colour schemes. Then, within hours of my daughter's birth, my cue hand was itching for a game. I entered the first tournament that came along, and managed to scrape up my first ever ranking-points. There's a real pleasure in reading your name on that ranking list, even if it does come in only at about 96. But I wanted to go higher and higher.

I got myself a deal at a local club, brushing and ironing the snooker tables in exchange for free practice time before the club opened. My daughter was only a few months old, so I used to lie her in a carry-cot beside the table while I worked. There's something calming and hypnotic about ironing a snooker table. Those long graceful strokes along the baize. Leaving it with the neat, almost invisible stripes of a bowling green. By the time I'd finished, the baby was usually asleep, and I could practise for hours without interruption.

Most of the men were unbothered by my presence in the club. Unfortunately, there were always one or two local players who couldn't resist making fools of themselves. "That's not how it's done, sweetheart. Let me show you." I would look grateful, allow them to pat me on the head, and then I would offer them a game. By the time I'd fleeced the poor souls, they were usually silent and about 20 quid worse off.

Snooker is still very much a male-dominated sport at the top levels, but in the clubs, things are gradually changing at last. More women are owning clubs, running special membership deals for women, and even encouraging families in at the weekends. Most clubs now have women players in their local leagues. Back in the early Nineties, though, you were almost more likely to see a giraffe playing snooker than a woman. It was a lonely business for me in the beginning.

In 1991, I founded a local Women's Snooker Association to encourage more women into the sport. In the first year, we had about four members. That grew to eight, and then to 16 and, within three years, we had more than 30 members. Most of them had been pool players beforehand, but it didn't take much to encourage them to switch to a larger table. It's not a physical sport, after all. There's no reason why a woman can't play snooker as well as a man. It's always been a question of access to clubs, rather than any lack of technique or ability. Certainly, more young women are starting to take the game seriously. But you need to catch a potential professional player before the age of 10, as some coaches are now realising.

I think that within the next decade we'll see women players reaching the televised stages of the Professional World Snooker Championships. They're only a few steps behind that now. An unseen minority in a male-dominated sport, but steadily growing and improving. The percentage of girls under 16 playing in women's world-ranking tournaments has risen sharply in the past few years. So the smoky back-street club image is obviously deteriorating at a grass- roots level. Women are coming along and throwing back the curtains to let some 21st-century light into the game. The reason seems clear to me. Women have only just discovered what men have known for centuries - snooker is a sexy sport.

I seem to have been a magnet for trouble when it comes to men accepting me as a player. Throughout my playing career, I continually found myself in the middle of controversy, either because I refused to stop recruiting other women into the game or because I was actively "breaking the rules" simply by being a woman player. In late 1994, I was chucked out of my local association after yet another row, but in a way I didn't care. I was never particularly popular in my home club. Just walking in there used to make me feel nauseous, probably because I associated the place with so many arguments. When I played as a lone female in the local leagues, some of the opposing male teams used to place rather charming bets - not on whether I'd win or lose, but on whether I'd willingly part with my underwear at the end of the match.

But it wasn't just the men who made me feel uncomfortable. I won every local women's snooker tournament for years, and the other women players were only too happy to see me go. I'm surprised they didn't get up a posse in the end and run me out of town. It was that sort of atmosphere. But playing any sport makes people strongly competitive, regardless of sex, so I don't bear any real grudges towards them. There's a price to pay for everything, and I certainly had a fair share of success during my years playing snooker.

People keep asking me whether I want to go back on the world circuit. It's an intriguing possibility, but I doubt that I ever will. World-class snooker is becoming a younger woman's sport. The number of tournaments is increasing, and especially now that the women's game is being handled by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the stress put on the top players to succeed must be enormous. I find it more relaxing just to watch now. In fact, I count myself lucky to be out of the loop. As a woman player, your relationships suffer, your spare time disappears, your emotions take a battering. The upside is that the game itself can be tremendously exciting. When you're young and you've nothing to lose, the price you pay doesn't seem to matter.

Snooker's addictive. It gets under your skin and demands everything. And you give it everything, no questions asked. But whether you get anything back in the long run is another matter.

'Kissing The Pink' is published by Sceptre, pounds 6.99.

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