Almanack: Ladies look for a break

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The Independent Online
IT WAS the fourth round of the World Snooker Championship. The reigning champion bent over a particularly tricky red. The cue drew back and forth, an index finger tapped the baize. 'I done 50 miles on a flat,' said a loud male voice. 'You never]' said another. 'Chunka chunka chunka' went a fruit machine. 'Fifty miles. But I'm in the AA.' The multiple champion looked up, annoyed and resigned at once. The white-gloved referee scooted out of sight for a minute. 'Gentlemen, please . . .'

Allison Fisher, six-times Ladies Snooker Champion of the world, smoothly slotted the red into the corner pocket.

An unlikely scenario for the Crucible, perhaps. But pretty much standard practice at the Cue Sports Snooker Club in Raunds, Northamptonshire, where the world's finest women players were competing last week. The club, wedged between a bookies' and a defunct window business, is a social centre for the town. Local

ladies-who-lunch discussed errant husbands and the relative merits of Creme de Cacao and Creme de Cassis. A posse of youths played the fruit machine and ate chips.

In the hushed snooker hall, the competitors prowled and swooped over the tables watched by little knots of spectators, mostly family and friends. In many ways the matches could have come straight off the television: the grave referees proffering rests and intoning breaks, the flash waistcoats and slim bow-ties.

Some of the snooker was worthy of a wider audience, too: Allison Fisher's 4-0 demolition of Julie Gillespie featured a smooth break of 82, and her 16-year-old namesake Kelly Fisher's confident defeat of the former world champion Ann-Marie Farren was adjudged very significant by the other competitors.

The ladies expect more attention when the contest resumes in New Delhi later this month. The quarter-finals onwards will be played in front of full houses and televised by Indian national television and Sky. 'They'll be so excited to see the women out there,' said Karen Corr, the world number two. 'They love their snooker. There'll be 300 or 400 people packed in.'

Allison Fisher has attained a degree of fame from the game, mostly through exhibition matches against male stars and through her performances in the televised (for insomniacs) European League. She has led the ladies' game for a decade, but knows that the emergence of young challengers is a healthy sign. 'It's good that the younger players are coming through,' she said over a half of lager top after her match. 'If you can get the last 16 in a tournament all of a high standard, then it's good for the game.' Allison talks shrewdly of the need to internationalise the sport (hence the Indian trip) and says that she 'gets by' on snooker earnings, but only through a punishing routine of exhibitions as well as league and tournament matches. Her car is sponsored, but it's a Vauxhall Nova rather than a Bentley like Stephen Hendry's.

Ladies' snooker is a friendly sport, and the players are skilful and enthusiastic. But it is still a humble relative of the men's game. 'It's funny, isn't it?' Allison Fisher laughs, then shrugs. 'Here we are at the world championship and there's some bloke banging on about how he's had to fetch the AA out for his car . . .'