Looking down yesterday on 16 tables and the flotsam of spectators thrown in from the prom by the wind and the rain, it looked a million miles from the mind-numbing intensity of the tournament proper. Although the venue is the Norbreck Castle Hotel and the competitors might be ranked around 100 in the world, it was Sheffield and meetings with Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis that was on everyone's minds.
The scene was the climax of a three-month marathon in the hotel's Norcalympia Room that will, and has, decided a player's immediate future. Qualification for the televised stages does not take place immediately before the tournament but in one job lot between June and September. A slump and the whole year is lost, a discovery of form and trips to Dubai, Wembley and, most of all, The Crucible become a reality. A draughtsman can meet 'The Whirlwind', but it takes a lot of snooker.
To play Jimmy White in Sheffield some players would have to win 11 matches, more than double the number Hendry required to win the title this year. But the ex-butcher, baker and candlestick importer can dream. Tomorrow the final qualification match will be over and the players to meet the 16 seeds in the World Championship proper will be decided.
Absent was Roger Garrett, the Harlow professional who left his cue on a train in Manchester and was too late for his match, but present was a congregation of contrasts. Alex Higgins, twice the world champion, was there, forced to play against men half his age by a slump in form and countless misdemeanours that kept him away from the sport for a year and deprived him of ranking points. Yesterday he defeated another erstwhile attraction, Kirk Stevens of Canada, 10-4 after trailing 5-4 overnight; two more victories will take him to The Crucible. But John Spencer, one of the sport's great figures, had already lost.
That was the past, a few tables along from Higgins was the future - Ronnie O'Sullivan, a phenomenon in the making at 16. He is the next Hendry, a brilliant player for his age who possesses a string of records that includes 21 century breaks in his rookie year. The most remarkable achievement of all, however, is probably a run at the Norbreck Castle of 72 wins in 74 matches. 'I'd hoped to get to The Crucible in two or three years,' he said. 'Now I expect to get there this time.'
There was also Steve Lemmens, who has been granted indefinite leave by the Belgian Army until his service at Blackpool ended. He did not meet Bjorn L'Orange this week but he did last month.
Two and half years ago Spencer Dunn was competing in the Second Division of the Stourbridge League and could afford to be in Blackpool this summer only because of help from the Prince's Youth Business Trust and his aunt, who lives locally and has allowed him to stay for the duration. His ranking meant he had played eight matches to reach yesterday's stage and he still had two to go.
Already the relentless grind in Blackpool had lowered his sights. 'Before I came here I'd have probably been disappointed with my results,' the 22-year-old former postman said, 'but having realised what you have to do to get into a tournament I'm satisfied. You think you've done well when you've won five matches but you've still got six to go.'
He then encapsulated why everyone was there. 'I just want to stand behind the curtain at The Crucible waiting to go on,' he said. 'What a buzz that would be.'
The buzz. It was what every player in Blackpool was frightened of missing.
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