IT IS the practice that wears them away in snooker. The search for the perfect frame. Years and years on the table, building a cast- iron insurance against defeat. They never find it of course, but the enthusiastic spend six hours a day in pursuit. At 18, with everything before you, it is a price worth paying; at 38 it is an unavoidable but depressing penance. 'I find practising purgatory,' says Dennis Taylor, the 1985 world champion.
At 23, James Wattana is of the breed who appreciates the work as well as the play. 'Don't listen to him,' his manager Tom Moran says when his charge suggests the contrary. 'He loves it. He would spend every hour of the day on the table if he could. He wants to be the best snooker player in the world and will work as hard as it takes.'
On his day Wattana might already be that. He attacks the table with little regard to circumspection. Like a young Alex Higgins or Jimmy White, for him the coloured balls are for potting, not for hiding the white behind. Inevitably, after the Hurricane and the Whirlwind, Wattana's Bangkok birthplace has given him the sobriquet the 'Thai-phoon'. Whether the wind will be kind to him in the Embassy World Championship over the next 16 days, whether he can disrupt the settled order, is open to debate.
Few would attempt to answer with any certainty. Even Wattana. He has spent the last week in his adopted second home in Bradford preparing for his first round match against Tony Jones on Tuesday. He is the seventh seed in Sheffield and his provisional ranking, given his results this year, would put him at fifth. He should win, yet to an extent he is entering the unknown.
'I'm confident I'll be world champion,' he says. 'Not once but a few times. I'm afraid of no other player. My mind is stronger now. That's important.' All sportsmen talk like this before a big event, yet Wattana carries more conviction than most. But confidence, particularly at The Crucible, is not everything. The matches are long enough - the best of 19 frames a minimum - for a player to live through a bad patch and still survive. An obdurate player can grind an opponent down. Jimmy White might be the finest attacking snooker player the world has seen, yet he still has to win his first world championship.
For all his tournament wins - two this year - Wattana has yet to produce it on the big occasion. Last year was the first time he had reached the final stages of the world championship, and then he lost in the second round, albeit to the eventual winner Stephen Hendry. This year the draw has again been unkind, and if results go to rank he will need to defeat White, John Parrott and Hendry to prevail.
'I wonder whether James has the experience to win the world championship,' Moran says. 'The people ahead of him in the rankings have all played in finals. They've got to the later stages, they know what it requires. It's a long slog at The Crucible. I'm not sure James can sustain his standard for 17 days. Stamina plays a part. People who know a bit about the game say James is too attacking for his own good. He needs to be more cautious, to develop a safety game.'
It is a doubt echoed by John Spencer, three times world champion himself and an adviser to Parrott, the 1991 winner. 'It's harder for anyone who plays like James to win the world championship,' he says. 'You have to maintain your form, keep getting the long pots for a long, long time. I think it's the reason why Jimmy White has never been world champion. James could be the same. James is so confident, he believes he isn't going to miss. If you feel like that you don't develop a safety game. Why should you? It'll come though. It's just a matter of experience.'
In some respects Wattana has had the experience of two lifetimes. When he was two his father left home, leaving his mother, the owner of a less than salubrious snooker club in Bangkok, to bring him up. At nine he began playing snooker - 'I liked a lot of sports, but snooker was best. I found it not too difficult' - but it took four years before he could do so without running the risk of maternal wrath, provoked by the fear that he might be falling under the wrong influences.
At 13 she gave him her blessing by allowing him into her own club - a gesture he responded to soon afterwards by making his first century break. In Bangkok any prodigy with potential to earn money is soon noticed, and barely into his teens he was working for a syndicate, playing snooker matches for huge sums. So successful was he that he became known as the 'poor man's favourite' for the cash he was distributing to his backers.
Even now he is attached to a seven-man syndicate, with Moran, a Yorkshireman and former secretary of the Thailand Snooker Association, their nominee as manager. Much has been written about the symbiotic link between Steve Davis and his mentor Barry Hearn, but there is also a relationship stronger than the normal client-manager basis about Wattana and Moran. The latter made his money from water pumps and emigrated to Thailand a quarter of a century ago. He now has almost a paternal relationship with his charge, and it was on Moran's advice that Bradford became Wattana's British base.
'As soon as I saw James I knew he was a special player,' Moran says. 'He had so much confidence, so much ability.' At 15, in one weekend, Wattana beat three British players in Thailand. They happened to be Davis, Griffiths and Taylor, then the world champion. The professional circuit in Europe beckoned.
Even so, Wattana's first days in Britain were far from ideal. 'I didn't understand the language, I didn't like the weather and I didn't like the food. I was homesick, but I couldn't phone home because I couldn't afford it. All I could do was write.' Wattana might have been lost to the sport had it not been for snooker fanatic Harry Wau, who took the youngster into his home in Chester. The Wau family worked hard to make him feel at home and teach him the language. Around this time, too, he acquired his name. In Thailand he is known as Wattana Po Ob Orm, but one organiser found that too much of a mouthful. He suggested an alternative, and James has stuck.
It required a third visit to Britain, and under Moran's guidance, his winning the world amateur title in Sydney in 1988 before he turned professional. He reached the final of his second professional tournament, the 1989 Asian Open, in his home town of Bangkok. His progress drew a television audience in Thailand of 20 million and caused the evening news bulletin to be delayed on the orders of the Thai prime minister.
Now virtually every Wattana match is televised in Thailand. He is the most admired sportsman in his country, drawing crowds to the airport on his frequent returns home. 'It's my home,' he says. 'I stay in Britain, but I'm a Thai and will return there when I retire. If I'm not playing in tournaments I go back. I don't mix with Thais in Britain. When Thais get together they get too involved.'
With the attention comes commercial success. Nestle and Commercial Union are among his sponsors, pushing his annual earnings to around pounds 600,000. Moran speculates whether his charge is the richest Asian sportsman in the world. Deciding that only the top Japanese golfers are more marketable, he adds, 'James would earn pounds 2m in the year he was world champion.
'The Thais get excited about James,' Moran says, 'because he beats western sportsmen at their own game. Thais are not big people. They produce some good boxers in the lighter weights, but generally they are too small to compete. They see James as an exception, a hero.' With a role model to ape, thousands of James Wattanas are honing their skills on the tables of Bangkok and beyond.
It required a less happy reason to bring Wattana to the attention of non-snooker aficionados in this country. During the British Open of February 1992 his father was shot, purportedly because of his gambling debts, and Wattana, assuming he was recovering, recorded a 147 break for what was only the fourth televised maximum.
Only when he was about to celebrate did Moran inform him that his father had died from his wounds. Showing incredible stength of mind he reached the final of the tournament, losing to Jimmy White, before flying home. 'I think he had always suspected something like that might happen to his father,' Moran says, 'so it didn't shock him as much as it might have done. Even so, it was a traumatic experience.' By the time Wattana arrived in Bangkok the Thai police had shot dead the man believed to be the assassin.
Wattana has now had four seasons grinding his way through the professional ranks - 33rd in 1990, 20th in 1991 and seventh at the end of last season. This could be his year in Sheffield. At any rate, his relations think so - 19 of them will be over from Thailand to watch him.
'You can't over-estimate how important a Wattana victory would be to the sport,' John Spencer says. 'It would give a further boost to the sport in Thailand and once it really takes off there other countries around it will follow. Snooker is expanding. It's becoming a world game. But James is the most obvious example that it has spread beyond Britain.'
Wattana, meanwhile, had gone back to practise, leaving his manager to speculate. 'It's an exciting time because you feel he is on the verge of something. I don't think we've seen the best of James Wattana yet. There's more to come.'
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