Snooker: Exclusive interview with Neil Robertson ahead of Betfred World Championship at the Crucible

Nick Metcalfe speaks to Neil Robertson

Neil Robertson has welcomed the prospect of fans being present at snooker's World Championship, believing that having no crowd at the previous big event was "disastrous" for the players.

Last month's Tour Championship in Milton Keynes was played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the World Championship, which starts at the Crucible in Sheffield on Friday, is being used as a government test event, and up to 350 spectators will be in attendance at each session.

Five-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan has branded the decision to allow fans inside the Crucible "insane", but Robertson is fully supportive of the move.

And the Australian, who was knocked out by Stephen Maguire in the last eight of the Tour Championship, has also suggested the Scot might not have won his first ranking tournament for seven years if there had been fans present.

Robertson told Sporting Life: "I would fully welcome the crowds of a few hundred people at the Crucible.

"The last tournament was disastrous to play in. It was awful, terrible. I think snooker relies on fans. It felt like well-paid practice. There was no pressure, no atmosphere.

"With no crowd, there were no oohs and aahs - they can influence how a match is played. The other players maybe didn't say it in interviews because they wanted to be respectful, but it was pretty rough.

"It was the first tournament Maguire had won in seven or eight years. He's a brilliant player. But would he have played as well with a crowd there, that would have been on him for every mistake? It remains to be seen.

"That's the feeling among the players as well, that had we played in front of an empty Crucible, you wouldn't have an unworthy winner, but you could certainly have someone who goes from having no chance of winning to maybe having a chance.

"Everyone can perform well in front of an empty stadium, you just feel like you're practising. Imagine a penalty shoot-out in a Champions League final with no crowd. It's very different.

"The crowds play a big part in someone's character, and who they are as a person. It's doing it when it really matters in front of people watching. Even top 16 players can collapse at the Crucible."

O'Sullivan believes it is an "unnecessary risk" to allow crowds to attend the tournament while the world is still trying to get to grips with the pandemic, saying it is "paramount" to take the stress off the NHS.

But former world champion Robertson has dismissed safety concerns, saying: "A lot of people need to look at the data of what's going on. We need to get back to some kind of normality.

"The average age of somebody dying from it is 80, and 50 per cent of the deaths have been in care homes. You need to have seriously underlying issues for it to affect you. It's an awful thing that's happened, but the people that could be vulnerable need to take precautions, and it's probably best not to take the chance of going to the Crucible.

"World Snooker will need to be selective as to who they let in. If the fans there don't fall under those criteria, I've got no worries about my safety, or the fans' safety, or anyone's safety.

"I think you've got to look at it from the perspective of people struggling with their mental health. It can be a boost to see some live sport."

Robertson, 38, has enjoyed an outstanding career, but it is something of a surprise that he hasn't been back to the world final since his one Crucible triumph in 2010. Indeed, he's only reached one semi-final in the last decade.

It's clearly something that has been occupying Robertson's mind lately. And he believes one family factor might work to his advantage over the coming weeks.

"I've had a good think about things, about not getting back to the final, that's been the most puzzling thing." he said. "You can't say this person deserves to win it three or four times, you can't say that about one event that happens once a year. But I've won other big tournaments multiple times.

"I have had a look at my game over longer distances, and I think sometimes I get a bit casual, thinking I've got plenty of time, and sooner or later in one of the sessions I'll blow my opponent away. I've probably taken my foot off the gas a little bit, and you need to be 100 per cent all the way through.

"A little bit of luck doesn't hurt either. I don't think anyone has won it apart from Ronnie when they haven't won a match where they're thinking, I was a bit lucky to get away with that one.

"One thing that might fall for me is, every year I fly my dad over, as he wasn't there when I won it. I maybe put myself under too much pressure, to win with him being present. It's kind of silly, but I guess with me being an overseas player... if I was from the UK my family would have been there anyway.

"Obviously my dad can't come over here this year, that might take away my subconscious pressure."

Despite not reaching the sport's showpiece match in the last ten years, Robertson doesn't believe that he needs to win another Crucible title to prove his status in the game, and is sure he would still be totally fulfilled if he retired with just that 2010 success.

"I've achieved everything in my wildest dreams," he said. "Just to even win one ranking event, when I came over here in 2003, I'd be like wow. What I have done is amazing.

"From a greedy point of view, I'd love to win a second one, it would be great. But if I retired and the worst thing I looked at was not winning a second world title, that's a pretty good problem to have."

And so, three months late, we head once more into Sheffield's compelling annual 17-day marathon.

Robertson, who begins his first round match next Sunday, has had a fine season. He claimed the prestigious Champion of Champions title last autumn, and then hit a purple patch early this year, with victories in two ranking tournaments, the European Masters and World Grand Prix.

And Robertson insists he couldn't be in better shape for the game's biggest event. "I feel really good." he said.

"I've been exercising a lot, something I haven't done for a long time properly. I do as much fitness as I can do with the time I have. I've done everything right, I've ticked all the boxes, which is what you want heading into a World Championship. Probably some other years I haven't ticked all the boxes 100 per cent.

"This year I'm not sure anyone has any excuses. We've had a long time to prepare, everyone is fresh. You could see an amazing standard of snooker."

Before the tournament does get under way, just one more important topic to tackle. Robertson's now infamous long hair from last month. Will we see a repeat in Sheffield?

"No, I'm having a big hair cut," a laughing Robertson revealed. "A fair bit will be coming off. Although it's been funny to see how ridiculous it's got to. I almost want to keep it going."

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