Phil Haigh ✍️
Andy Lee is back on the World Snooker Tour as his fascinating journey with the sport continues, and this latest path he turns down is both a surprise and the proudest achievement of his career so far.
The 41-year-old won through Q School this month to earn himself a third crack at the professional tour and, after two years of inactivity at home in Hong Kong, he admits the success was a bit of a shock.
‘I was pretty much speechless after I qualified, because I wasn’t expecting it,’ Lee told Metro.co.uk. ‘I’ve been away for a couple of years now from elite level competition and I was in doubt as to where my game was at, especially under the hammer.
‘There were a lot of doubts and I didn’t know whether I could respond, but I managed to tough it out.’
Lee’s snooker tale began in his home town of Hinckley, Leicestershire, where he grew up with the game and then the incredible junior scene based at Willie Thorne’s club in Leicester alongside the likes of Mark Selby and Tom Ford.
Winning the English ProTicket play-offs in 2008 gave him his first shot at professional status, but it was brutally difficult to make a living out of the game at that point so life on tour lasted just one year.
The financial pressures of trying to make it in snooker saw Lee break up with his then fiancée and have to pick up a job in recruitment, before he hatched a plan that would change his life entirely.
With parents from Hong Kong, Lee had the option of moving to there and become a funded player through the Hong Kong Sports Institute, getting a wage and financial support to play the sport, while being based over there.
It was a great option to have for Lee, but a tricky choice to make to move to the other side of the world.
‘It wasn’t an easy decision because I didn’t know anyone out there, my brother lives in China, I was moving to another country,’ he explained. ‘But luckily I speak Cantonese, which made it easier. Wayne [Griffiths] is over there, I knew Terry, so I decided to give it a crack and 10 years later I’m still there.
‘The first two years I was betwixt and between as to whether my heart was in it. I wasn’t really doing what was expected of me, because I’d just dropped off the tour, people thought I’d just go there and walk over everyone but it wasn’t like that.
‘I wasn’t really enjoying it, the conditions there are very different, very humid and it’s a different style of play. I was enjoying off the table more because Hong Kong is such a great place, I settled in quickly, made a lot of good friends.
‘That kept me hanging in there and then I got my head down and we won the IBSF World Team Championships in 2015 and that was the pick me up I needed. I got a bigger contract, we won Sports Team of the Year, which is like the Oscars in Hong Kong sports.
‘It was amazing to go through all that. We beat a lot of Olympic sports to win that award, so I was really proud of that and helped me focus on getting back on the tour.
‘In 2018 I qualified to get back on tour, so I kept making plans and they came to fruition. Even now it’s going to plan, someone’s looking down on me, maybe it’s the snooker gods.’
Lee came through Q School in 2018 as well, but his time on tour did not go to plan, before being cut short by the outbreak of the pandemic.
‘I probably went in there with the wrong attitude,’ Lee said. ‘I focussed a lot on ranking points, keeping my tour spot, I didn’t want to be back at Q School. I put a lot of pressure on myself, I have high expectations of myself and feel like I can compete on tour.
‘Coming through Q School a second time proves I belong on tour, I think. I just didn’t manage to play with any freedom last time round.
‘I came out of Q School on a high, won my first game to qualify for the first China event. But I lost to Jimmy Robertson in my third comp 4-3, I should have won, I missed the pink clearing up and he ended up winning the tournament! I lost confidence and lost seven or eight matches without even competing.
‘If you’re competing it’s easier to swallow, but when you’re losing 4-0, 4-1, I started having doubts. I started not wanting to be there. It starts becoming a horrible experience, the highs go away and you’re in the doldrums.
‘You start to wonder where your next win is coming from. I was dreading going to tournaments. You start hoping for better draws and once you’re on that negative way of thinking it’s a vicious cycle.
‘So the first year was a struggle, second year was better, got a few wins under my belt, then my season finished with Covid. I didn’t come back for the Worlds. So after that I did wonder if it was time to call it. But I know I’m in a more privileged position than most, with the funding from the Sports Institute, it’s kept me going.’
Off tour and back in Hong Kong where a strict lockdown was in place, Lee was left questioning how his snooker journey could continue, unable to compete or even practice properly.
‘We had six or seven months of lockdown with zero practice,’ he said. ‘All the snooker clubs were shut. There were two blocks of three months where I didn’t pick my cue up. Either side of that I’ve been practicing, but other than Marco, we don’t have a great array of players who will punish mistakes.
‘It’s been hard to stay motivated because we didn’t know when we’d be back, I thought maybe that was that, I considered walking away from the sport because the loggerheads with government about travel restrictions. I doubted whether I’d carry on, because we were practicing for nothing. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.
‘Thankfully the government have changed their minds a bit, letting us travel and compete again so I’m thankful to be given the opportunity. I was delighted to have even a slim chance to do something again.’
Uncertainty remains, though, with the Hong Kong Sports Institute demoting cue sports from Tier A to Tier B, seeing two thirds of the funding cut from April 2023.
It looks like Lee’s Hong Kong adventure will come to an end then, but no decisions have been made just yet.
‘We don’t know what’s going to happen,’ he said. ‘We’ve had meetings, but it’s an unprecedented situation, because what normally happens is sports are cut completely, we’re the first to be demoted to Tier B, so there’s a lot of things not set in stone.
‘A lot of players are seriously thinking about their futures. At my stage of my career, I couldn’t live on what they’re putting on the table at the minute, I couldn’t carry on playing, it’s too much of a drop. Especially living in Hong Kong, which is part of the contract, that you have to live over there.’
Lee knows he has been very fortunate to have the support in Hong Kong to fund his snooker dreams, but he has felt like he has lacked emotional support, in fact he has felt attacked by the snooker community in his adopted homeland.
‘It’s hard. Social media is vicious,’ he said. ‘You don’t want to take to heart what people say when you’re losing matches, it’s hard enough anyway.
‘I got a lot of stick in Hong Kong and it really hit me for six, I should have got more support. This time qualifying is a bit like I’ve proved them wrong, to the people who didn’t stand by me when I was struggling on tour.
‘This has given me so much satisfaction, it’s probably my proudest achievement, I know I haven’t won anything, but what I’ve come through and the stick I’ve taken from the so-called snooker community in Hong Kong, it’s been horrendous. I felt like I deserved more respect.
‘Half of me getting back on tour is ‘I told you so’. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not a local Hong Kong player, I came through the British system, grew up in the UK. I don’t know whether they don’t quite class me as one of their own because of that, I’m not sure.
‘It doesn’t sit well with me. I was almost trying too hard to try and prove people wrong, I was playing for them rather than myself. It was mental turmoil. I was not just dealing with self doubt over losing matches, but the social media side of things, it was not enjoyable, put me off the game a bit. I’m glad to have proved them wrong. I don’t want to upset anyone in Hong Kong, I’m glad I’ve done it for my country, but I’m more glad I’ve done it for myself.’
Lee, who was practicing hard in the Ding Junhui Academy ahead of Q School, is now ready to give the tour his all again, confident after winning his place back and with the benefits of his experience from 2018-20.
‘I’m looking to improve on what I did previously and I hope to do better thanks to my experiences,’ he said. ‘There were lots of matches where I collapsed like a cheap tent once I got behind, I wasn’t fancying the job and couldn’t wait to get out of there.
‘This time will be different because I’ve learned from that experience. I’ve learned to tough it out, play the right shots and not hand it to anyone on a plate, make them win it and keep believing.
‘I took the losses and giving up so easily harder than anyone else. I was almost thinking I was rubbish at the game. It’s the nature of the beast unfortunately, it’s impossible not to have self doubts. Then you’re tinkering on the practice table, technically or mentally and it breaks you down, back to the drawing board all the time searching for the magic formula. Even people like John Higgins, Mark Selby do it, we’re all perfectionists, searching for that magic formula. I’m not going to do that this time round.
‘Getting through Q School this time has given me the extra belief that it’s where I belong. The first time you wonder if it’s a fluke, I’d been nine years away, was it the snooker gods on my side? Getting through this time, picking myself up off the floor after two years out, getting up for the scrap, I’ve proved beyond reasonable doubt that’s where I belong. I don’t have to prove to myself. I belong there.’
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