Phil Haigh ✍️
Zak Surety is back on tour after coming through Q School, but his battle with anxiety is as big a challenge as any opponent he will face on the professional circuit.
The 30-year-old won through the second event this season thanks to beating talented Belgian teenager Ben Mertens in the final round, making it the second time he has been through Q School to earn his place on tour.
The Basildon-based player admits that the spectre of the brutal tournament in Sheffield has been looming large in his mind ever since he came through it two years ago.
‘When I first got back on, it’s always in the back of my mind,’ he said. ‘I’m thinking, “I’ve got to get off to a good start or else next year I’m going to be struggling and end up back at Q School, I don’t want to be back there.” But it’s a fresh start now.’
The constant concern over Q School is illustrative of the mental struggles Surety has to deal with, as he tries to fight through anxiety that makes everything so much more difficult for him.
Such was the impact of his mental struggles last season that he planned not to return to Q School when he dropped off tour, assuming it would be a waste of time and money.
‘I wasn’t even going to enter it, I thought I was in no right head space at the end of last season,’ he said. ‘I’ve got anxiety issues, I was struggling to play.
‘I saw the names dropping off and just thought it would be a waste of money. You’ve got [Michael] Holt, [Kurt] Maflin, [Andrew] Higginson, it’s horrible in there. Then all the youngsters like Ben coming through.
‘I didn’t really give myself much of a chance and I’d be wasting £1,000. But me mum and brother chatted me into it, I’ve got a little club involved now, I’ve been playing down there and mixing it up a bit. I feel like I’ve got a few people behind me for support.’
Surety is in a position where many players find themselves, battling to keep their dream of snooker glory alive, but struggling with the reality of competing in the lower reaches of the rankings.
Regular disappointment, lack of financial gain and with anxiety issues as well, it has been difficult for Surety to see the positive side of life on tour.
‘Obviously I want to be a snooker player, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,’ he said. ‘But I was starting to question if I was happy or not.
‘You’re turning up at tournaments and just waiting to lose. I was cracking up. I went to the Welsh Open last season and I couldn’t even look up, I was thinking, “Just beat me.”
‘As a consequence I withdrew from Turkey, didn’t play in Gibraltar, you have to play in the World Championships because it’s the World Championships. Lost there and when I left, I thought there’s no chance I’ll play Q School, but I think we had a day’s extension to the deadline and I entered at the last minute.
‘I just want to calm down out there. You’ve just got to keep trying, keep playing and see where it gets you. I’m a confidence player, if I get a few results then who knows what can happen. But if I behave how I have the last two years, then well I’m probably going to end up back here [at Q School].’
It is not just on the baize that Surety has to deal with feeling anxious, but the pressures of the tour have seen it get worse and worse when at the table.
‘I’ve struggled for years with the anxiety. I struggle to make a phone call sometimes,’ he said. ‘Obviously snooker was always a happy place, in a way. But now, I’m losing, my hands are trembling, I’m just a different player. I can’t play anything like in a match like I do in practice.
‘It’s such an achievement just to be on tour. But you get on there and losing every week, I feel as though I’m just making up the numbers. Just sitting there all the time thinking, “Come on, you’ve done well to get here, kick on a little bit.”
‘But you’re losing and your mates are telling you you’re rubbish. And I’m like, “Well, I’m not, I’ve done alright to get here. I’ve just got to stand up a bit.”
‘The way I’m feeling on tour, with the anxiety, you feel like you’re trying to prove yourself to your opponent. Looking at an experienced pro, you’ve just got to treat them like another human, any player, and just beat them. But I miss a ball and then think, “Oh, he thinks I’m rubbish, he’s what’s-his-name from the tele.” But I’m not 18 anymore, I shouldn’t be thinking like that.’
It has got so bad at times for the 30-year-old that he has struggled to get out of his chair, wanting his opponent to keep potting balls so he can keep out of the limelight.
The enjoyment has been sapped from his snooker and his first task now he is back on tour is to try and regain it.
‘I’ve just got to start enjoying it,’ he said. ‘Start enjoying preparing for a tournament, turning up for a tournament. Not dread it like I have been, thinking, “Oh god, this is going to happen, I don’t want to go.”
‘Then I’ve got a chance, but if I behave how I was, dreading getting my cue out the case, dreading sitting in my seat…
‘I got to the point last year I didn’t even want to get out my seat to go to the toilet. I was playing Yan Bingtao, I was sitting in my seat thinking, “Don’t miss.”
‘All the lights are on you, I was thinking, this is where I’ve always wanted to be, but also, “I want to go to the toilet here, just compose myself, but then all these people are going to look at me.” So I just said, “No you break off, I’m just going to sit here.” It’s wrong isn’t it, but what can you do?’
Zak has taken steps to try and manage his anxiety, seeing a professional to try and help him keep the problem under control, but it is far from a quick fix.
‘I went and saw someone at the tail end of last year. My mate just sorted it out because he comes round and picks balls out for me and he said, “If you play like you can, you’ve got a chance.” He just bought me a session and said, “You’re going.”
‘It was good, it helped, but it wasn’t really snooker related. I just want someone to tell me how I’m meant to think when I’ve just missed a black off the spot and there’s 75 on and I’m sitting in my chair. I’m fidgeting, hands everywhere, going through two litres of water in a best of seven, it’s just chaos.’
Going through what Zak goes through is a tough way to make a living and it is easy to recall Ronnie O’Sullivan saying he wouldn’t encourage youngsters into the sport as it is just too tough outside of the elite in the game.
Surety didn’t like to hear those comments from the game’s greatest player, but given his situation, he can see what the Rocket means.
‘I see where he’s coming from,’ said Surety. ‘Obviously it’s wrong for him to say things like that, being who he is, But from my personal experience, I get what he’s saying.
‘I don’t even like doing it, I just know I’m good at it and if I get my head right I know I’ve got a chance. It’s funny innit.’
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