Phil Haigh ✍️
Michael Holt finds himself in a situation that is stickier than he ever imagined at the business end of the season, needing wins to stay on tour and he admits it is far from a nice experience.
It was only two years ago that the Hitman enjoyed the high point of his career when he won the Shoot Out, his first ranking title, but has had a tricky time of it this season and slipped down the rankings.
The 43-year-old is ranked 69 in the world with just two events left to play in this season, needing to nudge back inside the top 64 – or be one of the four highest ranked outside that on the one-year list – to stay on tour.
Having been a mainstay on tour since 1998, fighting for his professional status is not what he expected, wanted or likes doing, but he is not shying away from the challenge and is confident he is still more than good enough for the job in hand.
‘It is a unique experience and it’s not a nice experience, let’s be honest,’ Holt told Metro.co.uk.
‘It’s weird because the last couple of years I’ve felt like I’m generally playing pretty good, especially in practice, but obviously I’ve lost. Ultimately I’ve made mistakes at some point, got punished for them and I am where I am.
‘It’s a cliché and a bit boring, but I am where I am, I’ve got to just deal with it now, focus on the next ball and see where it takes me.’
If Holt can’t pick up the wins he needs at the Gibraltar Open and World Championship then he has Q School to return to the tour immediately. He would be fancied to come through that challenge if needs be, but of course there is the prospect of falling off the circuit completely, something it is impossible not to consider.
‘I think it’s only natural, you’d have to be a robot to not consider the worst case scenario,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a family so I have to think about what could happen.
‘To go along and not have any thoughts about it would be irresponsible, in a way. Maybe some people can block those things out, but I can’t. Probably one of the reasons I’ve not been a top player. Thinking too much.
‘The one thing I’ve got all the way through this process, this horrible situation, is the fact that my game is there.
‘I got beat 5-0 in my last match with John [Higgins at the Turkish Masters], didn’t perform well at all, but generally I’m losing close games, playing a decent level and in practice my level is very good most days.
‘It’s not like I’m losing 5-1 every match, playing terrible in practice and in a bit of a hole. I know my game is there I just need to allow myself to do it. I have to cling onto that for some confidence and I truly believe in that, the level is still there. I’ll get my head down and see how I go.’
The Hitman has generally floated around between 20-50 in the world rankings for the last 20 years, never having to take on the gruelling challenge of Q School to stay on tour, but he wouldn’t think twice about entering if needs be.
Asked whether taking that route would be more of a dent to his pride than anything, he wasn’t having any of it.
‘I would go to Q School, obviously. It’s not a nice situation. It wouldn’t be embarrassing, who am I to be embarrassed about it?’ Holt said. ‘Obviously I don’t want to be there because it means I’ve lost matches and not won money.
‘But if I just came back on through Q School, I don’t really care. I want to stay on, but whichever way it is I don’t really care.
‘You never know with Q School. I’d probably be one of the favourites, but it’s best of sevens and this game is a bit mad at times. No guarantees to win any match. Hopefully it don’t come to that, but I just want to stay on, I’m not too proud, I’ve never been too proud to go and do anything, I don’t care what it is. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.’
It’s fair to say that the Hitman is taking his perilous position in good humour, being stunned at the thought of anyone wanting to interview the world number 69.
‘I’ve spent my career trying and failing to be talked about and obviously I’ve found a way,’ he joked. ‘Sink to the bottom and I’ll get all the media attention I desire. I was doing too well!
‘I’m sure I’d get a wildcard back on anyway. The game would be far less without me.’
Holt has not been wallowing in his disappointing results this season, beginning a booming coaching career, which is keeping him busier than he ever expected at his Nottingham base.
His struggles have not dampened his love for the game in any way and quickly being successful outside of tournament play makes the prospect of falling off tour far less concerning.
‘The coaching has sort of shown me that if it does all crumble then I’ve still got something I can do and push that a bit harder,’ he said.
‘I’ll always, while I’m playing to the level I can, try and play, be on tour because the game is still there. If I stayed on tour I wouldn’t be the worst player on tour.
‘If I’m coaching I’m in the game, I’ll be watching bits, hopefully explore a bit of commentary. I want to do all that anyway, even if I stay on, so it’s not that scary. But I want to be a tour player, I see myself as a tour player so that’s what I intend on doing, staying on.
‘I’m not seeing this as negative, it’s reality and sometimes reality isn’t roses. Don’t be in denial. I’m in the position I am because ultimately I’ve lost matches. I’m as brutally honest with myself, maybe too much at times.’
There is a fine balance in snooker between being realistic with your expectations but not getting too down on yourself as a player. Accepting your limitations, but still being convinced you can win any game you play. Holt feels he could possibly look to boost his own confidence a bit, but can you change a players personality?
‘I think it’s down to characters,’ he said. ‘Some people would respond to people around them telling them how amazing they are, and telling themselves that. But if someone told me I was the best player in the world, I’d just say, “no I’m not” because I’m not.
‘Maybe I can be too brutally honest with myself at times, don’t do myself any favours, but it’s all characters. Maybe I could benefit from being…not optimistic because I am optimistic, if you ask me what I think I am as a player, I think I’ve got a very high skill level and I’m willing to stand up against anyone.
‘I don’t feel in awe against anyone when I play them, it’s more me battling myself. When it comes to playing the game I back myself against anyone, so it’s not a lack of confidence. I think it’s just personalities.
‘I have failed mentally, that’s the reason I’ve had the career that I’ve had. Maybe I could change things a bit and do things differently. But to go to the extreme of telling myself how great I am, I just can’t do that.’
Competing in snooker outside of the very elite can be a taxing existence on the mind, constantly dealing with defeats after hours of work away from the relative glamour of tournament play – and that really is only ‘relative’ glamour for many players on the outside tables.
It can get you down and many players have spoken about how their mental health has suffered while playing the game.
Holt has never felt like he has suffered depression, but can see how it impacts other players and says you have to take the mental boosts when you can get them.
‘The best of the best in snooker lose in most tournaments they play in, and that’s the elite,’ he said. ‘Obviously when you’re not in that bracket, you lose in a very, very high percentage of the tournaments you’re in.
‘You’ve got to take confidence and lessons from matches you’ve won, get into a better mental state and to a higher level because obviously at professional level, they can all play all the shots you need to play, but it’s the mentality that separates it.
‘I have struggled. I’ve never been depressed, but I have been down and really down. You put a lot of work in that people don’t see and maybe don’t think you’re doing.
‘If my career ended tomorrow I’d know I’ve tried my best to reach the top level, done everything I can and obviously I’ve not achieved it. But, if you’re all in emotionally and mentally, if you don’t achieve that goal then it is heart-breaking. It’s absolutely heart-breaking.
‘There are some players on tour that don’t do all that stuff and it’s less heart-breaking then. They don’t work as hard, then you’ve got that excuse in your mind so it’s less heart-breaking. If that’s better for them then fair enough, but I can’t, I try so hard, maybe too hard. So yes I have had down times, because at the end of the day, I’ve failed. I’ve not got to the level I wanted to get to.
‘I think I’ve got a broad spectrum of emotions, have big laughs a lot of the time, but then I’ve been really down. I’m sure some personalities have less of a spectrum, never that happy or sad, which probably helps with snooker.
‘Their emotions are like a tranquil lake, placid, but if you’re not that character…I get excited and I’ll be jumping around. There’s ways of controlling that but it’s hard if it’s in you to be emotional. It’s just hard wired into you. How do you deal with that?’
Back to the task in hand and Holt is confident his luck will turn around in time to save his tour card, happy with how he is playing and inspired by the recent shock winners of big events.
Neither Fan Zhengyi nor Joe Perry were winning many matches before the former claimed the European Masters and the latter the Welsh Open. Dig in, keep fighting and the Hitman is confident he’ll be shooting down opponents again soon.
‘You never know what’s round the corner in this game,’ he said. ‘Look at Joe, look at Fan. Just keep punching, keep swinging.
‘My best day, the Shoot Out, I should have lost in the first round [to Amine Amiri]. In any sport you need the stars to align a little bit and you’ve got to be ready to take that chance.
‘That’s what I’m doing, I’m practicing my short and curlies off to try and be ready if I get the chance, then we shall see.’
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