Phil Haigh ✍️
Tony Drago, one of snooker’s greatest every gun-slinging entertainers, may not have the titles of many of his rivals, but he is sticking to those guns and would not change a thing.
At 57, the Tornado is finished with the professional game, living back in Malta but still watching every bit of snooker available to him.
He was over in the UK this week to compete in The 900, the pioneering new amateur tournament, and he showed that the old magic has not left him, winning a couple of games.
The veteran has still got it, but he doesn’t get his cue out in Malta too much these days because he doesn’t love the conditions in his home country.
‘I don’t play much, no,’ Tony told Metro.co.uk. ‘I’ve got a problem because I don’t like to play in the humidity and Malta is full of humidity. Sometimes I go down and have a game with the boys, but not enough.
‘There is one or two or three who can give me a game, but I’m used to playing against the very, very top, so it’s hard to get up for it. I respect them because they’re very good, but you get used to playing a certain level.
‘I’ve done what I had to do. 32 years on tour, it’s enough for me. I just play for fun now. I miss it [the tour] but not that much because I’m not good enough to compete on the main tour. If I was still living in the UK, practicing five hours a day, then I’d still give everybody a run even at 57!’
Drago may not be on the baize as much anymore, but he is just as obsessed with snooker as ever and loves to watch the players who bring the flair to the table, just as he did.
‘I watch every frame, I watch it all,’ he said. ‘Jimmy will always be my favourite player. Probably like another million people I enjoy watching Ronnie. No doubt he’s the best ever.
‘Apart from five or six, I don’t like to watch nobody. I won’t say any names because it’s not fair, but there’s a lot of robotic players in the game now. I like the flair, like Ronnie, Judd, Higgins, although people wouldn’t think Higgins has got flair but he’s brilliant to watch. Zhao Xintong, a few more.
‘The rest, like Mark Selby, if he plays a lower ranked player I can never watch. He’s a great great player, but not the prettiest to watch. When he plays Ronnie or Judd he’s so tough, I enjoy to watch his toughness, I know those players will have to be up for it to beat Mark Selby. Then I like watching him, but against a lower ranked player, I can’t be bothered.
‘Ronnie can say Judd is this, Higgins is that, the player he most doesn’t like to play is Mark Selby.’
Drago has the ultimate respect for O’Sullivan, first seeing the Rocket in action as a teenager and knowing that he was set for greatness from the off.
‘Oh we knew when he was 13, we knew he would be unstoppable,’ said Tony.
‘Ronnie deserves what he gets, with hard work, his running. Don’t be fooled by Ronnie when he says it’s a holiday, we know who’s the greatest, but he will still want another world title to be on his own on eight.
‘He will play it down, but I know he wants that, and he will get it, it’s only six months to go to the Worlds and nobody is near him! I’m not saying he will definitely win the next one guaranteed. But who is close to him? Nobody.
‘For me, Ronnie is the most talented sportsman, not snooker player, but sportsman of all time. He might not be as tough mentally as a Woods, because Ronnie can sometimes go off the rails mentally, but talking about pure talent, there’s no one with as much. Ronnie is mentally strong, I don’t think he has a problem being mentally strong, he has had a problem being mentally disciplined, that’s different.
‘Ronnie, if he plays another three years, he will definitely win another one, maybe two more world titles. If he’s on nine, he’ll go for 10!
‘As long as he looks after his body and runs, what do you want, a 50 year old who runs or a 35 year old who eats burgers and kebabs? I’ll take the 50 year old.
‘I never gave myself the best chance, I was 118 kilos, eating kebabs, burgers, then I had heart failure four years ago! I feel good now, I can’t be a million percent or I wouldn’t take all these tablets every day, but I feel healthy.’
Drago is an iconic figure in the sport, the favourite player of many fans, but he does not have the titles to match his legendary status in snooker.
A peak of number 10 in the world and just one big title at the 1996 Guangzhou Masters was not enough for his talent and he knows it, but he is proud of his achievements as he forged a rarely-trodden path from Malta and did it in style.
‘I had a laugh, I had a lot of fun,’ he said. ‘Obviously I underachieved by a mile and a half. I should have won big tournaments, but then again, a kid from Malta, first 10 years I was homesick more than enjoyed being here.
‘I had missteps as well, dodgy managers and stuff. I look at my career as proud of what I achieved rather than what I didn’t win. Number 10 in the world, a couple of tournaments here and there. I had to struggle, that’s why I respect someone like Neil Robertson or Ding Junhui, it’s 10 times harder.
‘Okay, sometimes my temperament let me down, these guys today train their mind. I just played on instinct. I had the wrong mentality, I was offered coaching, even at number 10 in the world I was offered it, but I would rather do it my way. When I failed I did it myself and I can live with that, I didn’t want a coach and have someone to blame.
‘Jimmy didn’t win the big one but he’s still more popular than everyone apart from probably Ronnie. People love the way we played, showing our emotions. I still get texts now asking why I’m not on tour, I have to say, “guys I’m not good enough.” They say they don’t care if I miss every shot or not, but I do care! England is one place, they love winners, but they also love entertainers.
‘I never wanted to change my game, I loved my game. People ask me would I change the way I played to win more and I say no. I enjoyed playing, I didn’t enjoy losing, but the day after I wake up and it’s okay.’
Drago and White were long-time practice partners and great friends and the Tornado talks with extreme fondness of the Whirlwind, although he will only ever be honest with him.
‘I lived in Balham, south London,’ he said. ‘I practiced with Jimmy for years., but I don’t drink or smoke, when the night comes I go one way and Jimmy went another, but in the morning we practice. He’s my idol, my hero, my friend, still now.’
On whether Jimmy can still win big titles, as he claims, Tony said: ‘That’s stupid of him, we know that cannot happen. If he says he can beat anyone on his day then yes, but that’s too much. I can say I can break this glass, but if I say I can knock Mike Tyson out, you’re not going to believe me.’
Drago will always give an honest opinion and will happily do so on social media, where he doesn’t mind ruffling a few feathers.
‘I like social media, but I use it in a positive way. You still get idiots who don’t agree with you, but I don’t mind,’ he said.
‘I used to play, I know all the players, I have every right to write a post, it’s all in good spirits. Like the other day I said, Stephen Hendry shouldn’t have a wildcard when he doesn’t play any tournaments.
‘I’m not close friends with Stephen, but we get on well, when he sees me he might say, “what the hell are you saying?” I’d say, “you know what I’m saying. You don’t deserve it!”
‘There’s players out there who are not as good as Hendry was but they’re better than him now who want a tour card and can’t get it. He quit too young and for too long.’
After playing on the professional circuit from 1985-2016 and now watching every frame he can get hold of, Drago is well placed to judge the standard in snooker and he thinks the top of the game is not vastly different from his heyday, although down the rankings, the difference is stark.
‘I say the top 16 now and top 16 before, it’s slightly better now but not by a margin, but 17 down it’s miles better,’ he said. ‘You play number 18 in the world, you know he can beat world number one. When I turned pro in the 80s, the number 18 would get nowhere near the number one.
‘In the 90s, when I was number 10, Higgins, Ronnie, Williams, Hendry, Ebdon, Parrott, Doherty, all great players. Okay the game has developed, more one visits, but I don’t see much difference.
‘People can say whatever they want, but Steve Davis in the 80s at his best, he would have competed with all the players of now. In a different way, he probably wouldn’t out score them, but he was too clever.
‘Davis playing Trump now, both at their best, Judd would not enjoy that, Davis would have tied his knots. Davis wouldn’t be scoring hundreds, but he’d make 70 and put you behind a colour.
‘Davis would be top four of any era, for me. By a mile my hardest opponent. The other guys might knock you out, but Davis would jab you to death, he’d kill you slowly. I played him 16 times and only won once. But that win was the China Masters final. I kept saying, I beat you in a final! He just said, I’m in the final every tournament, where were you? He’s a great lad.’
Unsurprisingly, chatting to Tony and hearing his views is an absolute pleasure and one that any snooker fan would enjoy, so would he be interested in a role on television?
‘I wouldn’t like to do commentary, but I would like to do what Jimmy does and talk after the matches,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t be worried about saying something and getting sacked, I don’t care.’
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