Phil Haigh ✍️
It has been a remarkable, trophy-laden time for the players of Victoria’s Academy, Sheffield and meeting the driving force behind the set-up, it is easy to see why the place has become littered with champions.
The season so far has been an unpredictable one, with tournament winners springing out of nowhere and none has been more surprising than 21-year-old Fan Zhengyi when he exploded out of the woodwork to win the European Masters.
Zhao Xintong, 24, was a more predictable success story, but still, his immense performance to win the UK Championship was a shock, as was his 9-0 demolition of Yan Bingtao to win the German Masters the following month.
Yan himself has not pawed any silverware this season, but the 22-year-old announced himself as one of the game’s elite just last year when he won the Masters in seriously impressive fashion; the Tiger mauling the great John Higgins in a memorable final.
The talented trio are three of the regular faces at Victoria’s Academy, the inconspicuous former office space in Sheffield city centre that is their practice base, but being a part of the academy provides much more than just a handful of tables and a little kitchen.
Victoria Shi runs the academy, but she also runs the careers and even lives of the young men who knock balls around under her watchful eye. Renting their accommodation to them, sorting their travel, hotels, tournament entries and helping them with any number of things that a teenager arriving in the UK from China might need assistance with.
The former journalist is not just there for logistics and arguably her most important role is the players’ chief motivator, source of inspiration and whip cracker when it comes to hard work and their attitude to practice.
‘I always say to them, “You’re lucky being a snooker player.” I think attitude is so important,’ Victoria told Metro.co.uk. ‘They’ve come a long way from China, it’s a different culture. Their life is to be a snooker player and I say, “If you don’t want to be a snooker player, work a night shift somewhere, then you’ll be back.” I always say to them, “With your attitude you will be sacked the next day in a normal job.” But I always make sure they’re happy.
‘Snooker like all sports, results do the talking, that’s my motivation no matter what. To help them to achieve. Even Zhao Xintong and Yan Bingtao, if I don’t see them one day I ask where they’ve been and tell them they need to come back. Sometimes they say they need one day rest after an event because they’re tired and I say okay, but I’ll keep asking where they are.’
Victoria was previously a journalist covering snooker, then managed players, working with a string of top stars, including three years with Ding Junhui, and she has learned plenty about the necessary mindset to succeed on the baize. Something she is always trying to impart on her players.
‘We talk after their matches to discuss the match,’ she explained. ‘If they lose I just say, “Look, know what you’ve done wrong and don’t repeat the same mistake. Work harder on your weakness on the practice table.”
‘I also talk to them during matches. Tell them to be patient. Players after they miss a ball, they think, “I never miss that in training, why did I miss?” But anyone can miss, the most important thing is to move on. Most players have another chance and miss again because they’re thinking about the last one. I say to my players, “I’d rather your head be like wood. Don’t think.” Most snooker players don’t play well because they overthink.
‘You have to work hard. If you don’t work hard then don’t ask for success. I can’t pot one ball, I never play, but I can look after them the best thanks to all my experiences.
‘I worked with Terry Griffiths before, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie [O’Sullivan] always helps me, gives me a lot of advice. That’s the reason, I always tell my players to be patient, control what you can control, don’t bother with your opponent. Every time you lost a match it’s 100 per cent your fault, not the others, because you have chances. I’m always honest to them.’
The relationship is multi-faceted, with Victoria acting as the players’ manager, agent, landlord and, in many ways as a mother figure. Before this chat she scolded the newly crowned European Masters champion for not hanging his coat up on a recently installed hook in the academy. Fan dutifully moved his jacket to the correct place and got back to practicing.
‘Of course [I feel like they’re my children]. If they’re not happy, I know,’ she said. ‘I just ask them, “Are you okay?” Sometimes they’re a little bit shy but I say that I know already. They’re shocked that I know, but I say, “I’m like a shadow.”
‘They tell me everything. If they split up with their girlfriend, they tell me and I say, “Okay, just move on, if you play well you have more choice. Just focus on snooker. Snooker never betrays you. Don’t worry.”
‘They work hard but I sort everything else: book tickets, visas, hotels, cleaner for their house, they just play snooker.
‘Today my job is getting boarding passes, customs, preparing hotel. Normally when they leave to go to the airport I give them all the documents. Lots goes on behind the scenes: doing their entries, booking practice tables, renew their hotel when they win, I do everything.’
The academy has been running for seven years, but things are really starting to pick up now in terms of titles, while other players in the stable such as Zhang Anda, Si Jiahui and England’s Ashley Hugill are seeing performances improve as well.
On her star students, Victoria said: ‘Bingtao has always been a very good player anyway, but Xintong has just become so mature recently.
‘During Covid they couldn’t do much socially anymore so it was just their flat and here for practice every day. I think that made him realise, “What else can I do?” Just play snooker.
‘I think at 24 he thought, “I need to deliver” because everyone talked about how good he is, but I told him he needs to show it on the table. Everyone talked about Xintong but Yan was the one winning, so I said, “Prove to yourself rather than just the talking.”
‘He was inspired by what Yan was doing. We knew he’s capable and he proved it at the UK Championship and I’m so happy for him. He was unplayable and I said to him after the UK, “You need to work even harder, prove to people you’re not a flash in the pan.” Then he won the German because he realised it.
‘After he won the UK people said it might be like winning the lottery, but if he won more then he’d be an established winner. He works even harder now because he enjoyed his success. All the snooker players dream of that since they started and it’s made him work harder and practice harder because he finally tasted success and enjoyed it. When they started playing snooker as children, this is what they wanted and they’ve got it.’
No one was backing the 750/1 shot Fan at the European Masters, but Victoria was not surprised by his amazing run to the title, beating Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final, as she has seen the hours of practice he has been putting in, inspired by his pals’ success.
‘Fan Zhengyi has seen their success and last four or five months he’s been in 8am till 5 or 6pm every day and it’s paid off,’ she said. ‘Work hard, see the success and work even harder. He sees it’s paid off so wants to do more and he’s only 21!
‘Hopefully Zhang Anda is the next one, but Si Jiahui won the WSF Open and will be pro next season, so hopefully he could be the next one as well. Of course, Fan, Yan, Zhao will become established winners because they become more greedy. They all get inspired because they see each other every day, practice together and know that if they can, I can.
‘Zhang Anda, I say to him, “Look everyone’s achieved, you’ve been to the Crucible three times before they even came. You can do it.” Now he says, “I think I can, I’m ready.” I love it, they all inspire each other. I always encourage them, I believe that if you have problems, resolve it.’
One problem for the academy could have been the battering Zhao dished out to Yan in Berlin, crunching his mate 9-0 in the German Masters final, which could have left a frosty atmosphere between the two.
No such thing happened and the pair are still great friends, with Victoria dishing out her typically blunt advice to the wounded Tiger.
‘I told him: “You can’t get any more humiliated, so now just move on. Next time you can have no fear of playing anyone because what’s worse? You’ve done the worst. Just move on rather than thinking about it.”’
It has been an immense year or so for the talented lads of Victoria’s Academy, but it seems that this is no phase, with the boss insistent that they will be bringing more and more silverware back to South Yorkshire. Possibly they may not even have to leave the county to pick it up.
‘I say to them now, “Forget about what’s happened, focus on the next one.” I want them to win more, hopefully win the Worlds. Play one frame at a time and dream big, work hard. I say to the others, “If they can, you can.”
‘We trust each other and they know I will help them no matter what, we’re all going in the same direction.
‘We want to win more. This is just the start of the journey. That’s what Ronnie said to Zhao Xintong after he won the UK Championship, your snooker career is only starting now. Fan is only 21, we’ll make sure he wins more, work even harder, he knows that one is not enough.’
It’s tough to doubt that there will be more glory to come, with Victoria’s recipe for success in Sheffield proving to be irresistible.
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This post appeared first on Snooker – Metro.