With match-fixing allegations putting his career in the balance,English snooker pro Stephen Lee still manages to find solace in the game he loves.
The RKG-Khar Gymkhana Snooker Masters 2013 started over the weekend with heavy expectations for a local player to win. By mentioning the term local player, one would assume it refers to a player from the Khar Gymkhana or from Mumbai. But in this case,the term represents an Indian participant since there are three illustrious players from the United Kingdom,all of whom are well-ranked in the world standings,and have taken part in the event. Yet,of all these individuals participating in the event,there is one that stands out. Not because he is ranked 21st in the world,not because he is the highest ranked player in this tournament,and definitely not because he is one of the foreign players participating. Stephen Lee stands out because Snookers governing body,World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) has banned him from ranking tournaments due to several match-fixing allegations.
Like most athletes in the sport,Stephen Lee began playing snooker at an early age. He mentions that he was first introduced to the game when he was given a five foot-long snooker table for Christmas. A few years later,when he was nine,he played on a full sized table,and his love for the game grew henceforth. Inspired by the likes of Steve Davis,Jimmy White,and Dennis Taylor,Lee took up the sport as a career and turned professional in 1992. Little did he know that he would experience what may be the toughest period in his life two decades after turning professional.
The unfortunate turn of events started after a Premiere League game against John Higgins in October,2012. Lee had just returned from a bad patch into a good run of form. But his 4-2 loss against Higgins,aided by a catalyst in the form of suspicious betting patterns,led snookers governing body to slap match-fixing allegations against Lee,resulting in his suspension.
Over the suspension period,Lee has kept himself busy by participating in exhibition matches and tournaments to ensure he remains match-sharp. And while the suspension has not been able to break his mental toughness or his love for the game,he has admitted that this has been a trying time for him and his family. Its been a tough period, he said. Living becomes difficult when you have a family to support and have only three to six tournaments youre allowed to participate in. When asked if it is hard for him to focus before a match with the allegations constantly nagging him,Lee simply said,Not really. I have done nothing wrong,so there is nothing for me to worry about. He also added that if the WPBSA had anything significant against him,they would have caught him a month after the Higgins game. Instead,he has been banned since October,2012,and the delay has cost him an extra arm and leg.
Despite the tension and stress outside the snooker room,Lee has currently secured qualification to the quarter-finals in the Mumbai based tournament. Having played in India before,when he won the CCI International Invitation Snooker Tournament in 2011,Lee has admitted a fondness for playing in India. The hospitality is top class. And when Yasin Merchant invited me to come here again for this this tournament,I jumped at the chance straight away. He further praised the tournaments organisers and said that the tournament will help shape up the game in India through the awareness it creates. Aditya Mehta and Pankaj Advani are great ambassadors for the game here,and they have helped put India on the map as far as snooker is concerned. Its about time more players come through. For the size of the country and the ability the people have got,Im sure if the practice facilities are up to scratch there will be a lot more kids playing. But I am disappointed that snooker isnt televised here. After all,awareness is everything.
When asked if it is difficult to play against Advani and Mehta on their home turf,Lee jokes,Its just a table in a room! He continued: If they beat me on the day,theyve beaten me. That is sport. Im here to enjoy playing over the week,and if I play well,I win it.
Stephen Lee is hopeful that the hearing for his case will happen soon after he gets back to England. I want to get my ranking position back. I worked hard to get into the top 8,now I just cant wait to get back.
A man whose career has been put off balance by undecided allegations,Stephen Lee continues to play the game whenever he possibly can,not only because he has to,but because he loves to.