Barry Hawkins: Kent’s own sporting hero

Barry Hawkins

Barry Hawkins - Credit: Archant

Snooker ace has eye on the world title

It is an unfortunate truth but, given the size and population of the county, Kent is not well endowed with successful sporting teams or, for that matter, sportsmen and women.

One of those to whom we can lay claim, however, sets out shortly on his wholly realistic bid to become champion of the world.

Barry Hawkins lives in Ditton, near Maidstone, and is ranked the fourth-best snooker-player on the planet.

This weekend the World Championship starts at Sheffield’s CrucibleTheatre and he will be looking to go one better than last season, when he lost to the undeniable talent of Ronnie O’Sullivan. Speaking to Hawkins at the start of this week, was it fair to assume that every spare second would be spent practising on the green baize up until the start of the big event itself?

“I think that’s what I used to do,” he said. “But nowadays, with so many tournaments, that doesn’t work so much. Since the PTC [the Players’ Championship, which he won last month], I’ve only started playing again in the last few days, so by the time of the championship I’ll have been practising for 10 or 11 days.”

And the World Championship at the Crucible – still the big one after so much change in the world of snooker?

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“Yes, this is the one everyone focuses on,” said Hawkins.

“It’s our blue-chip event – Sheffield is absolutely buzzing when the tournament is on. It’s a chance to make a name for yourself.”

At the time we spoke, he didn’t know who he would be playing in the first round as the qualifiers had yet to be decided, with only the top 16 seeded players getting an automatic place in the championship proper.

He did, though, appreciate the presence of some big names among the qualifiers. There would, to use that glorious football cliché, be no easy games.

“There’s so many good players but, to be honest, ideally you’d like to draw a Crucible debutant as the place can make you quite nervous… even then, though, I wouldn’t expect it to be easy.”

In the event, Hawkins was drawn against David Gilbert, who will be making his third tournament appearance.

The PTC win was Hawkins’s biggest title success, but he still places his achievement at finishing runner-up in last year’s World Championship at a different level.

“To actually win a tournament – it’s the biggest win of my career so far – was special, but last year was the bigger occasion.

“Not many people can say they’ve been to the final of the World Championship – it was a great achievement.”

And as for this year? There are a lot of good players, obviously, and of course there’s O’Sullivan, arguably the most naturally gifted man to have ever picked up a cue.

“Well, I don’t want to get too confident, but I’ve got as good as a chance as anybody. Yes, Ronnie [O’Sullivan] is without a doubt miles in front, and there’s also Ding Junhui, who’s an incredible talent,” said the Ditton man.

“As for Ronnie, I think you’ve just got to tell yourself that you can beat him. I let him off a couple of times in the final and you can’t afford that.”

O’Sullivan’s ability has never been in question, but he hasn’t always enjoyed a favourable image in the media or possibly among his fellow players, given his sometimes ambivalent approach to the sport that has brought him fame and fortune.

Hawkins, however, chooses not portray him in a negative light.

“He’s more approachable now – I think he’s trying to work on that side of things,” he said.

Some in the sport believe O’Sullivan should show snooker more respect, but again Hawkins avoids criticising the temperamental player, who has repeatedly threatened to quit the game.

“I’m used to hearing that sort of stuff, although I know others think he’s big-headed. I can see where he’s from coming from sometimes – it can take over your life and you get obsessive about playing perfect snooker, but it isn’t like that.”

So does 34-year-old Hawkins himself have any regrets about his chosen path?

“Not at all. Looking back now, I wouldn’t change anything. To look back on the experiences I’ve had and how much I’ve travelled the world, I’ve been very fortunate.”

And there’s the money. The PTC win earnt Hawkins £100,000 and a quick internet check suggests he can’t be far off millionaire status, but he plays down the figures.

“Don’t believe what you read on the internet. There hasn’t always been that much money and it’s all been over a long period of time – I don’t think I’m a millionaire,” he said.

Even so, it all must seem a long way from those early days when a living income was not guaranteed.

“There were tough times financially,” he said. “A sponsor paid me a small wage and I was living at home with no mortgage, but the game was up and down every year and you didn’t know if it was going to survive.”

In truth, the Hawkins snooker story could have ended pretty much before it began. He almost “jacked it in” when he was 16 or 17 and was looking to other career possibilities.

“I’d gone to a job interview but didn’t get it. If I had, that could have been the end of the snooker, but a few friends phoned up and convinced me to carry on,” he said.

Today the game is strong and Hawkins is quick to credit one particular promoter with turning around its fortunes.

“Before Barry Hearn took charge, it was nearly over – there were only six or so tournaments a year and it was at rock bottom.

“We never had two tours in snooker, but there was a lot of talk of it and the game could have gone down that route, but thankfully it didn’t happen.

“It was off-putting – you were trying to build your career and earn money, but you never knew from month to month whether you’d be playing.”

Matters today are clearly improved and snooker is regaining much of the ground it had clearly lost.

“There’s still a lot to sort out, but now there are tournaments every couple of weeks and there’s a lot of opportunity to earn money,” he said.

“The interest was always there, but the people running snooker didn’t know how to sell it.

“Barry has a lot of contacts and with [his company] Matchroom we’ve now got people who can run it and generate interest.”

Hawkins plays about 20 tournaments a year now, many of them ranking events, together with “a couple of other little ones”.

The downside to the thankfully busy itinerary is the amount of travel and the time he spends away from wife Tara and five-year-old son Harrison, but he says it’s “something I try to deal with a bit better now”.

The internal flights in China, for example, can be gruelling, but, as he accepts, he “can’t complain too much as it’s what I chose as my job”.

No coincidence, that mention of China, as it is here that Hawkins sees the game – and players – developing most strongly.

“There are some incredible players there – some of them are only 16 and they’re phenomenal.

“When they put their minds to it, they take some stopping.”

So he’d better get his trophy wins in quick, I venture.

He laughs and says: “Yes, I’ve got to make the most of it while I can.”

And how long might that be?

“I’m hoping that if I do everything right I’ve got a good 10 years left in me at least – I’d hope to still be in the top 16. Mark Davis is 41 and he’s playing the best snooker of his life, so there’s no reason why not.”

As snooker’s profile is raised, it’s likely that so should that of one of Kent’s premier sportsmen. Indeed, it’s arguable he hasn’t received anything like the recognition he deserves.

Again, though, he is sanguine.

“It’s only been the last two or three years that I’ve started to do well. If I carry on, I might get a bit more recognition, but I’m not worried about that side of things. I’m not playing because I want recognition – I just want to achieve what I can as a sportsman.”

With the future looking bright, you can but wonder what sparked the initial interest in a sport that now defines his life to a large extent.

“I was living on an estate [in Tulse Hill, London] and we just decided to walk down the hill to the snooker hall. As soon as I started playing, I fell in love with it. We couldn’t afford to spend a long time on the tables, so they let us brush them in return for some free playing time.”

So, whisper it quietly, but the popular internet site that shows his birthplace as Ditton is wrong. How does the man himself view his roots?

“I’m a London boy, really, but I’ve been in Kent for about 10 years and I enjoy living here – it’s a lot nicer.”

That’ll do – he’s one of ours.