They say 60 million people play snooker in China.
There is an exact replica of the Crucible Theatre near Beijing. Hong Kong’s Marco Fu is ranked 14 in the world, with Ding Junhui and Liang Wenbo, both from China, also in the top 20. Steve Davis did this, his focused, relentless excellence throughout the 1980s inspiring the world’s most populous nation just as it alienated his own. When Davis turned up in China for a friendly competition in 1987 the country’s then president, Deng Xiaoping, decreed it be televised live so that he could personally witness the phenomenon in action.
The British took less kindly to his remorseless supremacy. He won six world titles between 1981 and 1989 but is best remembered for one of the two finals he lost in that period, against Dennis Taylor in 1985, on the final black having been 8-0 ahead. Some 18.5m people watched the denouement on BBC2 – greater than the cumulative attendance of all matches in the English Football League in the 1984-85 season, and still the country’s largest-ever after-midnight television audience. It was the midpoint of a decade in which snooker ascended like a rocket, with Davis at the controls.
After he finally retired on Sunday, Davis was invited to walk once more round the table at The Crucible, World Championship trophy held aloft as it once so frequently was, while the audience stood and applauded. It was a poignant moment, partly because of the knowledge that there were occasions during his domination of the sport when Davis would be introduced to the audience at the start of a match and they would boo.
Nor was he always popular among his peers. Winners are often not, of course, but Davis was deliberately distant. Worried that if he practised with his rivals they might become familiar with his game and lose their fear of him, he hid himself away, played alone or with a close circle of friends. The unflinching, not entirely friendly focus that convinced him to live much of his life behind a curtain was somehow obvious, and not very popular, once it was pulled back.
Gradually perception changed, kick-started by his participation in the 1986 novelty single Snooker Loopy, alongside Taylor, Terry Griffiths and others, which reached No6 in the charts, and then by his arrival on Spitting Image. In its first sketch the latex Davis demanded a nickname to match Jimmy White’s Whirlwind or Alex Higgins’ Hurricane. “Windy?” his agent suggests. “Very windy?” They settle on Interesting. Davis, who had been tipped off about his imminent appearance and thrown a party with his real-life agent, Barry Hearn, to watch the episode, adopted it with glee.
When he unveiled his waxwork at Madame Tussauds he said it was “probably more interesting than me”. He rushed out a book – co-written with Geoff Atkinson, who had also written the original Spitting Image sketch – called How to be Really Interesting. “If everyone thinks I’m dull, I’m quite pleased actually,” he once said. “If I’m seen as very friendly, then I have to be friendly all the time. If I am a bit unapproachable, it gives me breathing space.”
He was never, however, boring. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1983 none of his selections – bar the snooker table he demanded as his luxury – was predictable. There were two records by George Duke, an obscure album track by Narada Michael Walden and a song called Ima Suri Dondai by his all-time favourite group, Magma, who sung in their own made-up space language called Kobaian.
In 1988 Davis brought Magma to London’s Bloomsbury Theatre for a three-night run. The venture lost money – there were 14 of them, which did not help – but at the time he had plenty of it, and not enough obscure French prog rock concerts. He has a famously massive record collection, and a long-running weekly show on Essex-based radio station Phoenix FM. He was not invited to participate in I’m a Celebrity, or to return to Question of Sport more than any other guest, or to play piano (terribly) during the host’s performance of Lean On Me during the Leo Sayer Show in 1983, because he is dull.
Davis was to become a much more popular loser than he ever was when he was busy squeezing most of the sport’s significant trophies on to his overcrowded mantelpiece. Not, of course, that he readily accepted the transformation. That defeat by Taylor stung but three more world titles followed, which helped. More galling still was losing in Sheffield to a young Peter Ebdon in 1992. “I felt like there’s another generation coming along,” he said. “That was a real down moment, thinking, ‘I’m fighting against the waves, the tide’s coming in and I can’t push these young players back.’ That was an awful moment, the realisation that I wasn’t the best thing since sliced bread or nowhere near it any more.”
That match was played nearly a quarter of a century ago. Most snooker players’ entire careers are shorter than the portion of Davis’s in which he has had to field regular questions about his retirement. Stephen Hendry, 11 years his junior, whose ascent ended Davis’s domination of the sport, hung up his own cue four years ago. “People are forever asking me when I’m going to retire,” Davis wrote in the Observer some 22 years ago. “I’m too in love with the sport to toss it away. I’ll fade away one day and no one will notice.”
There was never any chance of that. Davis struggled to cope with regular defeats but preferred them to not playing at all and continued to be urged onwards by his father, Bill, first coach and greatest supporter, whose hard work with his son on the tables of Plumstead Common Working Men’s Club in the early 70s paid off so handsomely. Bill died in March, at the age of 89.
“When you are in a sport you are tied into it, as you can see from boxers past their prime and golfers going into the senior tour,” Davis said, when asked once again about retirement, 13 years ago. “It takes a strange person to give up. It’s a much more natural process to try and fight. I don’t think it’s a clever thing to retire at the top. It’s best to go out screaming.” Failing that, however, a bit of work as a pundit will probably do.
This article was written by Simon Burnton, for theguardian.com on Monday 18th April 2016 22.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010