So Ding got Trumped. With around 150 million people in China watching him on telly (no pressure, then) Ding Junjui played almost flawless snooker against Judd Trump in a classic World Snooker Championship semi-final and still lost. What happened there then?
Well, following his first ranking tournament victory in the China Open recently, Trump (aka The Juddanaut/Ace in the Pack/Mr Haircut 100) seems to have gained that fine edge of confidence to back up his widely acknowledged natural talent. As I write at end of the the first day of the final, Trump leads John Higgins 10-7 and looks well set to become the second youngest-ever world snooker champion.
Commentator Dennis Taylor says Trump was “born to pot snooker balls”, but is the flair with which we are seeing Trump make frame-winning breaks from improbable situations really down to him possessing innate gifts beyond mere mortals? Matthew Syed, the former Olympic table-tennis player and now an award-winning writer, would say no.
In his fascinating book, Bounce – How Champions Are Made, Syed produces compelling evidence to support his argument that it is nurture rather than nature which is far more significant in the making of a sporting champion. For Syed, the term ‘natural talent’ can cause young players told they have it not to work hard enough to fulfil their potential, and also serves to discourage those lead to believe they don’t have inborn ability from even bothering to try. He argues that it is the opportunity to play and hone skills which is far more important than any genetic gifts. Thus, Tiger Woods, rather than being the most naturally talented golfer of all-time as he is often lauded, is the product of childhood where a cut-down golf club was pressed into his hands before he could walk.
It’s a similar story with Trump. He started playing on a small table aged three, was tipped as future world champion by the age of ten (a guy who bet on that eventuality back then is set to cash in on a £10 bet at 1,000/1 should Trump beat Higgins) and his parents have done everything, including sacrificing foreign holidays, to support his quest.
In sport, players who make playing their game look effortless are generally credited as having more natural ability than others. For example, in tennis, contrast the elegance of Roger Federer to the less aesthetically pleasing but effective hitting of former world number one Jim Courier. Trump certainly falls into the former camp, generating enormous cuepower from a freeflowing cue action which allows him to execute seemingly impossible positional shots. Compare him to the Graeme Dott for whom the game looks harder work. While Dott was a very successful amateur, only his close friends and family might have predicted he’d ever become world champion, but since his 2006 Crucible success and two further final appearances, critics have been forced to revise their opinions of his ability.
Syed asserts that believing your genetics determine your ability to succeed is a sure way to fail, because it makes you accept that you can’t improve. Once you realise that achievement is the result of hours of focused training and hard work, you are freed from these perceived limitations and can achieve your full potential. Perhaps, Dott’s achievements show the value of this approach.
Trump started playing on a small table aged three and was tipped as future world champion by the age of ten
Trump faced the reverse problem. Hailed as a snooker prodigy with God-given talent before hitting his teens, he could have slacked off and just expected success as his divine right. Fortunately, he didn’t fall into the trap of many other highly-rated young players who never grasped the importance of practice.
Take disgraced former pro Australian Quinten Hann. Born in Wagga Wagga, Hann made his first century break at the age of ten, knocked in a century on Australian television aged just 13 and won the World Under-21 title, but by the time he’d reached the upper echelons of professional snooker he had become a part-time player and full-time mentalist.
When he turned pro in 1995, I’d always try to get along to watch Hann’s games in the early rounds of tournament qualifiers at the Norbreck Castle, Blackpool, because something weird would usually happen. He once conceded a frame with 13 reds still on the table. I saw him miss a black when on for a 147 break and concede a frame he was winning 49-0 in disgust. Then, of course, there was the, um, unconventional break off he regularly employed, smashing the triangle of reds like a nine-ball pool player. It was actually quite an effective ploy at that level, putting psychological pressure on inferior opponents who felt disrespected and at ths same time were faced with reds scattered all over the table in unfamiliar positions that made breakbuilding tricky. When Hann started reaching the televised stages of tournaments and doing the same thing against top-class players, the snooker establishment were not amused and he was accused of bringing the game into disrepute. Hann didn’t really give a toss.
Oddly, the higher he climbed in the rankings (he peaked at 14 in the world) the less he practiced and the lower his competitive ambitions became. Ronnie O’Sullivan said Hann had the ability to be a top eight player if he could be arsed, but Hann was content to win the odd match here and there. “I come away [from Australia] about 10 weeks a year and earn about 60 grand,” he shrugged. “I'm blessed.”
Meanwhile, his behaviour became increasingly erratic. At the 2000 Grand Prix, he smashed up the pack of reds pointlessly during each of the last three frames of a 5-0 defeat by O’Sullivan. A year later at the same event, he made offensive gestures and comments to spectators and his opponent Anthony Hamilton during a second round defeat. Then at the 2004 World Championship, he lost to Andy Hicks in the first round and challenged the mild-mannered Devonian Hicks to a fight (in the end, fellow player Mark King stepped in on Hicks’ behalf against Hann in a charity boxing match – Hann won).
Off the table, Hann was accused and acquitted of raping a woman while both were drunk in 2002. In 2005, he turned up for his first round match at the world championship against Peter Ebdon massively hungover, played with a borrowed cue because he hadn’t noticed that someone had nicked the butt of his cue and, surprise, surprise, lost 10-2. The same year he was accused of sex attacks on two women. On the day after his acquittal The Sun revealed undercover video and audio tapes of Hann agreeing to lose his opening match to Ken Doherty in the China Open in return for a huge wedge of cash. In February 2006, aged just 28, Hann got out before he was pushed. He resigned his membership of the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association and in absentia was found guilty of match-fixing, fined ten grand and banned for eight years.
For me, Hann’s story casts some doubt on the nature-nurture balance suggested by Syed. Yes, his career ended ingloriously, but he did manage to compete against top players for some years after his commitment to practice and love of the game had declined. Perhaps the practice he put during his teenage years grooved his technique and allowed him to take liberties, but I would argue that players with less natural ability couldn’t hope to have been as successful as he was with such a dire attitude.
At a higher level than Hann, Ronnie O’Sullivan is commonly proclaimed as the most naturally talented player the game has ever seen. No doubt, O’Sullivan had a priviliged upbringing in terms of snooker – a match table at his house, a father prepared to ferry him around the country to take on the best players etc. However, when I was on the pro-am circuit I saw a few others given similar opportunities who could practice for a hundred years and still not be able to make century breaks right- or left-handed as O’Sullivan can.
Surely there are some sporting champions whose skill and success defies purely rational explanation. While O’Sullivan’s hair/heir apparent, Judd Trump, obviously practices hard between the long hours spent with straighteners coaxing his barnet into a multi-directional heap, don’t tell me you can play like this kid without being born to do it.