Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Stephen Lee EXCLUSIVE interview: "It's a graft and I'm prepared for the fight"

Stephen Lee goes into the World Championship this weekend at Sheffield as one of the real form players on the circuit.

With victory at the PTC Grand Finals and a string of other runs to the business end of ranking tournaments, many tipsters are shouting his name as a possible winner for the title.

OnCue spoke to the Wiltshire man as he prepares for the biggest tournament of the season.

You've been on an excellent run of form leading into this tournament with events coming thick and fast, was there even time for you to draw breath?

No, not really. I've had some great results with a win, another final, two semi-finals and a quarter-final in the last five ranking events. I didn't really see it coming. I'm enjoying playing and it's all down to Barry Hearn. He's given me a chance to turn it around and it's been a big part of my life.

It's great that my kids can now see my playing as a snooker player rather than just a part-timer.

A decade ago you picked up more ranking points than any other player in a season. Are you playing as well as you were then?

I've got to be feeling the same as that mentally. It's a lot tougher out there now. There are tough opponents and everyone's as match sharp as one another. It's been a long-time coming and I didn't really see it but I'm enjoying it a lot more.

The PTCs have helped me because I'm playing matches every week. I've never been a big one to practice but I will sit there and put the work in on my own if I have to. I do solo work because I don't believe in practising with anyone else. I believe in getting my timing right and my cueing right and taking it out on your opponent in a tournament.

There's no point lowering the barriers when you're playing the likes of Peter Ebdon and Matthew Stevens and then when you play them in a tournament there's no edge there.

Did you feel under extra pressure when there were just six tournaments? 

I had one monkey sat on my left shoulder saying 'take them on' and another on the other shoulder saying 'run safe'. I've got a young family to support and six tournaments weren't doing it. If I played bad in one of them, it was a countdown until the end of the season and I found that very hard mentally to take.

The sport was at an all-time low but at least I still had an income. There were a lot of people out there who didn't have an income. My world would have fell apart if I wasn't earning so at least I was bringing in something but the way the game has turned, there are more chances. If you want to take them, you've got to shake it with two hands.

With the likes of Judd Trump and Mark Selby, John Higgins, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Neil Robertson, there are some class acts there. Shaun Murphy, Ding Junhui. There are some good players. You've got to try to get yourself a slice of the pie. All I want to do is play every week and enjoy my game. I feel like I'm doing that at the moment.

Is it fair to say you appreciate the state of the game now because you're a more experienced player and can remember how the game was before?

Oh god, yes. There's nothing worse than being away from your family and playing in the early hours of the morning for a couple of hundred quid but if that's what you've got to do, that's what you've got to do.

The PTCs are not just about a few hundred pound. It's about the ranking points and it gives you momentum.

The first year of the PTCs I played some stuff in the cubicles that surprised myself. I felt like I'd have beaten John Higgins and Ronnie O'Sullivan in the same corner. In a couple of the matches there is no-one watching and there's no pressure. You can go and play like you do in practice. That gave me the belief that I've still got it here.

You go to Sheffield in a massively different situation this time round. Last year you had to qualify but now you're going as a top 16 player looking capable of winning every tournament. How pleased are you with that turnaround?

It's all because of the format. I can't speak highly enough of Barry. He made it perfectly clear at his first meeting with the players that if you want something, you've got to go and get it. No-one is going to give you anything. My dad is old school and told me to put my work in. It's not always the case in sport. I'm a big believer in getting out of bed the right side and for a couple of years I wasn't and I felt low. With so many tournament and more to come, I'm all in. I know when I get back from tournaments, I can see my family and we'll be more secure for it.

It was a great achievement for me to get back into the top 16 and that gave me a bit of belief to come back to where I am now.

How confident are you ahead of the Crucible now?

I'm happy, yeah. I'm feeling good in myself. I know it's going to be a tough thing to achieve but I've just had some photographs with the world trophy and it's the closest I've been to it for a while. You don't get given the World Championship. It's a graft and I'm prepared for the fight as long as I enjoy it at the same time.

I've had a great few months. I'm quietly confident but I think a lot of other players are as well. It's a tough place to go and play but I'm bang up for it. 

I don't feel like I've done myself justice there for a few years. It's a tournament that you want to go to and play your best stuff. It's all set up for that but if you're low on confidence it's really tough and there's no-one to help you.

How much of a different challenge is the World Championship to the kind of tournaments you've been playing and doing well in?

Yes, it is but I'm going to look at it this year as little sessions. I got told a few years ago to look at it as little sessions of four or five frames. I'm going to use the intervals as fresheners. I don't want to get to Sheffield and collapse like a cheap tent under the pressure. I'm going to give it a good go.

You were unlucky last season playing Higgins in the first rounds of the World and UK Championships...

Don't remind me. I played well but he's one of the toughest players I've played at any stage of my career. Him and Ronnie are the best I've ever played at the top of their game. They make things look so easy. You can chuck the kitchen sink at them but they still seem to beat you. I've played some outstanding stuff against both of them but then they've made me feel like a club player. That's sport.

Higgins isn't going to want to take his hands off of that trophy this year. He'll take some stopping. I'm glad I'm not playing him in the first round again.

I'm bang up for it. I'll get a nice buzz from driving into Sheffield. The World Championship is what's it all about and I want to give it a good go.

A lot of people mention the class of 1992 when they talk about you. What are your memories of that class and how do you feel about people still talking about it today?

The game has moved on. There are lots of new tournaments and maximum breaks in qualifying. It's taken a lot of pressure off of all the players. I came through with Ronnie, Higgins, Mark Williams and Matthew Stevens and Paul Hunter were just behind.

I didn't take to the match arenas as much as the three in my year but when I did, I loved it. I still love it now just like Jimmy White still does in front of the big crowd.

I used to beat them all as juniors. I was probably one of the top out of the four of us but they took to the game a lot better than me. I'm from a little sleepy village but they had proper match players around them. I'm probably the only one who has let myself down not winning the world title but I've had a go and it's not an easy thing to do.

I'm going to give it a go again this year. I haven't got many years left to go for the World Championship so I'll try my best.

It would be lovely to finally get my hands on the trophy and see my kids' faces.

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