Andy Lee is back on the World Snooker Tour as his fascinating journey with the sport continues and this latest path he embarks on is both a surprise and the proudest achievement of his career to date.
The 41-year-old won through Q School this month to earn a third crack on the professional tour and after two years of inactivity at home in Hong Kong he admits the success came as a bit of a shock.
“I was pretty speechless after qualifying because I wasn’t expecting it,” Lee said Metro.co.uk. “I’ve been away from elite competition for a couple of years now and I haven’t been sure where my game is, especially under the hammer.
“There were a lot of doubts and I didn’t know if I could answer, but I managed to assert myself.”
Lee’s snooker story began in his hometown of Hinckley, Leicestershire where he grew up with the game and then into the incredible junior scene based at Willie Thorne’s club in Leicester alongside the likes of Mark Selby and Tom Ford.
Winning the England ProTicket playoffs in 2008 gave him his first shot at pro status, but at that point making a living from the game was brutally difficult so life on tour lasted only a year.
The financial pressure to make it at snooker meant Lee had to break up with his then-fiancée and take a job in recruitment before hatching a plan that would completely change his life.
With parents from Hong Kong, Lee had the opportunity to relocate there and become a Hong Kong Sports Institute funded player, receive a salary and financial support to play the sport while he was based there.
It was a great option for Lee, but a tricky decision moving across the world.
“It wasn’t an easy decision because I didn’t know anyone out there, my brother lives in China, I moved to another country,” he explained. “But luckily I speak Cantonese, which made it easier. wayne [Griffiths] is over there, I knew Terry so I decided to give it a try and 10 years later I’m still there.
“For the first two years, I was back and forth about whether my heart was in it. I didn’t really do what was expected of me because I had just canceled the tour, people thought I was going to just go there and run over everyone, but I didn’t.
“I didn’t really enjoy it, the conditions there are very different, very wet and it’s a different style of play. I enjoyed more away from the table because Hong Kong is such a great place, I settled in quickly and made a lot of good friends.
“That kept me going and then I put my head down and we won the IBSF World Team Championships in 2015 and that was the boost I needed. I got a bigger contract, we were named sports team of the year, it’s like the Oscars in Hong Kong sports.
“It was amazing going through all of that. We beat a lot of Olympic sports to win this award so I was really proud of it and it helped me focus on getting back on tour.
“In 2018 I qualified to tour again so I kept making plans and they came to fruition. Even now things are going according to plan, someone’s looking down on me, maybe it’s the snooker gods.’
Lee also came through Q School in 2018, but his touring streak didn’t go according to plan before it was cut short by the outbreak of the pandemic.
“I probably went in with the wrong attitude,” Lee said. “I was very focused on getting points, keeping my place on the tour, I didn’t want to be back at the Q School. I put a lot of pressure on myself, I have high expectations of myself and I feel like I can compete on the tour.
“Getting through Q School a second time proves I belong on tour I think. I just couldn’t play with freedom last time.
“I came out of Q School on a high, won my first game to qualify for the first China event. But I lost my third match to Jimmy Robertson 4-3, I should have won, I missed Pink’s cleanup and he won the tournament! I lost confidence and lost seven or eight games without even playing.
“When you compete it’s easier to swallow, but when you lose 4-0, 4-1, I started having doubts. I started not wanting to be there. It starts to become a terrifying experience, the highs disappear and you are in the doldrums.
“You start to wonder where your next profit will come from. I was afraid to go to tournaments. You start hoping for better draws, and once you have that negative mindset, a vicious circle ensues.
“So the first year was a struggle, the second year was better, I got a couple of wins, then my season ended with Covid. I didn’t come back for the World Championships. After that, I wondered if it was time to call it. But I know I’m in a more privileged position than most, the funding from the Sports Institute has kept me going.
Away from the Tour and back in Hong Kong, which has been in strict lockdown, Lee wondered how his snooker journey could continue given his inability to compete or even train properly.
“We’ve had six or seven months of lockdown without practice,” he said. “All the snooker clubs were closed. There were two blocks of three months that I didn’t pick up my cue. I’ve trained on both sides, but apart from Marco we don’t have many players who punish mistakes.
“It was hard to stay motivated because we didn’t know when we were going to come back. I thought maybe that was that, I was considering leaving the sport because of the disagreements with the government over travel restrictions. I doubted if I would continue because we practiced for free. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.
“Thankfully the government changed their mind a bit and allowed us to travel and compete again, so I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity. I was delighted to have even a small chance to do something again.’
However, uncertainty remains as the Hong Kong Sports Institute downgrades cue sports from Tier A to Tier B and has to cut two-thirds of funding from April 2023.
It looks like Lee’s Hong Kong adventure will then come to an end, but no decisions have been made yet.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’ve had meetings but it’s an unprecedented situation because usually the sport is completely shut down, we’re the first to be downgraded to level B, so a lot of things aren’t set in stone.
“Many players are seriously considering their future. In my career phase I couldn’t live off what they’re putting on the table right now, I couldn’t keep playing, that’s too big a drop. Especially living in Hong Kong, it’s part of the contract that you have to live over there.’
Lee knows he was extremely fortunate to have the support in Hong Kong to fund his snooker dreams but felt he was lacking in emotional support, in fact he felt embraced by the snooker community in his adopted country attacked.
‘It is difficult. Social media is malicious,” he said. “You don’t want to take to heart what people say when you lose games, it’s hard enough anyway.
“I got a lot of stick in Hong Kong and it really hit me for six, I should have gotten more support. Qualifying this time is a bit like I’ve proved them wrong for the people who didn’t stand by me when I was struggling on the Tour.
“It gave me so much satisfaction, it’s probably my proudest achievement, I know I didn’t win anything but what I went through and the racquet I took from the so-called Hong Kong snooker community, it’s been appalling . I felt I deserved more respect.
“Half of me when I go back on tour is ‘I told you so.’ I don’t know if it’s because I’m not a local Hong Kong player, I came through the UK system and grew up in the UK. I don’t know if that’s why they count me as one of their own, I’m not sure.
“It doesn’t suit me well. I tried almost too hard to prove people wrong, I played for them rather than myself. It was a mental turmoil. Not only did I struggle with self-doubt over losing games, but the social media side of things, it wasn’t pleasant, put me off the game a bit. I’m glad I proved them wrong. I don’t want to offend anyone in Hong Kong, I’m glad I did it for my country, but I’m even happier I did it for myself.”
Lee, who trained hard at Ding Junhui Academy before Q School, is now ready to give it his all again on the tour, confident after reclaiming his place and with the benefits of his 2018-20 experience.
“I want to improve and I hope that I can do better thanks to my experience,” he said. “There were a lot of games where I collapsed like a cheap tent when I came back, I didn’t feel like the job and couldn’t wait to get out of there.
“This time will be different because I learned from that experience. I’ve learned to persevere, play the right shots and not put it on anyone’s table, make them win and keep believing in it.
“I took the losses and the giving up so easily, harder than anyone. I almost thought I was trash at the game. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of the animal that it is impossible not to have self-doubt. Then you tinker at the practice table, technically or mentally, and you collapse, back to the drawing board, all the while looking for the magic formula. Even the likes of John Higgins, Mark Selby do it, we’re all perfectionists looking for that magic formula. I won’t do that this time.
“Getting through Q School this time has given me that extra belief that I belong here. First time you wonder if it’s a coincidence I was nine years away was the snooker gods on my side? Getting through this time, picking myself up off the ground after two years, standing up for the junk, I’ve proven without a doubt that I belong. I don’t have to prove myself. I belong there.”
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https://metro.co.uk/2022/05/29/andy-lees-unique-snooker-journey-continues-with-pro-tour-return-his-proudest-achievement-16713681/ Andy Lee's unique snooker journey continues with the Pro Tour return of his proudest achievement