The phrase ‘look towards Eastern skies’ has been around for centuries. One Kilkennyman is certainly paying heed to it.
For 25-year-old David Morris, going East is where it’s at. The city native, well known for his snooker skills, has found himself in China chasing his dream of landing a big title.
And for Morris, who has qualified for the China Open in Beijing - the second biggest tournament on the World Snooker Championship schedule - this part of the world could become more like home in the coming years.
“China is pretty much the number one area in the world now in snooker terms,” he told the ’People. “The World Championship is still held in England, but all of the major tournaments with the most ranking points on offer are held in China. The competitions with the most prize-money are there too, as they have the biggest sponsors.
“Snooker has an incredible following in China,” Morris continued. “They had 450 million people watching Ding Junhui play Marco Fu in the Masters final a few years ago - England had three or four million people watching. That used to be the main hub, but China has taken over now.”
The rise in the sport in Asia shouldn’t be that much of a surprise - China’s population was listed as 1.2 BILLION in 2012. That has led to plenty of new faces on the tour, and opponents for Morris to take on.
“With all the new players coming on the tour now the field is probably 50/50 in terms of UK and Asian players,” he said. “Before it used to be 95% UK players with a few Asians coming through on the tour, but because so many Asians play snooker now - somewhere in the region of 400 million are registered to play competitive snooker in China - it’s an incredible base to pick from.”
It’s not just Morris who believes that China will provide future world leaders in his sport.
“Ronnie O’Sullivan (former world Number One) believes that within the next 20 years the top 16 will be almost all from China,” Morris added. “That’s purely going on the numbers playing the game.”
If there are millions playing that stands to reason, but that could lead to future challenges for the European players involved.
“You have to wonder if the whole tour is going to move to Asia,” Morris thought aloud. “At the minute about half of the tournaments are in Asia, with the other half still in the UK and around Europe (Germany, Belgium and Holland), but sponsors are struggling to keep going. The World Open used to be held in Scotland; now they’ve signed a five-year deal to hold it in China.
“Players will practically have to be based in Asia, which will make things tough in terms of living expenses for those with families back home,” he said. “It used to be that a few thousand would get you around England for the year; now you’re talking tens of thousands to get around the world.”
That statement offered a little insight into what Morris believes may be a shift in thinking for the snooker world.
“I don’t mind it too much at the minute,” he said of the constant travelling. “I don’t have much in the way of expenses at home, but I know a lot of players who have two, three or four kids and are now putting at least half of their winnings back into travelling to the next event - if you’re playing in China flights could cost anything up to €1,000.
“It’s become a bit of a struggle for some players as the security is gone,” he added. “You can’t afford to have a bad few months and not win money as you’re falling behind in everything.
“That’s why there are people on the tour now who are picking certain tournaments; they can’t afford to go to them all. That’s a shame, but (snooker promoter and World Snooker chairman) Barry Hearne has made it in such a way that if you’re good enough you’ll make a good living. If you put your form together you can do well in the sport.”
Almost from the early days, any talk surrounding Morris’s future was of making it as a professional. Now he’s been there for some years, what was it like to achieve that goal?
“I like it more now than I did for the first few years,” he said. “When I started out on the tour we only had six or seven tournaments, but with the appointment of Barry Hearne as chairman - he has so many contacts in every sport - we went from having seven tournaments in 2008 to 30 events in 2010. He has been able to get a lot more sponsorship and with all these extra events you feel more involved.”
Despite the bonus of playing extra events, the workload took its toll.
“It was tough trying to manage a proper schedule,” he admitted. “You might say to yourself that you’ll do this or that when you get home, but in reality you were flying into Dublin and literally going home to change clothes before flying out to another venue a day later.
“The main problem for me was that I couldn’t practise properly,” he said.
“Tournaments run from Thursdays to Sundays, so you might be leaving for Germany on a Wednesday and getting home on a Monday, then flying out to somewhere like Belgium on the Wednesday.
“You’re just travelling, so you lose your sharpness as all you’re doing is moving from tournament to tournament. A lot of the players are now taking time out to get some practise in - that’s half the battle.
“You might think you’re practising when you’re at tournaments, but it’s only an hour here and there, rather than the four days of solid hours that you need.”
Time management is as much as factor now in snooker as training.
“Fitness also comes into it,” he said. “It’s not like you have to go sprinting, but I know a lot of players on tour have taken up running in the last few years along with cross-fit and boxing. It’s not like you have to be super fit, but it’s important as it helps you manage the exertions of the tour.
“When you’re travelling every week you’re stopping here and there,” he said. “You can get ill, you’re eating bad food - your immune system gets run down.”
With that in mind it’s no surprise that Morris keeps himself in shape.
“I usually go to the gym five days a week - it releases stress and helps relieve boredom. If you’re in a tournament chances are you’ll play on the Monday morning, but you might not play again until Tuesday night.
“Rather than sit around and get frustrated, the gym gives you something to do and keeps you mentally sharp.”
Having that fitness - mentally as well as physically - is important for professional players.
“Snooker can be relaxing when you’re in the local club playing, but when in professional competitions are about making less mistakes than your opponent so there is a high level of mental focus,” said Morris.
“One bad shot and you can lose momentum in a match. That could lead to your opponent winning a frame, and while you may have been 2-0 up it now means that at 2-1 his confidence is on the up.
“All of a sudden he can go from rock bottom to really high - and then you’re 4-2 down.
“You may have missed only one ball, but because of that the whole match has turned. The psychology involved in the game is incredible.”
With such mental intensity involved, it’s easy to see how players can burn out.
“Players have pulled out of tournaments because they want to maintain their mental fitness,” he said. “It’s like football teams wanting to peak in March/April - they’re trying to get ready for the big run in. Nobody wants to be burnt out when the major competitions come around.”
Given the pressures professional sport can bring it’s no surprise that players have walked away from the game. Finding himself at a crossroad a few years ago, Morris decided that a break was needed.
“I was about to fall off the tour a few years ago and could have re-entered Q School (the system where players can qualify for the World Snooker Tour) but I decided to head to America for a few months,” he said.
“I could have gone to the school and qualified, but I felt I wasn’t ready to compete with the big players again.
Took year out
“I took a whole year out from the professional game at that time,” he recalled. “When I came home from America I played the amateur scene, just relaxed and had a bit of fun. I qualified for the professional circuit the following year and feel 100% better since. I’m doing a lot better - the results are showing that.
“It’s amazing how stale you can become doing the same thing over and over again,” he added. “I took a proper break, re-evaluated things and looked at what was going on. I was never going to quit the game, but by taking the few months off, living a bit and doing other things, I was ready to go back again and play properly and practise again.
“Taking the year out was the best thing,” he added. “I was going stale. I wasn’t giving it my best, losing matches without caring - there wasn’t the hurt you’d associate with losing, something that would drive you on make improvements.
“There was no ambition to win tournaments, so I decided to take that break. When I did come back, I reached the quarter-finals of the first tournament I played in (the Wuxi Classic), then I made the last 16 of the UK Championships a few months later.
“I was getting further than I had ever reached before - I was only getting to last 64s. It was good to come back and say ‘I want to win things now’, to shoot as high as I can and see where it takes me. It’s good to have the hunger again.”
That new-found confidence has taken Morris’s game to another level, not least in the way he beat Mark Davis to qualify for the China Open. A frame down in the qualifier in Gloucester, Morris levelled the match with a break of 118 in frame two before taking control.
“The frame after that was probably the biggest of the match,” Morris said. “Mark was 60 points ahead with 67 left on the table and I cleared up with 62.
“That was a real body-blow,” he reflected. “Speaking to Mark after the game he said that the third frame won me the match as he never really recovered from that.”
That win was just one of many good results Morris has recorded this season. Now the aim is to string them together.
“I’ve beaten the likes of Judd Trump and Ali Carter this year, but now it’s all about doing it at the one event,” he said. “You can beat them at single matches, but the thing that separates the top guys from the rest is that they can put runs together and win tournaments. To make it to the top you have to be stringing six, seven, eight wins together - that’s the aim.”
And that run is something Morris hopes he can start in China, where Jimmy White will provide the opposition at Beijing University on Monday, March 31. However, he won’t take the challenge lightly.
“I’ve been paired with Jimmy White who, although 50 now, played out of his skin against Joe Swail,” said Morris. “He has so much talent. I’m hoping to start quickly, hit him early, so he won’t be as confident.”
Approaching the tournament the Kilkennyman sounds in great mindset.
“I have a two year tour card, but I’m practically guaranteed another after that as I’ve done so well this year,” he said. “I’m trying to win a tournament in the next two years.
“I think I can,” he added. “The only thing I’m missing is the big match experience - the more I get to the latter stages of tournaments the more I’ll be able to play the match and not the occasion.”
The season will continue after China, with Morris taking part in the World Championship qualifiers. There won’t be much of a break before the new season starts at the end of May, but there may be time to combine a holiday with sport.
“The new season starts with qualifiers for tournaments in China and Australia,” he said. “That’s a good incentive as you could look on travelling there as holidays - and they’re paid for!”