Ken Doherty on saving his career: 'The confidence is back'
When he dropped off the tour, it would have been easier for the world champion to retire to the commentary box. Instead, he practised harder than ever.
In Ken Doherty, snooker has its ideal ambassador.
He is not obligated, for example, to make the production of homegrown talent a personal concern.
Yet, when discussing snooker’s future, the Irishman laments the dearth of old-fashioned working men’s clubs, the likes of which helped him learn his trade.
“I’d like to see a few more opened up,” he says. “Just to keep the kids interested – I’d like to see more kids playing the game.”
Nor was he obligated, when relegated from snooker’s professional tour circuit in April, to increase his practise hours in a bid to revitalise his career.
In truth, it would have been easier for Doherty – an affable and popular presence within the game – to retire to the BBC commentary box full-time.
But that, he insists, was never a consideration.
“My priority is to play without doubt,” he says. “You cannot get a better buzz than playing.”
The 48-year-old admits that having to accept World Snooker’s offer of an invitation wildcard – which allows him to compete in tournaments that not all other professionals have entered – was “embarrassing”.
His performances this season, however, have been anything but.
A semi-final appearance at the Riga Masters in June – featuring victory over top-16 player Anthony McGill – has been followed with wins against Ali Carter and Barry Hawkins.
“I thought: ‘I’m not going to go out like this,’” says Doherty, whose career highlight remains defeating Stephen Hendry to win the World Championship in 1997.
“I didn’t want to go out with a whimper, so I was delighted to get a wildcard for two years.
“I just vowed to give it as much focus and concentration as I can for the two years, and see where it takes me.”
The Irishman attributes his improvement with three things.
“It’s the focus, and doing a bit more extra practice. And most importantly, it’s the confidence,” he says.
“I got a few results in Riga, and was a bit unlucky against Stephen Maguire. Getting those results gave me a bit of confidence, so I’m feeling a lot better about myself in the matches, and I’m enjoying it.”
Such is the growth of snooker under the stewardship of Barry Hearn that there is the opportunity to enjoy even more success.
The tour now hosts 20 ranking events across the season, a raft of openings that allowed Mark King and Anthony Hamilton to claim maiden ranking titles aged over 40 last season, after upwards of 20 years as professionals.
Their victories are now Doherty’s motivation, as he aims to add to his collection of six major competitions.
“I saw how well Steve Davis’ career panned out, and Jimmy White as well,” he says.
“But now I look at the likes of King and Hamilton and use them as my inspiration, thinking: ‘Well if these guys can do it, why can’t I?’
“I’m every bit as good as these guys, and have been for a long time.
“It’s great to see them get their hands on a trophy because I know what sort of commitment they’ve given to the game, and what sacrifice.
“I’m going to use that as my inspiration now for the next few years.”
To maintain that mental resilience is perhaps more testing in snooker than any other sport.
The schedule can be a grind and lonely, especially for those in the losing habit.
Ronnie O’Sullivan has previously admitted that his future was in jeopardy before a meeting with sports psychologist Stephen Peters transformed his career.
And Doherty reveals that he has to force himself to think positively when sore memories threaten to endanger his game, too.
“People will always remind us about the bad times, the ones that got away,” he says.
“As snooker players you tend to do that – ‘I missed this one, I missed that one, I should’ve won this, I should’ve won that’.
“But when I’m out there playing, I try and think about the good times. Images of beating Hendry to win the World Championship, or beating O’Sullivan in London.
“You try and give yourself a gee up. If you think about the ones that got away, you’ll collapse like a cheap tent.”
Doherty is not alone in prospering in his latter years.
The average age of the snooker’s current top 16 is 10 years older than 20 years ago, a statistic boosted by the longevity of Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams – all of whom were there in 1997, and are still winning regular titles.
And Doherty is adamant that the game’s golden generation must be put to good use when it comes to inspiring the next batch.
“For all the talk about the new wave of Chinese players – and there are some great players there, don’t get me wrong – these guys are still producing great snooker in their 40s.
“These guys at times were my nemesis, and stopped me from winning maybe another 10 ranking tournaments.
“They’re playing in the twilight of their years, but the other guys have to catch up.
“In the short term, you’ve got the likes of Luca Brecel, but Yan Bingtao, Zhou Yuelong and Xhao Xintong are very, very good.
“We’re still waiting for Judd Trump to make a big breakthrough. Kyren Wilson has a really solid all-round game, too.
“These new guys should be inspired by O’Sullivan and Higgins, they are the benchmark.”
Having recovered a career featuring a world title and eight triple crown finals, the same could be said of Doherty.