Reanne Evans has overcome many obstacles on her way to the top of the women’s snooker world.
She’s beaten a great deal of players, for a start; after all, she is a ten-time world champion who has won the global prize every year for the last decade. In 2009, she beat reigning Crucible king John Higgins 4-3 in the Six-Red World Championship.
Today, she takes on Ken Docherty; the first hurdle in her quest to make history by becoming the first female to play at the Crucible.
And she does so knowing she has already beaten the biggest obstacle to get this far; sexism, prejudice and discrimination.
The 29-year-old Evans - in 21st-century, modern Britain, remember - once had to apply for permission to play a match in the West Midlands Snooker League. Why? Because the club didn’t allow women in. Especially not to play.
Only a formal application to the committee of the club saw the rule relaxed, in time for Evans to play her game against a male counterpart.
“I was in one tournament, the world under-21s, and there was a New Zealand referee who was refereeing ladies’ matches and saying they shouldn’t be playing,” Evans revealed, in an interview with the Guardian last month.
“He got kicked out the tournament for it. I complained straight away. He got a ban from his association as well.
“You get sexism a lot.”
My brother Ryan was playing a competition and I went along to watch. I wasn’t even playing, but someone said I wasn’t allowed in. My brother said, ‘Are you joking? She comes with me to every match’, but they said, ‘No, sorry, she’s not allowed in’. In the end, one of the committee guys came along and said, ‘If she sits in the corner and doesn’t have a drink then we’ll let her in’.Reanne Evans
Snooker is a demanding sport, no doubt; and the physical and, mostly, mental exertions of a possible 35-frame marathon final should not be underestimated. But this is not football, rugby league or American football, where brute strength, speed and stamina is key. So there is, in physical terms at least, no reason why a female snooker player should not be able to compete on even footing against a man.
This is not a column proposing a form of positive discrimination, filling quotas with women for the sake of it.
But having compiled a 142 break before, and registering a 140 in competition, Evans is clearly no patsy.
Real Madrid eulogised for years over ‘La Decima’ before they conquered Europe for the tenth time last season. Evans was crowned queen of the world for the tenth time in succession last April.
She lost just one frame on her way to the final.
“Reanne has jumped at her chance and she is capable of beating half the field, maybe more,” said Barry Hearn, the supremo of world snooker.
“She has won the Women’s World Snooker Championship more times than I have had a slice of toast.
“She is a fantastic player but it is an open game. The future of the sport is to open the game to everyone, irrespective of race, colour or sex. We need to say, ‘There is a snooker table, go and play’.”
If only it were so simple.
In their paper ‘A Man’s Game?’, a study of women playing rugby union in Australia for the University of Queensland, Alison Carle and John Nauright noted: “Women have had a long history of participation in modern sporting activities, though they have faced countless barriers to sporting competition, particularly in ‘contact’ sports.
“[But] as we move into the twenty-first century, many more doors are opening for the sporting woman, and games previously thought to ‘belong’ to men are becoming attractive options for women.”
Later, they conclude: “By implication, women’s bodies are presumed to be incapable of men’s achievements, being weaker, more prone to irregularities, intrusions, and unpredictability.”
Stephen Hendry won the 1994 men’s world title with a fractured elbow; Evans triumphed in 2006 while almost eight months pregnant. Talk about irregularities, intrusions, and unpredictability.
“I think that’s my biggest achievement,” Evans admits.
“I was on a run of so many world titles, I wondered if I should be entering. Then I thought: ‘Oh just go for it and enjoy it,’ so I entered. I couldn’t even use the table properly, I had to use a rest which I don’t like using.
“But I won it. It’s because I had my daughter’s help - two against one, you see!”
Evans, from Dudley in the West Midlands, still lives with her parents and nine-year-old daughter Lauren, whose dad is Northern Irish star Mark Allen. Her snooker-mad dad built a practice arena in the back garden of their home and older brother Ryan almost made it onto the tour in his younger days.
“Ryan was playing a competition and I went along to watch,” she remembers.
“I wasn’t even playing, but someone said I wasn’t allowed in. My brother said, ‘Are you joking? She comes with me to every match’, but they said, ‘No, sorry, she’s not allowed in’.
“In the end, one of the committee guys came along and said, ‘If she sits in the corner and doesn’t have a drink then we’ll let her in’.
“When I went in, there were women serving behind the bar but they weren’t actually allowed in the room where the snooker was being played.”
She has certainly come a long way and qualifying for the Crucible will guarantee her a £6,000 payday. In simple terms; a first-round defeat is more lucrative than five years of world domination.
Ronnie O’Sullivan banked £250,000 for his 2013 title win. Evans’ remuneration for the same feat? £400.
It’s a man’s world, all right.
“It’s shocking, really,” says Evans, who reached the semi-finals of her first world championships aged 16.
“The first year I won the world title I won £1,500 but it’s been going down and down. It went to £1,000, then £800 and now it’s gone down to £400.
“There are just no sponsorships. You’d expect to earn a little bit of a living for being the top sportswoman in your sport.
“I just find it flabbergasting. I don’t expect to be earning hundreds of thousands of pounds because we don’t play in big tournaments or on TV, and the standard isn’t as good as the men’s, but you shouldn’t be losing money.”
On the surface, it does seem unfair that the respective pay cheques taken home by Reanne and Ronnie differ so vastly when their talents probably do not. But Evans offered the greatest clue as to why, when she admitted that women’s world championship games are often watched by crowds of between five and 20 people.
I remember badgering my Dad as a youngster to take me to a match at the Crucible; he could never get tickets for the most inane men’s first-round draws but eventually took me to see a women’s game, so we could sample the atmosphere.
There wasn’t any.
We breezed through the doors and had almost the entire, famous old auditorium to ourselves. I later found out it was the final.
Kelly Fisher, the last winner of the women’s title before Evans, was playing.
“In the long-term I think there’s a realistic chance that women players could make it into the top 32,” she said after winning her fifth world title.
“And I’d like to be the first!
“It’s all down to practice at the end of the day. You need to have some natural ability - but you’ve also got to be prepared to put in the hard work.”
Fisher’s bid for the top 32 ended in 2003, when World Snooker withdrew funding for the women’s game and all major tournaments were abandoned. She moved to the USA and took up pool instead, playing on the Women’s Professional Billiard Association nine-ball tour.
But her point still stands. Snooker is one of the ultimate individual sports and your opponent - be it Stephen Hendry or Stephen Fry - can’t beat you if you keep him in his seat.
In 2010-11, Evans was handed a wildcard to the World Snooker Tour, becoming the first woman to compete on the main circuit for 15 years.
She failed to win a match throughout the season - but laid a marker.
Katie Walsh, the sister of Ruby and winner of this year’s Irish Grand National, will inevitably have been told at some point that women are inferior jockeys. Many thought Anastasia Dobromyslova, known more commonly as just Anastasia in commentary for perhaps obvious reasons, should have stuck to the women’s league before she appeared at the Grand Slam of Darts alongside the likes of Phil Taylor and Vincent van der Voort.
And there will doubtless be some who think Evans should do the same.
Let us hope that she proves the doubters wrong and makes the most of her Big Break.