Snookered by Covid-19 but David Grace has sights on top-32 target
David Grace is the first to admit the sporting lockdown of 2020 has snookered grassroots sport in the UK.
From local snooker clubs to park pitches, no sport has escaped the impact of Coronavirus this year.
But set against the testing landscape of Covid-19, Leeds snooker professional Grace has actually enjoyed a successful last 12 months on the table.
From reaching the Gibraltar Open quarter-finals in March - when players feared being stranded on the island as the world went into global lockdown - to battling through to the semi-finals of Northern Ireland Open, 35-year-old Grace has racked up the ranking points.
The world No 65 could even break into the world’s top 32 by the end of the season if he maintains his upward curve.
Some achievement for a player, who admits he struggled to build on his only previous semi-final spot - in the 2015 UK Championship - after first turning professional in 2008.
“I had a nice result in Gibraltar,” said Grace, who lost to Mark Williams in the last eight. “But because this was all brewing (Coronavirus) so quickly, it was nice to just get on the table in Gibraltar. There were rumours we were going to get stuck there, the borders were going to close and cancel all the flights.
“The most relaxing place was actually at the table, playing the match.
“In a weird way, when I sometimes have something off the table - to take my mind off playing - it actually helps me focus on the snooker.
“I was quite solid last season, but this season I wanted to go deeper into tournaments and not have to worry about being top 64, borderline.
“Hopefully, that run should have given me a bit of breathing space and i can just concentrate on the tournament, not worry about my ranking.
“On the end of season list, I should make the 64 now. As it stands I am about 40, so it would be nice to actually reach the top 32 if I can keep the results going, but it will be tough.”
“We didn’t know what tournaments were going to be staged this year, so we have been really lucky to have the amount of events we have played.”
Grace beat defending champion Ding Junhui at the UK Championship - like most tournaments this season, staged in Milton Keynes due to the venue’s facilities and hotel - and also reached the third round of the English Open.
He looked set to cause another shock on Tuesday night, when he won the first frame against Shaun Murphy at the Scottish Open, before back-to-back centuries saw the 2005 world champion triumph 4-1.
“I won the first frame, and he looked a bit shaky,” said Grace. “But I gifted him an easy chance in the second, and he didn’t look back - I never potted another ball. I was reduced to long chances.
“You don’t get many games on the TV table, but because I had a few in the last couple of weeks, I feel like I have grown into those matches. I have got used to the conditions.”
Grace first grabbed national headlines in 2015 when reaching the UK Championship semi-finals in York.
He struggled to replicate that success, and admits he has learned how to handle success on the table.
“The last time I got a semi (2015), I didn’t slack off, but I enjoyed it for too long,” he said.
“You have got to learn lessons from the past. So, now I think ‘it was a nice run, but it’s done now’. I am looking forward, concentrate on what I have been working on, and try to get to more semi-finals, at least.
“It was just too much to take in, for someone who had had a career like I had, up to that point.
“All of a sudden, people’s expectations changed, they thought I would do it again, and that’s very hard to do. That’s just snooker. It took time for me to adjust.
“I will have a few days off over Christmas, but back competing in January, and not sponging off recent results like I maybe did previously. I am just looking forward (to 2021),” added Grace, who looks set to compete in next week’s World Grand Prix for the world’s top 32 in the one-year ranking list.
This week he has been back training at the Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds.
And the Yorkshireman is just grateful that as a professional sportsman, he actually has somewhere to play.
“It has been a really difficult year for snooker,” said Grace. “It’s been awful for grassroots snooker. I know a lot of young lads who come into the club to practice, and they haven’t been able to play anywhere.
“I genuinely feel really sorry for them. We are lucky that the club owners have let the professionals come in and practice.
“For some people, snooker is their lives. Other sporting facilities, like gyms, are open for people’s physical and mental health. “Snooker is a big boost for people’s mental health, to be a part of something. That’s been taken away.
“I know it’s a difficult balance to reach, but when looking at what is allowed, I think two people sharing a 12-foot snooker table is more than doable.
“We have proved we can do it. I helped the club bring in Covid measures, like one-way systems, sanitisers, sanitising equipment between each customer. They put so much work into the club to make it secure, but it’s been part of the hospitality (industry) which has been picked on.”
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