TWO years ago, underdog David Grace made sporting headlines with a stunning run to the UK Championship semi-finals.
The former amateur champion defied the odds to beat the likes of former world champion Peter Ebdon in York before slipping to a last-four defeat to China’s Liang Wenbo. His £30,000 consolation prize dwarfed the £5,000 in prize money he had pocketed the entire previous season.
Now ranked 47th in the world, the 32-year-old has enjoyed the best two years of his career and appeared at the Crucible for the first time in April at the World Championship.
But while his world ranking has been on the rise, his weight has been heading in the other direction.
For Grace has lost over six stones since his exploits in York 2015, after joining Slimming World 18 months ago.
The transformation is amazing, and even former world champion John Parrott blanked him in passing, not recognising the new-look Grace.
I look back at the photos and realise that. This year I bumped into John Parrott at the Crucible and he didn’t speak to me. When I saw him the next morning he apologised as he didn’t recognise me. Little things like that are nice.David Grace
When he joined Slimming World – at their Great Horton group in Bradford – he was 22st 2lb, but this summer reached his 16st target.
“I was probably at my biggest when I got to the semi-finals of the UK Championship,” Grace told The Yorkshire Post.
“I look back at the photos and realise that. This year I bumped into John Parrott at the Crucible and he didn’t speak to me.
“When I saw him the next morning he apologised as he didn’t recognise me. Little things like that are nice.
“My wife and I were getting married in April and that is why we started, and we’ve just kept it up.
“We go to the Slimming World groups every week and it does the trick. It really does work.
“We had a friend who lost five or six stone, so when you know someone who tells you it is achievable, it makes you think “maybe I can do it”.
“It couldn’t hurt my game to lose a bit of weight. Once you start losing, people notice, and your clothes fit nicer.
“I definitely feel better. You don’t notice anything overnight, it’s a slow process, and I have done it over 18 months.
“You are carrying six stones less, so it has to be a lot easier on your joints and muscles.
“Playing snooker, you do have to have a certain amount of fitness. It’s not just the games, but the hours on the practice table, and the travelling.
“It’s not called a diet, it’s called a lifestyle change, and you do it for life. I can’t see me going back.
“I know when I have had bad weeks, I put five pounds on in a week on holiday, I can see how easy it would be to slip back into the old habits. There’s no way I want to go back.”
Being a professional snooker player means Grace has had to kit himself out in new clothing, with none of his old waistcoats fitting.
And he admits the constant travelling for tournaments – in the last few months he has already clocked up airmiles jetting out to China, Germany and Belgium – means it can be difficult to eat healthily.
“I was going back through my old waistcoats from the last 10 years, and even the smallest ones I ever had were too big for me,” he said, before smiling: “I am keeping the tailor happy.
“The hardest part watching what you eat is when you are travelling. Especially in the Far East, the safest option can be McDonald’s or KFC.
“But I do try to make better choices, so it’s damage limitation when I am away. When I am at home, where I can cook my own meals, I find it a lot easier.”
Grace will have the chance to sample home comforts a little more next week, with a third major tournament being staged in Yorkshire.
The UK Championship (in York) and World Championship (Sheffield) are two of snooker’s biggest events, but another world ranking event, the English Open, will now be staged in Barnsley for the first time, starting on Monday.
With his semi-final appearance at York still fresh in his mind, and his Crucible experience in April this year, Grace certainly has enjoyed playing in the county.
“It’s not deliberate that I tend to do well in Yorkshire, but it is probably not a coincidence,” said Grace.
“It is just a nice place for me to play. I can invite a lot of family and friends to come down and watch which is a big help.
“I do stay in hotels, even when it’s in Yorkshire, but it’s nice to just be a short drive from home. I can be home in 40 minutes, rather than five hours from Scotland, or wherever.”
Any player who wins all four events in the Home Nations series pockets a £1m bonus, with top stars like Mark Selby and Ronnie O’Sullivan descending on the Barnsley Metrodome from Monday to next Sunday.
“It is fantastic to have a big tournament in Barnsley for the first time,” said Grace. “Yorkshire is the home of snooker.
“The fans always turn out in big numbers and I’m sure they will do the same and come down to support the event.”
Grace’s target this season is to stay in the coveted world’s top 64.
But with points accrued on a two-year rolling basis, he knows the money banked in York in December 2015 will soon come off his ranking total.
He currently resides 47th heading into the English Open, where he faces former world champion Mark Williams in a televised first-round showdown on Tuesday evening.
“I was aware that straight after York I had two years to replace those points,” said Grace. “I had to do that gradually over a two-year period. Last season my goal was about 35,000 points, and I ended up with about 40,000.
“If I can do similar this year it will be just enough to stay in the top 64, although it will be close.”
Next up for Grace is Welshman Williams – a Crucible champion in 2000 and 2003 – as Barnsley hosts its first ranking tournament.
This year his best performance so far came in the China Championship where he reached the last 32, before narrowly losing 5-4 to Ali Carter.
The world No 13 had actually led 3-1, before Grace reeled off three successive frames to take a 4-3 lead and stand just one frame away from a huge shock.
But Carter used all his experience to stay in the match and clinch victory.
Grace practises at the Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds, where he works ironing the tables, and organises regular pro-am tournaments to keep the local snooker scene thriving.
“We are lucky to have an absolutely fantastic club at the Northern,” he said.
“The events get people coming along for a go, but at the same time a lot of professional players compete.
“I’ve always enjoyed organising tournaments and I want to see people have a good day out playing snooker.
“When I was a junior, playing in those events was such a special buzz, you look forward to it all month.
“I want to give amateur players the same sort of feeling” he added.