Vinnie Calabrese hails from Sydney, Australia, and is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his close friend and compatriot Neil Robertson who has been mentoring him in the life of a professional snooker player. It’s clear from speaking to Vinnie just how much he respects and appreciates the help and guidance from the 2010 World Champion. What a role model to have in your corner!
Vinnie qualified for the main tour via the 2013 Oceania Championship and is currently mid way through his first season of a two season tour card. I first spoke to him in Doncaster just after he’d beaten the then world number two Mark Selby 4-2 in the ET3 event, and found him to be a very friendly lad with no hint of an ego about him despite the impressive result he’d just achieved. Those who followed the UK Championship from York will remember him from the practice tables behind the BBC set during the latter stages of the event as he kept the eventual champion company and gained a unique insight into what it takes to win one of the biggest events on the calendar.
I caught up with him just as everyone started returning to work from the Christmas break.
Did you have a good Christmas? What did you get up to?
Yes we had a quiet one; me and my girlfriend cooked our first turkey which was fun and it turned out alright as it goes. My mum who’s back home gave me a few pointers the night before because if you don’t get it right it can come out dry, but it came out alright. And there were a couple of little presents as well so it was nice but nothing too big.
Have you been practicing as well?
Yeah over the Christmas period I didn’t go into the club for maybe 6 or 7 days in total but not all at once, just a day here and a day there. Neil (Robertson) was away for Christmas and Joe (Perry) didn’t come into the club so when I could I went into the club for an hour or so on my own and had a couple of days off obviously Christmas Day and a few others.
I didn’t stop completely. After Barnsley where I lost to Jimmy (White, German Masters last 128) and Barry (Hawkins, World Open last 128 (both in deciding frames)) which was a good match and where I had a few really good chances to win, Neil said now Christmas was approaching I couldn’t really have two weeks off, I had to keep practicing the things I was working on before I played Barry and to keep on the gas.
How long do you think you can have off before it does start to affect your game? From my experience at club player level playing twice a week if I don’t play for 2 weeks as happened around the UK Championship it can take me 2-3 weeks to get back to the level I was at before.
Well I’m playing 6 or 7 days a week and one day here and there is alright but I do notice that if you have a few days in a row off it can make you a bit rusty. Neil had 2 weeks off and he’s been back the last couple of days, I mean he plays good all the time but he’s starting to hit the ball a lot better now and it’s his 3rd day back. But yes if you do have a few days off it can make you rusty, your potting isn’t quite as sharp and for me position would be off a little bit more, you lose a bit of the feel for the shot, so I try to not have too many days off.
A lot of people reading this will probably recognise you without seeing you play because you got your face on TV a fair bit during the UK Championship practicing with Neil in the background to the BBC set.
(laughs) Yes as you all know Neil made the final and I live with him, and I lost second round and was up in York not stranded, I could’ve jumped on the train and gone back to Cambridge, but Neil told me to stick around.
With the Barnsley qualifiers coming up I wanted to get back to Cambridge to practice, but Neil said “I’m sure if you ask the guys in the office they’ll let you use the practice tables” because by this point they were getting down to the last 16 and quarter-finals and they still had the 4 practice tables up which were backstage where the studio was set up with Hazel and the boys. So I asked Mike Ganley and he said it was ok, and the tables were playing beautifully so I jumped on them as much as I could.
Then Hazel put me on the spot a little bit, she panned the camera to me and started sort of interviewing me live on the BBC and I was a bit shell shocked! (laughs)
Apparently you were smiling a lot.
Yeah she got me. I didn’t know what to do so I just smiled! (laughs) And then after that I had to pack up and leave because I couldn’t handle it!
It must’ve been good experience hanging around with the eventual champion and seeing what it takes to win one of these big events?
Yeah for sure. Neil went through it all but I was in the same hotel as him and was with him before every match and during the preparation so I went through it all as well even though I’m not the one playing, but it was good like Neil said to stay around and get a feel for it.
He said when he was younger and he used to lose at Prestatyn or when he first started making venues if he lost early he would stay back a few more days to stay in the latter stages of the tournament even though you’re not in the tournament, just to get the vibe. And it was great because he went all the way and I was with him from start to finish so I reckon it’s done me good to experience it.
How did you start playing snooker?
It wasn’t too dissimilar to Neil actually. I’m from Sydney and Neil’s from Melbourne, and my father owned a snooker club when I was growing up and so did Neil’s dad. My dad owned a snooker club from when I was born until just a couple of months ago so you could say I was born into it.
My older brother played to a high level, national junior level, and my dad played as well, and I remember when I was really young just hitting the balls around on the floor using my hat as a pocket. (laughs) So when I could cue the ball alright my dad got a milk crate or a box and I’d stand on that and play, and obviously carried on from there.
So you’ve never known a time when you haven’t been playing?
I had a few years off from when I was about 12 to 18 years old, a couple of years off here and there, but if I could play I was always playing.
You had quite a good junior record?
In Australia it goes with age groups starting under 12s, then 15s, 18s and 21s. I was one of the best in the under 12s and from then it was near enough the same players so I sort of dominated each age group as I moved up, playing the same players with not many others coming along, so I won every age group Australian title. I won a couple of billiard titles too but mainly snooker at state and national level for the age group I was in.
Unfortunately you didn’t qualify for the Australian Open as it looks like it may have run its course. What are your thoughts on the event and the fact there was a poor turnout from a lot of the big name players as well as criticism of the Bendigo location?
Yes it is disappointing that a lot of players didn’t show up and support it, but on the other hand this is my first year on tour and I can sort of understand it, especially with some of the bigger boys who maybe qualify for all of the events and they end up playing 43-45 weeks of the year. I mean the Australian Open is obviously out in Australia and it’s either the first or second event right at the start of the season.
It’s effectively in the summer holidays when the kids are off school.
Yeah although I’m sure if the prize money was £100,000 to the winner you’d have everyone playing. But just for a few of those factors: it’s quite a trek going out there, the prize money isn’t as much as some of the other events, it’s at the beginning of the season, so it’s seen as a tournament to skip, one where you’re not really missing out.
Do you think there will be another one?
Well with last year’s results with Neil finishing runner-up and Marco winning it, it was probably the best possible outcome for those two to reach the final. It was a big positive and definitely helped the chances of returning to Australia although I’m not sure the same location, but the Australian ranking event has definitely got a chance of going ahead.
You’ve known Neil from when you were juniors, can you remember the first time you saw him?
I’m 26 now and Neil is 32 so there’s a 6 year age gap so when I was playing in the under 12s I remember seeing Neil in the under 18s and under 21s, that’s my earliest memory. But I’m from Sydney (New South Wales) and he’s from Melbourne (Victoria) so that’s a 10 hour drive, or an hour and a half on the plane so I didn’t see too much of him. We’d play mainly in our state but once a year would meet up for the Australian titles. But I remember back then people used to talk about him saying this kid’s going to be good.
So people around at the time won’t be surprised with what he’s achieved?
Yeah people have been saying for years back home that he would be top 16 and win a couple of ranking events and that he was definitely going to be a top player. There was even a fella from Sydney who had a bet that he was going to win the World Championship within the next 10 years. So people certainly believed it.
Did he win the bet? Was it within 10 years?
Well it was one of those snooker club bets where one fella said “That boy will win the World Championship in the next 10 years” and then some guy goes “I’ll give you 100/1 that he doesn’t” so he said ok and put 10 quid on it!
There’s a similar story with Mark Williams, when he won it in 2000 someone who had seen him as a junior had placed a bet at large odds that he would win it within 10 years and he won a few grand, so it’s happened before! You played on the PIOS (Pontins International Open Series), was that your first time in the UK and how do you look back on it now?
I first came to the UK in 2005 when I was 18. Back in Australia I had just won the Australian national title at 17 and that was my first Australian ranking event and my first win, and I’d always wanted to come over. Neil was established over here and there was accommodation and a snooker club set up so my parents thought it was a great idea for me to come over. I wasn’t planning to play any tournaments or anything, just to come over for a few months, live with Neil, practice and see what it was like. I ended up playing a couple of PIOS events, got last 16 in one of them so that was my first experience of England.
How much time have you spent here between then and getting on tour?
When I came over in 2005 I played in 2 events and there were 8 events so I didn’t play with the intention of getting on (tour) just to get a bit of tournament play. In 2006 I came over again and I think I played in 4 events because at that time I could only get 6 months at a time (visa) so I played 4 and went home. Then I had a year off and then I got a working holiday visa which entitled me to a 2 year stay and I think I played 5 events but didn’t do too great, it would’ve been tough to finish the remaining 3 events and qualify so I didn’t bother with the rest of them and went home. Then I had another year off, then I came over for the first 2 Q Schools (in 2011 and 2012) and didn’t qualify, then last year I won my regional qualifier, the Oceania, so this is my first year on now.
The Oceania event you didn’t lose a frame until the final?
Yeah I did quite well in the group stage and the fella I beat in the final was in my group, Matthew Bolton. So I did ok in the group stage, they were best of 7 and I won all 6 matches 4-0, then I won the last 16, quarters and semis all to nil and in the final I lost the opening frame!
So you turned pro and immediately qualified for the first venue, Wuxi, where you came through the wildcard round, and the wildcard Zhao Xintong is the one who later beat Steve Davis and Barry Hawkins in Shanghai, and then you lost to John Higgins. A pretty good start and a pretty tough introduction to the world of professional snooker!
Yeah I had a really good match against Anthony McGill who’s been doing really well this season, he’s had a lot of good results, so I beat him and I was behind in that match and came back. So then I was all set and ready, first event and first one I’ve qualified for, and I looked at the draw and I had John Higgins. For me that was a dream and even Neil said it would be great playing John in China, and then the final draw came out, 4 wildcards out of 32 and I drew one and he was probably the best one! He’s definitely shown it over the last couple of months with his results and I think he was 15 when he played me and I was trailing 4-2 and ended up winning 5-4. So now I’ve got through to play John Higgins and I won the opening frame and then he killed me! He ended up beating me 5-1.
You’ve shown glimpses since then of what you’re capable of with a good run in the Doncaster PTC beating Selby, Poomjaeng and Davy Morris and you beat Dominic Dale in the UK Championship, and as you mentioned you had a good chance to beat Barry Hawkins in Barnsley. In fact there was a shot you played at 4-3 to develop the pink from the blue which unbelievably landed tight to the cushion when it looked for all the world like it was going to land over the hole, in which case you would have definitely won. So it’s been quite an encouraging start to your career, how do you assess it?
Yeah I’ve had some really good wins and also I feel that I’ve let myself down in a few matches, but all in all if someone had said you can have this sort of a start I would’ve taken it. The first year on isn’t easy for anyone. There’s a few players that are doing outstanding but on the whole a lot of the new pros seem to be, not struggling, but they’ve had some tough draws and a lot of the top 64 are winning those first round matches.
It’s key having two seasons to get the chance to find your feet isn’t it? In the days where you only had one season you’d immediately be fighting to stay on tour.
Yes, the new system for the professionals coming on now and having two years favours them a lot. But even then some players are going to need more time than that because some of these draws that some players are getting, myself included, with the top 64 playing 65-128 you could end up drawing a top 16 player every event. It’s unlikely to happen but a few players have kept drawing really tough opponents and even though they’re good players it’s a tough ask for them win. Like Jak Jones, I think he may have won just one match this year but he’s a really good player who has had some tough draws.
How would you describe your style of play?
As with anyone when the balls are going in it’s nice! But maybe I’m a little bit quicker than others, not quite as quick as Ronnie or Jack (Lisowski). I wouldn’t say I’m particularly aggressive but I play a faster paced game and if they’re all going in then it’s all well and good but my B game isn’t up to scratch and if they’re not going in then I look like an amateur!
If I’m playing well I have people coming up to me saying they like the way I play and that my style is nice and this and that but especially over the Christmas period Neil has helped me out with some things and I’ve slowed up a little and I can tell just from practice in the last couple of weeks that it’s brought more consistency with everything. It’s just a simple thing, making sure I’m feathering the same number of times on every shot where before maybe sometimes I’m feathering 3 times on a shot which is over the pocket and maybe if it’s a harder shot I’m feathering 6 times. So he said to at least get some consistency in my cueing then I don’t have to think about it during the match.
I noticed in your match with Hawkins you were playing some really smart shots. He’s a great safety player and you were matching him and even if the shot didn’t go right, I could tell what you were thinking and that it was a good shot to play for. You must’ve picked up a lot from practicing with Neil and Joe which has brought on your match play game?
Yeah I knew I’d played good safety during the match because we were going shot for shot and Neil even said to me after the match that Barry’s safety is really really good and that I matched him or got the better of him a lot of the time, and that comes from experience and playing with Neil and Joe, Joe maybe more so. I learned a bit more of the intricate shots off Joe because he’s so clever with his safety and then on the other hand playing someone like Neil if you don’t nail the safety shot, his long pots are so good. I mean you can imagine how good the long pots would be in practice because you’ve seen them in a match.
So I’ve got two great practice partners who are like ebony and ivory really and when I play both of them I’ve got to play great safety for different reasons. Everyone can play the normal safety but especially when playing Joe instead of thinking I’ll just nick this red and put the white in baulk, you want to put it on a certain side of the table, you know. There’s a lot more to the safety that a lot of new young pros and amateurs don’t realise.
This is why a lot of players don’t peak until they’re in their 30s because it takes that long to learn that side of the game.
Yes and I truly understand that. I’m 26 now and I’m only really learning what before I thought I knew! The proper safety shots, the pro safety shots. Before I knew how to get the white to baulk, near enough the cushion but it’s not only the white, it’s putting the object ball somewhere, or placing a ball somewhere so it’s hard for them to return it. Not necessarily getting the cue ball on the cushion or behind the baulk colour is the best shot.
I know you like watching re-runs of old matches. Do you have any favourites from years gone by, players and matches?
When I was kid growing up maybe 15 years ago the World titles used to be on and it wasn’t like it is now where you’ve got Sky and internet. We used to have a friend in England who would tape the later stages of the Crucible and send the cassette to Australia. So when I was younger all we had were these cassettes and one of the favourites was the 18-17 Jimmy White v Stephen Hendry match. I watched it a lot and obviously because it went 18-17 it was one the greatest matches of all time. And back then when the two players had made the final they did the intro showing how both players had got to the final and Jimmy White’s section he was doing all these screw backs and top spins and I just remember always watching the intro and going “Wow!”
When we were chatting in York you mentioned the Hallett v Hendry Masters final.
Neil actually is really big on trivia and old classic matches and when we were in York in the hotel Neil switch on the TV and Hallett was commentating and he said “Have you ever seen the classic Hallett v Hendry final?” so we watched the last couple of frames and it was, not funny, but just in the last frame Hallett got some awful run to lose it. Obviously he had some golden chances to win it before that but it was funny because in the decider Hallett played all the right shots, didn’t twitch and potted all the big balls but he just couldn’t catch a break! He kept nicking the jaw, going in off on safety, snookering himself after potting a good ball (laughs) and he just wasn’t meant to win that match!
Thanks Vinnie and good luck for the remainder of the season and beyond.