Weekend Interview: Leeds potter David Grace eyes repeat of UK Championship success in York

Twelve months ago, David Grace was dabbling in painting to help pay the bills as he battled to survive as a professional snooker player.

But his surprise run to the semi-finals of the Betway UK Championship in November at the York Barbican last year was the catalyst which helped turn around his on-table fortunes.

Having earned just £13,000 playing snooker over the previous two seasons, prior to York, Leeds potter Grace would paint in his spare time and sell the portraits.

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But since banking his £30,000 prize for reaching the final four in York, where he lost 6-4 to China’s Liang Wenbo, the previously unheralded Grace has been too busy with his cue to pick up his paint brush.

The 31-year-old has travelled the globe competing – he was in China last month, and has also competed in India and Romania – as well as finding time to get married and buy a new home with wife Gemma in Bradford.

“I have just not had time,” said Grace when asked about his painting days.

“I have had so many people ask me for them since York, I just have to keep saying: ‘sorry, I can’t, I will be in touch’.

“I feel a bit bad for people, but being away at tournaments – and a really busy year with the wedding and honeymoon – plus we bought a house in Bradford, it’s just been a busy year.

“It has been mad, I genuinely can’t believe it’s been a year since I was at York.

“It only feels like yesterday.

“Obviously, the BBC events are the tournaments where everyone watches. Getting as far as I did, being recognised in the club and the street for a few days afterwards was a little crazy.

“I suppose I was one of the stories of the tournament, being the underdog.

“Afterwards, in games, obviously everyone tries to win, but it did seem players had that extra edge to try and beat you. I just enjoyed it.”

During his York success last year – where he beat former world champion Peter Ebdon and Martin Gould to reach the semi-finals – Grace had joked his winnings would determine how far the newlyweds would go on honeymoon after their April wedding.

It may have started out as a caravan in Filey, but £30,000 later, and the couple jetted to Cyprus.

“We got married in April. We got as far as Cyprus, it was fantastic. Although it was weird being in an airport without my snooker cue,” said Grace, who plays Chinese prodigy Zhao Xintong in the first round at York in 12 days’ time.

“I have just come back from China, been there twice already, India, Romania as well as all the PTCs,

“It’s strange, because before the UK finals I was hardly winning any qualifying matches so I might have had one trip to China per season.

“Now I am seeded, and winning a lot of my qualifying games, I am going maybe four or five times. We obviously miss each other when I travel, but we just have to think of the money.

“Once you are out of the tournament, you just want to get home as quick as I can.”

His trip to Daqing was short and sweet in last month’s International Championship, swept away 6-1 in his first-round match by China’s Ding Junhui.

It was Grace’s biggest televised match since the UK semi-finals, with Ding having the support of millions watching in his homeland. He admits it can be a struggle adapting to being in the spotlight.

“I got absolutely splattered by Ding,” he admitted. “I was looking forward to it, as I had not played a big TV game since the UK.

“He played great against me, he should have had a 147 in one frame. I had my chances but the table caught me out completely.

“You hear a lot of the top players when they go on the back tables, saying how hard it is for them to adjust. Well, it’s just as hard the other way, when we are not used to the TV tables, and these guys play on them every match. It’s so hard to compete.

“It’s hard to describe the differences, because sometimes you don’t even know yourself. It’s generally faster, a lot more light on the top of the table, and the white ball does things you are not expecting it to do.”

Grace’s target this season is to simply win his qualifying games to actually compete at events, and pocket the prize money.

He won tough qualifiers to reach the first round of the Indian Open, World Open, European Masters and International Championship.

It is an approach which is working, helping him to earn prize money and climb the world rankings to 46th.

He reached the quarter-finals of the Paul Hunter Classic in August, beating the likes of top-32 players Matthew Stevens and Jack Lisowski along the way.

But Grace – who trains at the Northern Snooker Centre in Leeds alongside fellow professionals like father and son Peter and Oliver Lines, plus Sanderson Lam – knows it was his Barbican success which was the catalyst behind his remarkable story.

“It was an absolutely massive turning point in my career, you can’t even begin to compare where I was before that week to where I am now,” said Grace, who travels to Belfast tomorrow for the Northern Ireland Open where he takes on former world champion Mark Williams.

“I am consistently winning my qualifying matches, which was my aim. I know it’s not aiming high, but it was really important to build on York.

“When I won the £30,000, the way the system works, you keep it (towards your rankings total) for a two-year period.

“So, I knew, when York ended, from the next tournament onwards, I needed to replace that money to stay in the top 64.

“As of this point, I am doing that, slowly but surely.

“It’s no use doing it just one tournament every two years, I want to be playing consistently. Maybe not at those heights, just being consistent.

“By winning qualifiers, getting to venues, you can earn a lot of money by doing it that way.

“You can believe it all you want, in your heart, and you can play all the brilliant snooker down the club where there is nobody watching.

“But to actually do it, it’s just the ultimate in your own self-assurance, knowing you have done the right thing and stuck at it for all those years.”

If the Yorkshireman is to emulate his Barbican success this month, he will have to beat a teenager who has been tipped as a future star.

Zhao Xintong, 19, is building a reputation with his cue skills and pushed five-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan all the way, before losing 4-3 at the English Open.

Grace said: “It’s probably as tough a draw as I could have got really, outside of the top 64.

“He showed everyone how good he is at Manchester, where he could have beaten Ronnie (O’Sullivan).

“A lot of people are talking about him being a future world champion, so it doesn’t get much tougher than that for the first round.”

The Betway UK Championship runs from November 22 to December 4 at the York Barbican. Tickets start at £7, for details call 0844 854 2757 or visit www.worldsnooker.com/tickets