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Sports

Growing German interest in snooker, a 'classic slow-burning drama'

The world's snooker stars are in Sheffield, fighting for the season's top prize. Long a niche sport, with a core following in Britain, its net is broadening. Commentator Rolf Kalb has helped this process in Germany.

Ronnie O'Sullivan at the table in the 2016 world championships.

Fan favorite Ronnie O'Sullivan, like several of the top seeds, dropped out early this year

For the uninitiated, snooker is a more challenging and complex cousin of pool, which you may have played in the pub. For the utterly uninitiated, think of it as an indoor Yin to golf's open-air Yan. A sport without physical strain, based instead on geometric precision, muscle memory, hand-eye coordination, and a whole heap of pressure.

Dominated for decades by players either from the British Isles or former British colonies, its global following was limited. But the game's reach is growing. More than a decade ago Eurosport first brought snooker to Germans' television screens, Rolf Kalb has commentated on the action for them from the get-go.

DW: Mr. Kalb, we're deep into the second week of the World Snooker Championship, the 40th time the competition has been played in Sheffield at the Crucible Theatre. But what about you, you're now a veteran of how many championships?

Eurosport's Rolf Kalb sitting in his commentary booth, covering snooker for German television.

If you watch a game of snooker on TV in Germany, chances are Rolf Kalb will be providing the play-by-play

Rolf Kalb: This is the 15th World Championship that I am commentating on for Eurosport. I've been a snooker commentator since 1989, back in the '90s it wasn't as regularly in our broadcast schedule, simply because we didn't have the television rights. We first secured the world championship rights in 2000, then again in 2003, and since the 2003-04 season, we broadcast the entire "main tour," or at least almost every main tour event including the world championships.

A lot has changed in terms of snooker's recognition in Germany in that time.

Yes, we're proud of what we have built. Before we started presenting snooker to Germany like this, nobody else did.If you'd done a survey 10 or 15 years ago, asking "what is snooker," most people might have looked at you, baffled, and said: "Perhaps it's a new chocolate bar? I don't know." Hit the streets with the same question now and most people would at least say something like: "Oh, yes, that's that type of cue sport - I've seen it being played." Now, people at least have a vague idea of what it's about, and that's a huge development.

And all this comes despite the lack of German top players, at least to date. Do you think a German pro will make it?

Of course I'd hope so. That would provide a further push for the sport here, without question. But on the other hand, I see the positives in the development we've made so far - without a big German name, without the famous "Becker effect." Just look at what happened with tennis in the 80s, during the time of Boris Becker, Steffi Graf and Michael Stich. All of a sudden, tennis was a major sport. There was a huge boom, ratings went through the roof. But eventually these exceptional athletes' careers ended and everything collapsed just as quickly as it had grown.

It's different with snooker. The people now fascinated by it, weren't drawn by a good player who happens to have a German passport. They're fascinated by the sport itself: of course, there are John Higgins and Ronnie O'Sullivan fans, but the sport remains in the foreground. I consider this a healthier foundation, as it's not built on individual protagonists whose careers will not last as long as the sport.

World Championship 2015 Snooker - Stuart Bingham

Reigning world champion Stuart Bingham lost out to Ali Carter in the first round defending his title

Just in these two weeks, world championship coverage must equate to as many as 200 broadcast hours.

We had planned for between 150 and 160 - but we'll have to wait and see how many actually go to air. For snooker is almost impossible to calculate in terms of time: sometimes it can drag over schedule, other matches are finished more quickly.

You've touched on an interesting aspect of snooker, one that doesn't really fit with the modern TV era - the game simply cannot be rushed.

No, it's the classic slow-burning drama - at least in the best-case scenario. At first glance, snooker seems to be set against the Zeitgeist, or even to have fallen out of time, if you like. It's really not your classic hectic sport.

Betfred World Championship 2016 Snooker in England - Marco Fu

Marco Fu nearly lost a huge 9-1 lead in his quarterfinal against Barry Hawkins, but held on to win 13-11

The same goes for the imagery on TV - there are no wobbling or rotating camera angles, everything's calm. But this allows the spectator to find a way in. Snooker's almost made for television - a series of mini-dramas creating this arc of suspense. And on top of that, you have the time to really study the players. If you're watching a game of snooker, you can look the player in the eyes as he lines up his shot. Perhaps you'll see fear or tension; you get a feel for the emotions he's going through, and can then build up an emotional relationship of your own.

If it's made for TV, the sport seems almost made for commentators too. It must be pleasing for you, that there's not just time, but a need for you to describe the scenes.

Yes, although I always take care to allow spectators some peace and quiet. I'm always trying not to chatter too much. Of course it's a pleasure to explain the sport's intricacies, especially the psychological elements. It's not all about technique. It's not about how much screw, topspin, or right- or left-hand-side the player puts in the white ball, rather it's these tense moments in snooker that need commentary.

But it's still important to give the viewers time to themselves, to identify their own points of interest. Take a player like Ronnie O'Sullivan. Ok, he's no longer in this year's competition, but we all know his quick-fire breaks completed with such natural aplomb. Play like that needs no comment from me. At those moments, you can lean back and just savor the perfection with which he can pot so many balls in a row.

This year at the Crucible, many top players have dropped out very early on. You could almost assert that of the pre-tournament favorites, only Mark Selby remains.

I don't quite see it that way. We rush to speak of a shock when a qualifier knocks out a seeded player. But look at somebody like Ding Junhui: Yes, he had a bad spell, meaning he had to qualify this year, yet this is a man who's won 11 rankings tournaments in his career. Two years ago, he won five in a single season, breaking an age old record of Stephen Hendry's. This is no underdog, no shock.

Betfred World Championship 2016 Snooker in England

Qualifier Ding Junhui (r.) knocked out three seeds en route to the semis, including Judd Trump

Most of these "surprise" matches were between evenly-matched opponents, and the seeded player didn't always prevail.

It's the same with Ali Carter - for me one of the world's very best. He had to qualify this time, because he was away from the table for months battling cancer. Obviously, he lost ground in the rankings. But that surely doesn't mean he's no longer a top player.

So we have experienced a few surprises, as at any world championship, or in any sport, but that's normal: Much of it didn't come as a shock to me.

Snooker's 2016 Betfred World Championship is scheduled to conclude next Monday. Second seed Mark Selby will face 14th seed Marco Fu in one semifinal - unseeded qualifiers Alan McManus and Ding Junhui will battle to meet one of them in the final.

The interview was conducted by Mark Hallam.