Events this year at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre marked a significant moment in Snooker history. Chinese female referee Ying Zhu and Michaela Tabb, snooker's leading female referee, refereed matches simultaneously on the Crucible's two tables during the first round of the 2012 World Championships.
This is the first time at the Crucible two matches were simultaneously refereed by women. As they walked out to officiate, they were accompanied by the song, Sisters are doin' it for themselves.
Snooker is a sports that has always been regarded as a man’s game in a man’s world. Though we have Michaela Tabb, a lady referee who has refereed the Crucible final, she is an exception, she was the only female representative until Ying, who is nicknamed the "beauty referee" by her fans.
Ying, who celebrates her 30th birthday this month, becomes the first Chinese and the youngest female to referee at the Snooker World Championships. Before the début, she won the Gold Medal for referees in 2008, making her the youngest ever to receive the highest recognition in snooker referee world.
How did Ying begin her snooker referee journey? How did she manage to grow up so quickly and make herself known at the Crucible stage? How does she define the role of female referee in a man’s world? How does she view herself and her senior Michaela Tabb?
I interviewed her this Wednesday, the day she finished her job at the Crucible this year. She was the last Chinese representative at the tournament, with all five Chinese players knocked out earlier.
When Ying graduated from university she began work in a white-collar job in 2004. But she felt there was something missing in her life. Then it occurred to her that she needed to enrich her life through practising her interests - snooker, a sport she had long been fond of and played at a good standard since she was young, although she just played it for fun with friends to fill after-work time.
As luck would have it, Shanghai, the city she lived, organised a snooker referee training class: “I think it is a good chance for me to know snooker more. I like this sport so I gave it a try” Ying said.
“It never occurred to me that, one day this will become my professional job, nor had some achievements in this field. To be frank, I did not even know who Michaela Tabb was at that time.”
Ying reflected that it was in 2005 that Ding Junhui won the China Open Snooker, one year after she finished the referee training class. As China was already home to a lot of snooker fans, Ding’s success led to a boom in snooker in China. More snooker games were arranged in all levels, and not surprisingly, with an ever-rising need in referees.
Ying said she was so lucky to enter the field with such a good timing. From the amateur matches to professional levels, from national games to international ones, she has never expected to go such a long way.
“From the good timing, to such a big market as China is embedded with, from my continuous hard work, to the approval I’ve got from fans and other professionals, I think I’ve got all the conditions needed for success. In Chinese, we call it: ‘Ideal timing, favourable location and friendly support’.”
Ying took four years to win the Gold Medal of the referee, the highest level recognition of snooker referee from nowhere. She took another four years to officiate at the Crucible.
She said people just know how fast she has progressed, but no idea how much effort she had made to achieve this.
“I still remember the days when I refereed amateur matches in Shanghai”. Ying was a part-time referee, and had to work in her paid job during the week, like the amateur players. So the matches were held at weekends. To complete the matches in two days, the game schedule was rather intense.
“The time schedule was like this, it all started at around 7am but no scheduled finishing time. It was really exhausting. The most demanding day I had to officiate six games per day! I was so tired that I didn’t have strength to feed myself!”
Now looking back, Ying said she didn’t know what kind of strength or belief has support her like that, “Maybe just because I love this game, as easy as that.”
She said the first match she refereed was an amateur game at a snooker hall. She was so excited that she felt like she would not care about anything, money or honour. “I really enjoy doing this. I feel lucky, even privileged to do what I like.”
This kind of mindset also applies to other fields, according to Ying. “If you really like it, you will keep doing it, no matter how hard it is. You will just devote yourself to it and surprise to find that you can actually gain more from it. ”
Ying quit her sales job in April 2001, which enabled her to become a full-time snooker referee and one of the millions of Chinese who are 'studying' abroad. She said “it’s time” to make such a decision, for better, for good.
“From 2007 to 2011, I worked part-time as referee. I found it was increasingly hard to balance my job and referee, in terms of my time and energy. I can’t do my best for both. So I had to quit one.”
She judged some ranking matches in China with British players attending in those years. The more she refereed, the more she felt ready to experience first-hand Snooker culture so as to gain a better understanding of such a sport that is traditionally British.
She came to the UK with an open heart and an eager mind. Like other Chinese students who come to the UK to learn the most advanced knowledge the empire could offer, she came to experience the snooker culture and communicate with other referees who are the best in the world.
Unlike the degree-studying Chinese, her goal was to referee as many matches as possible in every level: “From PPC to Qualifying trials, from the Masters to the World Championship, when there is a match, there is me.”
As a referee who is active in an international stage, Ying said English was important. “Basic communication is a must”, said she, “and you know there are players from Scotland or Wales who have really strong accents. That’s one of the reasons I came to the UK.”
For a lot of people, a lady referee in snooker games is like a spring in the desert. A beautiful referee with lovely temperament is even more appealing. With Michaela Tabb and Zhu Ying enjoying such a high prominence in the snooker referee field, Ying said in its very nature, a lady referee is disadvantaged, when compared with her male counterpart.
“From every aspect, a lady is less imposing. As a judge at court, the male referee who is well-built with a smart suit could easily show his authority.”
But Ying said she thought lady referees can do something to compensate that.
“You need to be more precise, more professional, more balanced and you can’t make mistakes.”
“Well, maybe it is an overstatement, but I think part of it is true,” added Ying.
Ying said she admitted that lady referees are more likely to be covered in press or gain eyeballs. “Maybe this is a small contribution lady referees give to the sport”, she said.
She said such media and fans attention has no direct link with her work, but she saw it as an encouragement that urged her on. “I hope I can do better, so I won’t feel sorry for all my supporters.”
'She looks sexy'
No doubt that everyone tries to make a comparison between Ying and Tabb, a benchmark for lady referees who is 13 years older than Ying. Ying said she could learn a lot from her, which she couldn’t get from male referees.
“From her manner, dress-look, and her judge, you could see she is really professional.”
Ying said she agreed that referees, just like players, have their styles.
“I think the most noticeable style difference between me and Tabb is the dressing style. She looks sexy,” Ying said with a smile. “It may have something to do with culture difference, as it is also apparent in the streets. Girls are more open in the UK.”
“One more thing”, added Ying, “there is a big contrast between her at and off the court.” She said Tabb was straightforward or even jokey in her daily life, but when she was refereeing, she was really serious.
With so many “the most” or “the first” honours at hand in her professional life, Ying said she didn’t really care how other people judge her.
“I won’t change my self-evaluation because of other people’s comments. I’ve gained some approval and supports. But I am more concerned what I want to achieve in the future.”
Ying said she hadn’t reached the level that could rest on the old-time glory. “My final aim is to referee the Crucible final, as plain as that.”
But, there is something else she wants to achieve, more tender but even more eager.
“I want to be a confident referee so imposing that, when I was standing at the court, I am capable of as the popular slang phrased: ‘holding everything’ (control oneself and the situation without fear)”, Ying said this with a faint smile, but you could read ambition in her eyes.
“There is a reason that Stephen Hendry is so well-received and beloved in snooker world. Not that he plays well; he also displays his social responsibility as a public figure”, Ying said.
“I want to be like him, and I know that I am not just myself; I also represent referees in China. I hope to be better and better.”