Stepping Up To The Ivy League
On the second day of last month's williamhill.com UK Championship, young Chinese star Li Yan put up an impressive display against Shaun Murphy, having qualified for the final stages of a ranking event for the first time. Yet television viewing figures in China suggested that far more people were watching the other match played that night, between Martin Gould and Peter Lines.
The reason? New Chinese referee Zhu Ying - better known on the circuit as Ivy - was officiating the match between Gould and Lines. Ivy has rapidly gained fame in her homeland following her swift progression through the ranks of referees on the World Snooker tour.
This week at Alexandra Palace, the 29-year-old from Shanghai gets her first taste of the unique Masters atmosphere. She will not be refereeing, but will take up position behind the marker's desk - another step forward as she gains experience of life as an official at the very top end of professional snooker.
Ivy has been living in the UK for much of the past nine months, working at tournaments. She has impressed Tournament Directors and senior referees with her knowledge of the game and calm attitude. At the UK Championship in York, snooker's second biggest ranking event, her progress was rewarded as she took charge of two first round matches: Gould v Lines and Matthew Stevens against Marcus Campbell.
"It was the first time I had refereed at a full ranking tournament," she said in fluent English. "Before going to York I was looking forward to it so much because it was my first chance to witness the atmosphere of a big tournament in Britain. I have refereed at ranking events in China before, but this was my first time at a major venue in the UK.
"I was a bit nervous to start with but when I came out into the arena and people were clapping for me and smiling, it was a good feeling. Once the match started I could relax.
"The fans in the UK are very knowledgeable and there is less noise from the crowd, which makes it easier for me to concentrate on my job. In China, fans come to support their favourite players, whereas I think in the UK they just love the game and they come to watch snooker."
Ivy first took an interest in snooker 13 years ago when she was in high school in China. "One day I was watching television and snooker was on one of the channels," she explains. "The picture looked beautiful. I watched all the matches in that tournament and fell in love with the game.
"After I graduated from university, I went to work for a skin care company. I needed a hobby so I started to play snooker with friends (her high break is 40), and I found that I enjoyed refereeing as well as playing. I would work during the week, then enjoy snooker at the weekend. In 2004 I refereed my first amateur tournament.
"It was the perfect time to get more involved because the following year, Ding Junhui won the China Open in Beijing, beating Stephen Hendry in the final, and that was the spark for snooker to really explode in China. There were more amateur tournaments and a lot more opportunities for me to gain experience. After a few years I decided to leave my job and concentrate on refereeing full time."
After proving her ability at several ranking events in China, Ivy was invited by World Snooker to spend some time in the UK. Last April she was at the Betfred.com World Championship as an observer, then she refereed matches at Q School, ranking event qualifiers and Players Tour Championship events. She will remain in the UK until the circuit heads east for the Hainan World Open at the end of February.
"I have really enjoyed my time here, it has been an amazing experience and very useful to me to get used to snooker culture in the UK," said Ivy. "I hope to continue my progress and I would love to referee in more of the big tournaments.
"Sometimes I miss my friends and family back in China," added Ivy, who has spent most of her time living in Sheffield, thought she has enjoyed travelling to other cities around the UK. "But it is so easy to keep in touch with them with the phone or internet, I can be in contact with them every day. It's more difficult for my parents, they miss me a lot. I call them every day to let them know I am ok, and what I have been doing. When they saw me on TV at the UK Championship it made them very proud as I was the first Chinese referee at a big tournament in the UK."
Throughout her development as a referee, Ivy has taken inspiration from Michaela Tabb, who has become one of the top officials in snooker having taken charge of the World Championship final in 2009 as well as the Masters final.
"I knew about Michaela when I started," said Ivy. "I knew she was a very good at her job, very professional and that the fans loved her."
And just like Tabb, as a female in a sport which is dominated by male players and officials, Ivy will inevitably receive extra attention from fans and come under close scrutiny. Her profile is already high in China.
"If I go to a snooker or pool club I often get recognised," she said. "There is a lot of snooker shown on TV in China so people get to know my face. It's nice to be recognised, I enjoy it."
And if Ivy continues to improve on the pro circuit, she may soon be a familiar face to snooker fans the world over.
Ball by ball scoring and results from tournaments