The return of fans for the first day of the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield on Saturday provides cause for cautious optimism that sport’s lockdown year might finally be drawing to a close.
But for two of the players preparing to feature in the opening sessions, it also represents a significant point on their own mental health journeys, and one which yields dramatically contrasting reactions.
Former semi-finalist David Gilbert, who starts against Chris Wakelin, has admitted “hating every minute” of the lockdown, and struggling to find the motivation to continue playing to a reasonable standard as a result.
“Without a crowd there’s been no buzz at tournaments and it’s felt as flat as a pancake,” Gilbert told the PA news agency. “It’s not helped me in any way whatsoever. I’ve never felt so bored in all my life.”
But for Martin Gould, who kicks off his 11th Crucible campaign against Masters champion Yan Bingtao, the shut-out season has had the opposite effect, resurrecting his love for the game eight months after admitting he felt “ashamed and pathetic” to be struggling with his mental health.
So much has Gould flourished in the new environment that he is distinctly less than enthusiastic about the fact that the Crucible will be 33 per cent full on Saturday, theoretically rising to 100 per cent for next month’s final.
Gould admitted: “I’ve really enjoyed playing in front of nobody – it’s been like going down the club and having a game.
“We’ve been so used to not having anyone rustling sweet papers and packets of crisps and mobile phones going off, and I think it’s going to be quite weird having a crowd back in there again.
“It’s certainly worked for me – nice and quiet, no noises coming from anywhere. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. It might take me a frame or two just to remember that the crowd is actually there.”
Snooker chiefs signed up enthusiastically for the pilot which will see a gradual increase in capacity subject to strict conditions, including the requirement that ticket-holders undergo pre- and post-event coronavirus tests.
And despite their contrasting viewpoints, both Gilbert and Gould are united in their renewed optimism, and in their respective ambitions to reach – or in the former’s case, return – to the Crucible’s last four.
Gilbert, whose career remains inevitably defined by his agonising final-frame defeat to John Higgins in the 2019 semi-final, added: “I’ve felt down about snooker many times and thought about knocking it on the head, but I’ve never given in.
“I won’t lie, I’ve thought back to that semi-final many times, but it didn’t destroy me or anything. People seem to think it’s ruined my life or something, and that’s just ridiculous.
“But it did give me a taste of what it was like to play the one-table set-up at the Crucible and it has given me more of push to make it my biggest goal in snooker at the minute to get back there.”
Gould’s own record at the Crucible, in which he has never gone beyond the second round, belies his reputation as a tough competitor who, for all his off-table struggles, thrashed Stephen Maguire last year before putting up a fight against eventual finalist Kyren Wilson.
Gould added: “I’ve learned a hell of a lot from what I went through. I’ve learned how to take myself away for a walk, and I feel a lot better than I did 12 months ago.
“I define my season with whether I reach the Crucible and how well I play when I get there. Sometimes I scare myself with how well I can play. I’m certainly not here to make up the numbers.”
Gould’s match starts in the morning session, when defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan faces Mark Joyce. Gilbert begins against Wakelin in the evening session.
All four players in the afternoon session, including seeds Neil Robertson and Maguire, will wear black armbands in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh, while play will be paused just prior to 3pm for a two-minute silence.