Three-time ranking event winner and crowd favourite Marco Fu is back from a two-year Covid exile for this week’s Betfred World Championship qualifiers.
The 44-year-old from Hong Kong last played competitively at the Welsh Open in February 2020 before the pandemic hit.
With strict quarantine rules in operation at home and a young family to consider Fu, just recovering from earlier laser eye surgery, reluctantly decided to stay at home.
In the circumstances and given his huge contribution to the game and its growth in Asia, Fu was granted an invitational two-year tour wildcard last summer – but this is the first time it will be used.
And as he attempts to reach the Crucible for a 19th time and a ninth via the qualifiers - where he will need four wins – the current world No 121, but former No5, is ready for a new chapter.
Fu, who has been over practising in Sheffield for 10 days, said: “It is great to be back. It has been more than two years since I played on the circuit, and I have missed being here in Britain and all the players on tour.
“These last few days I have used both Ding Junhui’s Academy and Victoria Shi’s place, they are good friends and have made me very welcome.
“I am really not sure how it is going to go in qualifying and I would say I am a complete unknown quantity. I do have a pedigree at the World Championship, have played there a lot and come through qualifying many times.
“But then I haven’t played competitively for two years, and until recently hadn’t picked up my cue for two months while the Hong Kong Sports Institute facility was closed. They are big factors.
“I have felt my form slowly picking up in practice and playing better every day, just lacking some match-play sharpness. However I did manage to make a 149 a few days ago, so I am scoring okay.
“I actually didn’t make the decision to come to the UK and play in the Betfred World Championship qualifiers until just before the deadline. So it wasn’t really planned, and I hadn’t been practising properly with that in mind because there were no events to be ready for.
“When I got an email from World Snooker Tour, I just made up my mind a few weeks ago that I had been missing it, it has been so long and I wanted to play again. Experienced players seem to be doing okay at the moment!”
When Covid hit, Fu was just getting comfortable with laser eye surgery he had in late 2017 to ward off potentially career-ending fears of his retina becoming detached after suffering degeneration in his vision.
He added: “I would say the condition of my eye has actually got worse since Covid arrived. When I first got the surgery done it was quite steady, I just needed to get used to it and the ‘floaters’ in my eyes.
“During Covid I had nothing to do in the house, so I started skipping but apparently that jarring motion as your feet hit the ground wasn’t good for my eye condition, same as running.
“Maybe I haven’t had the full benefit of it with Covid coming after, but I can’t use that as an excuse if I play badly, as I am used to it now. Covid has affected my career far more than the eye surgery.
“At the beginning of Covid the Hong Kong Sports Institute were not keen on us coming over to compete.
“But after a few months that decision was left to us if we wanted to travel, follow their rules and wear the mask as Ng On Yee did. So the decisions to stay, and then now come, were mine.
“I needed to stay in Hong Kong, and it would have been too difficult to commute between my family and the UK with all the strict quarantine rules.
“I know some of the Chinese lads who stayed in the UK and played on haven’t been home or seen their families for two or three years. That is very hard.”
Fu, whose first qualifying opponent is Preston’s Ian Burns on Tuesday, is also hopeful that despite an already impressive CV there might yet be something more for him in the game.
He said: “Being in the top eight, top 16 and competing against legends for 20 years is my main career highlight.
“I have won some titles, not the Worlds, Masters or UK maybe, but decent ones. And beating Ronnie O’Sullivan for the first time was very special and sweet.
“It was my first televised match at the Grand Prix in Preston in 1998, and I beat him 5-2. I hadn’t expected much in my first event and I managed to beat one of the best players in the world.
“I have got to the Crucible semi-fjnals twice at the Crucible, losing tight ones to Peter Ebdon and Mark Selby.
“But hopefully my greatest snooker moment might still be to come! I feel both experienced and also fresh. Maybe I might win newcomer of the year next season!”