As the players arrived for the inaugural Nirvana Turkish Masters, the people of Antalya were out parading on the streets in a ‘conquest march’ - celebrating the 815th anniversary of the taking of the city in 1207 by Sultan Kaykhusraw.
It remains to be seen who will be left holding the considerable spoils of victory at the end of the week’s action with £100,000 on offer to the winner, but in many ways organisers of the tournament feel the battle is already won as they look to stir snooker’s “sleeping giant”.
A cuesport-mad nation’s traditional obsession has been with three-cushion carom billiards, a fiendishly difficult variant with no pockets on the table. But all involved hope snooker’s day in the Mediterranean sun will build on the growing interest in the country where Europe meets Asia.
The first thing to note about the latest destination on the World Snooker Tour calendar is that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to Milton Keynes, where the travelling circus has spent so much time during lockdown.
The opulent Nirvana Cosmopolitan Hotel, which is also hosting the action in its Convention Centre, is a monument to five-star, all-inclusive marbled luxury that had the eyes of some of the lesser-ranked players popping at the lavish opening ceremony, featuring a red carpet long enough to bridge the Bosphorus and a magnificent seven restaurants.
A half-hour away is the walled port city itself, with an old town of narrow, cobbled streets meandering down to the harbour and the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Gulf of Antalya. Backgammon being played on the street, buskers on the balagma - a three-stringed banjo-type instrument - and the call to prayer from the mosques making for a quintessentially Turkish backdrop.
But the business of the week was on the green baize, and though there was disappointment among the organisers that three of the world’s top four – Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby and Neil Robertson – did not come, equally there was appreciation of those that did, not least John Higgins, Mark Williams, Yan Bingtao, Zhao Xintong, Kyren Wilson…and Judd Trump and new Welsh Open champion Joe Perry rushing over after Sunday’s final in Newport.
World No5 Wilson said: “It was actually my wife Sophie who said to me that despite the tight turnaround from the Welsh Open playing in this tournament was really important. I am in a position in the sport now where events appreciate me and the top 16 players coming. We are the ones they see most often on TV so for them to see us live is good for them, and a privilege for me.
“Immediately everyone was looking at the hotel and the venue and thinking ‘This has got a touch of class about it’. Even the carpet in the arena for the main two tables is a bit exotic!”
Turkey were allowed two wild-card player places in the draw as hosts, which went to Ismail Turker - who suffered a 5-0 defeat to Thailand’s Thepchaiya Un-Nooh on Monday morning – and Enes Bakirci, 25, like Turker based in Essen in Germany and facing a very tough first-round match against the in-form Hossein Vafaei on Tuesday.
Bakirci said: “It was a great and first chance for me to compete with professionals in a major event and get used to the situation and circumstances. I have dreams, one was to win a match here with my wildcard, and then of course to get on to the tour and the pro circuit.
“I have dual nationality but committed to play in the Turkish national championship in 2016. I work for a steel manufacturing company, previously on the factory floor, but the shift patterns meant I couldn’t practice so they let me change to an office job from home.
“There is a huge unknown community watching and potentially interested in snooker in Turkey. I would say even now at such an early stage snooker is in the top 10 sports in popularity, and I think it could get to the top five.”
Promoter Tugba Irten, based in the UK, has worked tirelessly to get the tournament on, overcoming some setbacks including notably the postponement of the originally scheduled date in September 2021, when Turkey still being on Britain’s red list during Covid made the enterprise impossible.
Irten, who played the game to a high amateur level and fell agonisingly short of making it as a pro, said: “Turkey is the proverbial sleeping giant when it comes to snooker. They love their cuesports and have talented players.
“And having the national broadcaster is great because that reaches almost all of the population free of charge, you stick a coat hanger on your TV and you can get TRT – while you pay for Eurosport. Turkey is a bit different as a culture, and on TV you have to do it as a magazine programme and show, and make it a bit showbiz. We did it with the opening ceremony and that seemed to work.”
And it is also a proud moment for Ersan Ercan, the president of the Turkish Billiard Federation. He said: “I am very excited and proud. For the fans to finally have that chance to get close to the players and watch them live is something special for us.
“There are probably tables in only 10 cities maybe at the moment, compared to more than 20,000 carom tables. But the real birth of snooker here was only three years ago.”