DAVID SAFFER chats to press officer Ivan Hirschowitz who provides the world's media with snooker info
WORLD Snooker press officer Ivan Hirschowitz is in the midst of the game's premier 17-day tournament at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.
While star players including defending champ John Higgins, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Neil Robertson, Judd Trump and Ding Junhui have been battling it out on the baize for the world crown, Ivan liaises with the world's media vying for scoops.
"I love the buzz of the tournament," he said. "The atmosphere is electric."
Born in London, Ivan's family roots are in Eastern Europe though his grandparents are from southern Africa.
His dad hails from South Africa while his mum grew up in Zimbabwe.
David and Lynette Hirschowitz moved to the United Kingdom in the late '60s and brought up their sons Anton and Ivan in London.
Barmitzvah at Hemel Hempstead Synagogue, Ivan graduated in history at the University of St Andrews in 1998 before obtaining a post-graduate certificate in journalism.
Passionate about sport, particularly football, golf and snooker, he landed a job on the Walthamstow Guardian sports desk, eventually becoming sports editor before joining World Snooker in 2001.
A keen snooker player in his teens, racking up a highest break of 71, Ivan - married to Bohdana - has been a fan of the game since the 1980s.
"I remember the world championships back in '84 and obviously the '85 final when Steve Davis lost to Dennis Taylor in a classic final," he said.
His role in snooker began at the East London paper.
"Ronnie O'Sullivan lived in Chigwell, which was on our patch," he recalled. "So I wrote stories about him and went to a few tournaments.
"I was at the Crucible when Ronnie won the world title for the first time in 2001."
When a media role came up at the game's governing body, Ivan was in prime position to land the post.
"I feel very fortunate to have travelled the world and meet people who were my heroes growing up, especially Steve Davis," he said.
"That is the best part of the job, but there is another side which is hard work and long days.
"During the world championships I'll be at my desk 9am and leave after midnight."
Snooker went down in the TV ratings a number of years ago, but the arrival of Barry Hearn, chairman of Matchroom Sport, onto the scene has resulted in an explosion of events.
"We've had close to 30 tournaments this season compared to seven or eight a few years ago," Ivan noted.
"Snooker has changed beyond recognition and will continue to do so. It's becoming a global game.
In the past, snooker was UK-centric in terms of top players, where it was watched on TV and where the fan base was.
"In the '80s it was massive. People hark on about the '85 final, watched by 18.5 million on BBC.
"That was an incredible figure but it's now dwarfed by viewing figures we get, particularly in China with 100 million and more watching tournaments, which is extraordinary.
"A turning point came in 2005 when Ding (Junhui) won the Beijing Open. It was the spark of a massive upsurge of interest in China, which has snowballed."
He added: "There are five ranking events in China next season and this year at the Crucible a record four players from mainland China plus another from Hong Kong are in the draw.
"Over the next decade it's almost inevitable that Chinese players will be a very powerful force in the game, not just on the playing side but the number of events and level of support."
Ivan recognises the Far East influence and notion that before long a Chinese player will lift the world crown.
"You've not just got Ding, who was among the leading contenders, but every year new players come along you have never heard of before," he said.
"In China, at the opening ceremony for players thousands of fans scream for photos and autographs of the players. It's amazing to see UK players barely recognised in their home towns treated like pop stars."
As to the best player Ivan has seen play, he nominated without hesitation three-times world champ O'Sullivan.
"Ronnie's natural fluency and things he can do with the cue ball are amazing," he said.
As for his favourite break, Ivan again named "The Rocket" for his top choice.
"Ronnie's 147 at the Crucible in '97 was the fastest ever in five minutes 20 seconds and was the ultimate example of snooker genius," he noted.
Regarding venues, despite the growth of the game globally, for Ivan the Crucible will remain the home of snooker.
"There's something magical about the atmosphere," he said. "It's a unique and special place. It's the tournament people get excited about above all others."
Back to the World Champs and Ivan cited Belgium wonderkid Luca Brecel, 17, as one to watch for in the future.
"Luca is the youngest player to play at the Crucible and a first from Belgium," he said.
"In terms of global appeal, it needs someone like Luca to be a role model for other players in Belgium and across Europe to help spread the game."
When it comes to all-time favourites, though, Ivan goes back to his childhood hero - six- time champ Davis.
"They say, 'Never meet your heroes', but I'd never say that about Steve," he declared. "He's erudite, fascinating, one of the great players and a great ambassador for the game."
As for Davis' unforgettable '85 final, Ivan noted: "Steve was talking about the final recently and said that about a month later he was sitting in the bath and suddenly realised the water had gone cold.
"He'd been thinking about the final for over an hour. He was just in a daze. Steve is now very fond of his final memories. It's about the only match from the era he still remembers clearly."
Ivan also waxed lyrical about another legend of the game, seven-time champion Stephen Hendry, who notched his third Crucible maximum in the first round of this year's tournament.
"Stephen is the most successful player ever and is loved by fans the world over," he said.
"Stephen changed the way snooker way played, with a focus on heavy scoring rather than tactical play."
Looking ahead to the game's future, Ivan is upbeat.
"Barry Hearn's long-term vision is for snooker to be a true global event," he said.
"Apart from China, we've had ranking events in Australia, Brazil, Thailand and around Europe including Germany where the game is growing.
"That's the ultimate goal and if you look at how far we've come we're making big strides."
The World Championships, though, is the big draw and around eight million people will tune in for the final.
The game is also in safe hands with new stars coming to the fore including Judd Trump, who went so close to winning the final in electrifying fashion, only to be pipped by John Higgins 12 months ago.
"People are seeing Judd as the 'new Ronnie' and the 'People's Champion' in the way he plays the game," said Ivan.
"He's got a happy-go-lucky personality and is a real breath of fresh air for the game.
"Judd is one to watch over the next decade."
In terms of a tip for this year's championship, Ivan was relatively non-committal but noted Trump will be in the mix.
"It's probably the most open since I've been doing it," he said.
"There are six or seven players who are strong favourites, but Judd has a great chance.
"He's the one who can reel off three or four frames in a row without the other guy getting out of his chair.
"Judd came so close to winning it so maybe this will be his year."