Surreal doesn’t cover it, not even close. One minute he’s eight years old playing on a six-foot table and watching Joe Johnson beating Steve Davis in the 1986 world snooker final and the next – in the relative blink of an eye – he’s coming through the curtain himself, the Pocket Dynamo from Larkhall, Graeme Dott.
It’s the 2004 final and it’s Ronnie beside him. Never O’Sullivan or Ronnie O’Sullivan, just Ronnie, like Ronaldinho. Same kind of class, really. “Ronnie has that aura,” says Dott. “Not many have it, but he has.
“Davis had it. Hendry had it. I genuinely think John Higgins is the best ever but he’s still not got an aura. No idea why, no idea what it is.”
Ronnie’s done Hendry 17-4 in the semi, then beats Dott 18-8 in the final, but Dott’s OK. Nobody beats Ronnie when Ronnie’s playing like Ronnie. He came up the road with a lot of positives and a cheque for £125,000.
His life started to twist and turn shortly after. If you want to hear about bottle in big time snooker, listen to Dott. If you want to understand sporting psychology, sit with him and absorb his story. If you want to go to the dark side, he’ll take you there, too.
Depression and narcolepsy – practically every word that comes out of his mouth is riveting, the equivalent of century break after century break after century break.
So we go back to Ronnie and the World Snooker Championship semi-final of 2006. Ronnie’s 5-3 ahead and Dott’s having doubts. He’s played well and he’s down by two.
Big Del Hill comes in the room and gets to work on his man. Del is Dott’s coach and says: “Ronnie doesn’t like playing you, you never go away, stick with him and he won’t like it.”
Dott stuck in. And Ronnie didn’t like it. Patience in the safety battles. Ronnie’s not getting in and he’s annoyed. “It’s gone to 8-8 and he shook my hand and it was like a double shake, he kinda grabbed my arm,” Dott recalls. “You could tell he had the nip. I thought, ‘I’ve got you’. I knew it, I could sense it.”
He does Ronnie 17-11. He’s back in the final, against Peter Ebdon this time.
‘When adrenaline leaves you, it’s horrible’
John Higgins told him later that he was destined to win that year. It was to do with Alex Lambie, his father-in-law, his mentor and one of his best friends. Lambie was dying of cancer, but he made it to the Crucible for the final. Gaunt, weak, but present. Victory was written in the stars.
“I won the first session and the second session,” says Dott. “I come in for the final day and I’m practising but I can hear live television and everybody’s saying Ebdon is going to make a comeback and I’m going, ‘no, he won’t’. I know that if I win the third session it’ll break him.
“And I win the third session. I’m 15-7. I only need three more. I had everything sorted in my head – what I was going to say when I won and all that. At the interval, we had an hour. I went for a sleep.”
Coming back out, he felt the most relaxed he’d ever been at a tournament. But from the depths of snooker hell, the demons rose up. “It’s 15-8, 15-9, 15-10, 15-11,” Dott explains. “It doesn’t happen quick because Ebdon just strangles you.
“I go back in the dressing room and Del and Alex are speaking to me but I can’t hear them. I’m gone. Like proper gone. I’m having these horrible feelings about what’s the biggest lead anybody’s ever had at the worlds and lost. It’s embarrassing. When adrenaline leaves you, it’s horrible.
“I know that every player is going to be watching the final and I also know that every player is going to know that I’m gone because you can’t hide it. You can see bottle. Snooker players just notice. It goes to 15-12 (the frame lasted 74 minutes), then 15-13. I managed a 60-break to make it 16-13 and everything was like a pint of blood. He goes 16-14…”
Dott went to the toilet, threw water on his face and told himself to go on the attack. If you see a pot, commit to it. And play quick. Play on instinct. You’re going down, pal. Save yourself.
“I’m playing quick but in another side of my brain I’m hearing slow down, this is a big part of the game and I’m arguing with myself,” he says. “You said you were going to play quick so you need to play quick.
“I’m on a break to make it 17-14 and I’m so nervous it’s unreal. I genuinely feel I’m going to be sick. I don’t even know how the balls are going in. That clearance was the best of my life. I was OK again. I knew I’d win, but if people could only see the torture. It actually took the enjoyment away.”
Alex Lambie passed away later in the year. Perhaps Higgins was right. Perhaps it was destiny that Dott won.
He’s always wondered what sparked the awful mental health problems he suffered in the 18 months to two years after Lambie’s death, but a psychologist once told him that it might have had something to do with not taking time to grieve his father-in-law’s passing. He was always on the road playing tournaments. Snooker was an escape but maybe a prison, too.
“I was like a shell,” Dott remembers. “Even thinking back now, it was a bit like a horror film.
“One day my wife was going to college – she was studying to be a nurse – and I was in the living room. The TV wasn’t even on but I was just staring at it. She went away, came back at two in the afternoon and I’m still there. Just staring. Or people would phone. Tell them I’m in the bath. I didn’t want to speak to anybody.”
He still managed to play – and to lose. He reckons he lost 17 matches in a row at one point. He says he can’t even remember being at some of the tournaments he played in. He was taking one shirt because he knew he was going out in the first round.
He was playing in China once and he was crying in his chair. He put a towel over his face to hide it.
“I don’t actually speak to him, but Ronnie phoned me and was asking how I was because he had been through it as well,” Dott says. “I thought it was really nice of him. He doesn’t really speak to me, it’s not as if we’re mates, but it was nice of him to do that. And I looked at him in a different way after that.”
His wife Elaine made him go to the doctor. “My wife is an absolute rock,” he says. “Unbelievable.”
Medication put him on the right track again, but it was hard. “I had dark thoughts,” he explains. “Whether you would do it or not, but definitely, there’s no point lying about it. I had the thoughts. I thought about jacking snooker in as well, but what am I going to do? No qualifications, what job am I going to get?
“Snooker’s all I’ve ever done. When I was supposed to be sitting my exams in school I was in Finland playing an amateur tournament. I don’t know anything else.”
‘Hopefully it never gets to playing with a helmet on’
Getting through all of that made his appearance in the final in 2010 even more special than his victory four years earlier, even though he lost to Neil Robertson. His depression was under control but a sleeping disorder had now gripped him. The medics believe he suffers from a form of narcolepsy.
“Part of the brain controls sleep and mine doesn’t work,” Dott outlines. “My wife filmed me, put it on a time lapse. I’m just constantly moving. Restless leg, that’s another thing. Legs kicking in bed. Tossing and turning non-stop. Every time my brain is about to go into a deep sleep I wake up and that’s why I don’t recharge.
“Bad narcolepsy you need to wear a helmet because you can fall asleep anywhere at no notice. Hopefully it never gets to that – playing snooker with a helmet on.”
He laughs at the absurdity of the notion, but this is a very serious thing. “I was exhausted in the 2010 final,” he recalls. “Not a lot of people know this, but I’m deadly serious, I came into the dressing room at the last interval and Neil’s 14-12 or something like that and I said, ‘I can’t win’. And my mates were going, ‘what do you mean you can’t win?’ I’m too tired, I can’t play. See if it was a boxing match I’d have thrown the towel in.
“I knew I wasn’t going to hit century, century, ninety. I knew if I was going to win a frame it was going be a bitty frame, a 40 break and a safety battle and I thought if that happens I’m going to need to be here until three in the morning. I was working out the time. I won’t even be awake at three in the morning, let alone trying to play snooker.”
Robertson beat him 18-13, but getting to the final was sweet enough. Three world finals, one world title. Most snooker players would take that career in a heartbeat. Covid-19 brought the depression to the surface again in the past year but he knows the triggers now, knows what he needs to do to manage it.
He’s missed out on the Crucible for the past two years and wonders if he’ll get back there again. It’s a long road but he’s won bigger battles in his life. It’s like what big Del said during that semi against Ronnie. Just stick in. “Oh, I’ll stick in all right,” he adds. “I’m not getting any younger but I won’t give up. I’ll keep going.”