Nutcharut Wongharuthai poses with the trophy after winning the the World Women’s Snooker Championship in Sheffield on Feb 15, 2022. (Photo: womenssnooker.com)
HONG KONG: As a child, Nutcharut ‘Mink’ Wongharuthai reluctantly hung around after school waiting for her mum to finish working at a Thai snooker hall. But fast forward a dozen years and the 22-year-old is now the world women’s snooker champion – an unlikely sporting ascent which has put her firmly in the frame as a new rival to the men.
Mink became the first Thai to claim the championship when she beat Belgian veteran Wendy Jans 6-5 on Feb 15, holding her nerve to take the last frame on the final black.
But her meteoric career – which also already includes a youth championship win and the first official 147 maximum break recorded by a woman – has turned on coincidence as much as dedication in a sport which in Thailand is associated with boozy, smoke-filled snooker rooms dominated by men with a fondness for gambling.
“I was about 10 and my mum was a cashier at a snooker hall in Saraburi. The bar owner saw that I was bored after school so he taught me how to play,” Mink said.
“After training for some time I hit this crossroads between studying or pursuing snooker as a career. It turned out I couldn’t get into college …. so I took up snooker full time and made it into the national team. The rest is history.”
The snooker hall where she honed her skills was in Saraburi. It was owned by Atthasit Mahitthi, also known as ‘Big Saraburi’ a former top player, who helped open the first doors to the game for the youngster whose knack for the sport quickly became apparent despite having to use a custom-made shortened cue.
Mink scores 147 maximum break on March 11, 2019. Video | Hi-end Snooker Club
Mink’s victory in Sheffield a fortnight ago sees her creep up to third in the global rankings for women players, just behind Hong Kong’s Ng Ong yee, who she beat in the quarter-finals on her way to the title.
The 31-year-old Hong Konger bounced back from her defeat in style to qualify for the Welsh Open by beating Chinese male player Wu Yize. It was a rare win for a woman on the World Snooker Tour, which is dominated by men.
Mink’s championship win also gives her a two-year ticket to the tour and a shot at playing men in the lucrative big events.
She hopes to show that the sporting playing field is levelling, as women get greater opportunities to play the sport.
“Snooker is for everybody … and now I finally can play against men, I’m determined to raise my level to be as good as them,” she said. “These next two years are a great opportunity to show what I can do.”
Back in Bangkok with the gleaming trophy in front of her on the table and rubbing eyes which are a little tired from the travel, the grounded 22-year-old said she was already back to her routine of practising eight hours a day – breaking for food or a quick run – at the Hi-End Snooker Club in a Bangkok suburb which sponsors her.
The club has become something of a fixture across the Asian snooker scene hosting tournaments as well as exhibitions with the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan.
“He’s every snooker player’s idol. I’ve been following him since I was a kid. The way he plays, his ruthless style is just perfect,” Mink said.
“I had an opportunity to play against him once. I was so nervous and so shy. Even now when I run into him I still get really nervous.”
But it is in part thanks to her humble upbringing in Saraburi, a mid-income central \province a few hours from Bangkok where many either work on farms and factories or migrate to the capital, that Mink said she gets her drive.
“I didn’t come from a well-off family but I just bought my first home,” she said. “I’m very happy to know that I have made people back home proud.”
Mink joins a growing list of Thai women to reach the elite level of their respective sports.
Ratchanok Intanon is still a top 10 player on the women’s badminton circuit, having ranked at number one in 2016, while 22-year-old Patty Tavatanakit is tipped for a big season in golf after winning her first LPGA title last year, joining several other Thai women on the tour.
Mink said she had been overwhelmed by the media attention which has trailed her since the win in England, as women’s snooker pierces the public consciousness in Thailand for the first time.
“I never thought my story would get so big,” she said. “But Thai people can do a lot when we have the opportunity.”