50 Shades of Greats: ‘Follow your heart not your head’ – Tony Drago
The Malta Independent on Sunday meets Tony Drago, he speaks about being considered a talent, turning pro, missing Malta, his Snooker and pool career and players for the future
Tony Drago was born in Malta’s capital city on the 27th September, 1965.
Nicknamed the Tornado, there are few more entertaining sights in snooker than an on-form Tony Drago whose speed around the table can be summed up by the fact that he is the holder of the record for the fast century break in a ranking event tournament, timed at a ridiculous three minutes and 31 seconds back in 1996.
‘It was a normal upbringing for me in Valletta. We used to play together as kids in the streets especially football which I used to love and still do. It was football and snooker. But from a tender age I think I was born to be a cueist since my orientation drove me always to the green table.’
‘As regards my educational background I attended St Albert College, Valletta and The Lyceum in Hamrun but school was not my forte since I was fully focused on snooker from a very young age.’
How did Tony’s interest in snooker begin? Was it a first love sport? ‘I used to play football because of my friends. But snooker was something different since everyone used to tell me that I will be a great player. My first touch of a cue was at the famous Pawlu Curmi, il-Pampalun who is a Carnival legend. But I also played at Fossa and Mandragg and obviously my childhood club Anglo Maltese in Merchant Street. I was there at the age of eleven but three years later I started competing and the promise was there to see.’
His local competitive career started with success in the Boys Championships. ‘Yes I won against Arthur Cachia way back in 1980. Arthur is still a good friend of mine. When I won the Boys event I was already a promising player. The association decided to put me straight into the Second Division rather than play in the Third since I would have been too superior to my opponents. In the first year I won the Second and thus was promoted to the First Division. When the draws were made I was drawn in the group of Pawlu Mifsud and was so excited about it. Unfortunately Mifsud had an accident which left him away from playing for a number of months. So I won in 1983 against Alfred Micallef and lost the famous final played at De La Salle College against Pawlu Mifsud a year later. In 1985 it was time to turn professional.’
‘I was accepted as a pro in 1984 but they wanted me to play in the World Amateur. I didn’t succeed and lost in the quarter-final and then I turned pro the following year.’
Turning from an amateur to a professional meant a cultural shock which needed time to adjust. ‘Yes for the first couple of years I struggled with results. But in the second year I made it to the Quarter Final of the UK Open against Steve Davis losing by a 9-8 score. But there was a mix of results during my career. I did well and have been in the top 10 and been top 16 for five years. But I did reach a couple of massive finals, the Scottish International 1997, losing to Hendry, and I lost in 1991 Mita World Masters which at the time was the biggest tournament ever. I have won small invitations, I beat Steve Davis in a final in China and I did win a ranking event, a Strachan. It was a minor ranking event but there was only 5 or 6 who didn’t enter it and I beat Ken Doherty in the final. But I did underachieve because in the first five or six years as a pro I got homesick after every week. So that affected my game.’
But who is the toughest opponent that Tony has played against? ‘Well the hardest player I have ever played is Steve Davis. But the most talented player I have ever played against is Ronnie O’Sullivan. But the best, the greatest player all round with the pressure, the nitty-gritty and everything is John Higgins.’
Tony also found time to compare his days with today. ‘Today there are better players as a whole crop. But when one looks more into detail you find that when I was number 10, John Higgins was number 1 in the world, Ronnie O’Sullivan was third ranked player and number 5 was Mark Williams. And twenty five years past the line and they are still three of the best players.’
Drago won the Sportsman of the year award twice in 1991 and 1996 but though a much appreciated award he also looks back at his local participation when ranking tournaments were held yearly on the island. ‘For me it was always a nightmare. The pressure of the Maltese was felt not only on the table but even before. People calling me and requesting tickets and all kinds of things which didn’t leave me much time for maximum concentration. Once I made it to the semi-final losing to Jimmy White and I still can’t believe how I made it to the last four. Obviously I wanted to win it in front and for the Maltese public but I wasn’t able to handle the pressure.’
But how did Tony turn his attention to pool and what attracted him to this game? ‘To be honest I always used to watch it on Eurosport and I always used to say I’d try it someday. Then I got a letter from Matchroom and I spoke to Barry Hearn on the phone and asked him about it and he said the invitation is there for you to play in the World Championship in Cardiff. So I started to play and I got to like the game.’
Drago’s first major Pool win was the 2003 World Pool Masters, which came just a few weeks after a run to the semi-finals of that year’s World Pool Championship. ‘I was a member of the winning European team at the 2007 and 2008 Mosconi Cup. In 2007 in Las Vegas, I won all of my single matches which earned me the Most Valuable Player Award. And a year later I also won the Predator International 10-ball Championship, beating Francisco Bustamante 13–10.’
And for Tony what is the difference between snooker and pool. Which is the most difficult to play? ‘ In snooker you play a lot of the same types of shots and you have situations occurring frequently such as in and around the black, but in 9 or 10-ball each game is more different. In pool you always play for one ball but in snooker we all play for 2 or 3 reds so if you’re not on this one you’re on this one. In pool you can’t do that, if you’re not on the next ball in pool you’re in trouble.’
And what about billiards? ‘I didn’t play it so much. And to be honest I didn’t play it badly. Once I even made it to the Final losing it to my great friend Guzi Grech who has just passed away in the past days. Some say that it helps to have a good background of Billiards when playing Snooker but let’s face it the top players don’t even know what this game is.’
How does Tony see the future of the game on our island? ‘Alex Borg is still playing and he is now in his fifties. He is not one for the future like me. Duncan Bezzina is now in his forties. There are Aaron Busuttil and Brian Cini. I personally think that Cini is the only present hope for Malta to have a professional player. But if he doesn’t go and live in the UK it’s useless. He has to train against the best to reach the top. Here it’s difficult since me and Alex don’t play a lot. But the level is good, Brian and Aaron are good. Chris Peplow is also coming up.’
Sport Malta recently invested in a Snooker Academy which is located at the ex-Maria Assunta School, in Hamrun. The Academy boasts 7 professional heated snooker tables as well as 5 small tables for children. ‘Yes surely the Academy is a step in the right direction. It will help in producing more top level players.’
In this last part of this interview with one of the giants both locally and internationally Tony talked about the other side of his life, the personal one. ‘A normal day for me is playing some Pool and Snooker, chatting with my friends and watch sport especially football and tennis. Obviously my love for Valletta which I go and watch them in every game and Juventus is there but I like all kinds of sport.’
His favourite food is by far Chinese but he has also got his chosen chef. ‘My mum Sina is the best. Her food is second to none.’ And what about favourite destination?
‘The United States is the best place to be. A lot of people say that they are boasters but they have got all the ingredients to boast of. For me they are a complete country. I also love London a lot, it is like my second home.’
When he has time on his hands Tony enjoys a bus ride since he doesn’t drive. He used to go as far as Mellieha and Bugibba but when Covid took over he didn’t feel that safe anymore.
Tornado Drago wanted to send one final message to the sporting public. ‘Always give your hundred per cent. Follow your heart not your head. Train as much as you can and set a goal in order to succeed.’