THE GUNFIGHT AT THE UK CORAL

THE GUNFIGHT AT THE UK CORAL

If T.S. Eliot measured out his life in coffee spoons, snooker fans have traditionally done so based on the tournament calendar, and the UK Championship means cold, dark days, the approach of Christmas and warm afternoons in front of the fire watching one of the game’s most prestigious events.

Years ago it meant David Vine introducing the Coral United Kingdom Championship (never UK with Viney) and Coral are back as sponsors this year, giving nostalgics the sort of warm glow inside usually only stemming from the copious intake of alcohol.

In recent years, the UK Championship has endured the sort of cuts which would have George Osborne salivating. The old best of 17s were jettisoned, we were told, because the BBC preferred finishes in every session. Many were against this but the best of 11s did work well when the final stages comprised a field of 32.

It worked so well that it of course had to be changed again, and now it’s a cast of thousands, well, 128 to be exact, crammed into the Barbican Centre in York.

Some will play in the main arena, others in the sports hall. This is nothing new – it happened at the BIC in Bournemouth more than a decade ago, although their second hall was more appealing. In fact, the top 16 used to have to win two matches to reach the last 16 and thus the televised phase. This week, the game’s stars must survive one round to advance to the TV stage, though they won’t all actually play in front of the cameras.

We now have best of 11 semi-finals, regrettable but a result of having to fit so many matches in (though they could have played two best of 17 frame semis on the same day, as they used to).

Now for the good news: the Barbican is a great venue in a lovely city and York always brings in the crowds. Tickets sales for this year are already up on last.

Most people who come do not obsess about formats and systems. They just want to watch snooker. So for all the tinkering, the UK Championship is still a huge attraction and a title every player wants on their CV – steeped in history and a roll of honour comprising many all-time greats.

The BBC events are effectively the sport’s shop window in the UK because they are shown on terrestrial channels available to large audiences. It is therefore a chance for snooker to shine.

Last season, despite many moans about the format, the two highest ranked players in the world reached the final, where Neil Robertson beat Mark Selby to complete the grand slam of the sport’s big three titles.

They will be in the leading pack again 12 months on. Selby has just become a father, which may have affected his preparation, but he’s tough enough to cope with a new daughter and a major tournament.

 Mark Selby: has become a father in the lead-in to York

Mark Selby: has become a father in the lead-in to York

Ronnie O’Sullivan has four UK titles to his name but it’s seven years since he last captured the trophy. If he can produce his recent Champion of Champions form he will be the man to beat, but the multi-table set-up creates a different atmosphere to what he experienced in Coventry so we shall have to see whether it brings out the best in him.

Shaun Murphy is obviously cueing superbly and will be looking to take his Sofia/Mulheim form into a tournament he won in 2008.

Judd Trump and Mark Allen, who contested an incredible 2011 UK final, have been in good form this season, while Stuart Bingham and Ricky Walden head to York as ranking event winners.

Ding Junhui has had a quiet campaign but has won this title twice and is surely due to come good again soon. The likes of Marco Fu, Barry Hawkins and Stephen Maguire may also feature at the business end.

 Ding Junhui: hoping to come good again

Ding Junhui: hoping to come good again

Otherwise there’s a chance for some of those players lower down the rankings to make a name for themselves.

Snooker has travelled the world since the Crucible but the British market is still strong and, for all the changes, this is very much a title players prize above most others.

The UK Championship begins on Tuesday with television coverage on the BBC and Eurosport commencing on Saturday.

 

Photographs by Monique Limbos.