THE SHANGHAI MASTERS has established itself as one of the circuit’s big titles since the first event there in 2007 (although Shanghai also staged ranking tournaments in 1999 and 2002).
This is one of the world’s great cities, the tournament is well run and the trophy much prized. Ding Junhui won it last year, his first Chinese ranking success since the 2005 China Open in Beijing.
It’s a 32 man field (plus wildcards, of which more later), representing quality over quantity. The Shanghai organisers are paying for the tournament and they want the top players there, rather than tucked away in some soulless qualifying booth in England.
Ronnie O’Sullivan, a former winner in Shanghai, plays his first full ranking event since the World Championship. Mark Selby, the man who beat him in that final, has been in bed with food poisoning during the last week but has recovered.
Neil Robertson and Judd Trump have won the season’s first two ranking titles while Mark Allen captured the latest European Tour title.
Little has been seen of Ding since his shock defeat to Michael Wasley in the first round at the Crucible last April. He bombed out of the Wuxi qualifying, won the first Asian Tour title but hasn’t played competitively since.
Ding enjoyed a remarkable campaign during 2013/14, winning five ranking titles, including three in his native China. It’s impossible in sport to obliterate pressure completely but a huge weight seemed to lift from Ding’s shoulders when he won in Shanghai 12 months ago.
One continual issue at these Chinese events is wildcards. There are eight of them in Shanghai, even though World Snooker promised to reduce them to four in each tournament.
The problem as I see it is that the wildcards are not being used for their original purpose, which was to guarantee local participation and bring media coverage.
China already has Ding, one of the best in the world, plus a number of other talents. And by now audiences would rather watch O’Sullivan, Robertson et al over Chinese amateurs.
Now, wildcards are being used to provide playing opportunities and experience for up and coming Chinese players. A laudable enough intention but this is not what ranking tournaments are for.
But it remains a difficult issue for World Snooker. Is it better to have the tournament on with wildcards than not have the tournament on at all? Obviously yes. Is it fair on players who have already qualified to play a talented local under little pressure for no extra money? A resounding no.
Meanwhile, it’s another week of snooker. The field has a very familiar feel to it. It’s not quite Dad’s Army but a number of very experienced players past or close to 40 have qualified: Ken Doherty, Alan McManus, Fergal O’Brien, Joe Swail, Dominic Dale, Mark Williams. Add in O’Sullivan and John Higgins and this could be an event from 20 years ago.
McManus, resurgent in the last year or so, faces O’Sullivan, who he first played professionally 21 years ago. Indeed, the Scot beat O’Sullivan on his Crucible debut in 1993 and is in a better position to beat him now than for a long time (although they haven’t actually played each other for ten years).
Of the younger brigade, Li Hang – a Chinese qualifier – and Jack Lisowski, who remains eye-catchingly good yet inconsistent – represent the 20-somethings.
The tournament is covered by Eurosport. Check out Hector Nunns’s backstage coverage in our Off Table section.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.