HAPPY NEW YEAR. The Christmas break is over and the second half of the season is about to get underway, with a packed schedule in the run-in to the World Championship, which is now just three months away.
It starts with the Championship League at Crondon Park on Monday, which provides the ideal tune-up for players ahead of the Masters next week, and includes five ranking events and plenty more besides before the Crucible showcase opens on April 18.
There is now a range of tournaments and formats and indeed destinations for snooker. In March alone there are six events in England, Wales, India, Thailand and China. Players will of course have to consider their personal schedules. Top level snooker can be mentally draining; constant travel can be physically draining.
However, some players can’t afford to be too picky when it comes to tournaments carrying ranking points. If they aren’t in the top 16 come the cut-off for the World Championship they will have to win three matches to qualify. This is a fate possibly facing former champions John Higgins, Mark Williams and Graeme Dott. Every pound earned before then is going to count.
Though the promoting and staging of events is complicated by dozens of factors many fans and even players don’t understand, snooker is following the basic economic principle of supply and demand. Even a cursory glance at the results of the IBSF world amateur championship, won recently by 14 year-old Yan Bingtao of China, reveals the huge number of countries where people play snooker and where there is interest in it. Television and the internet has helped spread the word. We saw that recently in Lisbon where fans flocked to a tournament played in a country with no real history of the game. The challenge for World Snooker is configuring a tournament calendar which doesn’t require a Star Trek style transportation device for players to get from one event to another.
The leading players will doubtless start to dream of Crucible glory as the weeks – and events – tick by.
Ronnie O’Sullivan was denied a sixth world title last year but has played quite beautifully in winning the Champion of Champions and UK Championship crowns this season. He goes to the Masters next week seeking a sixth triumph in the game’s leading invitation event 20 years after he won it for the first time.
Judd Trump is enjoying one of his best campaigns, with 45 centuries to his name already plus a ranking title and three other final appearances, two of which required world class performances from O’Sullivan to deny him. At 25, Trump has the youthful energy to cope with the packed calendar and certainly to last the 17-day course in Sheffield.
Mark Selby did so last year but has had a relatively quiet season, as often happens to first time world champions. Fatherhood has happily complicated matters. There are big events to come and it will be interesting to see how Selby performs at the Masters, where he has figured in five finals from seven appearances. He starts out against Shaun Murphy, one of the campaign’s form players, in about as tough an opener he could get. And the ‘Crucible curse’ is going to start getting regular mentions as winter turns to spring.
Ding Junhui, winner of five ranking titles last season, has barely been viewed this term after two failures to qualify for home tournaments in China and his dramatic exit to James Cahill at the UK Championship.
Neil Robertson has replaced him as world no.1 after only a week and the Australian enters 2015 as a formidable challenger for any tournament.
These players represent the pool of likely tournament winners which also includes the likes of Murphy, Barry Hawkins, Stuart Bingham, Ricky Walden, Mark Allen, Marco Fu and Stephen Maguire.
Will there be any surprise tournament winners? With some top players giving events a miss – the Indian Open may struggle to attract big names – there is a chance for someone down the ranking list to grab some silverware.
I make it 13 more tournaments this season. So it’s back to the baize, back to work and we’ll be in Sheffield before we know it.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.