As Christmas approaches, we ask who will seize one of the jewels in the snooker crown this week in York ?
It seems an age ago when Patsy Fagan beat Doug Mountjoy in Blackpool to win the first UK Championship 12-9. Much has changed since then, pockets have got smaller, the cloth has got thinner and general play has changed, swapping safety shots for attacking shots and early clearances and smoking and drinking replaced by the odd sip of water.
Unlike the early days of snooker, when matches were played in small venues and players sat on the stairs between shots, now venues are large such the German Open in the Tempadrom in Berlin or the Masters at Alexandra Palace. Demand is growing and often extra seats have to be installed to cope with large ticket sales.
No longer is the sport exclusively for men. The ladies game has boomed in recent years, building on pioneers of the game such as Alison Fisher, Reanne Evans has dominated the game and has even competed in qualifiers for all the major tournaments.
This tournament has always been a special event, 0ne where drama and suspense has been played out on the green baize. Players often pull out of earlier events to practice for the UK Championship as most on the circuit rate it second only to the World Championship.
Having been a snooker fan since 1986, I have seen many players come and go. Several years ago the sport was down to eight tour events and many pundits hailed the end of snooker. However Barry Hearn saved the day and invested in the sport with new sponsorship deals and taking snooker into new countries such as Bulgaria and growing the sport in Germany and China.
On current form the clear contenders for the silverware are Higgins, Selby, Murphy,Trump and Robertson. O’Sullivan could shine but doubts have surfaced this season with his lack of tournament play and mistakes creeping into his game.
I asked several players and commentators on their thoughts of this early snooker Christmas present:
“I always look forward to the UK Championship as its the start of “Major” season for us on tour. The UK, Masters and World Championship are our Triple Crown events and the ones we all really want to win. I won the UK title back in 2008 and have been to the final again since, losing to my friend Mark Selby a few years back. It’s a great event with an even greater history and I’m looking forward to being a part of it again this year. It hasn’t been a great event for me in recent years but I’ve been working very hard on my game and know that good things are round the corner, so hopefully they’ll turn around for me in York this year”.
“I’m sure everybody is looking forward to York. The UK Championship always brings out the best from all players, especially for the top guys. Cracking days are ahead of us.”
“Great tournament in a great city, can’t wait for it.”
” I have been very fortunate in my snooker career since first turning professional in 1979 until my retirement in 2004 to have played many of the greats in the U.K. Championship including my failed maximum against Jimmy White. This truly is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the snooker calendar and I can’t wait to commentate for Eurosport UK on this pre Christmas cracker”.
“Going to be very difficult to predict a winner this year with so many people playing well a little worried that John Higgins will face burnout it’s so hard to keep playing the standard he is producing for a month but he would defiantly be my favourite if he wasn’t playing in Ireland this week my choice would be Ronnie but Trump is due another tournament.”
After an early exit from the Irish Open could another surprise contender be Shaun Murphy or the English Open winner Liang Wenbo or how could we could forget Mark Allen and Ding Junhui ?
Snooker can be a game of chance and really depends on how the player performs on the day. Any player can excel in a previous tournament and crash and burn in the next. That is why it is so difficult to predict a clear winner for an tournament on the tour. Gone are the days when Reardon, Davis or Hendry dominated the game in multiple events.
A major reason for this is how the standard of play has improved. Players outside the top 32 are now as good. Barry Hearn has developed the game, opening up major tournaments to all 128 players on the tour. With previous events like the European Tour, lower rank players have been allowed to play top 32 players regularly and this has dramatically raised the bar.
This has been shown in the U.K. Championship where Judd Trump, Kyren Wilson and Michael Holt have risen up the rankings. These players no longer fear John Higgins or Ronnie O’Sullivan and know that they can be beaten.
Some would say that when it comes to any of the event in the snooker triple crown, experience dominates and the major players will prevail. I don’t agree because like in 1992 when Higgins and O’Sullivan emerged so this is happening again.
No longer is the game merely for someone under the age of fourty. Players such as Mark Davis and Alan Macmanus have shown that like a vintage wine so the player can improve with age. With form they are deadly and are capable of attaining any piece of silverware. Fred Davis would be very proud.
The UK Championship will test any player as they attempt to win match after match to reach the final but only the best player will prevail. Like a runner in a race, they not only have to have the form to reach the winning post but the stamina and mind set. Snooker has always been a mental game rather than a physical one. Anyone in the sport could be leading in a match and miss what could be a classed as a simple shot. From that moment the game can change and his opponent starts to pot balls and attain frames. This causes the former leader to become mentally negative and lose a match they would have won if the miss due to such as a kick had not occurred. A turning tide always breathes down your neck in this sport and can be your worst enemy.
The Irish Open as a new event has shown the standard that will filter into the UK Championship. Ronnie O’Sullivan seems to be at the top of his game but can this be sustained for a further week. Even a genius can suffer fatigue and will an underdog prevail in one his matches. If I knew all the answers to these questions I could tell you the lottery numbers or which horse willl win next year’s Grand National.
The simple answer is that any of the 128 players could raise the trophy in York but will anyone outside the top 32 have that honour. As a dedicated snooker fan this belief was shown in the recent Irish Open when John Higgins after winning back to back titles at the China Open and the Champion of Champions, lost to Mark Williams. This proves that form is volatile and is not sustainable for long periods of time. So although a player does not physically burn out, the toll of travel and constant match play can cause a player to lose matches and ultimately previous good form.
This has been proved at the time of writing of article when Kyren Wilson has just beaten Ronnie O’Sullivan 4-3 in Belfast. With many top 16 players out, maybe Kyren could be the victor. A player who I have praised for sometime and Jimmy White rates highly. I always congratulate Kyren on Twitter when he wins. Such players are our sport’s future and must be praised and encouraged. Incidentally Kyren has never played Ronnie before and won on his first attempt.
So along with Kyren Wilson, who are the dark horses of the UK Championship ?, Yu Delu, Luca Bressel , Gary Wilson and Jack Lisowski are players that have the capability to win. All four play fast and attacking snooker but are still learning match play snooker. Once they have the all round game and can acclimatise to the constant glare of the television lighting which I predict will be imminent, they will be be major tournament winners.
Many of these players I have just mentioned have excelled at the junior or amateur level and as players such as Joe Swail have proved that it is possible to fall off the tour and to get back onto it.
It is amazing that a game played with coloured balls, played on a table measuring 12 ft by 6ft could create such an exciting and suspenseful game but it has and anyone who first watched snooker on television and was lucky enough to see Alex Higgins play, would know that any match can have you on the edge of your seat or hiding behind your sofa.
Like a box of chocolates, we are spoilt for choice but beyond the layers lies a snooker titan who will prevail in the final.Only time will tell but my tip from the snooker gods is Kyren Wilson as a surprise winner.
￼Credits to Rolf Kalb, Ken Doherty, Joe Johnson, Shaun Murphy and Willie Thorne for providing quotes and to Monique Limbos for allowing me to post her wonderful photographs, to World Snooker for the pictures of Joe Johnson and to Rolf Kalb and Willie Thorne for providing their own photographs.