'Dangerous’ Ronnie O’Sullivan, ‘unknown quantity’ Mark Selby, Judd Trump's task - Snooker storylines to watch
The snooker season is about to kick into gear. What will an “especially dangerous” Ronnie O’Sullivan achieve? Can “unknown quantity” Mark Selby recover from a difficult 2022? And what of Judd Trump, who will be aiming to “wrestle back the limelight". And who will be able to unsettle the estbalished order? Zhao Xintong? Yan Bingtao? Dave Hendon is here to asses the main storylines.
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The snooker season will soon be fully awake after a few months in which it’s opened its eyes only to close them again.
The British Open, which gets underway later this month, is only the third event since the new campaign began in June. The calendar has been difficult to plan because of ongoing uncertainty over Covid in China, which means the five lucrative competitions previously staged there remain in cold storage for now.
But suggestions of crisis have been overstated. There are 15 ranking events on this season’s schedule, 12 of which are open to the whole tour, plus the usual elite invitation tournaments and the new World Mixed Doubles Championship.
So players at the top end of the game will soon have plenty to play in while those lower down the rankings have recently been offered a £20,000 earnings’ guarantee by World Snooker Tour to ease some of the financial burden. Discussions are meanwhile ongoing for new events in Europe, with the potential for these to be added to the calendar this season.
But which players will come good when the action finally restarts?
Ronnie O’Sullivan begins the season in a stronger position than ever. World champion for a record equalling seventh time and world no.1, this sporting colossus has never enjoyed a higher profile and it will grow even further when the documentary filmed about him over the last 12 months is aired later this year.
It’s been said many times, but what a career he’s had. His first ranking title came in November 1993, his most recent in May 2022. He has had to face an array of formidable challengers in those three decades, sometimes coming up short but always coming back.
Looking down now from the mountaintop, O’Sullivan has nothing left to prove, which makes him especially dangerous to his main rivals, none of whom can approach the new term with the same relaxed attitude.
Perhaps the greatest unknown quantity is Mark Selby. Last season was a write-off for the four times world champion as he faced up to problems he had long kept bottled up. He is in a better place now but, to complicate things, he recently suffered neck pain which has required treatment.
Selby is ranked third in the official two-year list but factoring in the points which will come off his ranking, including the 500,000 he won at the Crucible in 2021, his provisional end of season position is currently a perilous 24th.
There is plenty of time for that to change before May, but Selby needs to start winning matches soon. Otherwise it is not impossible that he could head to Sheffield in the spring in danger of being relegated from the elite top 16.
Judd Trump suffered what was perhaps an inevitable backwards step last season after three extraordinary campaigns from 2018 to 2021 in which he won 14 ranking titles, plus the Masters.
That hit rate was always going to be hard to keep up. Last season he won one ranking title, the new Turkish Masters, plus the prestigious Champion of Champions and reached the world final, not a bad year but not as impressive as what had come before.
By now it may have been expected, not least by Trump himself, that he would have taken over from O’Sullivan as the sport’s preeminent figure, but he was outplayed by him for long sections of their Crucible final. The challenge for Trump this season is to wrest back trophies but also the limelight.
Williams won the British Open but lost a decider to Robertson in the Masters semi-finals after the Australian needed two snookers, a last frame thriller to O’Sullivan in the Tour Championship quarter-finals and yet another deciding frame in the World Championship semis where Trump beat him 17-16 in a Crucible classic.
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Higgins and Williams are the very opposite of underachievers but these close defeats still sting, even 30 years on from turning pro.
Robertson has been on an extended break after a stellar season in which he won four big titles before coming up short again in Sheffield, losing 13-12 to Jack Lisowski in the second round despite making a maximum break in the final session.
The Melbourne left-hander will play in the mixed doubles competition but has not entered the campaign’s first three tournaments and so won’t be seen in a ranking event until the Northern Ireland Open in October – six months after his Crucible defeat.
This may seem odd but Robertson has enough money and ranking points in the bank to take a lengthy break, and there have been so few events in the meantime that, even if he is rusty, it’s not as if anyone else will be particularly sharp.
The main challenge to the established order seems likely to come from China, with Zhao Xintong, 25, and Yan Bingtao, 22, leading the charge.
When players suddenly achieve success, expectations change – their own as much as other people’s. But Zhao is an outstanding talent with an apparent ability to just enjoy what he is doing. He doesn’t have the mental scars of the older players and plays an eye-catching game that makes him an obvious crowd favourite.
Yan is younger than his good friend but his game is more layered. He won the longest frame in Crucible history against Selby last April, an 85-minute grind, and was also completely unfazed by a pigeon landing on the table during the same match.
However, Yan also lost 9-0 to Zhao in their German Masters final, so if anything a lack of consistency seems to be his Achilles’ heel. If he can achieve a more reliable baseline level of performance he could do some real damage.
Kyren Wilson, a top player lacking the titles of those around him in the rankings, made a good start to remedying that by winning the European Masters in Germany last month. Barry Hawkins had played superbly before his form collapsed in the title match, a worrying trend for a player who has now lost six of his nine ranking finals.
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Shaun Murphy and Mark Allen have shed so much weight between them this summer that they’ve had to invest in new wardrobes. They remain players who, on any given week, could win any given tournament. What difference will the new healthier approach make? Snooker is not a physical sport but stamina is important, as is mental health, and fitness can do wonders for that.
A familiar question looms over Lisowski: can he finally win a ranking title? Dashingly talented but at times frustratingly erratic, he has done superbly well to bed himself into the elite top 16 without landing a trophy. Lisowski demonstrated genuine steel to beat Robertson at Sheffield and took Higgins to a decider in the quarter-finals, a display which suggested that the next step for him isn’t far away.
Who else could break through?
A player to watch closely is Hossein Vafaei, Iran’s representative on tour who seems to be improving all the time. He won the Shootout last season and has every chance to end the current campaign as a top 16 player.
Last season we saw unlikely title wins for the little known Chinese player Fan Zhengyi, an out of form Joe Perry and Robert Milkins, whose game seemed to have completely gone before he came good at the Gibraltar Open. There is greater strength in depth through the ranks now than ever, so further success for players down the list often derided as journeymen is entirely possible.
Young talent in Britain is thinner on the ground than it once was but 21 year-old Welshmen Jackson Page and Dylan Emery are both promising prospects. Chinese hopefuls such as Pang Junxu and Wu Yize could also be dangerous.
The problem for everyone is plain: there are only so many tournaments so there can only be so many winners. Plenty of players will produce a high standard but ultimately come away empty-handed.
The snooker season is one long game of thrones, where heart, nerve and luck are all required to weather the various storms a player will face. Some weeks you’re up, some you’re down. Sometimes nothing clicks, and then suddenly it all comes together.
Fans of the sport these days are rewarded with a greater variety of winners, some familiar, some unexpected. These are the players who we now rely on to rebuild snooker’s profile after such a lengthy break.