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Neil Robertson will defend his title (PA)

Throwing out the form book

Paul Gadsby

In a time when winning at the top level has become a closed shop in so many sports, why has snooker become so open in recent years? As the 2011 World Championship begins, Paul Gadsby tries to find an answer. . .

The Barclays Premier League has never been more difficult to win if you can’t match the resources of those super-rich powerhouses from Manchester or west London. You’ll be hard pushed to name any male tennis player genuinely capable of taking a grand-slam title away from the top-ranked three or four. Only four teams have ever won the Rugby World Cup, five the Cricket World Cup. Sports fans aren’t unused, or indeed averse, to the elite few dominating the biggest tournaments (whether it be through wealth, privilege or an insanely unique talent, a la Tiger Woods), and up until five or six years ago we were saying the same about snooker.

It had always been the same: Joe Davis from the kick-off, winning the first 15 World Championships from the inaugural event in 1927, before John Spencer, Ray Reardon, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry all came to dominate their respective eras with a ferocious drive and a ruthless consistency. Even when Hendry’s powers started to wane in the early Noughties, we had a so-called “big four” for a few years, consisting of John Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams, as well as Hendry.

Then in 2005 Shaun Murphy, at the time the world No 48 with pre-tournament odds of 150-1, lifted the trophy at the Crucible. Maybe it was another Joe Johnson moment, many of us thought (a theory skedaddled by Murphy more than anyone, who has since gone on to win multiple ranking events, but is still waiting for a second world crown), but the following year we had another shock winner in Graeme Dott. And in 2010 there was another first-time champion the winner’s circle: Australia’s Neil Robertson.

This isn’t any tournament we’re talking about either. It’s the big one – by far the biggest – in snooker in every sense. Seventeen days of relentless action, best-of-19-frame matches from the get-go, a best-of-35 final. The sport’s second-biggest tournament, the UK Championship, has a best-of-19 final. If you want your hands on the trophy at the Crucible, you have to win a total of 71 frames of snooker. The long-match formats always favour the best players, so the theory went. The best players often meant the top two – sometimes just the top one – but now the list of potential winners has lengthened considerably.

In the mid-1990s Hendry used to joke to his wife that she needed to pack a good dress for the final when they packed to leave Scotland before the tournament. In all honesty, he was pretty much assured of coasting through the first couple of rounds, unlikely to meet a player anywhere near good enough to knock him out until at least the quarter-finals (and often only the final itself).

But now the pre-tournament favourite is by no means fancied across the board to win even his first match. The trend is indisputable: there are simply more (very) good snooker players than ever before, and therefore more headaches for punters trying to weigh-up a pre-tournament bet. So what on earth has happened?

In context

Up until the mid-Nineties, the sight of a player winning more than two ranking-event titles in a season wasn’t a rare one. It hasn’t happened at all since 2001. A flurry of first-time winners, together with regular bouts of inconsistency from the major players, has resulted in more trophies being shared around by more players than ever before.

There were 38 different ranking-event winners in the history of the game up until the end of the 2003-04 season. Now there are 47 – nine new ones in just six and a bit seasons. And as discussed above, we aren’t just talking about the more minor events. Some of those winners have claimed the ultimate prize.

This year’s top 16 who qualified automatically for the World Championship have racked up a total of 132 ranking-event titles between them during their careers. Even the 16 qualifiers have nine ranking titles between them. Out of the 32 players heading to Sheffield this year, 19 of them already know how to win a title.

It’s not just the winning either that is being shared around. There have been nine maximum 147 breaks in the history of the World Championship, of which five have come this side of the millennium. More players are making bigger breaks. It is now not uncommon to hear about any player ranked, say, in the top 100, completing a 147 in practice and thinking nothing of it. Some even claim when advertising for exhibitions that they will return their appearance fee if they don’t compile a century break at some point during the evening.

Television exposure

Among the many credits thrown the way of the great Joe Davis, one was that he invented so many now established techniques of the game (one being the art of scoring heavily around the black spot) off the back of his own desire to win, pure love of the game, and natural curiosity. He was the first world champion when snooker was very much in its infancy (billiards was the cue sport of the day) and therefore he didn’t really have anyone to learn from, an inspiration to show him the way. So he had no choice but to teach himself.

Widespread television coverage from the late Seventies has done wonders for the sport, not only in terms of finance, but also in the number of youngsters who have watched others play and been inspired to pick up a cue. In more recent years there have become a number of expert coaches available and DVD guides, while the excellent spread of commentators, on the BBC in particular, has allowed every good shot to be expertly analysed in terms of how it was successfully accomplished, with modern Hawk-Eye technology adding to the picture.

Learning the basics of the game has never been so accessible, and neither has learning which tactics are most likely to make you successful. Hendry’s method of smashing into the pack of reds and freeing up the black as soon as possible in order to score a high break in one sitting is now the tactic young players adopt from the start of their careers.

In the Eighties Steve Davis used to employ a much more gentle approach, nudging two or three reds out of the pack at a time. Until Hendry came along there was nothing wrong with walking back to your seat with a 40-odd break up your sleeve. Now young players are turning away wincing unless they’ve knocked in a minimum of 70. So perhaps one of the reasons more players are scoring heavily and winning major tournaments is the knowledge they have from the moment they start playing as a kid; they know which techniques to employ for each kind of shot, and which players and tactics are likely to be more successful than others.

Pressure of being top dog

It’s not just that the players outside the elite batch have improved. Those who were multiple kings of the Crucible in the modern era have also made costly slip-ups, letting others in.

The pressure of being the undisputed world No 1 perhaps comes with a certain media glare today that never existed previously. Comprehensive media coverage across many new interactive formats, increased interview demands of players and the plethora of hearsay and gossip that springs from social media means anyone in the public eye has to live with any number of things being said about them, positive or otherwise.

When John Higgins won his first world title in 1998, many felt he would become the next Hendry or Steve Davis, dominating the era to come. But six years later, having never added to his tally and following a second-round loss to Dott, he cut a despairing figure in his post-match conference. Slumped in his chair, admitting that after winning it in ’98 he had “taken it for granted there would be more to come”, but things were now very different. “Maybe I need to talk to a sports psychologist or someone,” he reflected. Eventually, of course, Higgins did claim the crown again, in 2007 and 2009, but his career post-1998 has been a story of him hitting his excellent heights in patches, rather than shoulder-barging his way to several years of back-to-back finals, in the manner of the Davises, Reardon, and Hendry etc.

Mark Williams, the winner in Sheffield in 2000 and 2003, was another player expected to make a serious challenge at the championship every year for a good decade. But second-round defeats in 2004 and 2005 saw him lose his edge, and he slipped down the rankings, even dropping out of the top 16 in 2008. He’s back now, but his career path has followed that of Higgins in terms of playing extremely well in spells and then going off the rails during the lean times, which have sometimes lasted years rather than months.

O’Sullivan, widely regarded as the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue, has, like John Higgins, won three world titles. But O’Sullivan’s career pattern (also of hitting his A game only in patches) is perhaps a little different to that of the Scot and Williams in that, in O’Sullivan’s case, his well-documented erratic mindset was always likely to prevent him from being the next Hendry. Not that many of us have complained about that – O’Sullivan’s best form (his semi-final wins over Hendry at the Crucible in 2004 and 2008 in particular) has arguably provided us with the finest displays of technically sound snooker in the history of the game.

Confidence

They all say winning breeds confidence, don’t they, but when it comes to hitting a losing streak modern-day players seem to find it much more difficult to get out of a rut than their predecessors. Confidence now appears to be so fragile.

When Steve Davis sensationally lost 18-17 to Dennis Taylor in the 1985 final, he admitted that even weeks later he was crying in the bath, struggling to come to terms with losing an 8-0 lead, knowing that he had thrown it away, that he was in his prime and he had to make the most of the now. But he picked himself up to reach the final the following year, and then won a further three world titles from 1987-1989. In short, Davis had the ability to deal with the expectancy of winning. It’s an art in itself, look at how Roger Federer and Tiger Woods have managed it.

But many can’t. In this age of internet chat rooms and expert columnists and analysts, the performances of sports stars have never been more closely scrutinised, and with that it seems to have created within many players a stronger desire to prove people wrong rather than stay at the top.

Many players thrive in the position of underdog, can warm to their task of raising their game to show those who’ve doubted or criticised them. It’s a totally different mindset to walking into the arena knowing you’re the best, the king of the jungle, and by the time the match is finished the maximum you can possibly have achieved is to still be the best.

There have been quite a few examples in recent years of young players coming through, winning a major title and then falling back almost immediately. Stephen Maguire was fancied to be a real threat after lifting the UK Championship in 2004, but suddenly, with the pressure of expectancy on his shoulders, he faded away. Several times he has produced glimpses of the kind of form that won him that UK title, but his “On Fire” nickname has not served as appropriate enough times for his liking.

Ding Junhui was flying high in 2006, the youngest player in history to win three ranking events, but he fell away from the limelight too, although in his case it can be pinned down to one specific event. In the final of the 2007 Masters at Wembley against O’Sullivan, what was billed as a titanic east-meets-west clash of the titans proved too much for the Chinese player. Sensing the game slipping away, he heard a derisive comment directed at him from a drunken member of the crowd and let it get to him. He was in tears towards the end as O’Sullivan romped over the finishing line.

Social changes

The examples of John Higgins and Williams losing their edge after their initial breakthroughs as young world champions is obviously down to many factors on top of those described above. Another is perhaps the changing social attitude towards the responsibilities of new fathers. When Williams, as defending champion, lost to Joe Perry in the last 16 at Sheffield in 2004, in his post-match press conference he clasped his hands together and told the gathering “at least I can go home now and get stuck in to changing some nappies”. His wife Jo had just given birth to their first child, Connor, and Williams, a proud first-time father, clearly wanted to go home to Wales and help out.

John Higgins’ slip down the pecking order also coincided with the period when him and wife Denise started a family. In fact, Higgins was playing in a final on the due date for two of his three children. Both times he made it clear he would withdraw from the tournament if Denise went into labour.

Of course, none of this is out of line with the attitude of the majority of fathers nowadays, but the childcare duties that followed for these players, and many others, clearly meant that some time that had previously been spent at the practice table was now being used to change nappies or do the school run.

In another time, male sports stars didn’t take – and weren’t expected to take – such a hands-on role to such tasks. You can’t help but think one of the reasons why Joe Davis was able to win 15 world titles was his unwavering sense of purpose, single-mindedness, ambition and obsessiveness, all of it carried out in an era when he didn’t combine those efforts with domestic chores.

In 2000, Higgins, the defending champion, withdrew from the Grand Prix in Telford at the quarter-final stage because the date of the match clashed with his brother’s wedding, where John was to be best man (Higgins stressed he told World Snooker of the date eight months previously, but the match schedule had since been changed).

A family man, Higgins has never made a secret of his desire to seek a work-life balance. In 2007 he told The Times: “I’ve never dedicated my life to snooker. There has never been a time where it has been the be all and end all. I have had a balanced life and I have thoroughly enjoyed doing things outside of snooker. But I don’t think I will get to the end of my life and think, ‘I wish I had spent more time on the snooker table’.”

The future

So will there ever be another Steve Davis or Hendry? Many fans certainly value the prospect of tuning into the opening day of Crucible fortnight knowing the tournament is wide open, sensing a pleasure from its unpredictability. But others wish for a return to yesteryear, when they could watch a clear world No 1 either strut his stuff or come under the pressure of suffering a major shock defeat. There is undoubtedly a great pleasure in seeing a top dog knocked unexpectedly off his perch. When Steve Davis lost the 1985 final to Taylor, most of Britain could hardly believe it. Hendry losing to Ken Doherty in 1997 provided a similar, albeit more low-key sensation, the result signifying the end of an era.

Pretty much since then we’ve been wondering where the next Davis or Hendry is coming from. But times have changed, and perhaps there was never supposed to be a next one.

Paul is the co-author of the seminal snooker book “Masters of the Baize: Cue Legends, Bad Boys and Forgotten Men in Search of Snooker’s Ultimate Prize”. Check back for more sporting insight from him

One Response to “World Snooker Championship”

  1. Maximum clearance Mr G.
    On the tactics point, perhaps the trend for smashing the reds is significant in ending the era of dominance.
    With Davis’ essentially conservative approach he often didn’t give his opponents a chance to win – literally.
    If you’re smashing the pack from the outset, you may increase your chances of winning a frame quickly, but you’re also going to have more chance of losing it.

    Reply

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