This is the question that keeps popping into my mind a lot recently, reading about snooker as well as watching it.
The last occurrence happened on Monday watching Judd Trump being absolutely trashed by Sam Craigie in the World Open 2017 qualifiers. Sam Craigie is very talented – we have known that for years – and he played really well, so there is absolutely no questioning his win. But I’m questioning Judd’s defeat and the manner of it: Judd scored only 37 points in the whole match and his highest break was 9, how come? Judd had disclosed on twitter that he had a laser surgery a few days before the match, so maybe he was not yet completely accustomed to the eyesight change and felt uncomfortable? Possibly, but this is not consistent with what he had tweeted about feeling good about it. The blatant fact was that Judd’s attitude was not right, he was taking all the wrong shots and everything he was doing was claiming that he didn’t want to be there. Judd was extremely upset when WPBSA announced that the Shanghai Masters was replaced by the World Open, with a flat draw, a qualifying round and played in Yushan, a rather remote place. In fact, he was in tears according to his manager. So lack of motivation is likely to be a big factor in what we have witnessed. I’m very surprised that the word “unprofessional” didn’t pop up on my twitter feed… not that I would have agreed with that simplistic view on what was happening out there. Let me try to explain and look at a few things currently happening in snooker.
Last season Ding Junhui didn’t play ANY qualifying match: indeed as China n°1 player, all his matches in Chinese events were held over to the venue and he gave the less lucrative European events a miss, either not entering, or withdrawing in the case of the European Masters. How did it come to this? Well … Ding rather often failed to qualify for Chinese events, because he didn’t like to have to qualify in the UK for his home events, and, often came to play ill prepared, jet lagged, leaving China too late, and / or clearly in the wrong frame of mind, a bit like Judd two days ago. In the 2014 Wuxi Classic qualifiers, Ding lost by 5-0 to amateur Oliver Brown. It was a disaster for the tournament and the sponsors, all the more so because Wuxi is Ding home town. Following this, and previous similar incidents, it was decided that the top two Chinese players’ opening round matches would be held over to the venues, in order to guarantee their appearance in all Chinese events. So, actually, Ding was rewarded for not trying his best, or not preparing adequately, by being excused from qualifying rounds and getting a significant advantage over fellow players, especially fellow Chinese players, who still had to qualify in the UK, for their home events. Of course China n°2, currently Liang Wenbo, is also similarly privileged, but … Hong Kong has been reunited with China 20 years ago, still, Marco Fu, who is indeed ranked higher than Liang, never benefitted from this exception. When I say “advantage” it’s about not having to travel to UK, not having to play in a multi table setup with little atmosphere, not having to worry about a visa or jet lag … Barry Hearn justified the scrapping of the Shanghai Masters, and its possible reinstallation provided it’s a flat draw, with qualifiers, by claiming once again that he wants a level playing field. Really? It seems to me that it’s only true as long as it suits the sponsors… and his own agenda. Not in this instance, certainly. And not when it was decided to modify the qualifying criteria for the Champion of Champions, to include a non-champion, the World Championship runner-up, who, incidentally was … Ding. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the person Ding, and I genuinely like his game, but clearly, he gets special treatment and it all comes from the importance of China in supporting the sport financially and Ding’s own status in his counytry.
I don’t know a single top player who likes to have to qualify under the current system. Top players take pride in their skills, want to entertain the fans and thrive on big occasions. Some cope better than others, but they don’t like it, and I’m not sure the sponsors like it that much either, because ultimately, each and every time, they lose some of the top stars along the way. Ronnie certainly doesn’t like it either and said as much. He often points out that you don’t see Federer, Nadal, Murray or Djokovic having to qualify and that qualifiers should be for amateurs only. He doesn’t mind starting at the last 128, provided it’s part of the main event, at the main event location. In particular, he believes that the Chinese events should be played in China from round 1. If you think about it, there we have another really unfair setup. In order to make events less expensive for UK players, all qualifiers are played in the UK … which means they are more expensive for overseas players who need to travel to UK to qualify even for their home events, and possibly struggle to get a visa. It also means that the “top-up” system benefits mainly to UK amateurs although it seems that things are changing a bit this season, with local wildcards entering in round one, held-over matches. Indeed who would travel to the other side of the world, to play one match, against a top 64 player and likely come out of it penniless? Other top players, notably Mark Williams, have expressed similar views and I completely agree with them. If it IS a flat draw there should be no qualifiers and there should be only one venue where it’s played, by all competitors involved, from start to finish.
Another area where there isn’t a level playing field is the access to the professional status. The main route is the Q-School, and it might become even more important now that WPBSA and IBSF are in a war. Q-School is played exclusively in te UK. It’s been promised that there would be Q-Schools in Asia and Europe, but for the time being, it’s still only UK. Which means that playing in there is more difficult and more expensive for non UK players. WPBSA claim they want to make the game global, but this only contributes to maintain the UK dominance. Even worse the current top-ups system, which gives amateurs invaluable experience, and the future challengers tour are / will be accessible only to players who entered the Q-School. Of course the Q-School is probably a significant source of revenues for the governing body…
Another area where players are not exactly treated equal is the relationship with the media. In this case, it’s not related to the way the game is managed, it’s purely linked to the nature of relationship between the media and any sport. Last season Ronnie embarked in series of comedy protest “performances” because he had the feeling that he was fined more than others for speaking his mind. He felt bullied and Clive Everton repeatedly suggested that he wanted to be treated differently from the rest. I don’t think that’s true, A few years back Mark Allen came to a press conference with some tape over his mouth after a series of fines. Mark Williams has become a master at saying things on twitter without actually saying them. The thing is … any sport needs exposure, so it is expected from the exponents, especially from the top exponents, that they make themselves available to the press. And the press wants them to say interesting things, things that create stories rather than a bunch of trivialities and small talk. The higher the profile, the bigger the demand, and, as we all know, only those who wash the dishes do occasionally break plates. Statistically, the more dishes you wash … the more plates you will break. Hector Nunns touched on the subject in this article. Here is an excerpt:
In fairness to O’Sullivan, he has done his bit over 25 years. Yes, he may have ducked the odd press conference, although you would be hard pushed to name more than one in recent years, but he has done more media over the years than most of the players put together. The fair ones know this, acknowledge it, and are often quite grateful that he is the lightning conductor.
So yes, players sometime DO say inappropriate things. Especially right after difficult match or a defeat with emotions running high. and, then again, usually the media are not interested in losers, unless they are high-profile. Of course, Ronnie criticising the referee live on TV right after the match was not acceptable, and Mark Allen saying that cheating is a Chinese trait wasn’t either. But sometimes players are fined for just expressing their frustration or disappointment, like every one of us at times, in the heat of the moment, with strong words. Or for saying inconvenient truths. They are expected to be “role models” in every aspect of their professional life, all the time. Is it realistic to expect them to be perfect at all times? Is this even productive? I doubt it. I mean, we, all of us, we are not perfect, and, personally, I find it extremely difficult to relate to perfect people. They don’t feel like “real persons”, they don’t come across as genuine. And if you look across sports at the sportspersons the general public warmed to, they are very seldom the “perfect” type. Think Alex Higgins, Jimmy White, Georges Best, Paul Gascoigne, even John McEnroe nowadays … I think the sport authorities, and broadcasters, should think about this and take a more relaxed attitude, within limits of course. I don’t believe that the occasional swear word will damage any sport, or deter any sponsor. At worse it will damage the culprit image. But it will also show their human side, their “character” (allegedly sorely missing nowadays). The current obsession with “political correctness” has gone too far, in my opinion at least. The ONLY things that REALLY damages a sport are foul play, cheating, match fixing. Towards that there should rightly be zero tolerance. Everything else should be treated with a good dose of common sense.
All opinions express above are mine, and mine only.