2018 on the baize – Highs and Lows

As we approach the end of the year, and there is no more action on the baize until 2019 kicks in, it’s time for this again …

As a reminder, this is what 2018 was all about

The Highs

Player of the year: Ronnie O’Sullivan

For this “award” there were two deserving candidates, Ronnie and Mark Williams, well above anyone else. I finally decided for Ronnie because he was the most consistent at a very high level throughout 2018, despite a disappointing World Championship.

Ronnie won five tournaments during the 2018 campaign: the World Grand Prix, the Players Championship, the Shanghai Masters, the Champion of Champions and the UK Championship.

En route he broke his fair share of records:

  • He became the first player to win the Shanghai Masters three times and the first to defend that title.
  • He became the first player to win the Champion of Champions three times, having made it to the final each time he’s entered the event.
  • By winning the UK Championship for the seventh time and going one better than Steve Davis, he set two new records: the most UK Crowns (7) and the most Triple Crown Events titles (19) superseding Stephen Hendry.
  • He also bettered his own record of most maximums, by adding two more to his tally. He now has 15 of them.

Performance of the year: Mark Williams wins the World Championship

Mark Williams won his third World Championship beating John Higgins in the final by 18-16. It was a very high-quality match during which the players made 30 breaks over 50 between them including 6 centuries. It is certainly one of the best World finals ever, and the match of the year in terms of status and quality.

Amazingly it’s winning the German Masters in February 2018 that kickstarted Mark Williams resurgence, just like it was winning the same tournament that had led to Ronnie’s return to form and a fourth World title in 2012

But Willo’s performance didn’t stop at winning. True to his word he came to his press conference naked and it’s only because the sponsor insisted that there was a towel involved. The celebrations that followed were epic … and they’re still going on!

Young player of the year: Yuan Sijun

Yuan Sijun is only 18, and only in his second season. Last season he played 25 matches, won 8, lost 17. This season he’s played 26 matches already, won 17, lost 9. He reached one QF, one last 16 and twice the last 32 beating Ding Junhui, Kyren Wilson and Mark Allen en route. He’s one to watch. Definitely. Not flashy, but very efficient and mature for his years.

Match of the year (other than the WC Final): the Northern Ireland Open SF – Ronnie 6-5 Mark Selby

I chose this match because it really had everything: high quality, tension, the underlying rivalry, the twists and turns, and the flukes both sides. It concluded by a very eventful decider.

More about that match here

“Coup de Coeur” of the year: Cliff Thorburn wins the Seniors Masters

Cliff Thorburn winning the Seniors Masters 2018 at the Crucible was emotional. Cliff is an icon, he’s also a lovely and very funny man. But not at the table. At the table, he wants to win, badly, as badly as ever. At 70, getting down on the shot isn’t always easy, the 30 seconds shot-clock is a struggle. Nevermind! Back at the Crucible last April, he whitewashed John Parrott, then beat the n°1 amateur on the World Seniors ranking list, Jonathan Bagley to lift the Seniors Masters Trophy.! And this is what it meant to him …

Special mentions

  • Mark Allen winning the first and last events of the year, the Masters, his first  Triple Crown, and the Scottish Open bouncing back right after losing in the UK Championship to Ronnie.
  • Nutcharut Wongharuthai, from Thailand, only 18 or 19 years old, and only in her second season on the Women’s tour. Here is what she achieved this year: 2018 European Women’s Masters runner-up, 2018 British Open runner-up, 2018 World Women’s Under-21 Championship winner, 2018 UK Women’s Under 21 Championship winner. And she beat On Yee Ng and Wendy Jans, both multiple World Champions, in the process.

The Lows

The match-fixing problem

This year again, snooker was involved in match-fixing issues, with two players, Yu Delu and Cao Yupeng,  getting bans for various breaches of the rules regarding betting and for actual match-fixing, whilst two more, David John and Jamie Jones are still being investigated. This is very damaging to the image of snooker as a sport, and very likely to deter sponsors as well, in particular in mainland Europe. Sport, if not competed honestly, isn’t sport.

The problem with snooker though is that it is extremely reliant on the bookies for its sponsoring, and the governing body, whilst clamping on match-fixing and players betting on their own sport, does send emails to the fans inviting them to bet – I have got such emails myself – and publishes odds on social media, despite the fact that under-age persons are following their accounts. They also have one event, the Championship League, that occupies 16 days in the calendar, more than any other event except the World Championship, that has a format such that a player might gain more from losing than from winning, an event that is only shown on the bookies’ websites, most of them if not all, only available to you if you make a deposit. That’s not right in my book. “Do as I say, not as I do.”…

I have absolutely no sympathy for the betting industry and I’ won’t shed a tear on them losing money. You only have to consider how many of those businesses prosper and flourish to understand that they win big, which also means that the punters lose big. On average the person who bets regularly will lose much more than they will win over time, otherwise the bookies wouldn’t be so successful as a business. It’s that simple. Once you realise that, you stay away, right? No.  Advertising is everywhere, people believe that they can beat the system, get caught and gambling addictions are on the rise. I also have no sympathy for those who bet and complain when they lose, or worse come on social media throwing abuse honest players who had just a bad day. They should know the risks they take, it’s no rocket science.

Of course, I don’t condone match-fixing, nor any other form of cheating in sport because it defeats everything sport is about. I just wish that snooker wasn’t so dependant on one type of sponsors, especially those sponsors. The tobacco ban fiasco apparently has taught the people in charge nothing. And a ban, or at the very minimum, a heavy regulation of the betting advertising is coming. Actually it’s upon snooker already. Read here.

The Calendar structure

Ronnie’s spat with Barry Hearn during the UK Championship over various aspects of the tour was covered in-extenso by the media and I don’t think I need to come back on that specifically. There is however one aspect that can’t be denied: the structure of the tour could be improved to allow players to have a bit more breathing space between events, be it for preparation or for traveling. Especially the top players who regularly make it to the business end of tournaments. Is having a couple of days between consecutive tournaments that much to ask?

Again the 16 days of the Championship League (CLS) come in the picture here. Is it not time to get rid of this event? Especially considering that it only profits to a few selected players and that the format isn’t exactly encouraging 100% honesty: indeed a player might earn more if they lose and carry on group after group than if they do their absolute best to win every group they are involved in. Also, the Coral Cup events can only be played in the second half of the season, because the line-up is determined by the one year list. BUT, this means that for a lot of players, the next months will be rather “empty”. This season, those outside the top 16, and not invited in the CLS will not play before end January. Those who didn’t qualify for the German Masters – that’s all but 32 – and are not in the top 32 in the one year list will not play before mid-February. Meanwhile, for the top players, it will be absolutely packed.

Grouping events geographically, as done in other sports doesn’t seem to be an option, as the Chinese authorities want their events scattered over the year, probably for commercial reasons. But, if we have a true flat draw, then, all events should be played at the final location in one go. That also would free space in the calendar, and solve the “wildcards” and held-over matches issues. It would also put an end to the bias that actually exists, with Asian players having to qualify for their home events in the UK, without financial compensations whilst UK players qualify on home soil and are compensated if their match in Asia is held-over.

And, if the “real” flat draw isn’t a viable option, why not have a mix of tiered and flat draw events? Some tired qualifiers could take place during the Shanghai Masters and the Masters for instance. At least the tiered structure would give the lowest-ranked players a more winnable first match, and help their development, better than the extremely brutal system we have now does. Outside Asia, where grassroots is well supported, there isn’t any young player, under 25, really succeeding since that system is into place. All the current champions have come through the tiered system in their first years on the tour, and the likes of Ronnie, John Higgins and Mark Williams were winners well before turning 25.

The Challenge Tour non-promotion

The Challenge tour looked like a great idea. It probably is. But, it has failed to attract the amateurs as much as most of us expected it would. Why? Well, for many reasons probably. These are amateurs, they have to take time out of work or school for it. It’s not cheap either. There is no visibility: it’s not streamed, worse, in Lommel spectators were not allowed except the players friends and family duly registered beforehand, and from what I heard it was the same elsewhere. That’s not helping the players to find sponsors. There are no live scores for fans to follow the matches as they unfold. And, other than me, I don’t think there ever was any photographer or media person to give it exposure.

And add to that with only the top 2 of the yearly money list getting a tour card, many already had lost every hope before the season was halfway through. Why not have a Challenge Tour Grand Final involving the top 16 of the list instead and reward the finalist? That would keep more guys motivated through the season.

The ruin of the Paul Hunter Classic

Next year the Paul Hunter Classic will be an invitational event featuring 16 players. What used to be a glorious pro-am attracting amateurs and pros “en masse”, has gone down since it has become a ranking event, largely because of its spot in the calendar, during the last weeks of the summer holidays, and the poor prize money. This year, most top players have snubbed it, taking the opportunity to spend some time with their family and I don’t blame them. It’s not dead just yet, but I’m not optimistic. It’s a big shame, a loss for the fans, the amateur players, and snooker in mainland Europe.

Permanent fixture in the “Lows”: the Snooker Shootout being a ranking event.

3 thoughts on “2018 on the baize – Highs and Lows

  1. Yes I agree with all of your comment and analysis of 2018. You know my views about the tour schedule and ranking system, which will at some point break. An isolated ‘Challenge Tour’ was always going to be problematic, there needs to be fluidity between the different stratas. The current disagreements between Ronnie and Barry will also be relatively short-lived, as both are nearing ‘retirement’ – it’s a question of what state the game is in when that happens, and whether the sponsors and TV deals are still as lucrative afterwards.

    The remaining tournaments for those outside the top-32 are German Masters, India Open, Gibraltar, Welsh Open, China Open and World Championship. So yes, for those not qualified for Berlin or Kochi, there could be only 3 or 4 matches left in the season (if we discount the Shoot-out of course). The Championship League is a silly competition, with all kinds of perverse incentives. It used to have a reputation: play a few short practice matches with mates in the afternoon, enjoy the ‘refreshments’ in the evening, stagger back to a luxury room in the small hours, and then repeat the following day… Perhaps for that reason, or other reasons, the Asian players don’t get involved.

    Nutcharat Wongharuthai also reached the semi-final in Myanmar, which was probably a stronger field than the ‘official’ Women’s Masters, played at the same time. She was edged out by Wendy Jans, losing the last 3 frames.

    I agree Yuan Sijun is destined for great things, provided not too many obstacles are put in his way. He is a tremendous natural talent (like a young Paul Hunter), with great range in the speed and length of his delivery, occasionally reminiscent of Ronnie himself. Also an engaging personality which could make him the most popular player in the world in 10 years’ time. Along with fellow ‘Centennials’ Yan Bingtao and Luo Honghao, could they match the achievements of the ‘Class of 92’? In 2040 we can expect a book by Clive Everton in our Christmas stocking!

  2. For me:

    a) 1 more negative part of the year: the International Championship tables. Buckets.
    you get your reward despite missing a ball by a mile!
    It’s not the best way to make snooker more watchable…

    b) one more bad part of the year is John Higgins’ season so far and his mood is not good. I don’t think he’ll retire after the World Championship but he needs to find something to motivate himself to play professional snooker.

    c) The unluckiest person of the year: Kyren Wilson during the CoC final.

    d) The best positive thing is that the international Eurosport gets the British Eurosport’s feed so it makes every matches more enjoyable with the studio analysis, post match interviews, etc…!

    The player of the year without any doubt is The Rocket. Yep Mark Williams played extremely well at the Crucible but apart from that the 2nd half of the year wasnt the best for him.

    I wish you here around the world a Merry Christmas to you and your whole family plus a prosperous New Year! Thank you to Monique to keep us updating about Ronnie, about the snooker! It’s inconceivable effort! Brilliant! So thank you Mon again!

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