Sam Craigie echoes Ronnie O’Sullivan: Snooker can be a ‘a recipe for depression’
Phil Haigh Tuesday 15 March 2022
Sam Craigie has described a career for snooker players outside the elite as ‘a recipe for depression,’ echoing the thoughts of Ronnie O’Sullivan, who said that is why he would not encourage his own son to take up the sport.
Craigie is the world number 41, an excellent player on the way up in the game, but the winning feeling is still hard to come by, even for someone at his position in the top half of the world rankings.
The 28-year-old has been to just one ranking quarter-final in his unbroken stint on the professional tour since 2016 and he says the constant hunt for improvement, with few results to celebrate can feel like torture.
‘I don’t really love snooker, I’m not really a snooker maniac,’ Craigie told the WST Podcast. ‘It’s just something I’m good at and there’s a living to be made from it. It’s the same as going to work.
‘It just gets under your skin, looking to perfect something that can’t be perfected when you go to practice.
‘You’re never happy and there’s always something to work on. I think that’s the reason I play, just trying to get better.
‘You do [enjoy it] when you’re playing well. Sometimes winning isn’t enjoyable. Playing well is the best feeling in the world, but how often does that happen?
‘I think it’s like a recipe for depression, it really is.
‘Anyone around my position in the rankings or lower, you’re always losing and it’s just bloody torture half the time.’
O’Sullivan has made the same point before, somewhat controversially, saying that he would not encourage his own son, or other youngsters into snooker.
While it ruffled some feathers that the six-time world champion was speaking of his chosen sport in that manner, he has spoken about the issues of the lower-ranked players, both mental and financial.
‘I’ll be honest with you, if I had a son I would not let him play snooker so maybe it is a good thing there isn’t the opportunity for him to play snooker,’ O’Sullivan told Eurosport at the Scottish Open in December.
‘I’d rather he played golf, football, tennis. I’d rather he played curling, I’m only joking! Personally if I had a child [that wanted to take up snooker] I would not want him to play snooker I really wouldn’t.
‘I’m not talking about the winners. I’m talking about the guys that are ranked 60, 70 in the world that are struggling. It’s not good for them. If you compared the 125th golfer and what he earns and the 125th snooker player then he’d make a million dollars on the golf tour. You can afford to miss a few cuts because you can make enough money to offset the losses you might make.
‘One way you could maybe remedy it is at least give the first round losers their expenses. A lot of these guys have not got the money. It’s unfair.’
In another interview with Eurosport last year, the Rocket spoke in similar terms to Craigie on the hours spent on the practice table – which he considers an unhealthy environment – which can be a mental strain when the rewards don’t materialise.
‘Everybody is at different stages of their careers,’ he said. ‘When you are in your pomp, and getting victories, trophies and are at number one you don’t mind taking the snooker depression because you think I’m getting rewarded for it.
‘But if you are putting that effort in and aren’t getting anything back, getting beaten in the first, second and third rounds all the time, and it’s still leaving you feeling like s**t, it’s a lot harder to take and handle.
‘I don’t think it’s healthy to be in a room hitting balls for four, five and six hours. That’s what snooker players generally do.’
Players at all levels of the professional game can struggle with mental health problems, with current world champion Mark Selby speaking openly about his ongoing issues.
Many others have spoken out about poor mental health in recent years, including Gary Wilson, Dave Gilbert and Mitchell Mann, and have all seen things improve as a result. Hopefully talking about problems continues to be a route to recovery.
When Ronnie said those things he was crucified by many, allegedly damaging the sport that made him rich and discouraging kids to play snooker. Ronnie never said that kids shouldn’t play snoooker, his problem is with snooker as a profession, and it’s not about those at the top, it’s about all the others who struggle to just make a living out of it but without whom the circuit wouldn’t exist. They are the majority.
It’s courageous from Craigie to say those things, and it’s great fom Phil Haig to give him a voice in the media. The idea that “trophies are eveything and sport should be chosen just for the love of it” is a myth. The reality is that it’s also a job, and there are bills to pay, and food to be brought to the table. Sam has a young family, he has responsibilities towards them. His kids won’t live solely on thin air and dad’s rosy dreams. He knows it and it’s hard.
As for Ronnie, I totally understand his position. I wouldn’t want my children to embrace a profession that will, most likely, not allow them to earn a decent living despite the hard works they put in it. I would not want them to take a job that actually costs them, and puts them under extreme mental pressure. No parent in their right mind would want that.
The answer of course is that snooker needs to change, so that the prize money structure needs to be less top heavy, so that first round losers get a minimal wage, covering their basic expenses. Only then it will be able to truly grow.
The schedule of the “ITV events” is always a bit peculiar and we had just one session, two matches, yesterday evening: Neil Robertson beat Kyren Wilson by 6-4 whilst Mark Williams beat Gary Wilson by 6-3 from 0-2 down.
Neil Robertson came through a tough battle with Kyren Wilson by a 6-4 scoreline on day one of the Cazoo Players Championship in Wolverhampton, while Mark Williams beat Gary Wilson 6-3.
Robertson’s preparations for this week have been far from ideal, having tested positive for Covid-19 after travelling back from Berlin following the recent German Masters. He then underwent a period of isolation.
Despite still feeling under par, the Australian remains full of confidence having scored a landmark second Masters victory at Alexandra Palace last month. He defeated Barry Hawkins 10-4 in the final to capture the Paul Hunter Trophy.
Wilson came into today’s encounter having enjoyed a good record against Robertson of late. The Kettering cueman had won four of their previous five meetings, but it was 21-time ranking event Robertson who cranked up the heat early on this evening.
Breaks of 114 and 60 helped Robertson into a 2-1 lead. He then doubled his advantage heading into the mid-session, after claiming the fourth on the black to lead 3-1.
The Warrior battled his way back into the tie when play resumed, taking two on the bounce to restore parity at 3-3. Robertson responded with 94 to take the seventh, before Wilson fired in a tournament high run of 141 to make it 4-4.
A break of exactly 100 moved Robertson a frame from the win. He then unlocked the path to victory in the 10th frame with a superb shot on the green to develop the brown. From there the Melbourne cueist completed a clearance to the black with a break of 47 to win 6-4.
World number four Robertson now faces the mouth watering prospect of a quarter-final clash with either Judd Trump or Ronnie O’Sullivan.
“I thought I played really well. I had a couple of missed balls, but I felt overall the standard from myself was decent,” said 39-year-old Robertson.
“It was lucky that this tournament was a few days after I came out from isolation. The form is still there from the Masters, I feel great and confidence is high. You can clearly see I’m hitting the ball well. I got a few days practising and that put me in the form I needed to put in a decent performance.
“Even if I am still showing signs of any kind of tiredness, playing Ronnie or Judd is the perfect match. The frames will be over so quickly and I will get good chances with it being against attacking players. It is going to be a good crowd so there won’t be many flat moments in the match and that will also suit me. I am free rolling a little bit at the moment.”
Williams rallied from 2-0 down to secure his 6-3 defeat of Wilson and earn a quarter-final spot.
The Welshman has been in superb form so far this season. Today’s win was a repeat of the British Open final earlier in the campaign, where he defeated Wilson 6-4 to claim the 24th ranking crown of his career.
Williams was edged out 6-5 by Robertson in a thrilling Masters semi-final last month and followed that up with a run to the Shoot Out final, where he was beaten by Hossein Vafaei.
The three-time World Champion wasn’t at his fluent best this evening, failing to compose a break over 50, but three frames on the bounce from 3-3 were enough to seal the victory.
Next up Williams faces either Mark Allen or Ricky Walden in the quarter-finals.
Altough Neil feels that he is in good form, this actually didn’t show immediately at the table. There were lots of mistakes from both him and Kyren before the MSI.
The conditions looked very tricky to say the least and that was confirmed by this bit of conversation between the two winners on twitter:
Table 1 was also rolling off from left to right (as seen on our screens). This was very apparent on some “slow” safety shots Neil played: he ended up hitting his target on the wrong side a couple of times.
We have four matches today. Ronnie will play tonight and it’s fair to say that from all the “top seeds” he’s the one that has been handed the toughest task as he will face Judd Trump.
Ronnie O’Sullivan: New Sensation Zhao Xintong Has Snooker At His Mercy
“Of course, you have to say ‘Could be’ at the moment, it is still early, he has got quite a bit to learn and master to be the full article. He is super-good now, but could be an unplayable great if he were to brush up on certain things. And that is up to him, does he want to be open to that, and do the work.
“Because Zhao can be as good as he wants to be, he has got the game in his hands. As he develops he will handle the pressure situations even better than now. Even though he is a little bit one-dimensional now with all the potting and fantastic break-building, his defensive game can improve and that will make him better again.
“What is scary for the rest is what he is doing with only half a game – because I think that is what he has, half a game, compared to his potential. He still manages to brush other players aside, but that is only because he is so talented. But he can become even more difficult to play against and boss games from the start.
“There aren’t that many players that have a chance of threatening the important records – Hendry’s seven world titles, my seven Masters and UKs, the 20 majors. He is maybe the only one out there who could topple some of those. I watched his win at the German Masters, and was following what was going on. I have a real soft spot for Zhao.
“And in many wany he reminds me of my son – I look at him and it is like he is a reflection of my little Ronnie – a couple of handsome, good-looking boys! But of course the main thing is his talent, and the way he can play the game. It is exciting to watch, and exciting to see someone that emerges.”
Meanwhile, as far as O’Sullivan’s own first test in the tournament is concerned, it couldn’t be much tougher. Trump’s relatively poor campaign to date is responsible for this clash materialising as early in the tournament as it has, with O’Sullivan seeded third and the 32-year-old only 14th.
Since this tournament was rebranded in 2017 from the Players Tour Championship that preceded it and made for the top 16 on the one-year list, O’Sullivan and Trump have each won two of the five to have been staged – the Rocket also losing 10-3 in last year’s final to John Higgins.
Trump has beaten Marco Fu (10-8 in 2017) and Yan Bingtao (10-4 in 2020) in finals, while O’Sullivan has taken out Shaun Murphy (10-4 in 2018) and Neil Robertson (also 10-4 in 2019) in his other showpieces.
Trump is one of the few to hold a winning career head to head record against O’Sullivan, including eight of the 11 finals they have contested – and has also won five of their last six meetings.
O’Sullivan said: “Look, I am just happy to be in the draw the way I have been playing. My performances recently haven’t been great so I am looking forward to another road trip. It would be nice to get a few days out of it, rather than go up Monday and be heading home Tuesday night.
“So I would like to stay involved for a few days. I have got some nice running routes planned up there. Me against Judd in the first round…if the fans and the TV look forward to it, then that’s fantastic! For me I’ll be having some fun and hope to make a game of it.”
Ronnie is of course aware that his form hasn’t been the best in competitive matches so far this season, despite winning the 2021 World Grand Prix just before the Christmas break but the same is true for Judd as well.
PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP: EARLY RONNIE O’SULLIVAN MATCH HIGHLIGHTS JUDD TRUMP’S TRICKY ROAD TO RECLAIMING SNOOKER’S THRONE
The match could easily have been a final, but Judd Trump meets Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round of the Cazoo Players Championship because the former is 14th on the one-year list used to determine the 16-man field. Eurosport commentator Dave Hendon looks at the challenges facing Trump as he copes with multiple challengers, including the longevity of O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams.
By DAVE HENDON
When Judd Trump meets Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round of the Cazoo Players Championship on Tuesday night it marks the latest chapter of a rivalry between two authentic crowd-pleasers.
A match-up which could easily have been a final, they are clashing in the first round because Trump is 14th on the one-year list used to determine the 16-man field. This season he has so far failed to get past the quarter-finals of a ranking event, although he did win the prestigious Champion of Champions last November.
Trump and Mark Selby have been trading the world No 1 position this season but, with Selby absent from the field, O’Sullivan will return to top spot for the first time in three years if he wins the title.
When he was starting out, the forty-somethings were great players of their day on the slide – the likes of Dennis Taylor, Terry Griffiths and Cliff Thorburn. Trump may have reasonably expected that the players he idolised as a boy would have seriously declined by now, but there is no sign of that.
Trump is six months from his 33rd birthday and has won 22 ranking titles. At the same age, O’Sullivan had won 20, although there were fewer ranking events back in 2008.
The 20th was his third world title, and this is important to note because, like it or not, snooker careers are ultimately measured by the sport’s biggest event. The World Championship is an examination of skill, stamina and nerve like no other. It defines a snooker player in the public mind for good or bad.
Jimmy White was blessed with genius but is still inevitably introduced as the six times Crucible runner-up rather than by any of the many other titles he won.
Neil Robertson is a modern great but admits he needs to improve on his 2010 world title success to cement his place in the all-time pantheon.
Trump won the title three years ago but has not made it past the quarter-finals since. There is still time, but he faces challenges on three fronts – younger stars emerging, such as Zhao Xintong and Yan Bingtao, the established order represented by Robertson and Selby and the older legends who refuse to lie down, O’Sullivan in particular.
Trump is an extraordinary shot-maker who has instilled iron discipline in his game to become a consistent winner. He deserves more credit than he has generally received for winning the amount of tournaments he has in a relatively short space of time: 14 ranking titles in three seasons, plus the Masters, from 2018 to 2021.
These were not small events, as some detractors like to claim. Seven of them carried first prizes of at least £100,000. None of them were easy to win. His best characteristics – fantastic potting, heavy scoring, shrewd safety play and poise under pressure – came to the fore each time.
The focus and application required to churn out win after win, round after round, is considerable and Trump channelled the mindset of a Steve Davis or Stephen Hendry to go into every event determined to come away as its champion.
In three successive Northern Ireland Open finals, he defeated O’Sullivan. Trump has an overall winning record against him and has won five of their last six meetings. O’Sullivan’s last victory was a 10-9 success on the final black in the 2019 Tour Championship semi-finals. Trump had missed the yellow to win.
Trump’s problem is not beating O’Sullivan, it’s the inevitable career-wide comparisons with him.
The modern metric for success is the ‘triple crown’ of World Championship, UK Championship and Masters, although this is not the historic measure many would have us believe.
Steve Davis would not have recognised the ‘triple crown’. In his day, the new events which counted towards the world rankings were considered majors. At the 1987 Masters, Davis lost in the first round and, when asked why he thought he had only won the tournament once, replied that he possibly did not try as hard as in the ranking events.
The last player to actually complete the triple crown in the same season was Mark Williams in 2002/03, but not much was made of this at the time. However, when Williams also won the other BBC televised event – the LG Cup – at the start of the following season, he was said to have completed the ‘Grand Slam.’ Nothing more has been heard of this since the BBC dropped their fourth event in 2010.
Even so, we are where we are and Trump has so far won the world, UK and Masters titles on one occasion each. This makes him one of only 11 players to have completed the triple crown, but O’Sullivan has won 20 of these titles.
Time and again, O’Sullivan has come good on the big occasion. His very presence in a tournament creates a frisson of excitement. Trump is hugely popular with audiences, especially younger snooker fans, but is yet to develop this aura because O’Sullivan occupies so much of the bandwidth.
Every time it seems the baton has been passed, O’Sullivan wrenches it back. So much of the spotlight is on him that his rivals are often left in the shadows.
The Rocket is snooker’s biggest star, an endlessly fascinating force of nature who has dazzled audiences for 30 years. He can never be written off.
In 2019, Trump outplayed him in the Masters final, won the World Championship and became world No 1. O’Sullivan did little of note the following season while Trump won five ranking titles, but the campaign ended with O’Sullivan winning his sixth world title to great acclaim.
It was a bit like a much-loved actor turning up late on in a play, stealing the final scene and ending the night with a standing ovation.
O’Sullivan belongs to a golden generation, with Williams and John Higgins, born at the height of the UK snooker boom. They learned their trade amid the thriving junior and amateur circuits of Britain and are the game’s true survivors and among its greatest champions.
This holy snooker triumvirate known as the ‘Class of ’92’ are like red wine on a white rug. You can try to scrub them out all you want, but they aren’t shifting.
Since Trump reached his last ranking final 11 months ago, O’Sullivan, Higgins and Williams have between them appeared in seven. O’Sullivan won his 38th ranking title at the World Grand Prix just before Christmas.
Their longevity is remarkable. Higgins, a humble man, said last week he felt he is playing better then he ever has. His capture of the Players Championship last season for the loss of only four frames is exhibit A in the evidence that he may be right.
Whether O’Sullivan is quite the player he was is a matter of opinion, but what isn’t is that he remains the sport’s dominant character, attracting headlines and interest like no other. He is 46 but still plays a youthful game and remains the benchmark for those aspiring to be successful on the green baize.
Trump is in many ways the perfect talisman for snooker: young, talented and positive with a formidable work ethic and genuine desire to grow the game.
But the throne can only truly be his when snooker’s perennial king across the water has abdicated. And Ronnie O’Sullivan shows no signs of going anywhere just yet.
Judd Trump once got cross at me on twitter for saying that there were fewer events to play in when Ronnie was his age. I doubt that he will dare to respond angrily to Dave’s claims the way he did mine because, very simply, we both are stating facts. In 2008 Ronnie played in 8 events, out of the only 10 in the calendar. He won three of them, and got to the final of two others. In terms of percentages that’s as least as good as anything Judd ever did during any season. Judd Trump has won 33 titles – big and small – out of the 287 events he competed in. That’s 11.4%, which is actually remarkable but still very far from the 20.5% win rate by Ronnie (source: cuetracker)
Today is the last of the 2022 Turkish Masters qualifiers and I will look at the outcome tomorrow. Ronnie won’t be there. Jason Ferguson as head of WPBSA is disappointed by his decision, but accepts it.
‘DISAPPOINTED’ – RONNIE O’SULLIVAN’S TURKISH MASTERS SNUB FAILS TO BRING DELIGHT TO SNOOKER CHIEFS
Ronnie O’Sullivan’s decision to opt out of playing in the inaugural Turkish Masters next month could cost him more money than the appearance fee he was demanding to play in Antalya, according to WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson. Ferguson has described O’Sullivan’s decision as “disappointing”.
Ronnie O’Sullivan has missed out on the opportunity to cash in by opting out of snooker’s inaugural Turkish Masters in a dispute over appearance money, according to the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association chairman (WPBSA) Jason Ferguson.
The world No. 2 has decided against travelling to the salubrious five-star Nirvana Cosmopolitan Hotel in Antalya next month because he was not offered any extra financial incentive by tournament promoters to participate.
The £500,000 Turkish Masters runs between March 7-13 and is live on Eurosport with a £100,000 winner’s cheque, but that has not been enough to tempt the sport’s biggest draw to board a plane in his 30th year as a professional.
O’Sullivan is the only player in the world’s top 16 to give the event a miss, much to the chagrin of organisers, with former world No. 28 Ferguson lamenting the short-sightedness of the thought process.
“Of course I am disappointed he did not enter and won’t be there. I know Ronnie has a huge number of fans in Turkey,” Ferguson said in an interview with the Sportsman. “And it is disappointing for them that they won’t see him.
“That said, they will be overjoyed with the rest of the players who make the trip, apart from that the entries were amazing – 15 of the top 16.
It sounds a far cry from O’Sullivan’s experience of the 2018 English Open at the K2 Leisure centre in Crawley when he said: “They put me by some toilet and I had to stand there for four or five minutes and all I could smell was urine.
“It was really quite off-putting, no-one wants to be subject to smelling urine.
YOU HAVE TO GO THROUGH THE MAIN FOYER – YOU DON’T WANT TO BE TRAIPSING THROUGH FAMILIES GOING SWIMMING WITH KIDS WITH SNORKELS AND FLIP-FLOPS ON AND YOU’RE ABOUT TO PLAY A MATCH OR TO DO A PRESS CONFERENCE.
Ferguson is adamant the sport has worked hard to improve conditions for the World Snooker Tour and said: “Ronnie has in the past said he doesn’t want to play in leisure centres and wants better venues – this is exactly that.
SO WE HAVE UPPED OUR GAME CONSIDERABLY AND GONE OUT TO PUT SOMETHING WORLD-CLASS ON, AND IT IS DISAPPOINTING HE WON’T BE THERE. I AM LED TO BELIEVE IT HAS GENERATED QUITE A BIT OF COMMENT IN TURKEY ON SOCIAL MEDIA THAT HE IS NOT LEADING THE CHARGE AS A HUGE STAR IN THE SPORT.
“If every top player did the same we might not have any of them there – but they wouldn’t, that’s the point. Top players love winning and competing – as does Ronnie, to be fair. We have some terrific players and people in snooker who give back, and I don’t struggle with the rest of the membership asking for five minutes here or 10 minutes there.
“But Ronnie is different, it is an individual sport and he has got his own agenda. From the governing bodies it has to be a level playing field, so we will never and cannot offer extra money.
“We can’t force people to play, all we can do is provide the opportunities for all from world No. 1 down to the kid that first walks in to a club.
“Ironically something Ronnie may not be aware of is how huge potentially that market and fan base is in Turkey.
“It is a big country with huge companies and I think he has missed out passing up the chance to go.
THE NUMBERS HE WAS ASKING FOR MIGHT HAVE PROVED PENNIES FINANCIALLY IN COMPARISON TO WHAT HE COULD HAVE GOT WHILE OUT THERE. WE’LL NEVER KNOW NOW.
O’Sullivan will return to snooker’s coveted No. 1 spot if he can claim the Players Championship title and a £125,000 top prize in Wolverhampton next week.
The sport’s GOAT earned appearance money from travelling to China in the pre-pandemic past, but has defended his decision to miss the season’s 13th ranking event
“I don’t really have any regrets about not being involved in the Turkish Masters and playing in the qualifiers,” said O’Sullivan, during his 38th ranking title success at the World Grand Prix in December.
A FIVE-STAR HOTEL ON THE BEACH ISN’T GOING TO ENTICE ME TO GET MY CUE OUT OF MY CASE AND ENTER A TOURNAMENT. I COULD PROBABLY GO ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD AND EXPERIENCE THAT – AND NOT HAVE TO BE SURROUNDED BY LOADS OF SNOOKER PLAYERS AND OFFICIALS!
“I could go to Hawaii or Dubai and get invited out there and have equally a great time. It is all about the value for my time and commercial decisions now. I am going to play 10 tournaments a season, because that is what I am contracted to do for my sponsors. I don’t have to play more.
“And if promoters want me to play in their events, then they’ll have to get on the phone and we can come to some sort of arrangement. If not I have got enough work on and enough things to do to keep myself busy. It is a business for me, and I thank World Snooker Tour for that because they have shown it is a business.
“That’s what they are doing, and that’s what the players are doing. Was I surprised they didn’t try and get me there? No, listen, I don’t get surprised by anything these days and take each decision as it comes.”
The “blue/underline” above is my doing.
I have the uttermost respect for Jason Ferguson who I have got to know on the tour. He’s extremely hard working, he loves his sport, and always has time for the players as he has been a player himself. I understand why he is disappointed. Ronnie’s presence in Turkey would have been a boost for the tournament, no doubts.
What surprises me a bit is that quotes from Ronnie as reported here suggest that he wasn’t aware that he would not need to go to qualifiers for this one anyway.
But other than that, he made his position clear: snooker is a job and a business and, now, in his mid 40s, he treats it like as such. He is in a position to choose, and he does. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love competing and winning. He does, some of his reactions after winning show that much. I have no doubts about it, and Jason knows it as well. The thing is, snooker is not the alpha and omega of Ronnie’s anymore.
I know that many fans will be disappointed by Ronnie’s attitude, but the basic fact is that he is right. It’s a job and it’s a business. Not just in snooker, in all sports. Broadcasters, sponsors, and bookies make billions out of sport, managers to as well to an extend, the sportspersons, especially the big names, want their part of it, and it’s only right. Sports wouldn’t exist without them.
I know that a lot of fans want to believe that it should be all about winning and trophies. That’s naive and/or delusional. Unfortunately, many aspiring kids share those “romantic” views when considering a career in individual sport, only to be hit hard by the reality: nobody lives on thin air and hopes. Bills are waiting to be paid, they need a roof on their heads, they need food in their plate and money to travel to their job … because professional sport IS a job, one you can only successfully do for a limited time and one that does not entitle you to a retirement pension. Many very sucessful snooker players ended up in bankruptcy, even Stephen Hendry.
Some will tell me that Ronnie, by expressing his views, might discourage some youngsters to pursue their dreams. Possibly, but if their dreams aren’t strong enough to resist Ronnie’s opinions, they won’t survive the hard reality check either.
The 2022 Masters starts today and here is the last “media” piece I have chosen to share, an article by the always excellent Phil Haigh, reflecting on the recent success of young, non British players and whether the long awaited “change of guard” is finally becoming a reality.
Snooker’s ‘changing of the guard’ will be given an acid test at the Masters
Phil Haigh – Saturday 8 Jan 2022
In the coming days we will see arguably the two brightest young talents in snooker take on two of the greatest to ever pick up a cue on one of the sport’s grandest stages. Is there really a changing of the guard on the baize? The Masters will help settle that debate.
Snooker has been edging further and further away from being a young man’s game in recent years, with six of the 16 men heading to the Masters in their forties and eight more having celebrated their 30th birthdays.
The only two of the 16 who might get asked for ID in the pub are defending champion Yan Bingtao, 21, and reigning UK champion Zhao Xintong 24; the young Chinese stars that caused big upsets over the last year to claim two of the sport’s greatest titles.
Thanks to their success, and the recent superb form of 26-year-old Belgian star Luca Brecel, there has been talk that the balance is finally starting to tip back towards the younger generation and away from the veterans that have dominated the upper echelons of the rankings for 25 years.
Two of those men wait for Yan and Zhao at Alexandra Palace, with the Masters champ taking on Mark Williams and the UK king facing John Higgins.
Yan won his Masters title behind closed doors in Milton Keynes last year and will be entering an entirely different atmosphere in front of a full and rowdy Ally Pally on Sunday as defending champion.
Will the Tiger earn his stripes once again by overcoming that pressure against the wiliest of old foxes? Williams will not bat an eyelid at the big stage – hopefully he won’t close them all together again – and having won his 24th ranking title this season he still has the quality to beat anyone at 46 years old.
Four-time world champ Higgins is the same age as the Welshman and has been in even better form, despite not lifting any silverware since the Players Championship in February.
The Wizard of Wishaw has been to four finals already this season, and although he has lost them all, his level of consistency has been remarkable.
Zhao has been anything but consistent in his career so far, with the Cyclone storming to victory at the UK almost completely out of nowhere, competing in and winning the only final he has ever played in.
If he can topple the Wizard at Alexandra Palace then the Cyclone will look a lot more like a lasting disaster for the other top players rather than a brief but destructive gust through York.
The third, and most famous, member of the Class of 92 also faces the challenge of a younger man on his way up in the game rather than down, but one that is more illustrative of the lack of guard changing on the baize in recent years.
Jack Lisowski has the task of downing Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Masters, something that would go down as one of the most significant wins of his career so far, despite that career already lasting over a decade.
At 30, Jackpot is still seen as one of the exciting young players in the sport yet to claim a ranking title, but with most pundits expecting one or many more to come.
Rarely in sport would someone in their fourth decade be viewed as a youthful hopeful, but such has been the lack of teenage talent in recent years that the likes of Lisowski, Judd Trump and Kyren Wilson have held onto their ‘young player’ tags far longer than they should have.
The emergence of Yan and Zhao should finally remove the label of youth from their elders, but they will have to start beating the seasoned campaigners on a regular basis for a changing of the guard to really take hold.
WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson does not think we are seeing that change just yet, with the veterans still too good and the next big wave of talent not quite ready to take over.
‘I think we’ve got a while yet,’ Ferguson told Metro.co.uk. ‘I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but it is coming.
‘I always look back over the years, people saying, “This game’s finished when Alex Higgins finishes” and then Jimmy White came along. Then the same thing about Jimmy stopping but Ronnie O’Sullivan came along.
‘There’ll always be new stars and new talent coming through and it is coming. There are young players coming through but I think the next big wave is a little bit young at the moment.
‘I think what I see in snooker is how people’s minds mature and become so mentally strong over a long period of time. John Higgins is just incredible, mentally unbelievable. Mark Williams has still got incredible timing, incredible delicate touch, they’re just not showing any age at all.
‘I think they’ve got a few years yet, these boys, but they aren’t going to be around forever.’
Former world champion Shaun Murphy, who turns 40 this year, is also not sure about any guard changing just yet, and doesn’t think it will come until the fabled trio of O’Sullivan, Higgins and Williams put away their cues for good.
‘I think that’s something I hear quite a lot when you see newer players coming through,’ Murphy told Metro.co.uk.
‘”Changing of the guard” has been said for donkey’s years. I’m not sure the guard will fully have changed until the Class of 92 will leave the rest of us alone.
‘When are they going to retire?’ Murphy laughed. ‘Can we throw a big party for them? I feel like they’ve outstayed their welcome, can we get them a nice carriage clock or something?
‘I’m not sure the guard will have changed fully until those guys leave. But it’s great for the game when somebody like Luca Brecel starts showing his full potential, obviously Xintong winning the UK is massive for the sport, not just for him, but in terms of growth in other parts of the world.
‘If we weren’t in a pandemic, I’m sure we’d have seen an explosion of interest again in the Far East. Hopefully that momentum will last when we come out of what has been a terrible two years.’
The Magician knows as well as anyone how tricky it is to play the likes of Williams and Higgins on the big stages, but he has seen what Zhao can do, not just at the UK Championship, but this week at the Championship League when he played eight matches and won the lot.
Murphy won the UK himself back in 2008 and knows just how good Zhao will be feeling going into the sternest of tests against Higgins at Ally Pally.
‘That’s the acid test, two of the best players of all time will put these two lads through their paces and we’ll get to see,’ said Murphy.
‘If the way Xintong has started this year is anything to go by, in the Championship League, then it looks like there’s more of the same to come.
‘When you win a big tournament like the UK you feel like you’re walking on water, you can clear up from anywhere, nothing’s beyond your reach. I hope he rides that wave for as long as he possibly can because eventually that momentum will end, so I hope he enjoys it because it’s a very special feeling.’
It will be another very special feeling for the hugely talented twenty-somethings if they can oust the legends from the Palace and start to convince a few more people that a change really is coming.
The Masters first round draw and schedule
Sunday 9 January 1pm: Yan Bingtao vs Mark Williams 7pm: Neil Robertson vs Anthony McGill
Monday 10 January 1pm: John Higgins vs Luca Brecel/Zhao Xintong 7pm: Shaun Murphy vs Barry Hawkins
Tuesday 11 January 1pm: Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Jack Lisowski 7pm: Mark Selby vs Stephen Maguire
Wednesday 12 January 1pm: Judd Trump vs Mark Allen 7pm: Kyren Wilson vs Stuart Bingham
Well, I do think that something IS happening here and now. For years there have been talks about brilliant young prospects, nearly all of them British or Irish, but none of them have delivered despite being massively favoured by the UK centric structure of the main tour. But now we are in a situation where two out of three of the “Majors”, two out of three of the “Triple Crowns” are held by young Chinese players.
The last UK Championship final was competed between two young players: Zhao is 24, Luca is 26. We have to go back to 2011 to have another UK final competed between two under-30 players, and for the first time in the long and prestigious history of the event, none of te finalists was British/Irish.
We have a similar situation with the Masters. The only ever Masters final competed between two non British/Irish players dates back to 2011, when Ding Junhui beat Marc Fu, and to find a Masters Final competed between two under-30 players we have to go back in time as far as 2012, when Neil Robertson defeated Shaun Murphy.
Early 2011 was also the only time before now when two of the “Triple Crowns” where held by non British/Irish players, with Neil Robertson being the reigning World Champion and Ding being the Masters Champion.
Ding’s successes inspired a new generation of young Chinese players, but his “status” as a national icon in China has also held them back for a long timeI feel but this is changing now.
So, signs are there that it’s “coming” indeed and what happened in York in December is exceptional… for now. Is it an “anomaly”? A “one-off” ? Or is it a sign of things to come? I believe and hope it’s the latter.
This is rather late news and it didn’t really get a lot of publicity. Actually, it’s only thanks to Silvry that this hit this site.
Ronnie got an award, earlier this month…
He was competing in the Scottish Open at the time and sent them video message to thank them. It’s on youtube and is/was on Ronnie’s Instagram.
I have to admit that I had never heard about this organisation before, or how they choose and proceed to select their nominees, but it’s nice all the same.
This is how they describe Ronnie’s award:
Competitive Sports Award
This award is for someone who has demonstrated tremendous belief, focus and determination to reach the pinnacle of sporting glory. This may also be someone who has set up an entity that manages fosters or facilitates sports or involved in a sports league.
Ronnie will play in the World Grand Prix this afternoon. He will face Andy Hicks, a player who turned professional in 1991, and reached the semi-finals in all four BBC tournaments in the 90th: the 1995 World Championship, the 1996 Masters, the 1995 UK Championship and the 1994 Grand Prix. Andy is here this week largely thanks to a run to the QFs in the recent UK Championship. To get that far he had beaten David Gilbert in the last 16. He can play.
Grafter Not Genius: Ronnie O‘Sullivan Reckons His Work Ethic Is Often Overlooked
Ronnie O’Sullivan reckons he is more grafter than genius – and that his dedication and commitment to the hard yards on the practice table is sometimes overlooked.
And the Rocket also insists that his competitive instincts would have seen him get to the top level in another sport if things had not worked out so well for him in snooker.
Six-time world champion O’Sullivan, 46, is regularly hailed as the greatest player ever to pick up a cue, and praised for his natural talent that can make a difficult sport look almost effortless. But the holder of many of the game’s records, including most Triple Crown and ranking-event wins and also 147 maximum breaks and centuries, says most of it is down to hard work.
World No3 O’Sullivan, also a regular pundit for Eurosport, said: “I do think the hard work and graft I have out in over 35 years does get overlooked sometimes. You just hear the comments about natural talent.
“But ask Anthony Hamilton about me or anyone that has practised in the same facility as me and they will tell you about my work ethic.
“Listen it’s lovely if people say ‘Ronnie is a genius’, that’s nice they speak about you in those terms. But when they say ‘It’s okay for him, he’s just got the talent’ that bothers me.
“It isn’t just me getting out of bed for 30 years and winning titles, there is so much practice for up to eight hours a day.
“And I don’t care who you are, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi at their peak -they have won what they have won by doing the hard yards in practice.
“If things hadn’t worked out in snooker for me and I hadn’t been quite good enough to make a living from it, I am sure I would have been a sportsman in some other way.
“The competitive animal in me and also the desire to put in the hours of training and dedication would have found a home somewhere.
“Maybe if I had got into a car as a kid, then I could have been Formula One world champion! Be a Schumacher or whoever else, as I love that. And I like to think that whatever other sport I would have chosen I would have done very well at it.
“I look at some snooker players who have done well without that much talent but they have really applied themselves. And I’d like to think I could have done that at something like golf.
“I wouldn’t have had anywhere the talent of the best players, but maybe enough to make the top ten through hard work.
“I watch a lot of sport. Many of those earning a decent living are not that good in terms of raw talent. I think most people could be a professional sportsman with some real time and effort. But part of me thinks if you can play one ball sport, you can probably play most of them with training.”
O’Sullivan has also never been afraid to dabble in the political arena, having in the past supported and spent time with Ed Miliband when he was leader of the Labour Party ahead of the 2015 general election, and backed Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 national poll.
And with the Prime Minister Boris Johnson under pressure on various fronts, he has given his less-than-flattering opinion on the current incumbent of No10.
O’Sullivan added: “The world is a strange place at the moment. America had Donald Trump for a few years and that put them in a spin. We had Corbyn come along and tried to rebalance things here, that was good in many ways because it got people talking about some of the issues.
“And we have ended up with Boris who may be a nice guy – but he is just funny and a bit of a joke. You can’t really take him seriously. As a backbencher and someone you roll out every now and again he was funny. But seeing him in that situation as Prime Minister, you just laugh.
“And politics isn’t a laughing game. Maybe we need another Tony Blair. I watched the documentary about him and Gordon Brown recently. They came in at a different angle and knew the mood of the people. They were better times for the country and so we need a serious person at the top who also has some charisma. Those people are not easy to find.”
Back on the table O’Sullivan will be in action in Coventry at the Ricoh Arena in the World Grand Prix following on from the Scottish Open in Llandudno. The Grand Prix is reserved for the 32 best-performing players of the season to date, and that means Chinese sensation and new UK champion Zhao Xintong will be the No1 seed.
Anthony Hamilton did indeed speak highly of Ronnie’s work ethics in a recent interview with Phil Haigh and Nick Metcalfe.
I can understand Ronnie’s frustration at people – including some commentators/pundits – who seem to think that he only has to “turn up and try” to be certain to win, so when he doesn’t win it’s because he allegedly doesn’t try. It’s not that way. There are a lot of very good players on the tour, players who can beat anyone on their day, especially in short matches.
To his own admission, Ronnie has taken a more relaxed approach to the game after his 6th World title in 2020 and he has paid the price in terms of results. In the last weeks he has applied himself but it hasn’t translated into big wins so far.
He’s 46 and, again to his own admission, recovering after big matches takes more time than it used to take. It’s normal. Also, Ronnie has never been the most confident person, and he certainly isn’t confident right now.
Ronnie may or may not come good at one point later this season, or the next, only time will tell. Ronnie had a lean two and a half years spell between 2009 and 2012. He has since won 15 more ranking titles including three World titles. People were writing him off, he proved then wrong, big time. Of course, he was younger then. At 46, it will be more difficult, it may not happen at all, but I refuse to write him off just yet. It’s too early.
We have a commentator on this site who has come up with systematic negativity and complete disrespect for the ability of the vast majority of the other professionals. I have removed one of their post because it was plain insulting to one of Ronnie’s rivals. I have answered the others, but won’t do that anymore: I have said all I have to say here. I’m not feeding trolls.
As for the “gifted” versus “hard work” debate, my view is simple: if you are “gifted” but don’t work hard enough you will never achieve your full potential, if you are not “gifted” you will never go very far no matter how hard you work. And remember, we are all “gifted” at some things and not “gifted” at other things.
Mark Williams talks changing the tour, break-offs, gout and the only matches that have ever annoyed him
Phil Haigh Friday 12 Nov 2021
Famously relaxed about winning or losing snooker matches, Mark Williams can only think of two defeats in his entire career that have wound him up, although there are other things in the game that grind the Welshman’s gears.
At 46-years-old the three-time world champion is still competing at the top of the sport, winning the British Open this season and taking his ranking title tally to 24 in the process.
He’s back in action next week at the Champion of Champions as he looks to add that title to his collection, but he will be trying to see-off both Covid and gout when he does so.
Missing the English Open and European Masters due to a positive test, Williams has been struggling with the virus, and although he’s on the mend, his old foe gout is threatening to strike again.
‘I’m a bit better now,’ Williams told Metro.co.uk of his Covid struggles. ‘Taste is coming back slowly. I was in bed for five or six days shivering.
‘Hopefully I’ll be alright by Tuesday [when he takes on Neil Robertson], fingers crossed. If it was last week I’d have had it.
‘I think the gout is coming back! I’m taking these tablets again. Normally you get it, can’t walk and take these tablets for two or three days and it’s gone then. I’ve just felt my ankle going again so I’ve started taking the tablets just in case.
‘They say to try to eat healthier, but I went vegetarian for two or three weeks before I got it, so that’s weird. I’m back on the meat now. They said don’t drink too much alcohol but I don’t really drink that much now. I don’t want it again because it kills.’
Illness and injury have struck at an irritating time for the Welsh Potting Machine after some impressive early-season form, having also been in good nick at the back end of the last campaign as he won the WST Pro Series and made the Crucible quarter-finals.
‘I won one [title] last year, one this year, I’m playing really good as well,’ he said. ‘I’ve been unlucky to get gout and Covid at the time when I’m playing some really good stuff.
‘Even with gout I was one ball away from beating John Higgins 4-0 [at the Northern Ireland Open], which I should have won to go into the quarters and then who knows?
‘I’ve missed two tournaments because of Covid when I had some good momentum and now I’ve got to start from scratch and get that momentum back. It’s a weird one.’
Williams always says that losing doesn’t bother him in the slightest and even being 3-0 up on his old rival Higgins in Belfast before losing 4-3 didn’t fluster him.
‘Honestly, I missed a straight red to win 4-0,’ he said. ‘Red and black, it was easy. Lost, shook his hand.
‘I don’t know why people don’t believe me, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. The commentators going, “Oh that’ll hurt for a while.” Hurt what? How can you hurt? You’ve just lost a snooker game, man, for goodness’ sake.’
Having turned professional in 1992 it seems unconceivable that Williams can have literally never been annoyed by a defeat and when pushed he could recall one or two examples of being ‘cheesed off’.
‘The only one that sticks in my mind, I lost to Ali Carter in the UK, I think it was in Telford [2008 quarter-final]. It was 8-8, I was in the balls and I had the biggest kick on a red to win 9-8 and missed it,’ Williams explained.
‘That was the only match that I can remember driving home and I don’t think I spoke to my mate Matthew all the way home. I drove home at ridiculous speeds.
‘The next morning I was still pissed off. That’s the only match I can really remember in 30 years that I’ve been cheesed off.
‘Maybe there were one or two more, but I can’t remember them. Wait, one has come to me, playing Paul Davison, 4-4, to qualify for one event last season [German Masters].
‘He fouled the yellow, I was sat behind him and it was blatant. I told the ref he’d hit the yellow there. She said, “how do you know?” Well I was sat right behind it. I asked if they could check and they said no. I was a bit cheesed off on that one, but just because of the way it happened.
‘He come up to me probably weeks after and apologised, said it was a foul but he didn’t see it at the time because he was swerving, something like that. It’s long gone by then. If he’d have said straight afterwards I’d have, you know, said something. Losing makes no difference to me, but it was blatant.
‘I couldn’t argue much because if the referee hadn’t seen it, they hadn’t seen it. That was a rare occasion though, it’s not many games over a 30-year career to get upset about.’
Asked if this is the experience of a grizzled veteran coming into play or just his natural persona, Williams said: ‘I’ve always had that attitude.
‘There’s no one that will try any harder than me when I’m playing. But as soon as it’s over I’ll shake hands and that’s it.’
It’s difficult to bother Mark on the snooker table, but he would like to see changes off the baize, suggesting a cut to the number of professional players on tour and ideally some prize money for first round losers.
With amateur top-up players competing in every event and first rounds losers walking away with nothing but bills, Williams would prefer a smaller, more sustainable pro tour.
‘Don’t get me started on the top-ups,’ he said. ‘If you lose in the last round of Q School you’ve got the best of both worlds. Every pro event, every amateur, if you’re over 40 all of the Seniors as well. How is that fair?
‘I think it would be better, if you need top-ups, go off the Q School list but they only get one event. You can’t have people coming in as top-ups at every event, knocking professionals out who are trying to earn a living. In my opinion they shouldn’t be in it if they don’t get through Q School. They can have one event. It might just be me but I don’t think that’s fair.
‘There must be well over half the tour who are skint. You’ve got to get to the latter stages to earn good money and there’s not many players that do that. It’s normally the same ones every time, so it’s very difficult to earn a living.
‘You never get 128 players at an event anyway, so I’d cut the tour because it’s too big, not sure to what number. Once you get on the tour hopefully everyone would be able to earn a living, including paying the first round losers.
‘The incentive is to get on tour and once you’re on the world professional tour you should be guaranteed a living. You don’t have to worry about losing. It’ll be harder to get on but it could be possible for everyone to be on a living then.’
Even with the full 128 players the current tour holds, Williams can’t see why a slight restructure couldn’t be made to offer prize money in the first round.
‘Would there be any harm in, say, first round of the UK Championship, it’s £6,500, change it to £5,000 and the loser gets £1,500? I’d prefer it that way. It takes a lot of pressure off the lower-ranked boys.
‘I don’t understand why they don’t do it, it seems easy. World Championship it’s £10,000 or nothing. What’s the harm in £7,000 and £,3000 or £8,000 and £2000, there must be a reason or they’d have done it.
‘I don’t see how it’s a reward to someone just helping them pay the bills. But I do think the tour is too big, when was the last time we didn’t have top-ups in an event?’
One thing Williams has changed himself in recent years is the way he breaks-off in frames, choosing to roll into the pack of reds off the top cushion rather than the traditional break.
There were calls to ban the defensive shot at first, and even an email to players asking if it should be allowed, before a number of those players saw the benefit of it and copied the move, which entertained the Welshman.
‘I was [laughing] because I thought it was pathetic we had an email about banning it,’ said Mark. ‘I ain’t done nothing wrong.
‘Then John Higgins done it, Ronnie O’Sullivan done it, 10 or more of them were doing it. You’ll soon get sick of leaving a long red!
‘I don’t do it as much now, but if the table’s playing so you can’t get behind the green, I go back to rolling into the bunch. It’s just a break-off, you know, pfft. Ban the break-off!
‘Who was it? I broke off like that and he had the hump, you could tell on his face. I can’t remember who it was but I beat him 4-0. If it annoys people it makes you want to do it more. The more people talked about banning it the more I was doing it.
‘You can’t tell Ronnie not to smash the pack. They were trying to ban my break off, I haven’t had an email off World Snooker yet about smashing the pack. They must be happy with that one.’
Williams is certainly open to change in the game, backing Judd Trump’s calls to modernise the dress code and look at the possibility of staging the World Championship somewhere other than the Crucible.
‘I always thought one day they’d move from there, that it would outgrow the Crucible,’ said Mark.
‘I can see why people think it’s good with the tradition, which it is. But I just think it’s that big a tournament it could generate more money if you spread it around, like the [FIFA] World Cup.
‘Even if it did go from there, the Crucible would have to have a tournament because when it gets down to one table it’s one of the best venues you can play in.’
On snooker’s dress code, the veteran is happy for change to come to try and attract a younger generation, although admits that players should not be left up to their own devices.
‘I read what Judd said and I think he’s pretty much spot on,’ said Williams. ‘Look, I’m coming to the end of my career, whether you play in t-shirts, Dickie Bows or a pair of shorts, it doesn’t really make any difference to me, I couldn’t care less. But what he’s saying to get younger people involved, he’s got a fair point.
‘The younger players, they don’t want to see Judd Trump wearing a Dickie Bow, they’d rather see him wear his own clothes or whatever. It gives you your own identity I suppose. We’ve got to attract youngsters very quick because what I’m seeing, the amateur game, it’s not in a great state at the moment.
‘We get a few kids in [at my club] but nothing compared to when I used to go in when I was a kid. The Welsh junior tournaments, oh my God, you’d have loads of entries, now I’m hearing it’s five and six entries for junior tournaments. That’s worrying. But it’s hard to get people in snooker clubs now, playing X-boxes and outside playing football, it’s difficult.
‘I don’t think the Shoot Out t-shirts look bad, I think they look quite smart. I suppose it’s dodgy telling people they can wear their own clothes, I’m not the smartest I’d probably turn up in a pair of tracksuits.’
It will come to no surprise to those who read this blog regularly that I completely agree with Mark about the size of the tour, the top-ups and and money for the first-round losers. I know that I’m in a minority, but I’d rather have walk-overs for the top seeds than top-ups.
The break-off saga was pathetic indeed. It’s a perfectly legal shot, one that I have seen played by Steve Davis several times years ago in the Premier League, of all events. What I find interesting is the bit about conditions and not being able to get behind the green. Every single time, Mark or Ronnie play that shot, if Joe Johnson and/or John Virgo are in the commentary box they go: “He wanted to be glued on the cushion there, but he got second prize there …”. Nope…
Regarding the dress code, Mark has enough common sense to know that we need a dress code of sorts. Enough players manage to look scruffy even in a waistcoat and bow-tie… I don’t want to know how some would look if left on their own devices entirely.
It’s also no surprise to hear that Mark is open to a move from the Crucible. He was fined in 2012 for making “derogatory” comments about the venue. I was in the media room that year at the World Championship and Mark’s first post-match was eagerly anticipated. Actually most of the media had a lot of sympathy for Mark … and booed him jokingly when he entered the press room. Back then, Mark explained why, despite the refurbishments, he thought that the Crucible is an inadequate venue. There isn’t much space in there, and it’s not just the arena. The BBC studio was right next the practice area, with just curtains separating them. The dressing rooms are small and only a few are on the same floor as the tournament office and have a shower in them. When a session over-runs or if a player is detained by the BBC or the media after their match, they may not be able to vacate the dressing room in time for the next occupant. There is not much space for the sponsors either.
And finally, of course, he’s concerned about the state of the game. Numbers matter and if snooker fails to attract more youngsters, it’s doomed. That said, I’m far from certain that just a change of the dress code will do the trick. The truth is that snooker is a difficult game, it takes a long time, hard work and dedication to learn it properly. This goes against the current cultural/societal trends and no gimmick will make it easy.