Saturday, 18 June 2011

The BIG season preview

You can tell how far snooker has come when the off-season is shorter than the gap used to be between ranking events during the season.

The start of the PTC1 event in Sheffield today marks the start of the 2011/12 professional season - and that means there's plenty for a young blogger and snooker fan to think about.

In fact, a day probably hasn't gone by since the World Championship that I haven't taken time to make some judgments on what to expect from the new campaign.

It's not possible to outline all of these - but here are some of my thoughts as the curtain raises on another season on the baize.

Young Judd Trump is being touted as the new star of snooker.

It's difficult to argue with that after the way he lit up the conclusion of last season. From one of many pretenders to the top 16, he won his first major ranking event at the China Open in April - before following it up with the runners-up prize at the World Championship.

Now ranked number nine in the world, he's regarded as of the sport's biggest hitters.

His exploits at these two events alone won him the coveted Fans Player of the Year award, and now people have labelled the future of snooker. A player the game needs, no less.

This is quite a hefty tag for anyone, let alone that of a 21-year-old lad still finding his way in life.

But in fairness to Judd, so far, he' taken both playing at the business end of the biggest event in snooker and the stardom that has accompanied his rise, firmly in his stride. There's been no hint of arrogance, he's kept his feet on the ground and his attitude appears unchanged by snooker stardom.

If he's to take his game to the next level by winning the big tournaments consistently, then he'll need to keep these attributes in tact.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that Trump is a flash in the plan, far from it. If anything, it was surprising it took this long for his abundance of talent to come to the fore. But what helped him realise his talent and begin delivery of it was, in my opinion,being able to play without fear.

My only worry is that may change. Suddenly, his journey has become much tougher.

As he alluded to in his interview shortly after the Crucible showpiece, he now has to play with expectation on his shoulders. And that can be difficult.

He almost has to prove himself all over again now. Fans have had such a great taste of his sparkling best that they'll be hungry to see it every time he plays.

Then comes his rivals. He must face life as one of the big guns now. He's put himself up there to be shot at. He'll be a prized scalp, and everyone will want to beat him. Players will raise their game, and he'll find out quickly that he'll have to be at his best all the time to keep winning.

That said, he's such an incredible talent, I don't expect it to be much of a problem for him.I don't know what I find more remarkable. His god-given talent to play snooker or to play as if it means nothing, when in fact, it means everything.

He has both of these qualities in highest quantities. That;'s what makes him such a terrifying opponent, and the reason, I believe his ranking and collection of silverware will swell further  in this coming season.

Despite all these rich compliments for young Judd, I still believe John Higgins is the man to beat again this season.

As the reigning World and UK champion, you cannot argue that he's without doubt the best player in the world right now, playing at his peak now he's entered his 30s.

Higgins has always been one of the best percentage snooker players the sport has ever seen. I could probably count on one hand this season the number of times he's played an obviously wrong shot. That's the wise old head coming out in him.

But along with this wonderful snooker brain, after his spell of controversy, he's found mental toughness like no-one else within the sport too.

He's so difficult to beat, it's as if his opponents don't believe they can beat him anymore.

After his suspension stopped him from playing, he's managed to translate this disappointment into renewed hunger to play, to the extent in which he's now set himself a goal to hunt down Stephen Hendry's unrivalled seven world titles.  

Coupling his will to win with his intelligence on the table has seen the birth of a new competitive animal, and some people saying he may now be the best ever.

Despite this domination from Higgins, he didn't finish the season as world number one. That accolade was left for Players Player of the Year Mark Williams.

The Welshman played the best snooker we've seen from him in a good seven years as he completed his rise back up the rankings. He won his first ranking event, the German Masters, since he triumphed at the China Open in 2006 and he found himself at the business end of most of the major tournaments.

It was only Higgins who stood in his way of an even greater glory season. He lost to the Scot 10-9 in the final of the UK Championship after leading 9-6 and also lost to him in the semi-finals at the Crucible.

Importantly for Williams and his fans though was seeing him win back his swagger. Like the early days of the 2000s, he was beating playing out of sight, making the game look worryingly easy with his laid-back attitude and making even other top players look way out of their depth against him. That led many to tip him for the world title, but in the end, he couldn't quite scale the imperious Higgins.

This season, I expect pretty much the same from Williams. I think he'll light up plenty of tournaments and progress to the latter stages of most of the big events. He's enjoying playing the game again, which makes such a difference. But his biggest test will be landing more silverware, which has never been tougher in the sport than right now. He'll need to find away to beat Higgins and has yet to face the galvanised Trump.

Talking of winning tournaments, that brings me on to Mark Selby. Now ranked at world number three in the world, but still with only a single major ranking title to his name.

The Jester enjoyed his most consistent season in the sport last time out, but still failed to deliver top silverware. He was a finalist in both the German Masters and the China Open but couldn't carve his name on either trophy. In his defence, the players' he met in those finals simply played too good. He was unlucky to bump into Williams and Trump at the top of their games.

I don't think this will keep happening, and it's probably only a matter of time until he's seen collecting the winners' cheque at one of the big events. But that doesn't mean Selby should just be content at playing the waiting game.

Selby has admitted himself that he plays too defensively. That's where I think he needs to open up in the bigger matches. Whereas in the past he earned a reputation for playing his best snooker under pressure and coming from behind in matches, last season he lost too many of the close matches.

If he's interested in swelling his trophy cabinet this season instead of merely gathering ranking points, I think he needs to play to win matches rather than avoid being beaten. We know what a good potter he is. I'd like to see him take on more and become braver in the biggest matches.

Another player I'll have my beady eye on this season is Ronnie O'Sullivan. Unfortunately for the Rocket, his season last year was shaped for what he didn't do. He didn't play at the Shanghai Masters, the German Masters or many of the new PTC tournaments.

This ultimately led to him crashing down the rankings, to the extent that he's now fighting for survival in the top 16.

Judging by his improved attitude and focus at the World Championship, where he beat Shaun Murphy to reach the quarter-finals, he's already in a better place. He looks and sounds likes he wants to be playing snooker again. He's entered this week's PTC1 tournament, and everything so far, looks in place for him to recapture his form.

But for how long? Ronnie is a volatile character, who could switch off from snooker at any time. It's difficult to judge what he'll do next. He could easily end the season back fighting for titles, and then again, it wouldn't surprise me if he ended up in the qualifying cubicles.

That's what will make his story an intriguing one this season. All I do know is that I hope I'm writing about what he's doing on the table, instead of off it. Because it's on the table where he's at his best.

Who else is capable of winning the big events this season? The obvious answers are Ding Junhui and Shaun Murphy. The 24-year-old China star laid his hands on the Masters title last year, while Murphy triumphed at the first PTC Grand Finals event, and they'll be thirsty for more.

We must not forget they're both still young but have already enjoyed good levels of success because they're blessed with an incredible quantity of talent.

Ding made a significant breakthrough in his career at the end of last season. Advancing to the last four of the World Championship meant he broke his duck of never going past the last 16 in the top competition going.

Psychologically, I think this was playing on his mind. But after finding a greater level of temperament last season, he looked quite at ease in the unforgiving venue at the Crucible, allowing his great talents do the talking.

As for Murphy, there's no doubt that on his day he's one of the best players around. In fact, it's hard to go into any tournament not backing him as a possible winner. There's never a game he won't put his all in to, which comes from his love for the sport. He was far and out the best performer in the new PTC series last season.

But this season, he'll be hoping to put a greater stamp on the bigger events as well. He played so many matches last season, that by the time the Crucible came round, I questioned how much he had left in his tank.

Then comes the topic of 2010 world champion Neil Robertson. He started last season well with victory at the revamped World Open, but seemed to drift out of form in the second half as the defence of his world title began to loom.

His reaction to a dip in fortunes wasn't the best. Probably because he's not been too used to falling short of his expectations until then. Up until Christmas, he always riding high in his career.

The good thing for Robertson is that he can forget about the expectation of being world champion, and simply focus on playing again. He's had a holiday back home down under to think about things, and I expect him to come back all guns blazing and win at least one big event in the new season.

And finally, who are the outsiders?

Matthew Stevens is back in the top 16 for the start of the season bidding to bring back the glory days. Victory at the Championship League at the end of last season proved he's still capable of matching anyone.

Mark Allen has a few well-publicised problems off the table to deal with, but showed glimpses of getting close to his first ranking event title last season. I get the sense he's not far away.

Stuart Bingham and Martin Gould  remain the most likely players to break into the top 16 in my opinion, but I'll also have a careful eye on the likes of Jack Lisowski and Antony McGill lower down the rankings. They both qualified for the German Masters last season but face that difficult second season on the professional circuit. If they can sustain the same levels of dedication this season, I think they'll continue to progress.

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