Slipping Standards?

Snooker Scene’s Dave Hendon today posted a superb piece on his blog regarding the current standard of the professional game at the highest level and why Ronnie O’Sullivan is able to dominate as easily as he is right now. It is a subject that has been on my mind for a while so click below to read my thoughts on it…

Overall standard

As Dave says, I think it is clear that looking at the tour as a whole, the standard is easily higher than ever. With former world champions such as Mark Williams, Ken Doherty and John Parrott in the qualifiers, as well as superb young players like Jamie Cope and Ricky Walden, there are few easy draws anymore for the top 16 players in the last 16. Indeed Stephen Hendry said before the World Championship this year that in the old days he used to look ahead to the quarter-finals because he knew that the first few rounds should be relatively easy, but that is far from the case now.

The highest standard

However, while we are told that the standard is better than ever, at the very top of the game is that really the case? Personally I’ve been thinking for at least six months, probably a year that it is not.

Why? For years we had the ‘big four’ of Hendry, Williams, O’Sullivan and John Higgins at the very top of the game and they all played snooker of an exceptional standard. It is no coincidence that these four are comfortably all in the top five ranking event winners with a staggering 91 titles between them including 14 world championships.

It was not as if they didn’t have to work hard for their titles either as the supporting cast included multiple title winners such as Ken Doherty, Peter Ebdon, Paul Hunter and Matthew Stevens.

You only have to take one look at Hendry’s path to his seventh and final world title to see what an incredible achievement it was for him to win it that year. In beating Paul Hunter, James Wattana, Matthew Stevens, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams he had no easy matches, each of his opponents being a past or present ranking event winner.

Indeed for me the 1999 World Championship is one of my favourite ever and in my opinion had the best pair of semi-final matches ever seen at the Crucible as the big four collided. Hendry beat O’Sullivan in an absolute classic, the duo recording eight centuries between them, while Higgins and Williams played out another contest of the highest quality in the other match.

But now?

But what about now? With only O’Sullivan playing anything like he did back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, who else has stepped up to the plate? Unfortunately while there are some very good players out there at the moment such as Shaun Murphy, Mark Selby, Stephen Maguire, and Ding Junhui, none have really been able to sustain a brilliant run of form for a prolonged period of time.

Don’t get me wrong, they are excellent players and perhaps for someone of my age it is only natural that I look back on the days ten years ago with rose tinted glasses, but I genuinely think that the standard at the top of the game was better then.

What speaks volumes for me is the fact that Higgins and in particular Stephen Hendry are still ranked at 5th and 6th in the official world rankings. Hendry is 40 in January and is playing much, much worse than he used to at his peak when he was brilliant to watch. The fact that he is so much worse and is still able to be so high in the rankings without being overtaken is amazing really. Ten years ago someone playing how he has done for the last couple of seasons would in my opinion be struggling to be in the top ten.

The net result of this is that Ronnie O’Sullivan is the runaway world number one without playing anything like his best snooker. As he said after his victory over Liang Wenbo in the Grand Prix:

“I’m not beating myself up about the way I played, but to be honest I’ve played rubbish all season.

“My season has been error-ridden, but luckily people keep missing against me. It’s making me look good.”

While it might be harsh to say that he has been ‘rubbish’ (he was brilliant today against Marco Fu), you can see where he is coming from as he certainly isn’t playing at the same level he was when he won his first two world titles early in the decade.

So who can step it up?

So of the players currently occupying the top spots in the game, who can step up and challenge O’Sullivan on a consistent basis? Is there anyone capable of playing anything like the old big four could on a consistent basis?

Stephen Maguire

The current world number two and with a couple of ranking events under his belt last season, O’Sullivan’s most consistent challenger in recent times. Having broken through in 2004 he at the time looked really good, beating the rocket in a couple of major events culminating in victory at the UK Championship that year. For a couple of years after that though his career seemed to go backwards as he put on weight and by his own admission did not put the work in that he should have on the table.

Now though he is back up there and is playing some of the best snooker of his career. Emotionally a very expressive player, he has improved the mental side of his game, though I’m not sure whether it is yet where it needs to be in order to consistently win tournaments. As excellent as he is I’m just not sure whether I see him as a man with the potential to be a truly great player to be honest. At 27 while not being old by any means, he is at an age where he should really be at his peak, so given the opportunity that currently exists to really push on and win titles, I think the next year is a really crucial one for Stephen.

Mark Selby

Without doubt the most improved player in the game over the past few seasons, ever since that World final in 2007 Mark has really looked like the real deal. Looking supremely confident now he has since won the Masters title, as well as his first ranking event at the Welsh Open and has started the new season in even better form.

I must admit that until those two titles I wasn’t entirely convinced about Mark. Even with that world final I just doubted whether he was really capable of going right to the very top, but given his recent start to the season I am rapidly changing my mind. The way he is playing at the moment in the Premier League and at ranking events he looks to be a world champion in waiting and for me has a good chance to end the season as the world number two if he can sustain his current form.

Shaun Murphy

The 2005 world champion must be one of the most confident players around, but despite a superbly consistent run of five straight semi-finals last season, for me there just seems to be something missing at the moment that I can’t put my finger on. He just seems to come up short when facing the other top players, losing a few times to Maguire last season, I don’t think that he has ever beaten O’Sullivan and I’m not sure how he is going to change that. In an attempt to be more measured and a better all-round player than he was when he won his first world title, he seems to have lost some of the attacking flair that brought him that success in the first place.

Having lost his first three matches of the new season he needs to sort things out sooner rather than later or he will find himself slipping down the rankings slightly. Can he improve and dominate the game? Mentally I think he has it spot on and seems to have the desire and determination to succeed that all greats have. He just needs to get a few big, confidence boosting results I think and he will be challenging for tournaments again.

Ding Junhui

Three times a ranking event winner as a teenager, Ding looked as if he had everything and I had him as a nailed on world champion to be honest. In the last couple of years since that Masters final he just seems to have lost his confidence and other players have identified weaknesses that they have been able to exploit perfectly.

Can he get it back? At only 21 surely the answer is yes. With 125 century breaks already he has clearly has the talent to dominate the game for a number of years, it’s just whether he is mentally strong enough to sort things out. Time will tell on that…

The rest?

As far as the rest of the tour goes, I don’t see anyone else out there who will be up at the top of the game within the next year or two.

The likes of Ryan Day, Ali Carter and Joe Perry are all very good players who are stringing some very good results together at the moment, but to me they don’t quite have that extra class that a Higgins or a Williams had a decade ago.

Who else has the potential to be a top six player? I think the obvious two are Mark Allen and Jamie Cope, two very talented young players who have the potential to go far in the game. Allen in particular looks the real deal to me, especially now being in the top 16 for the first time his career while Jamie needs to sharpen up on his safety game to regularly challenge at the final stages of events. His potting game is outstanding though and if he can become more of an all-rounder, he could really make an impact.

Until they come through or some of the others manage to step it up on a consistent basis though, it is hard to see O’Sullivan’s dominance ending in the near future…

  • nottinghamsnooker

    Excellent article and some very nice photos too. Hendry will be dropping out of the top 16 soon if he carries on like this. Ding and Murphy have been very disappointing of late. I tip Trump & Wenbo for big things….