At this stage last season the players had contested just two rankings events, in addition to a couple of Pro Challenge events and the Premier League for the big guns. This time around however there have already been two full ranking events in addition to 12 Players Tour Championship events and based on this week’s evidence, the players are looking all the better for it…
Having previously failed to make a real impact on the professional circuit, this season has seen Mark Joyce reach two venues already, culminating in an excellent victory today against Ali Carter to reach the last 16 of a televised event for the first time.
He is not the only player who is doing well having not necessarily been used to winning matches on the tour either, take for example Jamie Jones, a multiple match winner during the PTC this season, or Andrew Higginson, a winner against Peter Ebdon and up into the top 25 of the rankings. Stuart Bingham too played very well indeed to defeat an admittedly below-par Ronnie O’Sullivan today and having tried so hard for so long to break into the top 16, could well do so during the coming months.
The rise in standard is not just limited to the lower ranked players as demonstrated by Mark Selby. Little over a year ago he headed into the Grand Prix short on matches and looked extremely rusty during a first round tie with Ken Doherty that he was to eventually lose comfortably. In the subsequent UK Championship he barely looked any better as he slumped to a heavy defeat against Ronnie O’Sullivan, but you only have to look at his match against Ricky Walden this weekend to see how much better he looks having had a series of match wins during the PTC. O’Sullivan himself commented today that he felt rusty and that he may need to enter more events in the future, although with the PTC away until the summer now he will have no choice but to kick his heels for a while now.
Another factor, perhaps a less obvious one is that the fear factor that the lower ranked players, in particularly the younger ones, have of the top players has now been diluted to a degree. Take the example of Mark Joyce again who to the best of my knowledge played just one competitive match against a top 16 player during 2009/10. This year he has already played Shaun Murphy, Mark Williams, Mark Davis and a string of other top 40 players including event winners Marcus Campbell and Dominic Dale.
While the top players are the top players for a reason, it must make the prospect of playing them slightly easier for a young player if they have played them regularly away from the TV tables and have the belief that they can compete with them, rather than qualifying to play them once every couple of years and freezing in front of the cameras.
The merits of the PTC can be argued long into the night and I do agree that there are faults with the current system, but I do think that one positive to come out of it is that they players are looking much sharper at this stage of the season than they usually might and that can only be a good thing for those of us watching at home.