New Season Thoughts and Expectations

It feels somewhat strange to be talking about the start of a new snooker season in the middle of June but just weeks on from John Higgins’ latest Crucible triumph we stand on the eve of another season of professional snooker. Rather than come up with a set of coherent preview articles as Dave H has at Snooker Scene Blog, I thought I would think out loud for a moment as to what we have in store and consider some of the questions to be answered…

John Higgins – Unstoppable?

Since his return from suspension last November, Scotland’s John Higgins has without question been the dominant force in snooker, winning five tournaments in total and losing just two ranking event matches from 33 played. Defying the theory that snooker players peak during their mid to late 20’s, 36-year old Higgins is arguably playing the best snooker of his career right now.

So is there any reason to think that this will change during 2011/12 or are we set for another season of Higgins dominance? On the face of it while it is hard to imagine him maintaining quite as impressive a win ratio as that described above, the combination of heavy scoring, tactical nous and mental strength that he so consistently brings to the table makes him the most complete player in the game at this moment in time. Given the much-discussed events of the past 12 months he has looked more determined than ever and by entering events such as the Pink Ribbon recently has shown that he is keen to win every tournament that he can.

What could go wrong? After his second world title in 2007, his subsequent season proved to be somewhat lacklustre and with the additional demands placed upon the defending world champion together with the heavy schedule in store, could John suffer something of a let-down following his recent success?

John Higgins

Whether he does or not, who are those standing in the way of John and further silverware? For me a legitimate argument can be put forward for at least everyone currently ranked inside the top 11 or so to say that they are capable landing a major title during the coming 12 months. Without exception they are proven ranking event winners and indeed all bar Ali Carter and Judd Trump have won one of the game’s ‘big three’ tournaments already.

Of them, world number one Mark Williams is an obvious contender and if he can bring his A-game to the table is more than capable of defeating his Scottish contemporary. Having lost to him in both the UK and World Championship in galling circumstances last season however, there is a view that there are ‘battle scars’ there which will prevent Mark from topping John if the two were to meet again in the near future…

Another name at the top of my list would be Mark Selby, a player who rather oddly seems to divide opinions more than any other on the various internet forums and blogs out there for some reason! On the one hand you have a section of fans who argue that his heavy scoring and excellent safety game makes him one of the leading players of his generation. On the other however there are those who point to his lack of ranking event titles and tendency to revert to a more negative style of player under pressure, something that he admitted himself during the course of last season.

Mark Selby

My thoughts as is often the case would probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Despite his successes which let’s not forget, include two Masters titles in addition to his sole ranking triumph in Newport, I would agree that Mark still has something to prove before being placed in the same bracket as the likes of John Higgins and Mark Williams. That said when he is on his game as for example he was against Ali Carter at the China Open and Stephen Hendry at the World Championship last season, he can prove literally unstoppable.

Fans point to the fact that his final defeats last season to Mark Williams and Judd Trump were somewhat unfortunate as on each occasion he ran into an opponent at the absolute top of their game, but sooner or later Mark is going to have to start winning those matches on a more regular basis if he is to earn the titles that I would argue his game at the moment deserves. I do though think that he will end his drought this year and would be surprised to see his wait for that elusive second ranking event title go on much longer.

Moving on, both Neil Robertson and Ding Junhui remain among the fancied men, Neil coming into the new season without the added pressure of carrying the title of defending world champion which could well help him. Shaun Murphy despite his disappointing first session against Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Crucible will also be a challenger while Graeme Dott is overdue a third ranking title.

The Ace in the Pack

One man to watch this season for all sorts of reasons will inevitably be Judd Trump who despite his final defeat to John Higgins at the Crucible, was undoubtedly the real story of the sport. His entertaining, aggressive brand of snooker combined with his accessibility via Twitter earned him a legion of new fans and led to some labelling him as the Jimmy White of his generation.

Judd Trump

2011/12 however sees Judd faced with an entirely different challenge, that of being the hunted rather than the hunter, ranked up inside the top 16 for the first time in his career. Following his runs both in China and Sheffield, everyone knows exactly what he is about and I suspect that he will become even more of a scalp for his fellow players. That said, given the hype that has surrounded Judd from an early age, that is probably the norm for him!

What is evident with Judd is that if he can continue to reach the latter stages of events, there is a real opportunity for him to soar further up the rankings and as strange as it might sound, he could even challenge for top spot at the end of the year. The reason for this is that Judd has just 8,360 points to defend, comfortably the lowest of anyone ranked inside the top 16 at present and little more than a quarter of what John Higgins has to come off! Even if he were to have a relatively average season, the chances are that he would still move up into the top eight!

Rocket Reloaded?

While Judd is currently the flavour of the month following his recent exploits, the game’s most established superstar remains Ronnie O’Sullivan but having slipped down to 11th in the rankings following a well documented and generally forgettable 2010/11 season, more questions are now being asked than at any time in recent years.

So where does he stand coming into the new campaign? In terms of rankings, while it was said by a few people during the course of last season that Ronnie could fall out of the top 16, in truth it was never actually going to happen given the amount of points he had accumulated during 2009/10.

With those points now set to be removed during the coming months however, for the first time in my living memory there is now a very real possibility that the unthinkable could happen if he continues to skip events or lose in the opening round as was often the case last season. Indeed on my tentative projected seedings list, I have him down in 15th place although this is yet to be confirmed by World Snooker.

Ronnie at the Crucible

In truth I think that most, if not all would accept that O’Sullivan still possesses the game a strong enough game in order to compete at the very top and with contemporaries such as John Higgins and Mark Williams topping the rankings right now, there is no age-related reason why he cannot be up there with them.

But does he have the right mindset? In truth it is hard, indeed impossible to judge from the outside, though by all accounts his comments on Twitter at least have been relatively upbeat in recent times. Also at the Crucible last season, while his game was not quite there, his application certainly was, more so than I have seen for quite some time which has to bode well for the short to medium term.

Whether he will enter every tournament next season I don’t know, I suspect not, but I am fairly convinced that somewhere down the line he will go on a run which will keep him up inside the top 16 for the foreseeable future.

Waiting in the Wings

Having devoted so much time to talking about those established at the top of the game, who are those who could join that group over the course of the next 12 months?

Funnily enough those best placed are players who have been there and done it all before such as Matthew Stevens and Stephen Lee. Both players have struggled during the past four or five seasons, no doubt in part due to the lack of tournaments on offer, but enjoyed much improved campaigns during 2010/11, winning the Championship League and a PTC respectively.

Martin Gould

Equally as well placed is Martin Gould who with fewer points to defend than anyone else ranked inside the top 32 at the end of last season, could even break through into the top 16 when the seedings are first revised this coming October. Having again performed well at the Crucible as well as reached his first televised ranking final towards the end of last season, his career remains on an upward curve and I see no reason why he cannot break into the top bracket at some point this year. The question is how much higher will he be able to climb once there?

Stuart Bingham having just missed out on a top 16 berth at the end of last season remains ‘on the bubble’ and despite the manner of his loss to Ding Junhui, I think will up move into the top 16 at some point.

Barry Hawkins

In truth I suspect that with the new rolling rankings system there will be a clutch of 5-10 players jostling for position in or just outside of the top 16 and there will therefore be a lot of movement between these players depending on who has what to defend and who is in form at any particular cut-off point. The likes of Stuart, Barry Hawkins, Ricky Walden, Mark Davis and Marco Fu currently occupy those spots, with other experienced faces such as Mark King, Joe Perry and Ryan Day not too far behind.

Simply put, there are probably about 32 top 16 players on the tour right now if that makes any sense!

Rising Stars

While all of those names have been around for a number of years now, I anticipate that the changes to the rankings system first seen last season will really be seen this time around as the opportunity now exists for some of the tour’s younger talents to advance up the ranking list.

The stand out candidate is of course Jack Lisowski, the talented youngster who came within a match of cracking the top 48 at the first attempt last season. While he could not quite complete the job against Steve Davis, by qualifying for a couple of venues and consistently performing to a high level, he deservedly finished up in 52nd place, 35th on the one-year list. With the top 48 surely a formality at some point, the interesting thing to see will be how he copes with the higher standard of opponent that he will be coming up against from the off and whether he will be able to push on for a top 32 spot.

Jack Lisowski

Other younger players who at one point or another impressed during last season were the likes of Jamie Jones, Anthony McGill and Jimmy Robertson, while Chinese duo Liu Chuang and Xiao Guodong are surely destined for better things. For some reason Liu in particular seems to be a player who saves his best for the longer formats but on the evidence of what I saw at the World Championship qualifiers earlier this year he has both the game and the temperament to make an impression this season.

Other obvious names who will be hoping to establish themselves inside the top 64 are Liam Highfield and Michael White, two talented young players who like Jamie Jones have both signed up with On Q Promotions for the new season.


Aside from the players, the new season also sees the continued expansion of the calendar with the return of the World Cup and new events such as the Brazilian Masters.

The biggest question right now though surrounds the status of the World Open which has been removed from the initial calendar, though there are empty slots for rankings events both in October and April. Rumour has it that India is the preferred location for the World Open, but whether this has any substance to it only time will tell.

As discussed yesterday, it is not all good news however as the UK Championship format has been reduced while I think the the ranking points schedule could do with another look in order to keep up with the rapidly changing calendar.

One period this season that I am looking forward to is the run between 7th February and 11th March which could potentially see the qualifiers for four full rankings events including the World Championship staged. What is bound to be a huge period for the players involved, this is where for many the battle to survive on the professional tour for another season will be determined so it is certainly not a period that any player would want to be ill for!