Whilst writing my Masters preview just over a week ago, I described the world’s current top four of Mark Selby, Judd Trump, John Higgins and Neil Robertson as being as close to a ‘big four’ as snooker has seen since that which we saw towards the end of the 1990’s, a comment which sparked a bit of debate on Twitter over the course of the last week.
It was a comment not made lightly, but under closer scrutiny, does the comparison hold up? I decided to do a bit of good old fashioned research to try and come to some conclusions…
As snooker fans we are often told how the standard in the game currently is higher than it has ever been and certainly in terms of depth, that is true.
Indeed, fellow blogger Snookerbacker summed it up nicely in his own Masters preview, suggesting that of the world’s top 16 players who were involved, he could have seen ten of them winning it, four of them possibly winning it and the other two winning if they had an exceptional week. Like most tournaments these days, it was far from easy to predict a winner with any confidence.
Despite that however, I have increasingly had the feeling of late that for all of that talent, the likely winner of any major tournament staged is going to come from the group of Mark Selby, Judd Trump, John Higgins and Neil Robertson.
While that might seem obvious, given that they are the world’s top four ranked players, the rankings do not always necessarily reflect the reality and in any case, there is a lot more to it than their ranking positions. For me, it is a combination of their consistency, respective all-round games and perhaps most importantly, their ability to perform under pressure, which have for me at least, set them apart from the rest at this moment in time.
But is that perception borne out by their results?
To find out, I decided to compare the game’s current top four, with the group of players who to those of you who, like me, grew up with snooker in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, will forever be the big four. A decade ago, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams and John Higgins didn’t just dominate the game, but for me, between them, they raised the bar to a level that we have not seen since.
As is the case now, there were plenty of other talented players around too, Paul Hunter, Ken Doherty and Peter Ebdon to name but a few, but again, that top four just had a little extra.
So how to compare their respective eras? As a reference point, I have decided to use from the start of this blog early in 2008/9, to Mark Selby’s Masters triumph yesterday, including all full-ranking events, plus the Masters. Similarly therefore, I have decided to step back 10 years, covering the same events from the 1998/9 season, to the 2003 Masters.
Grand Prix: Lee def Fu
UK Championship: HIGGINS def Stevens
Irish Open: WILLIAMS def McManus
Welsh Open: WILLIAMS def HENDRY
Masters: HIGGINS def Doherty
Scottish Open: HENDRY def Dott
Thailand Masters: WILLIAMS def McManus
China International: HIGGINS def Snaddon
British Open: O’Brien def Hamilton
World Championship: HENDRY def WILLIAMS
British Open: HENDRY def Ebdon
Grand Prix: HIGGINS def WILLIAMS
UK Championship: WILLIAMS def Stevens
China Open: O’SULLIVAN def Lee
Welsh Open: HIGGINS def Lee
Masters: Stevens def Doherty
Malta Grand Prix: Doherty def WILLIAMS
Thailand Masters: WILLIAMS def HENDRY
Scottish Open: O’SULLIVAN def WILLIAMS
World Championship: WILLIAMS def Stevens
British Open: Ebdon def White
Grand Prix: WILLIAMS def O’SULLIVAN
UK Championship: HIGGINS def WILLIAMS
China Open: O’SULLIVAN def WILLIAMS
Welsh Open: Doherty def Hunter
Masters: Hunter def O’Brien
Thailand Masters: Doherty def HENDRY
Scottish Open: Ebdon def Doherty
World Championship: O’SULLIVAN def HIGGINS
British Open: HIGGINS def Dott
LG Cup: Lee def Ebdon
European Open: HENDRY def Perry
UK Championship: O’SULLIVAN def Doherty
Welsh Open: Hunter def Doherty
Masters: Hunter def WILLIAMS
China Open: WILLIAMS def Hamilton
Thailand Masters: WILLIAMS def Lee
Scottish Open: Lee def Gray
World Championship: Ebdon def HENDRY
LG Cup: Small def McManus
British Open: Hunter def McCulloch
UK Championship: WILLIAMS def Doherty
Welsh Open: HENDRY def WILLIAMS
Masters: WILLIAMS def HENDRY
TOTAL: 44 events, 88 finalists
Big four winners: 28 (Higgins x7, Hendry x5, ROS x5, Williams x11)
Big four finalists: 43 (Higgins x1, Hendry x5, ROS x1, Williams x8)
Others: Stevens one win, three finals, Hunter four wins, one final, Doherty three wins, five finals, Ebdon three wins, two finals
With 28 of the 44 events listed above being won by members of ‘the big four’ as I will call them, it is fair to say that their status as the leading four players in the game at that time was fully justified. Indeed over that four and a half year period, there were just 13 finals of the 44 that did not involve at least one of them, while otherwise only Matthew Stevens, Ken Doherty and Peter Ebdon were able to reach either a World or UK Championship final during that period.
In particular, it is also a timely reminder of just how successful Mark Williams was during that period, as he not only won more titles than his rivals, but also reached a far greater amount of finals.
All in all, these were four players at, or close to their respective peaks, who made it very difficult for the others to break into snooker’s winner’s circle.
Northern Ireland Trophy: O’Sullivan def Harold
Shanghai Masters: Walden def O’Sullivan
Grand Prix: HIGGINS def Day
Bahrain Championship: ROBERTSON def Stevens
UK Championship: Murphy def Fu
Masters: O’Sullivan def SELBY
Welsh Open: Carter def Swail
China Open: Ebdon def HIGGINS
World Championship: HIGGINS def Murphy
Shanghai Masters: O’Sullivan def Liang
Grand Prix: ROBERTSON def Ding
UK Championship: Ding def HIGGINS
Masters: SELBY def O’Sullivan
Welsh Open: HIGGINS def Carter
China Open: Williams def Ding
World Championship: ROBERTSON def Dott
Shanghai Masters: Carter def Burnett
World Open: ROBERTSON def O’Sullivan
UK Championship: HIGGINS def Williams
Masters: Ding def Fu
German Masters: Williams def SELBY
Welsh Open: HIGGINS def Maguire
PTC Finals: Murphy def Gould
China Open: TRUMP def SELBY
World Championship: HIGGINS def TRUMP
PTC: Williams, SELBY, Ford, Pinches, TRUMP, Murphy, Ding, Dale, Campbell, Lee, Higgins, Holt
Australian Goldfields Open: Bingham def MJW
Shanghai Masters: SELBY def MJW
UK Championship: TRUMP def Allen
Masters: ROBERTSON def Murphy
German Masters: O’Sullivan def Maguire
Welsh Open: Ding def SELBY
Haikou World Open: Allen def Lee
PTC Finals: Lee def ROBERTSON
China Open: Ebdon def Maguire
World Championship: O’Sullivan def Carter
PTC: O’Sullivan x2, TRUMP x2, ROBERTSON x2, Woollaston, SELBY, Higginson, Holt, Ford, Maguire
Wuxi Classic: Walden def Bingham
Australian Goldfields Open: Hawkins def Ebdon
Shanghai Masters: HIGGINS def TRUMP
International Championship: TRUMP def Robbo
UK Championship: SELBY def Murphy
Masters: SELBY def Robbo
PTC: Bingham x2, Lee, Maguire, Gould, Lawler, SELBY x2, ROBERTSON, HIGGINS, TRUMP, Ding, Allen,
TOTAL: 41 events, 82 finalists
Big four winners: 19 (Higgins x7, Selby x4, Robbo x5, Trump x3)
Big four finalists: 30 (Higgins x2, Selby x4, Robbo x3, Trump x2)
PTCs: 37 (13) (Robbo x3, Selby x4, Trump x4, Higgins x2)
Others: Ding three wins, two finals, O’Sullivan, five wins, three finals, Murphy, two wins, three finals
From a similar number of events, it is clear to see that the world’s current top four have not dominated to quite the same extent as their predecessors, though there are a couple of obvious qualifications to be made. The first being that only over the last couple of years has Judd Trump broken through at the very top of the game, while reigning world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan is a notable absentee, who on his day remains as good as anybody on the list.
Yet still, 19 titles from a possible 41 is an impressive strike rate, a well as a third of the total PTC events staged to date between them. Also as far as the majors are concerned, snooker’s traditional big three events have been dominated virtually to the same extent as a decade ago, perhaps adding to that feeling that when it really matters, these are the players to back.
Perhaps most impressive is the sustained success of Higgins, who a decade on has remained every bit as successful as he was at what was seen as his ‘peak’. So too is the consistency of Neil Robertson, while Mark Selby with his recent success, has also underlined his claim to be the world’s top ranked player.
So do we have a new ‘big four’ on our hands? To the same extent as Hendry, Williams, O’Sullivan and a younger Higgins were? No, probably not.
But while there a number of other world class players in the field, capable of winning any tournaments that they enter, the success of the current top four, particularly in the majors, demonstrates that more often than not, the tournament winners are likely to come from that bracket.
What do you think? Let me know your thoughts @prosnookerblog