New Season, New Era

This coming Monday sees the start of the new season, with the Wuxi Classic qualifiers from the Capital Venue in Gloucester, followed immediately by the Australian Goldfields Open qualifiers at the same venue next Thursday.

Before looking ahead to those two tournaments in particular however, click below for a few more general thoughts of mine as the 2012/13 season fades into the rear view mirror and a few themes to look out for over the coming months…

Flat Draws – Who will benefit?

One of the main talking points over the past six months has of course been the move to flat 128 draws from the start of 2013/14 and with next week’s Wuxi Classic set to be the first tournament to be played under that format, we will get our first indications of exactly how the change will pan out in practice.

Earlier in the year I offered my thoughts on the switch here and many of the points of interest remain the same. Those in favour of the switch have pointed to the increased ‘fairness’ under the new system, caused by the fact that everyone will start from the same round and be required to win the same amount of matches to make it to the latter stages.

But a fairer system does not necessarily equate to an easier system, for everyone at least.

There will be some players who I would expect to benefit, those who have already proven that they are capable of competing with those at the upper end of the rankings and would fancy their chances of making an impact. Those who spring to my mind include the likes of Kurt Maflin, Pankaj Advani, Luca Brecel, Cao Yupeng, Dechawat Poomjaeng and Sam Baird, while I am sure that there will be others.

On the other hand however, there will be players who will be on the tour for the first time, or who struggled for wins last season against players of a similar ranking, who in theory will find it even harder to get results against the very best in the world.

One thing is for sure, shocks are guaranteed, but over the course of the season it will be fascinating to see who will flourish and who will flounder in snooker’s new era.

Tour Survival

As the season progresses, one important race to keep an eye on will be that to stay on tour for next season (2014/15), for as distant as that might appear now, every pound earned will count come next May.

And that is not a typo, as it was recently confirmed that it will be the top 64 at the end of this season on the money list who will survive, not points, as well as those joining the tour tour for this season on a two-year card.

In simple terms, that means that every player who finished 2012/13 in the top 64 on the points list, as well as those who joined the tour on a two-year card at the start of that season, will be fighting over the top 64 places on the money list this season, in order to stay on tour beyond the end of this new campaign.

I will of course be keeping track of the latest situation here at PSB as the season unfolds.

It will also be interesting of course to monitor how the players, particularly those struggling for results, handle the financial burden of competing on snooker’s main tour. It is perhaps inevitable that as the season progresses, some names will run out of money to enter tournaments, however just how high the rate of attrition will be remains to be seen.

The Fight at the Top

With Ronnie O’Sullivan absent for almost all of last season and his contemporaries John Higgins and Mark Williams struggling for form, it was always going to be interesting to see whether anyone would be able to step up and dominate the game in their absence.

In truth, although the likes of Mark Selby, Neil Robertson and Judd Trump were able to take the game’s top honours, nobody was quite able to quite dominate in the same way that those great names had. Indeed, O’Sullivan’s victory at the Crucible makes it six years from the last seven that either he or John Higgins has taken the sport’s biggest prize.

How will the story unfold next season at the top of the game? With O’Sullivan back and looking to play in a greater number of events, he will undoubtedly be the man that most want to beat, while Mark Selby and Neil Robertson, despite their success in recent seasons, will also both have points to prove.

What of Judd Trump? There were positive signs at the Crucible and when he is good, he is really very good indeed, while the usual suspects such as Shaun Murphy and Stephen Maguire are also bound to be in the mix.

How about Higgins and Williams? It is telling for me that Higgins has elected to enter this season’s earliest events, unlike a year ago when he did not start until August, while there are noises coming from Williams on Twitter that he has hit the practice table hard ahead of the new season. While both are closer to the end of their careers than they are the start, they remain class acts and more than capable of winning tournaments.

With the sheer amount of tournaments on the calendar next season, I do not expect one player to dominate for 12 months. Form will come and go and as was the case last year, different players will be strong at different parts of the season.

Selective Scheduling

Without wanting to bring up the ‘burnout’ debate once again, with as many tournaments as there now are on the professional calendar, managing their schedules effectively is going to be of paramount importance to the players this coming season.

Following their defeats at the Crucible, Mark Williams, John Higgins, Mark Selby, Mark Allen and others all indicated that they would be taking a look at their schedules this season and it will be interesting to see who can find the right balance.

I am not one who believes that it is possible to ‘peak’ for particular events necessarily, but there are certainly ways that players can prepare badly for events, whether that be by playing too much or not enough.

The Chinese Players – Can any step up?

While at the Crucible this year, perhaps for the first time I appreciated the level of interest in the sport over in China, but with just Ding Junhui and Hong Kong’s Marco Fu at the Crucible this year, it served as a reminder that those two aside, to date no other Chinese player has been able to become an established player at the very top of the sport.

Will any of them be able to do so in 2013/14? Cao Yupeng has shown in the past that he can compete on the big stage, but struggled for wins towards the end of last season, while Liang Wenbo, Xiao Guodong, Liu Chuang and others have all shown their ability in patches.

Another name to watch will be Lu Haotian, the youngster who defeated Marco Fu in Shanghai, before going on to reach the quarter-finals of the International Championship last season as a wildcard.