A year ago at the UK Championship, the talk throughout the first week was dominated by that of the suitability of the venue given the shift to a flat 128 format and in 2014, it has been a similar story, with both the sports hall and main arena coming under fire at various stages of the tournament.
Just as we thought that the subject had been exhausted however, Ronnie O’Sullivan injected fresh life into the discussion following his victory against Peter Lines last night, criticising not only the four-table arena set-up, but perhaps more significantly, the table that he had played his match on.
While last year the debate very much centred on the use of the sports hall, this time the debate seems to be far more wide-ranging, with conditions generally coming under fire and I therefore wanted to take a look at a few of the key talking points, with quotes from various players during their press conferences this week so far…
The Sports Hall
For the second successive year, with 128 players at the venue, the Barbican Centre has been required to install eight match tables, four of which are based in the main arena, while four have been in operation in what has become the infamous sports hall. Having come under fire in 2013, modifications for this year saw the introduction of the partitions between tables, seen recently in Barnsley at the Shanghai Masters and International Championship qualifiers, but otherwise the arena remained the same, with 48 matches being played in the area that will again now become the practice tables for the event.
Understandably there were players out there who weren’t happy with those surroundings, Graeme Dott’s reference to playing in the ‘toilet’ (which was taken out of context it has to be said), almost coming to symbolise those feelings to the venue during the first week.
Not a player who is ashamed to give his opinion, Graeme was not happy with the conditions during his second round match on table six (see below), but generally was
“It’s wrong, we shouldn’t be playing out there. We play all year round, all over Europe in PTCs, which are basically pro-ams, and the conditions are far better than they are back there. If you played in a PTC you wouldn’t enter it if you had to play out there and that is the second round of the biggest tournament. It’s wrong.
“You are not involved in the venue, you don’t feel that you are involved in the tournament…I’m not saying that I shouldn’t be playing out there, I don’t think that anybody should be playing out there.
“The whole part of the 128 that everyone was saying is that it is fair for everybody, that was the whole point, which is contradicting itself because if you had to play out there, that’s not fair for everybody.
And he was not the only one, as two-time world champion Mark Williams tweeted whilst watching Andrew Pagett take on Mike Dunn that he found the set-up ‘demoralising’ and said after his victory against Jimmy Robertson that when you play ‘out at the back’ it does not feel like you have played at the UK Championship and that he was glad to have avoided that.
— Mark Williams MBE (@markwil147) November 26, 2014
Prior to the start of the tournament, I had asked whether it was really worse to play in the sports hall than at a traditional qualifying set-up such as in Barnsley and this was something that I asked Graeme Dott on Saturday evening:
“Miles worse, that’s as bad conditions you will ever play in, that’s as bad as you will get on the tour because all the PTCs, which amateurs play in, the venues are better than that. The whole set-up, what you have got to remember is that they are the practice tables. If you want to have a 128, we all love playing in York but if York cannot accommodate the amount of tables then we need to find another venue if you want to play 128 at the venue.
“There are four tables out there in the arena, PTCs have 11 tables, but you are still involved, you are still in the actual arena. To be playing in a room is a bit bizarre. There is nothing wrong with having one TV table, at least you are involved in it, at least there are people watching the other match and you can get a bit of an atmosphere, but playing in there is as grim as it gets.”
The Barnsley Metrodome
Having watched half a session of his match in the sports hall on Saturday evening, I have to say that I did find the set-up to be worse than I had remembered it and as someone who has been to Barnsley on a couple of occasions in recent months, worse than the set-up at a venue such as the Metrodome, where the crowd are at least a little bit further away from the action in tiered seating and with multiple exits from the arena.
And that is a key point because it is not even so much the playing area which is the problem, but the fact that spectators are constantly going in and out of the hall, with only one way in and out. They cannot avoid walking across all four tables if they are watching the match at the far side and in particular, this was a real problem for those in action on table five. This was something picked up on by Matthew Stevens, who dryly described that as ‘handy’ following his second round victory on there.
Of course, it is not too long ago since qualifying matches were taking place in booths at the EISS to an altogether more restricted audience and I do still think that it is nice in many ways for those lower down the rankings such as James Cahill and Joel Walker this week to be part of the event, at the main venue and able to come in and give a press conference after they come through.
That does not mean though that improvements cannot still be made and we can only see whether there are any changes implemented for 2015, should the tournament return to York as anticipated.
One aspect of the set-up that was targeted by Ronnie O’Sullivan yesterday was the four-table set-up in the main arena, who said the following:
“I said at the start of the tournament that you are going to see some weird results this week because you have got four tables out there. It’s not ideal for playing conditions to be fair, so I reckon there are going to be a lot more shocks still to come until they get down to the two tables. It’s really tough out there because you are playing with your back to the crowd so you don’t actually feel like you are playing to anybody and the top players thrive on having an auditorium where you feel like you are feeling some adrenalin before you go out.
“I know what they are trying to do, have 128 players, but get a proper venue, get two proper TV tables. It’s like asking [Roger] Federer to play on court 13 in front of three men and a dog, [Rafael] Nadal at the French Open on an outside court. You just don’t do it.”
He mentioned the adrenalin that he got from playing in Coventry a couple of weeks ago at what is an excellent one-table set-up and clearly that was still fresh in his mind as he began his UK Championship quest in an altogether bigger auditorium, with four tables and no spectators, for now at least, down the side of the table.
The two-table Barbican
I can see his point to a certain degree, the arena does clearly come into its own with just two tables, as it will from the last 16 stage on Thursday and unquestionably it will feel more like the traditional major that most of us have grown up watching down the years.
That said, even with four tables, for a spectator such as myself, there are still few better players to watch snooker that in the main arena in the Barbican and I think it is telling that few others, if any have complained about this aspect of the venue this week. As Barry Hearn said today, there was a good crowd in for his match – at least he was not in the sports hall!
While it is no surprise and no great story to see that the sports hall has drawn a level of criticism from some of the players this week, the far more telling bone of contention this week has so far been the playing conditions and in particular the cushions on some of the tables, both in the main arena and the sports hall.
Again, this was thrust into the spotlight with comments from Ronnie O’Sullivan yesterday and it is most noteworthy from him because he so rarely comments on conditions and on the tables. He was not particularly saying anything that has not been said before, but when he says it, naturally more people will tend to sit up and take notice:
“The tables are playing really shocking to be fair, I don’t know if any of the other players have mentioned it this week but the cushions are just bouncing. They are going on at one mile and hour and coming off at three, when they should be going on at one and coming of at half a mile an hour. I was kind of during the match thinking to try and not use any cushions and then I am thinking that it is the second biggest tournament and I am thinking of not using cushions!”
Unlike the four table arena debate, Ronnie was far from the only player to criticise the conditions, for example John Higgins also said:
“The table was playing really difficult, the cushions were uncontrollable, it was really, really bad. That can start making you miss easy balls because you are not really sure how the cushions are going to react. It was really difficult.
“To tell you the truth it happens so often now, we are playing so many tournaments and there are so many tables involved in most of the tournaments that we play in.
“The table fitters have got an impossible job because they have got to go round and make sure four or five practice tables are all correct and then you have got eight match tables to get correct, there are not enough hours in the day for them. I think that is a point where the top boys are not happy. It’s ok having 128 players at a tournament, but conditions have got to be good and my table was atrocious. I don’t know if anyone else has complained, I know they did the last few days, but it’s not good enough.
Fellow Scot Graeme Dott was also extremely vocal of his criticism, following on from that of the sports hall earlier and added:
“The match was as good as the table deserved, the table was really, really bad. Even when you looked at table five and you looked at table seven, Anthony actually said in the first frame to the referee ‘has this table been brushed?’ because it just looked that bad. I know it has been brushed but it was as bad a table as I have played on.
“For the UK, and I’ve already played a match, to play in conditions like that is beyond belief. Really bad, the table was absolutely horrendous.”
As quoted at the Nottingham Post, Anthony added:
“The table was the worst I had played on for years; it did not even look like it was ironed or brushed at the start of the match – I queried this with the ref before we started.
“The table fitters are not trying, they are not ironing the table properly. I buy from the same people and a cloth that is four months old never looks as bad as when we started.
“In 24 years I have never seen a table like it. It played terribly all the way through and it ruins better players than me – just look at Graeme’s game.”
“There are that many things happening in the game of snooker now that are outside of our control as players with these kicks and bounces off cushions, the square bounces, the ball not going where we expect it to that the game has become a bit of a lottery. It was my week in Bulgaria and it was my week in Germany, will it be my week this week? I don’t know. A lot of those shots I am playing out there aren’t going anywhere near their intended target and it’s not always my fault.
“Snooker at the moment is more about the person who can get through the tournament unscathed and with as few bad things happening as possible. It’s a bit like in golf when you get a mud ball and you aren’t allowed to clean it, that ball could go anywhere and snooker has gone a little bit like that. Kicks, bounces and things aren’t getting better, they are getting worse and I think if you asked every person through that door the same question they would tell you the same.”
Add to those comments those of Neil Robertson within my interview with him earlier in the year talking about conditions when playing out in China and clearly there is a belief amongst the top players that the conditions are not as good as they could be, not just at the UK Championship this week but in snooker generally at the moment.
Whether it is to do with the amount of tables installed, the fact that the balls are not polished before play as Murphy has advocated for or something else entirely I am not sure. I am far from an authority on the subject, but it has been noticeably warmer in the arena this week, particularly during the second round matches, than I have experienced other UK venues recently and I wonder whether this has also played a part.
Of course, World Snooker and the WPBSA are clearly aware of the debate at the moment and in September they issued the following statement addressing playing conditions:
Working closely with the WPBSA, World Snooker always strive to provide the very best conditions, this is reflected in the outstanding standard of play seen in our sport today.
The World Snooker Tour has exploded globally in recent years, meaning many new countries, new venues and changes in atmospheric conditions. It is a well known fact that moisture in the air, air conditioning and temperature changes all play a big part in this precision sport.
After many years in this industry we know we have the finest tables, cloth and equipment available. Working with our manufacturers, we will continue to monitor and test all products as the playing surface for our competitors is extremely high on our agenda.
Players have said this week that their views have not been listened to, but I understand that some of the suggestions put forward by the likes of Shaun Murphy may be trialled in upcoming events and it will be interesting to see whether any progress is made.
Also, not withstanding his comments following his last 64 match, yesterday John Higgins described the re-covered table that he played on against Matthew Stevens as ‘first-class’, so hopefully the tables will continue to play better as we approach the business end of the tournament.
As was perhaps inevitable in view of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s press conference last night, Barry Hearn has provided a response which you can read in full here and interestingly for me, appears to concede the point in respect of the criticisms of the table, but quite rightly points to the strong ticket sales at the venue, which have seen the main arena highly populated since the opening day of the non-televised stages.
In terms of the format, Hearn does not appear ready to consider a u-turn on having 128 players at the venue any time soon and it is perhaps telling that he refers to the tournament as a one-off. Originally of course it was envisaged that every tournament on the calendar would be played under this format, but perhaps with the difficulties encountered in respect of persuading the promoters in Shanghai and Australia to ‘fall into line’ with that vision, this will become part of the identity for the UK Championship going forward.
So given all of the above, should the UK Championship stay at the Barbican? Is the sports hall an acceptable setting? Has the tournament been devalued? Dos 128 at the venue work? Some big questions there and ones that will draw different responses depending upon who you ask them to.
For my part, I do think that the Barbican Centre remains an excellent venue for snooker, as I have stated above, watching the main arena from up high in the balcony is as enjoyable a place to watch snooker from as there is on the whole calendar and whether that is four, two or one table does not particularly change that. I hope that the tournament remains at the venue for many years to come.
The sports hall (2013)
The difficulty that is hard to get away from however, is that the venue is far from ideal for accommodating 128 players and I am not sure what can be done to get around that fact. The sports hall has become an easy target at times, despite not even being used during the last six days of the event, but having been in there and watched a few frames this week, I couldn’t help but think back to that tweet from Mark Williams and that it was somewhat demoralising, having been in the arena just before.
In terms of the tournament as a whole, has it been devalued? As I said pre-tournament, I do miss the best of 17 matches and can very much see why those players who have spent the best part of 20 years playing those length matches on a two-table arena set-up would feel that way.
Ultimately though, best of 11 matches are still a good duration and the tournament remains a great event. From the last 32 onwards now, we can expect to see some more excellent matches and I feel strongly now that we should just be able to sit back and enjoy them for what they are, rather than continuing to measure them negatively against the past.
Whether 128 at the venue works for snooker remains to be seen and I will be very interested to see how this season’s Welsh Open, which will also see 128 players at the venue, unfolds next February. If the set-up there is to be more like that of a European Tour event, with a couple of televised tables, surrounded by outer tables, will that be applauded for having all of the tables or, as I can imagine, criticised for feeling like a European Tour event?
We shall see on that one, but as I say, it will be interesting to compare the reaction to the set-up this week.
While the arguments as to the venue will no doubt be revisited in 12 months time though, for me the more serious issues raised are those concerning the table conditions generally, not just here, but during the past year or two across the globe.
Again, I am no expert on the subject, but I can’t help but feel that too many players are commenting on the subject to be ignored and though the conditions from what I saw today were markedly improved, time will tell as to whether any changes are implemented as we move into 2015 in order to bring about greater consistency in terms of the conditions.