Rise of the Underdog


David Gilbert today became the latest ‘lower ranked’ player to make it through to the final of a full-ranking event, but just how many surprise finalists have we had in recent years and why?

Click below for a few of my thoughts, not to mention some very interesting statistics…

As I watched the match this morning between David Gilbert and Thepchaiya Un-Nooh at the International Championship, both of course ranked outside of the world’s top 32, I thought to myself how common it now is to see the ‘lower ranked’ players perform so strongly at full-ranking events.

Indeed Sunday’s final in Daqing is set to be the third successive event in China that has seen a player ranked outside of the top 32 which seems surprising, but do the statistics back up this perception or have such runs always been relatively commonplace?

Whilst statistics can always be interpreted in different ways, in fact a quick look at ranking event finals during the last decade or so is in this case very telling.


Since the start of the 2013/14 season, the following players ranked outside of the world’s top 32 have made it through to the final of a full-ranking event:

  1. Xiao Guodong (2013 Shanghai Masters – F)
  2. Aditya Mehta (2013 Indian Open – F)
  3. Gerard Greene (2013 Players Championship Grand Finals – F)
  4. Ben Woollaston (2014 Welsh Open – F)
  5. Gary Wilson (2014 China Open – F)
  6. Kyren Wilson (2015 Shanghai Masters – W)
  7. David Gilbert (2015 International Championship – tbc)

So there have been seven finalists in little over two years from further down the rankings, not including European Tour events which of course have seen many more.

It is interesting for me to note that almost all of the players are those who have been well regarded for a number of years without being able to make a push up the rankings, before being able to make a big breakthrough.

Also that only Kyren Wilson of those players has so far been able to win their first final just underlines how big an achievement his success was, particularly against a player as strong as Judd Trump in the final.

But how does that number compare to previous years? How far apart were the previous seven first-time finalists from outside of the top 32?


In contrast to the last couple of years, there was not one such lower ranked finalist during either the 2011/12 or 2012/13 season and in fact for the last seven we have to go all the way back to 2005:

  • Ding Junhui (2005 UK Championship – W)
  • Jamie Cope (2006 Grand Prix – F)
  • Andrew Higginson (2007 Welsh Open – F)
  • Jamie Cope (2007 China Open – F)
  • Fergal O’Brien (2007 Northern Ireland Trophy – F)
  • Ricky Walden (2008 Shanghai Masters – W)
  • Jamie Burnett (2010 Shanghai Masters – F)

So from seven in just over two years, to seven in seven and a half years, clearly there has been a shift in recent seasons.

It is a reminder of course of how strong Jamie Cope was as he burst onto the scene in 2007, while again few of those finalists were able to convert their run to silverware, making it three winners from the past 13 finalists outside of the top 32.


So why is this the case? Of course one obvious point to mention is that there are more full-ranking events now than during some of the years towards the end of the last decade.

Instead of now having six or seven full-ranking events during the season, there are now generally 10-11, meaning that there are more opportunities for all of the tour players to make it through to a major final.

Perhaps the bigger and most obvious factor however has been the introduction of European Tour events and more recently flatter draws at full-ranking event tournaments. These changes have led to those lower down the rankings being able to play the very best in the world week-in, week-out, as opposed to perhaps a couple of times a season if they were lucky enough to make it through multiple rounds of qualifiers to get to a venue.

This has without doubt removed some of the fear factor of those at the top of the game and resulted in a tour that is as unpredictable as it has ever been. Many a player will tell you now that anybody and beat anyone these days and to a large extent that is now probably true.

It might also be argued that with the decline and/or absence of the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Hendry has resulted in a more open tour, although that probably does those currently at the top of the game and playing to a high standard something of a disservice. Certainly in terms of strength in depth, the field has never been stronger.

Whatever the reason though, right now it feels as though the only thing predictable about snooker is the unpredictability as David Gilbert now looks to join the select group of first-time ranking event winners from outside of the world’s top 32 on Sunday.

  • Andrew Hepburn

    The reason is obvious to me, I said this would happen years ago. If you increase the average scoring visit break size then you decrease the proportion of luck in any one frame. If the “greater strength in depth” argument held water then the same thing would be happening in tennis – a sport that has far greater strength in depth than snooker.

  • Odrl

    I think it’s worth adding that you include certain events that wouldn’t be referred to as “full ranking events” ten years ago.

    The PTC Finals are closer to PTCs than to other ranking events in every way except for prize money, and they are played in a best-of-7 format throughout, so I am not sure why the snooker media insists on putting them into the same category as traditional ranking events.

    Then you have the Indian Open, also played under the best-of-7 format apart from the final, and the field has been very limited in its first two editions, so you not only have a surprising finalist in Mehta, but also players like Robbie Williams in the semi-finals, without a single win over any top player along the way.

    The Welsh Open also has short matches for most of the tournament, so take these events out, and suddenly the underdog finalists are not all that common anymore. 😉

    • Peter

      Right, if the big names aren’t coming in too it’s far easier to get new no names as winners.

  • Nick Cantwell

    I think the reason is because of a great leveling out in the game. In times past, new players have come along and displaced the old guard – Steve Davis came along and took over from the likes of Spencer, Thorburn and Higgins, then Hendry came along and displaced Davis, before the likes of O’Sullivan, Higgins (John) and Mark Williams displaced Hendry. Strangely, these players are still at the top of the game a long time after they might have been displaced themselves – some of their main rivals being players who have been on the scene for years (Bingham, Hawkins and Murphy to name but three). To me, this isn’t evidence of strength in depth in the game, this is evidence of the game becoming weaker, as the ‘new guard’ are not actually good enough to displace the current ‘old guard’. I’ve heard it said that nobody could dominate in the current era, but I have the completely opposite view. If a player like Stephen Hendry appeared on the scene today, I think they could dominate like no other – I’m just waiting for that player to come along.

    • Peter

      Indeed though the class of 92 are past their prime or at least aren’t as dedicated to winning as they were in their youth, they are still among the top with only Selby, Judd etc doing better or not. Most of the best players are over 30 or even 40 these days, while we are seeing many new faces and many non Brits making finals now it’s largely the same winners as it has been for years or longer inc. the class of 92. So the answer is the game has gotten much better in overall standard bottom tiers, with many upsets even Ronnie etc get hammered by nobodies which you’d not expect to happen 10+yrs ago but the winner’s list it’s a select few still and most are over 30. It will happen eventually, just a lot later than we expected. Selby’s mid 30s now already, him, Robbo and Shaun Murphy are the closest thing the game’s produced as a trio since the class of 92, they fall far short of course but they’re all aging now too, Judd Trump who hasn’t won anywhere as much as his hype suggests will be 30 soon, Ding’s already over 30…

      This year’s Masters was the only Major final so far where both contestants are younger than me, born after 1983 but then we ended 2018 season with 2 old gits hehe Higgins and Williams, great match nevertheless but it does turn the argument about the modern standard being greater than ever on its head… Or it could be what Ronnie or Barry Hearn have said, kids these days have no bottle. It’s one thing amazing the crowd making great pots, breaks and reaching finals but is another to convert that final into a trophy and at present brilliant as the chinese young players are they mostly haven’t done this on the tour, with the exception of Ding winning over 10 ranking titles in his career already and 3 majors but sadly world title has eluded him, even so he’s one of the most successful in the history of the game already….

      So conclusion is the standard of the non elite players is the best it’s been now, however the winners are mostly the same old faces. Britain hasn’t many up and coming players so when the old guard are gone, Selby etc will be old too and probably not a long career to guard and the chinese domination really will begin then as we are told constantly they have scores of talent coming through. It’s true they do but again most of them aren’t winning tournaments so far, they are making finals etc at least so are heading the right way! But quite right, when we review each season the winners of each title are virtually all Brits still, largely the same as it’s always been for the sport. Aside from that, most of these Brits are old faces too.