2008/9 Player Reviews: The Top 16

Today sees the sixth and final instalment of my 2008/9 player reviews as I turn to look at the sixteen players who finished at the top of the rankings and will not have to endure the dangerous qualifying rounds next season…

Who else to start with but the man who has finished as the world number one for the second consecutive season, Ronnie O’Sullivan (1st, 53575pts). By most people’s standards, 2008/9 was another strong season for the three times world champion as he added the Northern Ireland Trophy, Masters and Premier League titles to his already impressive CV. In addition he was also able to win at least one match in every tournament that he entered (excluding Bahrain which he saw him withdraw), to ensure a good haul of ranking points, as well as take his total centuries tally up to an impressive 567.

When it comes to Ronnie O’Sullivan however the expectation levels are arguably even higher, sometimes impossibly so and his capture of just one ranking event title from the seven that he entered is regarded as some by a disappointment. While this is probably a bit harsh, I think it is fair to say that for much of season he was not at his devastating best, certainly not on a consistent basis.

Following his victory in Northern Ireland and his run to the final in Shanghai, he remarked in Glasgow during the Grand Prix that he was not happy with how he was playing and a poor performance in losing to Judd Trump in the quarter-finals appeared to bear this out. Despite this however he continued to enjoy success in the invitational events, notably the Masters which he remarkably claimed with a new cue following the destruction of his existing piece.

Still it was apparent that he was not quite at the top of his game and further inconsistent performances in the ranking tournaments, culminating in the end of his World Championship title defence at the last 16 stage to Mark Allen saw his season end on a disappointing note. While he does remain a clear number one at the top of the rankings, this is largely based on his performances during the 2007/8 season and he will go into next season provisionally third in the list, over 7,000 points behind Scotland’s John Higgins. As you can see therefore, work to do next season for The Rocket, but as he has demonstrated on numerous occasions in the past, he is more than up to the task…

Retaining his place behind O’Sullivan is former UK Champion Stephen Maguire (2nd, 48050pts), who after taking two ranking event tiles in 2007/8, endured a frustrating campaign this time around.  His best results were semi-finals of both the Shanghai Masters and UK Championship, while he also reached the quarters of a further four events.

When in full-flight he was a real force, for example at the Masters during his victory over Neil Robertson in what was one of the best matches of the season. All too often however he followed up a strong performance such as this with a sub-standard display, letting his temperament get the better of him and at times seemingly losing interest in the match. It must be so frustrating for him because as he has said in his press conferences, he knows what the problem is but being able to do something about it is another matter entirely.

I can’t help but feel that this season he placed too much expectation on himself when it came to the World Championship, building his entire season around it, perhaps at the expense of the smaller events. Whether this continues next season or whether he can get back to winning ways in the other tournaments remains to be seen, but with his position in the rankings now under threat from the likes of John Higgins, Shaun Murphy and Ali Carter, he will certainly be hoping for better…

Turning to Shaun Murphy, (3rd, 47175pts), after the first four events of the season he found himself down in sixth place provisionally and worse yet, 37th on the one-year list following a nightmare run of last 32 exits. Shaun is not a former world champion for nothing though and he demonstrated his class by going all the way to glory in the UK Championship at Telford, defeating Marco Fu in what was one of the closest finals of the season.

Following quarter-finals in Wales and China, he then managed to make it all the way to the final of the World Championship once again at the Crucible with victories over Andrew Higginson, Marco Fu again, Stephen Hendry and Neil Robertson. Despite a strong start however he could do little about an inspired John Higgins in the final who countered Shaun’s excellent potting game with some marvellous safety play.

With victories in the World Series events soon after this near miss, Shaun appears to be on a real high at the moment and well placed to get off to a better start next season than he did this time around, though perhaps that will not be too difficult! Seen by many as one of the players most likely to take over the mantle from Ronnie O’Sullivan as the number one player in the game over the next few years, it will be very interesting to see if he can begin to consistently win the major events and make these predictions a reality…

Moving up one place is the newly crowned world champion John Higgins (4th, 45825pts), who managed to bounce back spectacularly from a poor 2007/8 campaign. In addition to his triumph at the Crucible, John managed to take the Grand Prix title for the fourth time up in Glasgow, as well as reach the final of the China Open in the run up to Sheffield.

Probably the most interesting thing to note however is that many of his victories came despite him not being quite at the top of his game, indeed that Grand Prix title showed just how important an asset his experience and guile really are at the highest level. To win his third World Championship however he not only had to use his experience but he had to be at his best when it really mattered against Jamie Cope and Mark Selby in particular – a test he passed with flying colours.

Looking ahead to next season it will be interesting to see how he deals not only with being world champion, but also the other commitments that he has away from the table such as the growing World Series. Entering the season well clear of the rest at the top of the provisional rankings, he will be hoping to make this count and avoid the kind of season that he experienced following his second world crown back in 2007…

Despite a disappointing World Championship exit at the last 16 stage, it has been a fabulous season for Ali Carter, (5th, 42525pts), who at last was able to capture his first ranking event title at the Welsh Open. From an early stage he looked to be playing the best snooker of anyone that week and despite a few close matches along the way he eventually overpowered surprise finalist Joe Swail in what was a terrific performance in the evening session.

A few may have been surprised at his success but given that he had reached the semi-finals of a further three ranking events in the run-up to the event, as well as the semi-finals of the Masters at Wembley, nobody could argue that it had not been deserved. Following his victory however, his season ended on a disappointing note as he bowed out of the China Open early against Stuart Pettman and then just did not get going at the Crucible as he looked to emulate his final run of 2008.

While this was obviously a disappointment for him though, it has without doubt been the most consistent season of his career and particularly if he could just overcome his Ronnie jinx, more silverware will surely come his way soon…

Like Carter, another man moving up to a career-high ranking is Welshman Ryan Day (6th, 40675pts), though unlike Ali, the wait for that elusive first ranking event title still goes on. The closest he came this year was at the Grand Prix where he not only managed to make his third major final, but throughout the tournament genuinely looked to be the class of the field. Once there however he was to come up short against home favourite John Higgins in the final who without playing at his best himself, used all his experience to come through a 9-7 winner.

From there Ryan’s season began to just tail off, losing early in the next three events as he slipped back from what was a career high provisional ranking of number three in October. Things did pick up as a run to the semi-finals of the China Open was a welcome boost heading into the World Championship, though having let slip a 3-1 lead, again against Higgins, another good chance of silverware had gone begging. It could have come again at Sheffield the way he was playing but following convincing victories against Stephen Lee and Nigel Bond, Antrim’s Mark Allen came out on top in a topsy turvy quarter-final and ended his hopes for another year.

Can Ryan push on from here and seriously challenge for a top four place? At his best I think that he is an excellent player and one of the most capable break-builders in the game, but still I am not so sure. As Ali Carter has proved though, if you can keep reaching the latter stages of events then eventually something should come your way and Ryan will be hoping this is true heading into 2009/10.

One man who has slipped out of the top four this season is Mark Selby (7th, 37975pts), who following his most successful season yet in 2007/8, could not quite reproduce that form on a consistent basis this time around. His best displays probably came in the invitational events as while he did not win any of them, reaching the finals of the Masters, Premier League and the Championship League showed his class.

In the ranking events however it was a strange season as he progressed to just one semi-final and reached just two further quarter-finals. The second of these at the World Championship however was a real thriller as he came up against the man who beat him in the 2007 Crucible final, John Higgins. Early on it looked like Selby could run away with it as he made three century breaks in the first three frames, but despite adding another two during the match, it was John who was able to hang in there and eventually take a classic 13-12.

Against anyone else I think that Mark  would have won and probably have gone on to take the tournament, but once again John just had a little too much for him. Hopefully though he will be better for the experience and I expect him to be back in the winner’s circle again next season…

Rounding off the top eight is Marco Fu (8th, 37350pts), who experienced a typically inconsistent season, losing in the first round of three events, but importantly doing well enough in the others to move up into eighth place.

His best run came at the UK Championship as he defeated Barry Hawkins, Matthew Stevens, Joe Perry and Ali Carter to reach the final for the first time, but a poor performance in the final saw him lose out 10-9 to Shaun Murphy. Given how he played at times it is a measure of how hard Marco is to beat that he managed to take it all the way to a deciding frame.

Otherwise his best results were quarter-finals at the Shanghai Masters and Welsh Open, while at the World Championship he started off well with a win over Joe Swail only to suffer a 13-3 mauling at the hands of Murphy again in the last 16. Looking ahead to next season it will be interesting to see if he can take advantage of being in the top eight, avoiding the very top players until the quarter-final stages.

Returning to somewhere near his best form is Neil Robertson (9th, 35225pts), who after a poor 2007/8 and an even worse start to this season, rallied well to finish up in ninth place. It all turned around for him at the Bahrain Championship where he was able to defeat Marcus Campbell. Stephen Lee, Stephen Maguire, Mark Allen and finally Matthew Stevens to take his third ranking event title.

This seemed to give him a real lift and though he suffered close defeats to Maguire in the UK Championship and Masters, he managed to make the semi-finals of the Welsh Open, before gaining revenge over the Scot on the way to the last four of the World Championship. For a while it looked like he might suffer a heavy defeat to Shaun Murphy at the Crucible but although did go on to lose, he gave the 2005 champion a real scare as he recovered from 14-7 down to at one point level the match at 14-14.

All in all though Neil can be very happy with his efforts this season and going into 2009/10 fifth on the provisional list, has an excellent chance of moving back up into the top eight, as well as challenging for more titles.

Outside of the top eight for the first time in 21 years is seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry (10th, 33125pts), though given how he performed for much of the season it could have been a lot worse. Before Christmas his best tournament was an excellent run to the semi-finals in Bahrain where he managed to produce some of his very best form to overcome Ricky Walden, Barry Pinches and Robert Milkins, before falling at the hands of Welshman Matthew Stevens. That aside though he won just one further match in the first six ranking events of the season, a statistic that saw him head into the final two tournaments of the season in real danger of losing the top 16 place that he has held for over 20 years.

Having already been paired with close friend and rival Mark Williams in the first round of the World Championship, the China Open took on even greater significance for Stephen as he looked to make absolutely sure of his top 16 status ahead of the match. Thankfully for him, here he managed to stop the rot with victories over Robert Milkins and Ricky Walden and although he lost out to eventual winner Peter Ebdon in the quarter-finals, he had at least gained some crucial ranking points.

Back on more familiar ground at the World Championship, Stephen started well against Williams but his lack of confidence began to show as the Welshman fought back and looked poised to complete an impressive comeback. Early in the second session however, Mark was forced into a change of tip and combined with a typically gutsy 51 clearance from Hendry this proved the turning point.

From here Hendry seemed to rediscover some of his best form, producing some fabulous snooker to overcome Ding Junhui in the last 16, winning his 1,000th frame at the Crucible with a break of 140, before going even better against Shaun Murphy in the quarter-finals to record a magnificent 147 break, his ninth in total. While this was a notable landmark however, this proved to be his undoing as a poor second session allowed Murphy to gain what would prove to be a decisive advantage.

While Stephen will have been disappointed to lose, the 5,000 points gained are hugely important in terms of his ranking and given how the majority of his season had gone, a welcome bonus. Perhaps more importantly however, maybe his run and the form he produced will give him a big lift in terms of confidence, something that at times in the season appeared to be at all all-time low as he struggled to win matches in any competition. Time will tell on that one…

The fourth player in this bracket up to a career high ranking next season is Mark Allen (11th, 32875pts), who following a largely inconsistent season, made a real impression at the World Championship on his way to the semi-finals.

Mark’s season started relatively well with a quarter-final in his home event in Northern Ireland before he went one better in Shanghai, but from there he began to struggle for results and won just one more match heading into the World Championship at Sheffield. He could at least take some heart from the fact that the players who had beaten him generally went on to enjoy an excellent tournament, for example Joe Swail in the Welsh Open and Stuart Pettman in China.

The rankings do not take into account who the players lose to though and he headed to the Crucible needing to defeat Martin Gould in the first round to be sure of his top 16 place. Not only did he manage to do this however, but he then caused a sensation by knocking out defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan in the second round before taking care of Ryan Day to reach his first Crucible semi-final. Though a brilliant comeback attempt against John Higgins ended in failure, it had nevertheless been a superb tournament for the man from Antrim and having recently taken his first professional title at the Jiangsu Classic, I expect big things from Mark next season…

For Joe Perry (12th, 32875pts), it was a frustrating season as having started confidently following his World Championship semi-final and Championship League victory in 2008, he struggled to really build on this momentum and establish himself as a regular contender.

During the first half of the season in particular he was not helped by some unkind draws, pairing him with Ronnie O’Sullivan in the last 16 of the Northern Ireland Trophy, Shanghai Masters, UK Championship and Masters tournaments, as well as Judd Trump at the Grand Prix and world number two Stephen Maguire in Bahrain. He did manage to record a brilliant victory over Ronnie in the UK’s but following his defeat to Marco Fu in the next round, he did not win another ranking event match all season.

This meant that while he was safely inside the top 16 for another season, he could not improve on 12th place in the rankings and starting next season 14th provisionally, will need to get back on the winning trail if he is to consolidate his position.

For Ding Junhui (13th, 29644), it was another frustrating season in the ranking events, though the way he ended the season suggested that he might just be getting back on track. Losing his opening round match in the first two events of the season, as well as being forced to withdraw from the Bahrain Championship due to a clash with the Premier League, Ding found himself needing to improve in order to maintain his place among the top 16.

He did manage to make the quarter-finals of the Grand Prix, as well as the last 16 of the UK Championship before losing to John Higgins on both occasions, but a last 32 defeat to wildcard Xiao Guodong in China left him needing to beat Liang Wenbo at the World Championship to retain his elite status. At one stage this looked unlikely as he began to struggle badly in the second session, finding himself 8-7 down and having scored just 20 points in the last four frames. When it really mattered however, Ding capitalised brilliantly on an error by Liang in the next frame and having made a break of 111 from it to level, never looked back as two further big breaks booked a place in the last 16.

Though he eventually lost out to Stephen Hendry in the last 16 for the second successive year, unlike in 2008 where he looked to have lost interest from an early stage, he kept on fighting this time and remained positive throughout. It is early days but perhaps this tournament could be the one that helps him to get back to the devastating Ding Junhui that threatened to go all the way to the top around 2005/6. Starting well down the provisional list next season, perhaps it needs to be…

It was a strange season for Peter Ebdon (14th, 29400pts), who despite generally struggling for form, winning just two matches from seven of the events played, managed to bring it all together in the eighth to win the China Open. Not only was it a terrific success in its own right but for his ranking it was absolutely crucial as he would have been sure to lose his top 16 place had he suffered another early exit.

Despite this success however, Peter starts next season right in the thick of it as far as the battle for the top 16 places is concerned and in need of a much improved season as a whole if this title is not to be merely delaying the inevitable for a year.

Though he is the only new entry into the top 16 this year, double world champion Mark Williams (15th, 29319pts), is hardly a new face in the game. Back in the qualifying rounds last season, Mark did suffer a couple of surprising defeats, notably to Simon Bedford in qualifying for the Grand Prix, but overall looked to be playing as well as he has done in two or three years.

His best results came at the Shanghai Masters and UK Championship in Telford when he managed to progress to the quarter-finals, but in the latter in particular he was very unfortunate to slip to a deciding frame defeat at the hands of Ali Carter following an untimely kick. From here he did manage to qualify for the China Open and World Championship to secure his return to the top 16, but problems with his tip in Sheffield contributed to a round one exit to friend Stephen Hendry.

Next season will be interesting for Mark because though he is definitely playing better than he has been for a while, he is still not producing his very best snooker and will start next season ranked 19th provisionally. Will he continue to improve or will he again struggle now that he is back in the top 16?

Finally comes Mark King (16th, 28300pts), who by virtue of his run to the last 16 of the World Championship, just about manages to hold onto a spot in the top 16 for a second successive season.

Early on he seemed to struggle, losing in the last 32 of three of the season’s first four tournaments, but four straight last 16 runs to finish off the campaign saw a steady flow of points come his way. He starts next season ranked 15th on the one-year list as a result and will be hoping to reach his first ranking event quarter-final since the 2007 Malta Cup.