I write this on New Years Eve 2009 following a very eventful yet at times pretty bleak decade in the world of snooker. The bleakest part being the death of Paul Hunter at the age of just 27. He acquired the nickname “Beckham of the Baize” due to his good looks, charm and truely outstanding natural ability. His death seemed to trigger a snooker recession, after which top players appeared to lose interest, prize money fell and sponsors disappeared culminating in World Snooker Chairman Sir Rodney Walker announcing just 6 ranking events in the current 2009/10 season.
The first half of the 2000-2009 decade was dominated by the “Big Four” – Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, Mark Williams and Ronnie O’Sullivan – all playing snooker from the gods during the same period of snooker history. Bubbling under ready to blossom and eventually take over were the likes of Matthew Stevens and Paul Hunter. Stevens reached two World Finals, firstly in 2000 losing to Mark Williams who from 13-7 down suddenly hit devastatingly good form. Williams won 18-16. Then in 2005 Stevens yet again lost out 18-16 after squandering a large lead, this time to a fearless youngster who had been much touted since joining the tour at the age of 15 but as yet, hadn’t lived up to the hype. Shaun Murphy announced himself to the world in the best way possible. Stevens also reached 3 World semi-finals in 2001, 2002 and 2004 but it was a Crucible rematch against Shaun Murphy in 2007 which was his defining moment of the decade. Leading 11-5 and 12-7 he managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and lost by 13 frames to 12. From that moment on he hasn’t come close to looking like the same player.
Hunter pulled off the hat-trick of all hat-tricks in the Masters during the first half of the decade, just when the Big Four were at their peak. He overcame Fergal O’Brien 10-9 in 2001 after a between sessions session with his girlfriend which helped to perk him up, and he followed that up with another 10-9 win against Mark Williams in 2002 and yet another 10-9 win in 2004, this time against Ronnie O’Sullivan. In each final he had to recover a defecit of at least 4 frames. His place in snooker history firmly established, Hunter also reached the semi-finals of the World Championships in 2003 coming up against thoroughbred former World Champion Ken Doherty. Doherty came back from 15-9 to pip Hunter at the post 17-16. The fact Hunter won the following Masters proved his bottle was still firmly intact despite the pretty major stumble at the Crucible. A 13-12 loss to his good friend Matthew Stevens in round 2 at the Crucible in 2004 was perhaps fitting given it would prove to be his last real shot at becoming World Champion. By the time the 2005 World Championships had started, Hunter had withdrawn from the previous Premier League campaign and announced to the world that he was suffering from cancer. Just over a year later, he was dead.
Paul Hunter (image source: blog.roodo.com)
There followed a lull in the middle of the decade. The Big Four were struggling for form and motivation. It was the absolute professionalism of Stephen Hendry that helped him to the World Number 1 spot in 2006. Clearly on his day still a fine player, but nevertheless not at the peak of his powers he was first to step in where others failed to do so. Snooker it seemed needed some new blood.
Enter the dragon. Ding Junhui had been given a wildcard into the China Open of 2005 as had a lot of other players from the host nation. Dings named had been touted for some time by Peter Ebdon, practice partner and mentor of Ding, and this was where Ebdon was entitled to feel very smug. Ding destroyed the field including mentor Ebdon, Marco Fu, Ken Doherty and finally Stephen Hendry 9-5 in the final to lift his first ranking title on his 18th birthday. He would go on to lift a further two ranking titles including the second biggest prize in snooker – the UK Championship – in 2005 before suffering a very surprising dip in form following a drubbing at the hands of boyhood hero Ronnie O’Sullivan in the 2007 Masters final. By the end of the decade however, Ding had recaptured the form of old along with some added maturity and he duely picked up his second UK title in 2009 – the last major of the decade.
Ding Junhui (image source: www.thebeijinger.com)
Other notable performances from the latter half of the 2000-2009 decade came from Mark Selby, who at 19 had himself reached a ranking final, the 2003 Scottish Open which he lost 9-7 to David Gray. Selby developed his craft in the intervening years, occasionally showing flashes of what was to come but finally living up to and beyond his potential in 2007 when he finished runner-up to John Higgins in the World Championships. He also bagged a Masters crown defeating Stephen Lee 10-3 in the 2008 final, but it was his classic encounters with the top two players of the decade that he will be remembered for most in this decade. Obviously I’m referring to John Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan. Following on from his exploits at the World Championships, Selby progressed to the semi-finals of the 2007 UK Championship in Telford where he faced O’Sullivan. It was nip and tuck and went all the way to 8-8 at which point O’Sullivan produced one of those moments to tell the grandchildren by killing the match off in some style with a maximum 147 break. Selby came out on top in their next encounter, the Welsh Open final of 2008, but O’Sullivan gained revenge by beating him 10-8 in another classic match in the 2009 Masters final. Selby then faced John Higgins at the Crucible in a mouth watering quarter-final tie. At one point he clawed back a 7-3 defecit and lead 12-11 compiling 5 century breaks along the way. A difficult attempted plant red was his undoing at 12-11 (harshly criticised by those with less than 1% of Selby’s planting ability) and proved to be his last chance as a devastating John Higgins put on a display only true champions are capable of. Higgins went on to lift his third World title and join O’Sullivan on the same tally, one ahead of Williams. Higgins the only one of the three to have also lifted the title in the previous decade.
Neil Robertson from Australia also came to the fore during the latter half of the decade. The stylish left-hander rattled off 4 ranking tournament wins in as many years as well as reaching the World semi-final in 2009. Robertson still has to prove himself in a long format “major” for many snooker die hards to accept him as a truely top player, but it is now a question of when, not if. His 4 ranking titles have all been short format events and comprise 2 Grand Prix, a Welsh Open and the ill feted Bahrain tournament organized by Rodney Walker without a sponsor, an audience or several leading players who were “cup tied” by way of a Premier League contract. Steve Davis played a tactical sicky along the way exploiting the ridiculousness of the situation, and gaining ranking points an earlier withdrawal wouldn’t have entitled him to.
Neil Robertson (image source: www.guardian.co.uk)
Notable other achievements of the decade include John Higgins compiling 4 centuries in row in the Grand Prix final of 2005, Ronnie O’Sullivan winning a best of 9 with 5 century breaks including a 147 at the Northern Ireland Trophy event in 2007, and Liang Wenbo constructing 3 total clearances of 147, 139 and 139 as well as a further century (115) and 50+ break during a 5-1 win over Martin Gould in the Bahrain qualifying event. A sign of things to come from the Kamikaze Kid? Absolutely! He is a devastating scorer and crowd pleaser and the decies will see him produce spectacular snooker if nothing else.
The Bahrain event proved to be a significant one in the life of Rodney Walker, who struggled to be taken seriously after that particular farce and in 2009 he was ousted as Chairman by a movement fronted by Barry Hearn, a name synonymous with snooker in the 1980’s. Hearn has promised radical changes. Pure speculation has hinted at shorter formats and shot clocks but until the man himself announces his thoughts on what snooker needs we can only wait in anticipation.
So as we enter the next decade the likes of Robertson, Selby and Ding are truely starting to peak and look set to be the main challengers to the ever present combo of Higgins and O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan has been outspoken about the lack of challengers to his and Higgins place in the game, but with the introduction of more tournaments to play in, the confidence and standard of all the players involved will rise and it’s only a matter of time before the aforementioned start to dominate the majors. Other names are on the rise too – Jamie Cope, Liang Wenbo, Judd Trump, Michael White, however they may need a few more seasons under their belts before we see the best of them. And there is the small matter of a young Belgian kid by the name of Luca Brecel who posts his 147 breaks on youtube. It’s only a matter of time before he bursts onto the scene and takes the snooker world by storm.
Luca Brecel (image source: www.hbvl.be)
With Barry Hearn now in charge – the man who snooker players cried out for to take over following his successes in the darts world – the next decade looks set to kick off in a few days time at the Masters in Wembley with a sense of excited expectation surrounding snookers’ future. This is surely a much better state of mind than that which started off 2009. Snooker fans everywhere have been forced to look inward and ask questions about the state of their sport, some of which has resulted in some frankly quite ridiculous suggestions about what snooker needs. The answer has never been the product but the marketing of the product, and who knows that better than Barry Hearn? With Steve Davis at his side, what could possibly go wrong? OK, but it’s less likely to go wrong with him involved. You see, Steve Davis is a genuine snooker fanatic so he will do the right thing.
That leaves me to wish everyone a Happy New Year and let’s all look forward to the next decade with renewed confidence in our wonderful sport.