UK Championship

After almost three months, the third major ranking event of the season is finally upon us with the UK Championship commencing this Saturday at the Barbican Centre in York.

Of course, there has been plenty of action on the baize since the Shanghai Masters in September but it has been generally perceived that the gap between fully fledged ranking tournaments has been too great.

So with the anticipation almost over and the excitement building, 32 hopefuls are making their final preparations for the sport’s second biggest major trophy.

There has been an array of speculation surrounding the revised format for the upcoming UK Champs which has not gone down well with several of the players and fans alike.

The qualifying rounds were staged over best of eleven frames and that length will continue to be the judge of who progresses until the semi-finals – where it will then revert back to the old best of 17 gauge and the regular final being played over 19 frames.

The shortened agreement has been made largely due to commercial circumstances that sometimes appear to overwhelm modern sport in this age.

The BBC, with a long and illustrious history televising snooker, has been forced to make widespread cuts across all its media which has led to a reduction from four annual tournaments to three.

This, coupled with the fact that the powers that be believe snooker matches should be completed in one single session, has led to the minimization of ¬†one of snooker’s historic treasures.

Very much like the World Championship, all the big names have emerged victorious at the UKs throughout the decades wherever it was held – Preston having long-established itself as the host before stints in Bournemouth, York, Telford and now a return to Yorkshire.

Indeed, the quality has been such that since 1980 – the tournament began in 1977 with a victory for Ireland’s Patsy Fagan – only five players have lifted the UK trophy that have not (yet) gone on to raise the big one at The Crucible.

And it was hardly a matter of a fluke win either as Doug Mountjoy, Jimmy White, Matthew Stevens, Stephen Maguire and Ding Junhui make up the impressive quintet.

It is therefore clear that the ultimate prestige of the tournament is under threat and, though there would be absolutely no shame in seeing a lower ranked player triumphing on Sunday week, the overall aura encompassing the UKs could be lost over time.

Undoubtedly, this would be a shame. However, as things stand in the immediate future it still boasts the honour of being the second biggest title to win and thus next week should be a fiercely contested competition.

It is hard to justify who is the favourite because so many of the top players have shown form in the first half of the season, a notable positive subsequent to the influx of all the new events.

World champion John Higgins is the defending champion and, one would imagine, will be hugely difficult to beat once more but arguably finds himself in the trickier side of the draw to current world number one Mark Selby.

Higgins will feel confident in his opening match against slugger Rory McLeod but will have the likes of Stephen Maguire, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Judd Trump, Ding Junhui and Neil Robertson for company in a highly competitive top half.

The tie of the round is O’Sullivan’s clash with six-time world champion veteran Steve Davis while Selby’s date with Welshman Ryan Day is also a tasty affair.

Ricky Walden, who compiled a 147 break at the recent PTC 10 in Sheffield, takes on a consistent Stephen Lee – back in the top 16 after a few years in the doldrums.

In the last 12 months, Mark Williams has let leads slip in big finals in a bizarre sequence of events that began in last year’s edition of the UKs and the Welshman will look to begin his road to redemption against qualifier Joe Jogia.

Other stand-out ties include 2008 champion Shaun Murphy’s encounter with China’s Li Yan – who advanced through all four rounds of qualifying to be in York – while two other former champions in Stephens Maguire and Hendry serve up an all Scottish battle.

Whatever the format, the upcoming week or so promises to be a pre-Christmas treat for snooker fans.

The full draw can be viewed by clicking here.

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