Revel in the Rivalry

The first of the so-called big three majors gets under way tomorrow with the UK Championship in York.

Along with the Masters and World Championship, the UKs have been a pinnacle tournament to which all of the top players strive to succeed in.

As with the other two, being aired on the BBC gives the event widespread coverage across Britain and Ireland.

However, where once the sport was predominantly only a feature on these two islands, it is safe to say that has certainly changed – and continues to do so.

China has arguably become the biggest snooker nation over the last few years and, with the influx of new events, the People’s Republic can lay claim to a major of their own in the form of the International Championship.

Judd Trump earned an impressive victory in its inaugural staging last month and it is he who will enter next week’s proceedings as the defending champion of the UK Championship as well.

Last year, Trump played some sublime snooker to claim his second ranking event title, beating rival Mark Allen 10-8 in one of the most high-quality finals in recent memory.

The 23 year-old has caused quite a stir in the build up to his defence after a recent interview for BBC Sport, where he suggested that the sport needs more controversy to attract a wider audience.

While the game has spread and continues to grow around the world, particularly in Asia and continental Europe, support in the traditional hotbed of the UK and Ireland is undeniably on the decline.

There is still a vast market and snooker will continue to attract a hefty number of viewers for the big three but in terms of sustained growth it would not be inaccurate to say it has struggled over the course of the last decade.

While some of Trump’s comments were outlandish – for instance, his desire for more shot-clocks in tournaments – I tend to agree with him in his desire for controversy and rivalry.

It is an ongoing misconception that there are not enough characters in the game, which simply isn’t true, but what the sport lacks are villains.

Too often this season I have found myself writing articles attaching a player’s triumph to how nice and friendly he is.

There is nothing wrong with being liked, far from it, but the monotony of everyone getting along becomes, for want of a better word, plain.

Though often brash in his approach, Allen’s consistent brush with the governing body for contentious comments have made headlines – for right or wrong reasons and whether you agree with him or not, that is ultimately a good thing.

The Northern Irishman has been kept quiet for the last six months with a suspended ban but that will be cleared by the start of 2013 and he has promised to continue to publicly air his views.

Allen and Trump, both still very young, could be about to embark on a rivalry that could shape the destiny of the sport for the next ten to fifteen years.

In the past they have come across as friends, of a similar mindset as to how the game should be played, but perhaps their encounters should be a little less cordial.

For a one-on-one sport that has often struck me as being the most psychological – there’s literally nothing a player can do when the other is at the table – it continues to surprise me the lack of trash talk there is in the game.

Not to the scales of boxing, but it is rare to even have a little edgy banter that will in turn force fans to take sides.

Of course, snooker has always been credited as being a gentlemanly sport and any steer in this direction would considerably contradict its rich traditions.

But then there is Alex Higgins, the most talked about snooker player of all time and one of sport’s, not just snooker, all-time controversial figures.

His antics both on and off the table helped snooker become a phenomenon in the  1970s and 80s and, while it would be foolish to compare completely to a time when television was still in is relative infancy and there was no Sky, internet or other technological distractions, enabling the game to reach mass viewership, someone of Higgins’ personality would not go amiss in today’s circuit.

Despite all of this, snooker is potentially at its strongest with opportunities opening up across the globe but it is important to remember that it is in the business of entertainment.

As it expands, more and more people will expect to be entertained and that does not necessarily just mean on the baize itself. In this regard, there is always room for improvement.

Trump and Allen find themselves in opposite sides of the draw again in York and it would not be surprising to see a repeat of last year’s final.

Along with the likes of young pretenders Luca Brecel, Jack Lisowski and Michael White – who all qualified for the UKs for the first time – the long-term future of the sport is firmly in their hands.

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