By Fin Ruane
As the penultimate ranking event of the season at the China Open came to a close on Sunday, quite a number of players back in the UK will now be preparing and practicing hard for the upcoming qualifying rounds for this year’s World Championship.
No matter how many tournaments or ranking event venues these players have qualified for throughout the season, it’s these qualifying rounds which are held in the World Snooker Academy in Sheffield that they all have had one eye on ever since the season started.
The opportunity to qualify and play in the most famous snooker venue of them all is something every single snooker player aspires to. The chance to be introduced to the capacity crowd and walk through the famous curtain, down the steps, past the sitting photographers and markers, past the television cameras towards a shake of the MC’s hand, then the referees’, before finally you take your seat and await the first frame is a short journey thousands of club players dream about. For players outside the Top 16 it is now a case of winning through the qualifying rounds in the coming two weeks and realising that dream.
Many have qualified over the years. Some have done so the hard way by winning up to eight matches while others by way of less but it’s that final qualifying match that can make or break a player’s season and in some cases a player’s career.
The calibre outside the Top 16 on view at the Academy we all know about. The pressure is immense on them and none more so than the pressure on a former world champion trying to qualify for what could be their final appearance in the grand old venue in which they once conquered the snooker world.
Take for example one of last year’s final qualifying round matches between 1997 champion Ken Doherty and Anthony Hamilton – one of the toughest players on the circuit. The best-of-19 frame match went right to the wire as so many of the final round matches do. Doherty prevailed to win 10-9 and in doing so put to bed a horrific final round memory from the previous year when he led Jimmy Robertson 6-3 only to lose 10-6. The relief etched on Ken’s face when he won showed just why the Crucible means so much to all the players.
That same night seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry and 2002 champion Peter Ebdon came through their final rounds to reach the Crucible again as well. For Hendry, despite a run to the quarter-finals that included a magical 147, it would be his last appearance in a palace he used to reign supreme.
They are some of the ex-world champions who have reached the Crucible through the qualifying route but what of the players who were relatively unknown to many who made it through the hard way, unleashing instant stardom?
Terry Griffiths and Shaun Murphy are two of the most famous having won the title after reaching the Crucible through the qualifying rounds.
Other famous qualifiers would include a pony tailed Peter Ebdon, who famously defeated Steve Davis in his first round match made all the more memorable by his flamboyant style and quick fire potting. Yes, Ebdon was once one of the game’s most exciting players! Other exciting players who became household names by enjoying a fine maiden run after qualifying included a young Tony Drago, who in 1988 made the quarter-finals and defeated the ‘Hurricane’ Alex Higgins en route. Left-hander Andy Hicks went one better in 1995 when he reached the semi-finals before losing to Nigel Bond. In 2009 Rory McLeod qualified and in doing so became the first black player to play at the venue.
Last year, Luca Brecel won four qualifying matches to reach the Crucible and by doing so became the youngest ever player at just 17. Jamie Jones also qualified last year and enjoyed a fantastic run to the last eight.
These are some of the players who enjoyed a memorable Crucible debut after qualifying but there are of course the qualifiers who have unfortunately not had the best of visits, especially after grafting so hard to make it there.
One of the most notable was in 1996 when Jamie Burnett qualified to play Terry Griffiths in the first round. Burnett was the hot favourite and stormed into a 6-0 lead. However, Griffiths, being one of the great safety players out there, clawed back and eventually forced the match level at 9-9. In the final frame Burnett needed just the brown to take the match. He sunk the ball into the yellow pocket but held his head in his hands as the white screwed into the middle bag. Griffiths duly cleared up to win the match.
Some will say qualifying for the Crucible is just the start of their quest to win the World Championship, others will claim they are delighted just to get there.
If you are lucky enough to watch the qualifying rounds next week you will see it means a lot more than that. With the tournament as open as it seems to be this year, come May 6th could we see a qualifier lift the famous old trophy again?
With our great game of snooker you just never know!
The full draw for the World Championship Qualifying rounds can be viewed by clicking here.