2014 Highs and Lows – Part One

As 2014 draws to a close in the next few days, it’s time to reflect on what has been another entertaining year full of drama both on and off the table.

There have been many stories over the last 12 months worthy of recalling, from title triumphs to near misses, comebacks to setbacks, but a few have stood out a little more than others.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the best bits of this latest calendar year on the circuit but today let’s reflect on some of the low talking points that have generated the most interest.

2014 – The Lows

Ali Carter’s Cancer Battle

When it was announced shortly after the World Championship in May that Ali Carter had been diagnosed with lung cancer it sent shock waves across the snooker scene.

Carter returned to action at the General Cup in October - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.
Carter returned to action in October and got the all-clear from doctors a couple of weeks ago – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

The fact that the 35 year-old had already been treated for testicular cancer less than a year earlier underlined the severity of the situation and understandably brought back painful memories of Paul Hunter’s lost battle with the illness eight years ago.

Carter immediately began an intense course of chemotherapy in which he kept his followers and fans constantly updated on his progress through social media.

The ‘Captain’ was always going to get a wave of support from the snooker community, who often rally together in times of need, but the courage displayed in Carter’s tweets, where he continuously wrote optimistically about his progress and future, ensured that the masses backed him even more wholeheartedly.

Carter’s struggles served as a reminder that life and death for a sportsman, just like anyone else, does not hinge on winning and losing in their chosen profession alone.

UK Championship Format

There’s a question mark surrounding this one because, in actual fact, the UK Championship was arguably the tournament of the year despite the changes to its format.

With plenty of close encounters throughout, including a memorable finale that went the distance, there is I guess some reason to suggest that the alterations over the last few years have been a success.

That said, on the other hand there is probably truth to the fact that the sport’s second major has lost a significant amount of its prestige.

The early rounds of the UK Championship had already been shortened before this year’s edition but that the semi-finals would now too be played under the best-of-11 guise raised eyebrows among the game’s traditionalists.

The primary reason for the amendment was to better serve your regular Joe in the TV audience but many of the players felt that the York event now looked and felt a lot like the majority of other ranking tournaments on the calendar.

It’s hard to argue with that and the fact that there is now only one two-session round that is not a final outside of the World Championship is regretful.

These elongated clashes allow for a special kind of drama to potentially unfold, where there is time for main acts, subplots and finales – perfectly highlighted in Ronnie O’Sullivan’s 10-9 triumph over Judd Trump at the Barbican to claim his fifth crown.

The UK Championship is steeped in history, having been contested since 1977, so will always have a high level of prestige attached to it – especially when one considers its roll of honour.

However, it is still fair to say that the changes have given it a more generic look which perhaps detracts from the special aura it once possessed.

No Players Championship Grand Final in Ireland

For the first three years of the Players Championship Grand Final the tournament was staged in Ireland – once at The Helix in Dublin before successive stagings in Galway’s Bailey Allen Hall.

Barry Hawkins won the 2014 Grand Final - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.
Barry Hawkins won the 2014 Grand Final – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

While they didn’t attract thousands of people every day to the venues, each of these events were generally regarded as a success with crowd levels always high for the weekend’s quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.

The Irish snooker community was also grateful to have something of importance on home soil again, after a number of barren years following the demise of the once yearly Irish Masters.

In terms of the numbers playing, snooker in Ireland is nowhere near the levels it once enjoyed in the heady 1980s and 90s but there are still plenty of people interested in the sport.

It was therefore a disappointment when it was originally announced that the 2014 Grand Final was going to Thailand.

The reason for this, no doubt, was due to sponsorship because, based on recent competitions staged in Bangkok, there wasn’t ever going to be a sizable crowd.

In the end, political unrest in Thailand forced World Snooker’s hand and the tournament had to be relocated.

Again, some in Ireland felt this was an opportunity, late though maybe, to stage it on the Emerald Isle for a fourth time but the Guild Hall in Preston was chosen as the last-minute replacement venue.

It’s a blow for Irish snooker not to have a professional tournament in the country and it’s hard to see where the next one comes from.

Seniors at 40?

The decision to reduce the age requirement for entry into the World Seniors Championship from 45 to 40 is, in a word, ridiculous.

While not a prestigious event by any stretch of the imagination, since its reincarnation in 2010 the World Seniors has been building itself into a nice annual gathering of the sport’s old-timers.

The likes of Joe Johnson, who helped organise the first event four years ago, Dennis Taylor, Cliff Thorburn and other memorable faces from yesteryear got their opportunity to perform in a competitive environment in front of a big audience for one occasion every year.

Well, they’ll still get that opportunity but it’s not much of one.

Because while they are all still invited to play as former world champions, they are now joined in the field by the likes of Mark Williams, Peter Ebdon and Ken Doherty.

These main tour regulars are still fighting strongly on the pro circuit, never mind requiring an opportunity to recapture their glory years in a seniors event.

And if you’re still not convinced, next year Ronnie O’Sullivan is eligible.


The International Championship

While the majors have long been regarded as the World and UK Championships, along with the Masters invitation event, China’s International Championship has been vying for the fourth spot since its inception in 2012.

This is for two primary reasons.

The first is that, with the changes to the UKs highlighted above, the Chengdu competition represents the longest format in an event outside of the Worlds at the Crucible.

The second reason is that China, with so many tournaments on the calendar these days, is desperate for its own major.

Yet, despite the fact that the first two stagings of the International Championship were huge successes, 2014’s edition was a bit of a letdown.

The final two encounters – Mark Allen’s last four classic with Mark Williams before his defeat to Ricky Walden in the final – were real humdingers but can only mask what was an otherwise relatively disappointing tournament with a distinct lack of atmosphere in the arena throughout.

Having a longer format is only one factor in determining what is and what isn’t a major championship.

History is one key element while the expected excitement generated by an enthusiastic atmosphere is another important component.

The International Championship lacked both this year, but that may yet change in the future.

SPOTY Snubs O’Sullivan…Again

That Ronnie O’Sullivan has never won BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year is one thing.

O'Sullivan's snub demonstrates how SPOTY has increasingly become an embarrassment in the last decade - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.
O’Sullivan’s snub represents one reason why SPOTY has increasingly become an embarrassment over the last decade – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

That the 39 year-old superstar of one of Britain’s most loved and watched sports has never even been nominated is downright shocking.

O’Sullivan produced a stellar year – one of the best of his career – as he won all but one of the tournaments staged on home soil.

Only a brilliant comeback in World Championship final by Mark Selby denied the ‘Rocket’ adding to the Masters, Welsh Open, Champion of Champions and UK Championship titles he captured throughout 2014.

O’Sullivan, one of the country’s most loved and followed sports stars, also knocked in a brace of 147s to extend his record to 13 while he is on the cusp of breaking Stephen Hendry’s all-time centuries tally as well.

What more does he need to do to be recognised at the annual sports gala?

Come back tomorrow when I’ll be looking at the highs of 2014.

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