Features and Interviews

Who Will Be The Next First-Time Ranking Event Winner?

In reaching the final of the Welsh Open on Sunday, Ben Woollaston almost became the first first-time winner of a ranking event in almost three years.

It resulted in a question posed on social media website Twitter yesterday – who will be the next?

Not since Barry Hawkins in the 2012 Australian Open has a player joined the exclusive club of ranking event winners.

Scotland’s Stephen Hendry obviously leads the way with the record 36 titles to his name, with Steve Davis on 28, Ronnie O’Sullivan one further behind at 27 and John Higgins now boasting 26 following his 9-3 victory over Woollaston in Cardiff.

But hundreds and probably thousands of players at first dream of just winning that elusive one – the memorable moment of becoming a major trophy winner in the professional era.

Funnily enough, many of the original legends of the game from the boom period of the 1970s and 1980s only have one or two to their name as the ranking system, accompanied by the increasing number of tournaments at the time, only came into its own in the middle of the latter decade.

So, strange as it may sound, Canada’s Cliff Thorburn only ever accumulated two ranking event successes and the ‘Hurricane’ Alex Higgins one – his famous 1982 World Championship triumph.

When the game opened up and more tournaments were added to the calendar, an increasing number of players began to join the band, but still only 50 competitors make up the ranking event champions list.

Some may surprise you and some you may have forgotten about.

Colourful character Silvino Francisco won the 1985 British Open; Steve James the 1990 Mercantile Classic.

Scotland’s Chris Small, who was forced to retire from the game because of a severe spinal injury, triumphed at the 2002 LG Cup.

‘Spaceman’ Dominic Dale has won two titles – the Grand Prix in 1997 and the 2007 Shanghai Masters – but has somewhat oddly never featured inside the world’s elite top 16.

Replies to the tweet above included the suggestions of Mark Davis and Robert Milkins, two veterans of the game who have made a habit of reaching the semi-finals of tournaments in the twilight of their careers.

Another stalwart in Joe Perry was mentioned, and indeed he has come the closest since Hawkins when he was narrowly beaten in a deciding frame thriller with Neil Robertson at the campaign’s opener, the Wuxi Classic.

Robertson, a long-time close friend of Perry, was visibly emotional in the immediate aftermath having denied the Englishman the opportunity to finally enjoy the sweet taste of glory.

So near and yet so far for Woollaston, pictured with son Edward - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

So near and yet so far for Woollaston, pictured with son Edward – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

Perry, Davis, Milkins and Ryan Day, who has been defeated in three finals, are established players who should have sufficient experience to benefit their quest for a maiden victory.

But what of the younger crop of competitors like Woollaston? Who, among them, can break the mold of regular champions on the circuit?

China’s Xiao Guodong reached the final of the Shanghai Masters in 2013, shortly followed by Aditya Mehta who performed likewise in his home event the Indian Open.

Both lost to Ding Junhui as he embarked on a record-equaling season that saw him win five and bring his tally up to 11 in total – sixth on the all-time list.

Wales’ Michael White has for a long time been touted as a future star and has begun to showcase his pedigree a little more of late, while Glasgow’s Anthony McGill impressed many en route to a quarter-final appearance in the UK Championship before Christmas.

If Belgium’s Luca Brecel had managed to overcome Higgins in a tight semi-final on Saturday, there’d be no need for this article as the wait for a newcomer would already be at an end.

The soon-to-be 20 year-old represents the best bet of a first man from mainland Europe being added to the list.

One might argue that the next will be soon such is the amount of tournaments currently on the calendar and the wealth of talent throughout the ranks.

Yet, almost all of the big tournaments are won by a select collection of cueists who tend to share the trophies around between them year on year.

Indeed, 14 out of the current top 16 players in the world have all now won ranking events – Perry and Milkins the only two not to – while a further seven of those ranked between 17 and 32 have been there and got their t-shirts as well.

So who knows, another three years may pass before we get a first-time winner of a ranking event.

Or, with a shorter format and plenty of the star names absent, it could well come at the upcoming Indian Open in New Delhi.

Who do you think will be the next first-time ranking event winner?

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