Features and Interviews

Ten Talking Points this Season – Part One

The 2017/18 campaign began a few weeks ago in Preston with the qualifying rounds for the Riga Masters and the China Championship.

Mark Selby 2017 World Championship (WS)

Are we in for more Selby domination? Photo credit: World Snooker

But let’s pretend that didn’t count and that the season is really starting now with the start of the main event in Latvia just a few days away.

It has nothing to do with the fact that I wasn’t mentally ready to write any preview articles for the new season at the end of May – a mere month after the conclusion of the last term.

Nothing whatsoever.

Anyway, I’ll refrain from making any bold predictions and just stick to pointing out some of the stories we can look forward to or keep an eye on as this year progresses.

In no particular order, here are the first five talking points.

Mark Selby’s Form

What an incredible few years it’s been for Mark Selby.

The Englishman has transformed himself from a ranking event nearly man into the most dominant player on the circuit in years.

Last season’s incredible tally of five ranking titles equalled the record previously shared by Stephen Hendry and Ding Junhui.

In the two-year rolling ranking system, Selby has amassed a whopping total of almost £1,300,000 – more than double that of his nearest challenger in the standings.

The 34 year-old earned almost a million pounds during the last campaign alone as he romped to victory in the three most lucrative tournaments carrying ranking points – the World, UK, and International Championships.

Whatever happens during the 2017/18 season, Selby is pretty much guaranteed to end it as top dog again.

The question is, will he suffer an understandable decline after the multiple highs of last year, or can he maintain his driven psyche of success?

Looking at Hendry and Ding for past references, there can’t really be a bigger disparity between both’s follow-up campaigns.

While Hendry powered to another three ranking event victories, including a second World Championship in 1992, Ding suffered a woeful 2014/15 season which saw him fail to reach a final and eventually led to him dropping out of the top 16 towards the end of the subsequent season.

It’s hard to imagine anything even remotely similar to Ding’s rapid descent occurring to Selby, who can manage to win with a Z-game if he has to.

Indeed, it wouldn’t at all be surprising to see the “Jester from Leicester” prolong his ability to reel off tournament wins on a consistent basis once again.

The ominous thing is, given he had a relatively quiet 2015/16 season up until his second World Championship glory at the Crucible, Selby actually doesn’t have that much money to defend until next April and it’s foreseeable that he could in fact extend his lead at the top of the rankings between now and then.

Chinese Wave

Around this time last year I predicted a better return from the many Chinese players on the circuit.

The merits of whether or not this was fully realised or not could be debated until the cows come home, but overall there were several promising signs.

Ever since Ding Junhui’s China Open victory as a shy teenager in 2005, it has become a favourite of snooker pundits everywhere to suggest that in “five years half of the top 16 will be Chinese.”

We’re yet to see three feature in the elite bracket simultaneously, but last season was the first time that two different Chinese players took plaudits as ranking event champions.

Ding Junhui won the Shanghai Masters, quickly followed by Liang Wenbo’s maiden success of such status in the English Open.

Teenage duo Yan Bingtao and Zhou Yuelong, and to a somewhat lesser extent Zhao Xintong, all showed that the next wave of fresh talent coming from the country could be the real deal this time.

Of course we have thought that before, but this trio does seem to have something a little extra about them.

Yan Bingtao reached the quarter-finals of the German Masters and made several other last 16 appearances in his rookie season on the tour.

The 17 year-old will again partner Zhou in the upcoming World Cup, where they famously staged a stunning victory two years ago in Wuxi.

There are 22 Chinese cuiests on the circuit this season with just eight of them currently featuring inside the top 64 in the world rankings.

Therefore, there is clearly still a long way to go before those pundits finally get to say their long overdue “I told you so.”

But how about this for the upcoming season? A third ranking event winner from China and another from the huge nation to break into that elusive top 16.

Baby steps.

Neil Robertson

Neil Robertson’s sudden and unexpected decline should act as a warning sign to every player.

Toward the conclusion of 2016, Robertson captured the Champion of Champions and UK Championship crowns.

Since then he has struggled immensely, especially since his last ranking event success at the Riga Masters twelve months ago.

It has since been revealed by the 35 year-old that he has a gaming addiction, spending hours late at night playing video games when he should have been resting ahead of practice or competition.

As a result, his game unsurprisingly plunged and early exits in all of the major tournaments have resulted in the “Thunder from Down Under” representing a mute force of late.

Robertson has the game to match the likes of Selby, Ding, O’Sullivan, and John Higgins, but without the dedication it’s impossible to live up to the standards he set in the past.

The Melbourne man remains in the top eight in the world rankings so all is not lost, but he’ll be looking to turn around his fortunes this campaign – beginning with his Riga Masters defence at the weekend.

Rising up the Rankings

It’s more than a decade since Anthony Hamilton featured in the top 16 of the world rankings.

Indeed, it was only just over a year ago that his professional career looked over.

A couple of wins in the Gdynia Open ensured that, even though he dropped outside the top 64 at the end of the 2015/16 season, he would automatically get back onto the circuit with a fresh two year tour card thanks to the European Order of Merit.

This meant starting from scratch with zero points, but also nothing to defend for the first two years.

Not even in his wildest dreams could Hamilton have envisaged a campaign like the one he had last time around.

Defying age and a broken back, the 45 year-old finally fulfilled his potential and tasted ranking event success at the German Masters in February.

To say that it was one of the most popular victories in recent times would be an understatement as nobody begrudged the “Sheriff” this win.

An additional semi-final appearance in the Northern Ireland Open and three other quarter-finals helped Hamilton leapfrog himself from nowhere to 25th in the world rankings.

With nothing to defend again this season, Hamilton is only around £70,000 away from a return to the top 16.

There’s no guarantee that he can maintain the same level of form for another sustained period but if he was to achieve it, and perhaps before the Masters cut-off point, it would be a remarkable achievement.

Others with not much money to defend and worth keeping an eye on are Barry Hawkins, Stuart Bingham, and Ali Carter.

Below the top 16, Scottish duo Anthony McGill and Stephen Maguire are two players who’ll be hoping to take advantage.

Avoiding the Cut

At the other end of the scale are those who’ll be fighting to remain on the Main Tour.

It’s obviously a bit early to be talking about this as there are almost twenty ranking events to take place between now and the climax of the campaign, but there are a few players whose places immediately look a little under threat.

In 54th place is Jack Lisowski, the Englishman having earned less than £30,000 last season and with more money to defend from two seasons ago than the other players around him.

If Lisowski fell off it would arguably mark as one of the biggest disappointments from a promising player in the last number of years.

Why Lisowski hasn’t been able to push on from his early promise is anyone’s guess, but he’s looking more and more like a journeyman with each extra season that passes him by.

Also in danger is China’s Tian Pengfei, who at number 50 in the rankings has more than £50,000 to defend.

Thepchaiya Un-Nooh and Matthew Selt are further up the rankings but have even more money to come off and won’t want to fall into any kind of dog fight.

Arguably the most shocking case concerns Alan McManus.

The Scot remains inside the top 32 for now but, after superbly reaching the 2016 World Championship semi-finals, he has tallied just over £30,000 in the last year.

With that Crucible sum to come off late this season, McManus will need to find an upsurge in form to guarantee his safety well before that point.

Tomorrow, five more talking points will be revealed. 

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