The 2017/18 season is already a few weeks old and the first ranking event of the campaign is now on the horizon with the Riga Masters set to begin on Friday.
It’s now when the majority of the players will be hoping to dust off the cobwebs after the brief summer break – albeit it did seem a fraction longer this year – ahead of another long, arduous term on the Main Tour.
Yesterday, we took a look at five potential talking points that may materialise this season and let’s complete the list with five more possible story lines for the upcoming ten or so months.
Here they are, in no particular order.
Rocket Burning Out?
It seems a bit odd to say that a Masters triumph and three other significant final appearances represented a disappointing return from Ronnie O’Sullivan last season, but that’s precisely the case.
For several years, the “Rocket” received some negative press when he opted to pick and choose the events he entered on the calendar – notably choosing to miss the majority of the tournaments overseas.
However, after the conclusion of the 2016 World Championship, O’Sullivan promised that he would dedicate himself in an attempt to be more match sharp come the tail end of the season and Crucible time.
While he stuck to his word and entered practically everything of note, it didn’t really go to plan for the Englishman, highlighted by a quarter-final defeat at the World Championship in Sheffield.
In fact, O’Sullivan arguably got worse rather than better as the campaign developed – albeit that can be attributed to a degree to his various run-ins with the authorities after his record seventh Masters at the Ally Pally in January.
What was arguably more worrying for O’Sullivan fans was that, even though his battling and competitive qualities were in full working capacity, his form simply wasn’t peaking as much as we’re used to seeing with the 41 year-old.
There were of course flashes of brilliance throughout a busy term but the consistency wasn’t quite there and he often struggled in the high-pressured close encounters – highlighted by a hat-trick of tight defeats in big finals to three of his nearest rivals.
Whether this was just a blip or if this is indeed the beginning of the inevitable decline eventually suffered by every top player remains to be seen.
This writer certainly isn’t writing him off – it would be downright foolish for anybody to unequivocally do so – but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on over the next ten months.
There were four first-time ranking event champions in the 2016/17 campaign.
Anthony McGill, who bagged a brace of rankers, Liang Wenbo, Mark King, and Anthony Hamilton all etched their names onto silverware for the first time.
Ryan Day narrowly missed out, losing in the final of the World Grand Prix to Barry Hawkins in February.
After Hamilton’s triumph, Day has taken over the unwanted mantle of being the best player to have never won a ranking trophy.
The Welshman, a bridesmaid on four occasions, will be leading the group of potential maiden winners this season as well.
Along with Day, Chinese duo Yan Bingtao and Zhou Yuelong appear as though they could be ready for the next step up in class at any given moment, while Belgium’s Luca Brecel will be hoping this is finally the campaign when he joins the elite.
Iran’s Hossein Vafaei Ayouri could threaten, albeit a victory for him would probably come as a touch more surprising.
David Gilbert and Michael Holt already possess runners-up medals and potentially have the game to go one better.
Of course, the Shoot Out is the tournament which gives every Tom, Dick, and Harry the chance to win something of worth.
It sadly returns to Watford as a ranking event next year.
To put it politely, it’s not a great time for snooker in Ireland.
The amateur scene remains stale with not much sign that it’ll be reinvigorated any time soon.
There is the promise of a few young talents currently emerging through the ranks within RIBSA but there have been plenty of those who have come and gone over the last couple of decades, without any real success in the professional scene.
This year, there’ll be four players from the Republic of Ireland on the Main Tour.
Ken Doherty keeps his place after being given an invitational tour card from World Snooker, while Leo Fernandez could return in August after his 15-month suspension for corruption charges comes to an end.
Stalwart Fergal O’Brien leads the way at the dizzy heights of number 45 in the world rankings, while young Josh Boileau has his work cut out for him if he’s going to avoid an immediate relegation.
Boileau got onto the tour after brilliantly winning the European Under-21 Championship in 2016 and there was subsequently a huge amount of expectation within Ireland surrounding his promotion to the Main Tour – perhaps a little too much for him to handle at this time.
Gaining enough financial support has long been a primary problem for snooker players and Boileau was no different.
He’ll be hoping the fact that there are no longer any tournament entry fees will take away some of the pressure that was a cause for distraction over the last twelve months.
It’s not even looking that rosey north of the border with Antrim’s Mark Allen suffering a horrid last campaign in terms of results and in real danger this season of dropping out of the top 16 if he’s unable to turn things around.
The Emerald Isle used to be a force to be reckoned within the game but those days are long gone and it’s difficult to see how and when those heady times might return.
The new Challenge Tour, which is set to begin next season, could be a catalyst for a change in fortunes but the fact that hardly any of the Irish amateur players even try their hand at Q School doesn’t provide much hope that the Challenge Tour would be much different.
There aren’t too many rookies coming in for a debut campaign this time around and it’s hard to imagine that any of them could emulate Yan Bingtao’s lightning start to life on the tour during last season.
Arguably the most interesting out of all the newcomers to the professional scene is Lukas Kleckers.
Germany has been crying out for a young star to get behind ever since it returned to the sport as a destination more than six years ago.
Since then, numerous German cities have hosted well-received tournaments, notably the German Masters which boasts the wonderful Tempodrom arena in Berlin.
Wouldn’t it be great to see one of their own taking to the centre stage of that fabulous venue in front of 2,500 adoring fans?
Well, Kleckers will have his chance to qualify this December after he emerged from Q School as a tour graduate a month ago.
Kleckers wouldn’t have been the name at the top of everybody’s list to emerge onto the Main Tour but he did enjoy a decent international amateur career and has been a multiple national champion at various age disciplines.
Although not a rookie, having already experienced a two-year stint on the tour, Switzerland’s Alexander Ursenbacher will be another to keep a keen eye on.
Also 21, Ursenbacher returned to the circuit after pipping Jackson Page to European Under-21 success and he also made headlines as he got to within a single victory of qualifying for the World Championship in Sheffield as an amateur in April.
Along with Luca Brecel, who has been on the Main Tour for quite a number of years now, it is hoped that Kleckers and Ursenbacher could spearhead a new wave of snooker from mainland Europe.
One of the big announcements towards the end of last season was the abolishment of the players’ entry fees.
This could be the difference in about £5,000, which amounts to pocket money when you’re Mark Selby, but for the players like Josh Boileau down the bottom of the spectrum it’s a huge sum.
There’s less of an excuse now for these lower ranked competitors to not be entering every ranking tournament.
What will be interesting, though, is to see the amount of extra withdrawals there will be in the build up to each event.
There were already quite a number of withdrawals in qualifying for the Riga Masters and China Championship at the Guild Hall, While world champion Mark Selby has since pulled out of the main event in Latvia this weekend.
Whether this has anything to do with not having to pay the fees is up for debate, but it’s hard to imagine Barry Hearn and friends settling for any of that carry on if it escalates to any degree throughout the campaign.
In the past, pros who chose not to enter would make that clear before the draw was made, thus giving the opportunity to one of the amateur top-ups to compete in a tournament.
That can’t be the case now because a professional player can enter every event free of charge and effectively drop out at the last second, which could lead to quite a few walkovers this season.
Fines are an obvious course of action but some players might feel it worth doing on occasion regardless.
Hi Dave .
With a new season just around the corner, I think Barry Hearn should be congratulated on the superb job he has done . Unlike tennis and golf , snooker does not have the american
dollar , but who needs that when you have a superb business man like Barry . When i was playing we had 6/7 weeks between tournaments and the money wasn’t great . The players don’t know how lucky they are. The prize money has gone through the roof , all you got to do is win matches . If you cant make a living from the game now, it’s nobody’s fault but your own .
Indeed, it’s natural to disagree with some of the decisions or have personal opinions on how the game could be moved forward further, but it’s impossible to deny Hearn’s impact since he took over. The opportunity and financial reward looks set to only grow as well.