The new snooker season gets going on Monday with the qualifying round for the Riga Masters taking place at the Preston Guild Hall.
With twenty ranking events and a host of other invitational tournaments scheduled between now and the start of next May, it’s sure to be another hectic calendar full of drama and entertainment.
While the majority of the pieces of silverware will be shared among the game’s top stars such as Snooker’s Trinity of Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins, and Mark Williams – who between them captured a staggering ten ranking titles during the last term – there’ll still be ample opportunities for competitors all the way down the rankings to have their rightful say in the plotline.
Indeed, it will be interesting to see if any of the chasing pack can leapfrog their way into the higher echelons or, at the very least, if those near the bottom can break away from the serious and often career-defining scrap for survival.
Not only should we be intrigued by the rising crop of cueists but it will be equally important to keep a watchful eye on those who might suffer a slide into the unwanted abyss during this season.
Let’s take a brief look at just five of the many contenders who could be generating an increased number of headlines over the coming ten months.
Jack Lisowski is coming off his best season on the Main Tour with a maiden semi-final appearance in a ranking event one of his highlights when he reached the last four in the Shanghai Masters, before wrapping up the campaign by embarking on a run to the second round of the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield. The “Dude” then suffered a somewhat humiliating 13-1 annihilation at the hands of John Higgins and it’s probably a good thing that this summer break has been longer than in previous seasons because the 27 year-old would have needed the additional time away to get his head around that drubbing.
Lisowski, though, has all the makings of being a top, top player and there are many who feel surprised that it has taken him this long to threaten regularly. The Cheltenham cueist has one of the most dangerous attacking games on the circuit when he is in peak condition but his primary problem is that his B-game is sub-standard, and that’s being kind. Can he sort out the tactical side of his game and be the force that many predicted he would become when he first burst onto the scene almost a decade ago? Let’s hope so because, not only is he a terrific talent, he also has a polished image that could help open up the sport to an even wider market.
It seems like it’ll only be a matter of time before Yan Bingtao breaks into the top 16 in the world rankings list. After only two seasons on the Main Tour, the Chinese teenager has already climbed to no.23 in the standings. A maiden ranking event title, which he came so close to achieving during the last campaign, could be enough to see him leapfrog his way into the elite bracket. Unlike Lisowski, Yan appears to already possess the kind of all-around game that should see him become a major success in the sport. There are no guarantees but Yan has demonstrated enough times already during his short stint on the circuit that he belongs with the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Selby.
In November of last year, Yan came within a frame of breaking O’Sullivan’s long-standing record as the youngest ever ranking event champion when he just missed out in a decider to Mark Williams in the final of the Northern Ireland Open in Belfast. His season tailed off a little bit after that and he failed to qualify for the Crucible but one suspects that it won’t be too long before we see him fighting it out at the business end of tournaments again, and possibly even the majors. Yan is arguably the most exciting prospect in the sport today.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Anthony Hamilton, a veteran who has spent close to three decades fighting it out on the Main Tour. The “Sheriff of Pottingham” has had a rollercoaster couple of years. In February of 2016, Hamilton needed a couple of victories in the Gdynia Open to avoid being relegated from the tour and, despite dropping out of the top 64, his pair of victories in Poland proved enough to offer him a fresh two-year card in which he had to start from scratch. No matter, as the 2016/17 campaign turned into the best of his career as he produced his most consistent results in more than a decade, culminating in an emotional and long overdue first ranking title at the 2017 German Masters.
With zero points to defend last season and already back into the top 32 in the world, Hamilton perhaps had ambitions of an unlikely return to the top 16 and with it a Masters berth at the Alexandra Palace. Yet, a persistent back injury that has plagued the second half of his career resurfaced and last season was a monumental struggle that saw him accumulate only £23,500 in prize money. Another term like that and the 47 year-old will almost certainly be calling it a day. Is there another twist in the merry-go-round career of this popular Englishman or are we about to say goodbye to one of the sport’s longest and most likeable servants?
It took many, many, many efforts but Jamie Rhys Clarke got there in the end. The Welshman had suffered numerous near misses in attempting to become a professional over the last few years, including defeats in the finals of two European Amateur Championships and a World Under-21 Championship as well, but finally fulfilled his ambition with victories over Andy Hicks and George Pragnall in the EBSA Play-Offs in April.
Clarke, still only 23, has enjoyed a stellar amateur career, albeit with not much actual international silverware to show for it, and he clearly has the pedigree to make waves. It will be interesting to see how he fares during his debut campaign because the funny thing is that all those painful defeats could well have toughened him up and he might just be that bit better prepared than if he had beaten Michael Wild to European Amateur Championship glory in 2015. Wales has a proud snooker history and the current world champion is its favourite son. Clarke will be hoping to reach the same kinds of heights that Mark Williams has risen to during his illustrious career.
Less than six months ago, 24 year-old Adam Stefanów was on the brink of packing the game in and headed to the inaugural WSF Championship believing it was going to be his last chance to qualify for the Main Tour. It appeared as though he would miss out in agonising fashion after he was dismantled in the final by another emerging star from China in Luo Honghao. Yet, a late reprieve came in the form of a professional card when it was collectively decided by World Snooker, the WSF, and the WPBSA to add the runner-up to the list of graduates this season.
What’s good news for the Polish player also puts an extra positive spin on the continued progression of European snooker in general. Stefanów has had experience as an amateur top-up in numerous ranking events already with a couple of victories to his credit and, with time based in Sheffield under his belt, he could be well-equipped to make a decent account of himself in his debut campaign. He’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Coverage of the Riga Masters qualifiers will be on the Eurosport Player.
Click here to view the draw (Times: CET)