The UK government announced on Friday that its pilot scheme allowing supporters to attend sporting events would be suspended.
A dramatic opening day at the 2020 World Snooker Championship ended with Judd Trump winning in front of a small audience – but it’s a case of snooker behind closed doors for the remainder of the competition.
The reigning champion got his wish to be announced into the arena on day one at the Crucible Theatre to applause from fans.
However, midway through Trump’s first session against Tom Ford on Friday morning, British prime minister Boris Johnson revealed that its testing programme would be postponed as a result of a spike in coronavirus cases.
Crowds were able to stay for the remainder of the day, but from Saturday there will be no fans watching the action live in Sheffield.
There is a chance that tickets may remain sold for the final on August 15th and 16th, but everything is up in the air at the moment.
While snooker behind closed doors might not be how the sport’s chairman Barry Hearn wanted this championship to unfold, it’s probably safer in the long run for both the fans and WST – even if they don’t necessarily see it that way right now.
How the change in the tournament make-up will impact the outcome this year will be an interesting plot to follow.
Some players like Trump and Neil Robertson had been vocal in their desire to play in front of people, and in the view of the latter the playing field could be now evened up to a degree.
Robertson told Nick Metcalfe for Sporting Life on the eve of the World Championship: “I would fully welcome the crowds of a few hundred people at the Crucible.”
“The last tournament (Tour Championship) was disastrous to play in. It was awful, terrible. I think snooker relies on fans. It felt like well-paid practice. There was no pressure, no atmosphere.
“With no crowd, there were no oohs and aahs – they can influence how a match is played. The other players maybe didn’t say it in interviews because they wanted to be respectful, but it was pretty rough.
“It was the first tournament (Stephen) Maguire had won in seven or eight years. He’s a brilliant player. But would he have played as well with a crowd there, that would have been on him for every mistake? It remains to be seen.
Robertson has a point, although the fact that he lost to Maguire in the Milton Keynes tournament does cheapen his sentiments somewhat.
And I messed up 3 my self or would have been 11 tons in 14 frames😊 No crowds means it’s just like practice there is literally zero pressure. Also the pockets were set up like an exhibition table. Impossible to miss when you’re in. Does the game a disservice at pro level #9ball
— Neil Robertson🌱 (@nr147) June 21, 2020
Nevertheless, it could be argued that snooker behind closed doors could play an important role, and there are some competitors who could potentially benefit from the lack of an atmosphere inside the famously intimate Crucible Theatre.
When things start to go wrong in Sheffield, there’s usually no hiding spot as a packed auditorium breathes down your neck and heaps further pressure onto your shoulders.
It’s one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to emerge as the last man standing following the gruelling 17-day marathon of the mind.
Who, then, are the three players who could thrive the most amid the hushed change in scenery at the Crucible this year?
Ronnie O’Sullivan has no problems playing in front of a crowd, and in fact the five-time world champion often plays better for it.
His ability to entertain with his silky skills is legendary, and it is one of the main reasons why he attracts so many followers.
Yet, the former world number one isn’t a master at handling all the outside factors that especially come with playing in an event of this magnitude and length.
O’Sullivan creates unnecessary distractions and gets sidetracked by the comings and goings of all around him.
There’s no questioning the fact that this build-up of stress has played a part in his repeated demise at the Crucible since 2014.
The 44 year-old, who faces Thepchaiya Un-Nooh in the first round, now has the opportunity to go in and out of the venue while focusing more directly on his job at hand – albeit managing his love-hate relationship with the media might be a bigger obstacle to overcome.
A potential opponent for O’Sullivan in the last 16, Ding Junhui is another who may not mind playing snooker behind closed doors at the World Championship.
The Chinese number one has endured eternal struggles in Sheffield, only once reaching the final despite a wealth of talent at his disposal.
An adopted member of the city who has his own academy there, Ding is well-liked and should feel at home in this environment.
But for some reason the 33 year-old has never been able to put it all together on a consistent basis in an effort to capture that elusive maiden world crown.
Indeed, Ding’s persistent problem is his consistency, underlined perfectly this season by his superb victory in the UK Championship that was sandwiched with dreadful periods of form either side of that week in York before Christmas.
Ding feels an enormous amount of pressure to triumph for his legion of fans in China too, but with nobody but the cameras to play in front of there might be more chance for the former Masters winner to blank everything out of his mind.
That said, with only a narrow 5-4 advantage from his opening session with Mark King, his 2020 campaign could be over just as quickly as it has begun.
Already mentioned above, Maguire took advantage of a barren Marshall Arena – not to forget Ding’s late withdrawal that gifted him a spot in the field – to lift the prestigious Tour Championship trophy in June.
It represented the Scot’s first ranking success since 2013, a remarkably lengthy spell for someone of his pedigree.
For sure, it’s possible that it was a mere coincidence that Maguire managed to break his duck that week, but Robertson is probably on to something when he alludes to the Glaswegian rising to the occasion when the outside pressure was drained.
Maguire once confidently chimed that he would be disappointed not to become world champion before the age of 30.
Nine years have passed since that milestone was reached, and Maguire only has two semi-final appearances to his name at the Crucible.
The UK Championship runner-up has a difficult last 32 opponent in Martin Gould, but with confidence high and distractions low he could be one to look out for later in this year’s edition.
Featured photo credit: WST