The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
On reflection, the 2009/10 snooker season probably proves to be one of the most pivotal in the sport’s history.
Not so much because of the snooker that was played; rather the opposite in fact, as the professional game’s outlook dwindled toward the cusp of nothingness, and shady dealings continued to overshadow the integrity of the game.
After years of mediocre leadership in which snooker had its enforced divorce with the once crucial tobacco sponsorship, Rodney Walker was finally usurped as the chairman of the governing body, the WPBSA, in December of 2009.
It seems remarkable now to consider that the vote to remove Walker from the board was relatively close (32 in favour, 24 against), considering there was a proven sports promoter and successful business guru in the batter’s box ready to take over the reigns.
Barry Hearn had been in love with snooker ever since discovering a young Steve Davis at the end of the 1970s, managing the “Nugget” during his dominant era of success throughout the following decade.
But despite taking his “Matchroom Mob” of signed stars all around the world, introducing the cue sport to territories previously presumed unfathomable to travel to, Hearn was effectively pushed out, or at least discouraged, from playing a more significant role in the sport’s progression.
When the 2009/10 snooker season commenced, it was clear that the sport was on its knees and at risk of becoming a joke, if it hadn’t already.
Only six ranking event were scheduled, meaning there were often literally months in between tournaments on the calendar, with prize money remaining low.
While players in the top 16 continued to earn a handsome enough living, those below that cut-off point were forced to rethink their status and there was an overall consensus that they were now merely acting as part-timers.
When Hearn then arrived, it immediately breathed fresh air into the snooker scene with buzz words like “opportunity”, “meritocracy”, and “success” quickly revitalising its image.
Improvements were soon evident in the campaigns to come, but toward the end of the 2009/10 snooker season the sport was rocked by an enormous controversy that underlined the escalation and severity of its recent troubles.
At the 2010 World Championship, reigning champion John Higgins had just suffered a shock second-round defeat to Davis, now 52 and enjoying his last hurrah at the Crucible Theatre.
However, barely a week later an even bigger story made headlines across all media platforms as Higgins, winner of that campaign’s Welsh Open, became embroiled in a News of the World sting in which he allegedly agreed to lose frames in future tournaments for money.
It was precisely the kind of revelation that Hearn didn’t need at the outset of his tenure, and one which would be repeated in some way shape or form several times in the coming years as snooker tried to rid itself of in-house corruption.
Higgins and his manager Pat Mooney had been at the forefront of the recently-formed World Series of Snooker – pro-am events that took several players around Europe to compete in new competitions.
Shaun Murphy had beaten Higgins in the first and only World Series of Snooker Grand Final the season before, but two events into the 2009/10 snooker season it disappeared from the calendar.
In the News of the World piece, a team of undercover journalists met Higgins and Mooney in Kiev with the apparent intention of organising a new event for the World Series of Snooker.
Discussions, which were taped on camera, turned to the possibility of match-fixing, and the newspaper alleged that Higgins and Mooney agreed to lose frames for a sum of £261,000.
A high-profile investigation ensued, and although Higgins was cleared of the more serious match-fixing and bribery allegations, the Scot was banned for six months for failing to report the incident to the appropriate authorities.
Mooney, who was serving as a board member on the WPBSA at the time, was the ultimate fall guy and was duly handed a lifetime ban from the sport, but the reputation of the three-time world champion was undoubtedly also tarnished.
If anything, it highlighted the position that many of the players found themselves in, whether by choice or not.
Snooker had been thriving even less than a decade beforehand, with record prize money at the tail end of the tobacco sponsorship era.
But with the reduction in events and less monetary rewards, the temptation to provide by other means became more prevalent, and damning – as would be highlighted in another significant scandal that will feature prominently later.
The unsavoury incident completely overshadowed the 2010 World Championship final between Neil Robertson and Graeme Dott.
In what transpired to be a forgettable encounter regardless, the Australian emerged with his maiden world title – becoming only the third player from outside the UK to claim the Crucible crown after Cliff Thorburn and Ken Doherty.
The Melbourne man’s mother flew across the globe on the eve of the showdown to watch her son triumph on the greatest stage of them all, just a few years after Robertson had travelled by himself to England with only a few hundred pounds in his pocket, intent on making a genuine success of his fledgling snooker career.
Robertson was the only player during the intermittent 2009/10 snooker season who managed to triumph twice from the small collection of available tournaments – also claiming the Grand Prix for a second time in October.
The “Thunder from Down Under” beat Ding Junhui in the final, but the latter made up for it by claiming the UK Championship just before Christmas in Telford.
The Chinese youngster featured in another final later that term, but he missed out on a second China Open victory due to a 10-6 reverse against Mark Williams.
It was the first ranking title for the Welshman in four years, an incredible stretch of underachievement that culminated in him temporarily dropping out of the elite top 16 in the rankings list within that period.
Ronnie O’Sullivan was the other ranking event champion during that campaign, winning the season-opening Shanghai Masters at home favourite Liang Wenbo’s expense.
O’Sullivan was subsequently a favourite to add two invitational titles to his collection either side of the New Year, only to miss out at the last hurdle on both occasions.
The “Rocket” failed to win Matchroom’s Premier League for the first time since 2004 when he unexpectedly lost in the final to Shaun Murphy.
Not long after, O’Sullivan squandered a 9-6 lead in a remarkable deciding-frame defeat to new rival Mark Selby in the prestigious Masters in London.
With so many gaps on the calendar, smaller tournaments were established to help fill the void – including those from the emerging six reds format.
In Thailand, Jimmy White rolled back the years to emerge with the silverware in the Six-Red World Grand Prix, while Mark Davis later won the first of a record three world titles under the shorter guise in Killarney.
The 2009/10 snooker season will be mostly remembered for its off-table stories, though, and the sport sought to bounce back from its lowest ebb.
Despite the disappointment of the Higgins affair and a term that left players feeling mostly redundant, a more promising future under the invigorated leadership of Hearn was finally in store.
Featured photo credit: Monique Limbos