The latest chapter in a series of articles looking back at each campaign from the Crucible era.
The 2019/20 snooker season appeared to be like any other, but the most serious global crisis in generations led to unprecedented cancellations and uncertainty.
Much of the discussion near the beginning of the campaign revolved around whether or not Judd Trump would be able to carry forward the recent form that saw him capture several titles, including the Masters in London and the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible.
With additional media requirements to deal with amid carrying the responsibility of being the sport’s flag bearer, it had been common in the past for first-time world champions to struggle the following term.
But Trump never looked like someone burdened with that kind of pressure and, in fact, appeared to thrive on his newly acquired status as the top gun.
The Englishman skipped the season-opening Riga Masters, which boasted a depleted field and was eventually won by Yan Bingtao – the 19 year-old becoming the first teenager since 2006 to win a ranking title and only the third ever Chinese competitor to manage the feat.
However, Trump was immediately back to winning ways when he entered the next tournament, the International Championship in Daqing where he thrashed Shaun Murphy 10-3 in the final.
As a result, Trump usurped Ronnie O’Sullivan to become the new world number one, and his relentless pursuit of silverware rarely let up thereafter.
In October and November, Trump featured in title-deciding showdowns in three consecutive weeks, sandwiching victories in the World Open and Northern Ireland Open with a thrilling 10-9 defeat to Neil Robertson in the prestigious Champion of Champions.
In an encounter of the highest quality with the pair exchanging eight century breaks between them, it was an appropriate way to conclude the invitational tournament’s seven-year run at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.
A short time after the New Year, Robertson enjoyed a similar period of dominant form when he too reached a hat-trick of finals in the same number of weeks.
Like Trump, the Australian won his first and third outings, annihilating Zhou Yuelong 9-0 to claim the European Masters crown before adding the World Grand Prix at Graeme Dott’s expense a fortnight later.
In between, Robertson and Trump renewed their rivalry in the final of the German Masters, with the latter prevailing on this occasion to secure his fourth ranking title of the campaign.
By around this point of the 2019/20 snooker season, there were two other players who had conjured up multiple successes on the Main Tour.
Mark Selby, who for a couple of years had struggled to rediscover his top form, particularly on home soil, triumphed in both the English and Scottish Opens for a rare Home Nations double.
Defeats for David Gilbert and Jack Lisowski gave them their fourth and third reverses in ranking event finals respectively, which helped to underline their merit of being the best players to have never won something of such status.
Murphy was also a double winner, putting behind him a defeat to Trump in the International Championship that represented his sixth loss in a row at the final hurdle with glories in both the China Championship and the Welsh Open.
Strangely, however, none of these formidable players threatened in the first two Triple Crown events, with Ding Junhui coming from absolutely nowhere to capture the UK Championship title for a third time in his career, and Stuart Bingham winning a Masters in which none of the top eight seeds reached the last four.
As the 2019/20 snooker season moved into its home stretch, there was plenty of chatter surrounding Trump’s attempt at breaking the record for the most ranking titles won during a single campaign.
The Bristol potter equalled the target of five set by Stephen Hendry, Ding, Selby, and O’Sullivan with another superb success, this time at the Players Championship in Southport.
But when he proceeded to eclipse those esteemed names with victory in the Gibraltar Open, there was significantly more attention engulfing the emerging worldwide pandemic, COVID-19.
In January when the coronavirus outbreak was in its early phase within China, a prompt decision was taken to postpone the China Open in Beijing that was due to be held in April.
But by March the virus had spread all around the world, and the usual focus within the sport of winning and losing became secondary to the pressing concerns of guaranteeing the healthy and safety of the players, officials, and fans.
The Gibraltar Open had begun with spectators allowed inside the venue, but as the COVID-19 crisis rapidly developed, the final was eerily contested behind closed doors.
It had initially been the intention to continue with the season, but as coronavirus cases increased at an alarming rate the Tour Championship was postponed, before eventually the entire 2019/20 snooker season was put on hold.
For the first time in the Crucible era, the World Snooker Championship was not going to be staged in April, and with a societal lockdown enforced there were constant murmurings around whether or not the 2020 edition would be completed at all.
More than two months later in May, uncertainty about how to deal with the pandemic was still rife, but the UK government permitted the resumption of elite level sport with snooker among the first to recommence.
A makeshift Championship League, the second of the campaign after Scott Donaldson had triumphed in the first, was thrown together at the last minute to give the players an opportunity to compete, albeit behind closed doors.
Belgium’s Luca Brecel emerged as the winner, but with travel and quarantine restrictions in place around the world, players from outside the UK were at a distinct disadvantage.
This was imminently evident in the rescheduled Tour Championship, which Ding Junhui was forced to withdraw from because of an inability to safely travel back from China in time.
Ding’s replacement Stephen Maguire took full advantage, beating Robertson and Trump to reach the final before downing Mark Allen to earn the £150,000 top prize.
Both the Championship League and the Tour Championship were staged within a bubble at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes, a venue that would become synonymous with a makeshift 2020/21 snooker campaign.
Meanwhile, with the 2020 Olympic Games postponed, Barry Hearn swooped in to secure the same dates for the World Snooker Championship and guarantee a significant share of the sporting viewing market.
At first, it appeared as though a limited number of fans would even be allowed to attend as well, even though the risks of opening everything up seemed too great.
Yet, as coronavirus cases rose again, there was only a crowd in to welcome Trump as the defending champion on the opening day, before the remainder of the competition up until the final was played behind closed doors.
Had the season gone uninterrupted, Trump would have been a nailed-on favourite to crush the Curse of the Crucible in which no first-time champion had ever returned to successfully defend the trophy.
Earlier in the 2019/20 snooker season, Jimmy White had laid to rest some of his own personal Crucible demons by capturing the World Seniors Championship at the sport’s spiritual home in Sheffield, an accomplishment he would repeat in August.
At a strange time anything seemed possible, but Trump’s imperious form was not quite the same upon the restart and the 30 year-old bowed out in the quarter-finals to Kyren Wilson.
One player who the changes seemed to obviously favour the most was Ronnie O’Sullivan, who had so often in the recent past struggled to deal with the heightened attention of the media and the fans in Sheffield.
O’Sullivan had endured his worst season for years, winning only the invitational Shanghai Masters and failing to qualify from the one-year ranking list for either the Players or the Tour Championships.
The Rocket got off to a lightning start, hammering Thepchaiya Un-Nooh 10-1 in the first round before overcoming Ding and Mark Williams to reach the last four.
In the semi-final, O’Sullivan then fought back from 16-14 behind to deny old frenemy Mark Selby in a decider and set up a final showdown against Wilson, who was also taken the distance in an equally absorbing clash with Anthony McGill that concluded courtesy of a bonkers deciding frame.
A few hundred fans were back inside the Crucible Theatre for the final, but the distraction didn’t have any meaningful impact on O’Sullivan as he comfortably triumphed in Sheffield for the first time in seven years.
A sixth world crown brought him to within one of Hendry’s record, and the victory also represented a 37th ranking title of an illustrious career that finally saw him move beyond the Scot’s long-held tally.
Against long odds the 2019/20 snooker season finished, but there remained many challenges ahead for the sport to overcome.
Featured photo credit: WST
Note: This series will continue after the conclusion of the 2021/22 snooker season. Thank you for reading.