It’s time for the annual highs and lows review on SnookerHQ, and there are many talking points over the course of 2021 in snooker to recall.
On Monday, we took a look at a few of the worst bits from the 2021 calendar year, but today let’s focus on some of the high talking points that have engrossed snooker supporters in that period.
The UK Championship Final
A lot is made of the fabled Class of ’92, with Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins, and Mark Williams rightfully lavished in praise for their incredible longevity at the top of the game.
This year wasn’t their most fruitful in terms of titles won, but they still managed four pieces of silverware between them, and an incredible total of 12 title deciders in 2021 featured at least one of the trio.
Along with the likes of Mark Selby, Neil Robertson, and Judd Trump, these players have generally dominated the sport for a long time.
So much so that it was beginning to get a bit worrisome – even tiresome – that so few from the younger crop of competitors were managing to orchestrate a breakthrough.
Enter Zhao Xintong and Luca Brecel – the pair who between them delighted and dazzled at the Barbican Centre for this year’s UK Championship.
Their corresponding runs and subsequent showdown for glory in York represented the first time in a decade that a UK final was contested between two cueists in their twenties.
Zhao, 24, beat 26 year-old Brecel to land the £200,000 top prize and announce himself as the next biggest star from China after then 20 year-old Yan Bingtao had earlier landed the prestigious Masters crown in January.
Brecel, who of course briefly threatened breaking into the elite a few years ago, didn’t let the disappointment of missing out get to him, and a week later the Belgian Bullet duly romped to success in the Scottish Open.
A changing of the guard? Maybe not yet, but at least the sport has been injected with the prospect of a fresh and exciting breed of emerging talent.
Selby’s Fantastic Four
With four triumphs from the last eight World Championships, Mark Selby has written his name into the history books as a Crucible specialist and one of the all-time greats of the game.
There are many who loathe his style of play, but there can be no doubting his pedigree at the very highest level and he represents one of the most determined champions ever.
Undeterred by his crushing 17-16 semi-final defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan in 2020, Selby bounced back in Sheffield in magnificent fashion to raise the blue-riband trophy aloft in May once more.
Selby wasn’t troubled at all in the first three rounds, thrashing Kurt Maflin 10-1 before 13-7 and 13-3 triumphs against Mark Allen and Mark Williams respectively.
The Jester was then made to work hard for his remaining two victories, first outlasting Stuart Bingham in an exhausting 17-15 clash before overcoming a fired-up Shaun Murphy 18-15 in the final.
At 38, Selby still has time on his side when it comes to adding more World Championship titles to his CV, and it’s as though he turns into an entirely different animal over the longer format in Sheffield.
The Return of Fans
The debate surrounding the rights and wrongs of having fans in venues during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic will rage on and on.
Both sides have merits and fallacies to their arguments, but one fact won’t change – sport is more entertaining when there are fans in attendance.
Snooker’s powers did a commendable job in keeping the sport running throughout the 2020/21 campaign, with the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes providing the required facilities to maintain a decent level of competition on the Main Tour.
However, as best as the different promoters and broadcasters tried to differentiate one tournament from another, the reality was that all of them began to look and feel the same.
The lack of an audience didn’t help matters, and while there was scepticism surrounding the return of fans at the Crucible, it was a welcome sight and sound when it ultimately transpired.
Shaun Murphy’s fist-pumping en route to his appearance in the final would have been a lot less endearing and effective had it been to the backdrop of an empty arena.
Two other gripping encounters involving a couple of Northern Irish pals probably best illustrated the difference between the staging of tournaments with and without fans.
When Jordan Brown stunned Ronnie O’Sullivan to land the Welsh Open title in February, the 750/1 outsider’s biggest career feat was achieved to deafening silence.
Contrast that to Mark Allen’s similar 9-8 victory against John Higgins in the Northern Ireland Open in Belfast, where on home turf the Antrim man lifted the Alex Higgins Trophy aloft in front of a legion of boisterous and rowdy supporters.
The cliche goes that sport is nothing without the fans, and the opposite ends of the spectrum were for sure highlighted throughout this year in the game.
Featured photo credit: WST