No Ronnie O’Sullivan, Neil Robertson or Judd Trump: What shock Tour Championship line-up tells us ahead of Crucible


Anyone who predicted that not one of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Neil Robertson, Judd Trump, John Higgins or Mark Williams would be in Hull deserves either a pat on the back or equal billing at Derren Brown’s next stage show.

These star names have between them reached only one ranking final all season: Trump lost to Mark Allen in the World Grand Prix’s title match in January.
Trump did win the Masters and O’Sullivan was successful at the Champion of Champions, but these are not ranking events and so didn’t count towards Tour Championship inclusion.

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But the players who make up the field have all deserved their places. Allen has won three ranking titles this season and Mark Selby two. Shaun Murphy and Ali Carter have each appeared in two finals, winning a title apiece. Kyren Wilson, Robert Milkins and Ryan Day have each won a ranking event, while Ding Junhui held on in eighth place by one frame as Gary Wilson lost 5-4 to Pang Junxu in the WST Classic semi-finals this week to agonisingly miss out.

This is the grateful eight, delighted to be just three victories away from a first prize of £150,000. For audiences, it will be an intriguing week as the spotlight shines on some players who have spent much of their careers as part of the circuit’s supporting cast.

This is only the fifth staging of the Tour Championship but it already feels like one of the calendar’s biggest events, not least because all matches are best-of-19 frames.

Snooker benefits from having a range of formats but, to many players and fans, multi-session matches are the proper stuff. They allow time for the narrative to shift, for momentum to build and for epic comebacks to materialise.

The World Championship qualifiers, which begin on April 3, are reverting back to best-of-19 throughout having been best-of-11 in the early rounds for the last three years, meaning every match played between now and the end of the season will consist of at least two sessions.

Allen exemplifies how a longer match can turn. He trailed Ding 6-1 in their UK Championship final last November having failed to make a half-century break. In any other format, that would have been the end of his chances, but he won the last frame of the afternoon session with a break of 79.

The time between sessions is not talked about enough. This is where the trailing player can re-gather their thoughts and give themselves a gee-up, but also where the leading player has to fight a snooker player’s greatest enemy – self-doubt.

Leading 6-2 in a best-of-19, most people will expect you to win. Maybe you will expect to win. Certainly, you will feel that you should.

But when Allen and Ding resumed a few hours later, the whole match felt different. Allen came out of the blocks with a string of breaks – 60, 93, 132, 56, 59 and 109 – and was suddenly 8-6 up. He won 10-7.

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In a running race, the person in front cannot see the person behind, but they may feel them creeping up on their shoulder. Meanwhile, the trailing runner has free rein to close the gap and apply pressure through the unseen threat that they pose.

In snooker, ‘clincher’s disease’ is the syndrome where the leading player allows thoughts of losing from a winning position to impede victory. It’s a psychological condition which can set in brutally early.

If it does, frame after frame slips by as the nightmare starts to become reality. It’s happened at one time or another to every player – even Higgins in last year’s Tour Championship, when he lost 10-9 from 9-4 up to Robertson.

John Higgins

Image credit: Eurosport

This is the fascination with longer matches: who will crack? Who will hold on? Who will find inspiration and mount a comeback?

For audiences, the investment they have made by watching a match all day comes off if there is a close finish. By then, they are living every moment.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Tour Championship format heavily favours Selby. He is the master of the long matches, as proven by his four title successes at the World Championship.

Selby, who has just captured the much shorter format WST Classic, has the knack of winning frames in all sorts of ways, whether in one visit, with a great clearance or after 40 minutes of scrapping around. His concentration is such that he always seems to play every frame as if it is the first of the match.

But what does the unexpected Tour Championship line-up mean for the World Championship itself? Possibly not that much.

In four stagings of the event, the tour champion is yet to go on and triumph at the Crucible. In fact, no winner of the Tour Championship has then gone on to reach even the semi-finals at the World Championship.

It’s been an odd season in many ways, with the supposed stars of the sport misfiring. It has opened up a space for others to thrive.

The grateful eight who have taken the highway to Hull deserve their spell in the limelight – but it doesn’t mean it won’t be business as usual when we get to Sheffield next month.

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