Snooker in January

CLS, The Masters and the new WST Pro Series

Correcting the information from my last post: the Masters is not being staged in Alexandra Palace. The venue is the same venue we are used to: Arena MK in Milton Keynes. This situation is frustrating. I’m glad there are snooker tournaments going on, but the absence of a crowd takes a little bit of the fun away from the sport.

Before The Masters, earlier this month, the season resumed with another Championship League Snooker. The format is not the same as last time, though. There are seven groups of seven players and each group is a round-robin. Each match is a best-of-five, which means there are no draws anymore. Players will get a single point for each victory. The winner of each group will compose the winners group from which the champion of the 2021 Championship League shall emerge. Remember that this is an invitational event once again. And the weird aspect of this CLS is that, topping the group by scoring more than others is not enough to progress to the next stage. The top four players qualify for the group play-offs. This means that, to qualify for the next stage, a player must win the semi-final and the final of the play-offs. Those who finish second, third, fourth and fifth get another chance by joining a trio of fresh players in the next group. It took me a while to digest this. The reason is that the players of group 1, for example, will get more chances of qualifying than the players who joined the competition in group 2 and obviously, that’s weird.

Three group winners are already known: Zhou Yuelong from group 1, Graeme Dott from group 2 in his second attempt, and John Higgins from group 3 in his third attempt. And yes, you understood correctly, as both Dott and Higgins were originally placed in group 1. So, for someone struggling financially or maybe just trying to get free table time, it is a good idea to start in group 1 and try to remain in the competition until group 7. John Higgins is a very good example. He started in group 1 and earned £5,000 by finishing second. Then he earned £3,100 in group 2 before qualifying on his third attempt in group 3, earning £6,400. The result is that he played very well in the Masters and made it to the final. That was an awesome strategy. Anyway, the CLS resumes in February, so I’m changing the subject back to the Masters.

John Higgins and the young player Yan Bingtao are the two finalists. Judd Trump and Jack Lisowski tested positive for COVID-19 and did not compete. Gary Wilson and Joe Perry replaced them and lost in the first round to Kyren Wilson and David Gilbert, respectively.

The first finalist, Yan Bingtao, defeated world number two Neil Robertson in the first round 6-5. That was a huge result for someone making his debut at this prestigious tournament. Yan Bingtao plays the game like a veteran. He has the right temperament for the game and seems to deal elegantly with frustration whenever he plays a bad shot. He kept his composure during the whole competition, and that is saying a lot as he suffered three deciding frames to reach the final. The first decider was against Neil Robertson, the second against Stephen Maguire and the third against the defending champion Stuart Bingham. Not bad for someone who is only 20. This Chinese player is a firm top 16 and a strong candidate to be the first Chinese ever to become world champion. He also made the highest break of his career (141) in his quarter-final match against Maguire.

The second finalist is, as I wrote before, John Higgins. The last time he reached the final was back in 2006! He defeated Mark Allen 6-5 in the first round and then produced the best snooker I’ve seen him play in years, beating Ronnie O’Sullivan 6-3 in the quarter-finals. We saw five consecutive century breaks in that match: Higgins started with a break of 145 in the third frame (the highest break of the tournament so far), followed by a break of 110. O’Sullivan replied with breaks of 125 and 103. Higgins made his third century (134) in frame 7 and clinched victory by winning frames 8 and 9. The match stats displayed during the mid-session interval were insane: O’Sullivan was 3-1 down with 97% pot success, and Higgins was even better with 98%. The Rocket was not able to keep up with such wizardry.

The Wizard of Wishaw

Higgins played David Gilbert in the semi-finals but despite making two centuries, the Scottish did not produce the same performance from the day before. Nonetheless, he played very well and is a strong favorite to get his hands on the Paul Hunter trophy for a third time. It seems that the “class of 92” is not done yet. This is good for snooker and very inspiring for “ordinary people” like me. Will we see Higgins win the first major tournament of 2021? In case he wins, will that inspire his “classmates”? I do hope so.

Is there a break after the Masters? No! The new tournament, WST Pro Series, starts on Monday, January 18th. This is a CLS-like competition that does not reassign players into other groups to give them another chance. Stephen Hendry was supposed to take part in this event, but he gave up. In my opinion, he wants to play in front of a crowd. I understand his standpoint. Things are not “normal”. The tournaments are played behind closed doors and this will not change for a while. The WST Pro Series will come to an end in March.

The last tournament of this busy month is the German Masters. Judd Trump is the defending champion, top 16 players Neil Robertson, Mark Selby, Kyren Wilson, Mark Allen, Yan Bingtao, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh and David Gilbert all failed to qualify, and O’Sullivan does not like playing in qualifiers, so he did not enter this event. In other words, Trump is a huge favorite to win it again.

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