For many of players who walk out into that famous Crucible arena during the next two weeks of the World Championships, it will be the highlight of their career. Unfortunately I won’t be able to share their experience as I lost in the final qualifying round, but there is something I do have in common with lots of them.
Leicester is a real hot-bed of snooker talent at the moment. As well as Mark Selby, the world No.1, we also have Tom Ford, Joe Jogia and yours truly. I can’t think of any other city that can boast four players in the top 64. One of the major reasons for this is the influence of Malcolm Thorne. He ran junior tournaments in Leicester for many years, bringing together some of the very best young talent from around the country to play each other every few weeks.
There were no better tournaments, anywhere. And so many of the players involved at the Crucible this year will have played in them, just as Mark, Tom and myself did. Sadly, Malc passed away last year, and I don’t believe the junior tournaments these days are quite as good. Mark and Tom, especially, gained some very good grounding and experience from those tournaments as juniors, and I think it’s fair to say they might not have achieved what they have today without Malc’s help, support and encouragement.
Seeing what Mark and Tom have achieved has definitely spurred me on. Lots of juniors I grew up with haven’t made it, and many more won’t in the future because they’re not getting the opportunities that I and others did.
It is tougher for young players to make it these days, they don’t realise how hard it is on the pro tour. Look at Luca Brecel. He’s an amazing talent, only 17, and just qualified for the Worlds. But he’s not had a great season and is way down at 87 in the rankings and in danger of losing his Tour card. It just shows that, no matter how good you are, it isn’t going to fall into your lap just like that.
Like Tom and Joe, I missed out on a place at the Crucible at the final hurdle. I was gutted for Tom, losing in the deciding frame, but he’s in the top 32 now and will push on for a place in the top 16 in the next couple of years. I lost to Dominic Dale and, although I was bitterly disappointed, this has been my best season by a long way. I’ve jumped more than any other player this season – I started at 69 in the rankings and now I’m up to 48. And I think I could even be as high as 43 after the Worlds.
My aim at the start of the season was top 48, but I’d say I’ve exceeded my expectations somewhat. I’ll start the next campaign hoping to build on this season, with the aim of reaching the top 32.
My match against Ding Junhui in the China Open helped – even though I lost! It was good experience to get some TV exposure, and it’s certainly given me the taste for more. What’s also helped is the amount of matches we now play since Barry Hearn became involved. It has made all the difference for me. In 2010 I played 10 matches, won four, lost 6. This season I’ve played more than 60 and won around 38. That speaks volumes.
It will be hard to watch the World Championships – I’ll just keep wishing I was there. But I won’t feel like that for long and I know I’ll go up to Sheffield to watch. I was looking at draw other day and, if I’d got through, I would have played Judd Trump. That would have been a really special experience. Oh well, Judd will have to wait until next year!
The draw is going to play a big part this year. The bottom half is definitely the strongest. You’ve got Mark in there, along with Neil Robertson, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ding, Mark Williams and Mark Allen. I rate Neil very highly. He spent a couple of years living in Leicester a while back, he was a great talent then, although I didn’t expect him to become quite so good! I expect John Higgins to do well in the top half. He’s not played well this year but he always pulls out his best game.
My wife, Tatiana, thinks Stephen Lee is a dark horse. Players are supposed to begin to lose it when they hit their ’30s, but he’s 38 and is playing as well as he’s ever done, which is proof that age does not matter. And as for my tip for the title? Well, I’m shocked that Mark hasn’t won it yet, so I’m sticking with Leicester and saying I believe this could be his year.
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