Expectations were high, then, as the World’s best arrived for the UK Championships at the Marshall Arena, Milton Keynes.
The classic philosophical thought experiment Theseus’ Ship asks: if you replaced every individual component of a sailing ship over a long period of time, could it still be considered the same ship? These strange venue changes brought on by coronavirus restrictions might prompt the sporting philosopher to ask the exact opposite: if you keep all the conditions of a tournament exactly the same, but change the name, are you staging a fundamentally different tournament?
The nail-biting, miss-heavy, final frame decider between Judd Trump and Neil Robertson last Sunday spares this philosopher any sleepless nights pondering such a conundrum – the answer is a resounding yes.
The UK Championship is one of snooker’s most prestigious “Triple Crown” events, alongside the Masters and the World Championship. The circumstances may have been strange, but the players were under no illusions; this tournament was more important than the previous three played at the same venue, with largely the same participants.
It speaks into an element of sport which is always true but rarely worth pondering – events are more illustrious, not because of any specific comprising element, but because players and fans believe they are. There is an implicit social contract which upholds the grandeur of sporting events, and once it has the assent of the masses, it is not easily lost by format changes.
Football’s Club World Cup is a case in point – if FIFA could simply bestow an event with prestige, then millions of us would be tuning in to watch Al-Hilal vs. Espérance de Tunis each December. Fans, however, do not perceive this to be a prominent event, and so it isn’t. Although swathes of Liverpool fans discovered some new-found respect for the event last year, totally unrelated to their lifting of the trophy, I’m sure.
It didn’t matter, then, that the UK Championship retained few of its usual characteristics – the surrounding of York’s Barbican, and more obviously, spectators. The players believed it was the UK Championship, and so it was.
Fortunately for snooker fans, the sporting entertainment sufficiently matched this socially-constructed gravitas.
In the first round, both Stuart Bingham and Kyren Wilson made maximum 147 breaks. There have now been 9 maximums made in 2020, the same or more than have been made in 7 of the previous 10 years, despite less tournaments being played. Eventual winner Robertson also broke the record for most century breaks at a UK Championships with 13. As in many sports, the lack of spectators seems to be helping the performance of the players.
The second round saw two significant shocks. Defending Champion Ding Junhui struggled in a 6-5 loss to world number 60 David Grace, meaning he has yet to go beyond a quarter final in a ranking tournament since his victory in York last year.
The even bigger surprise came when World Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan lost 6-5 to world number 63 Alexander Ursenbacher. It was the second time the Swiss youngster had beaten “The Rocket”, cementing the perception that he is one to watch for the future.
Two young Chinese players, Zhou Yuelong and Lu Ning, also impressed over the fortnight by reaching the semi-finals. But their failure to pose a real challenge to Trump and Robertson means the wait continues for one of China’s plethora of fledgling stars to finally burst onto the scene in earnest.
Ultimately, it will a tournament remembered for its marathon hour-long final frame. As standard bedtimes across the country crept into the rear-view mirror, the doomed declaration “just one frame left, no harm in staying up another 20 minutes” rang out in many a living room. Dreary eyes the following day spoke to a misjudged, but probably not regrettable, decision.
It was a final which deserved an audience. While some weirdness is helpfully dispelled by the artificial applause added for the TV audience’s benefit, it is the spontaneous “ooooohs” after missed shots which create far more atmosphere than claps after good ones. A thrilling final it was, but one somewhat marred by a nagging hint of the anticlimactic.
That is to take nothing away from two players at the top of their game. This is already the second knife-edge final between Trump and Robertson this season, if they retain this current form, this might become a regular fixture on this year’s Tour. While not an established rivalry, their proximity in the all-time centuries stats, combined with their current form, might mean we are witnessing the birth of one.
Victory was a welcome shot in the arm for the Australian, who wins his first Triple Crown event for 5 years. And while the Trump of five years ago might have allowed such a loss to affect his form going forward, it’s hard to see the 31 year-old not winning more tournaments this season.
Snooker’s busy schedule continued this week at the Scottish Open. Three guesses where that’s taking place.