Refreshingly, snooker is a sport where rules largely remain constant. You certainly won’t find anything on the level of the VAR debate in football, where rule-makers have deployed technology to try and improve the game. Snooker already has a formula that works perfectly, which means that big changes to the sport come from the players themselves rather than governing bodies.
Here are three ways that the make-up of players at the highest level of snooker might change in the next few years.
Goodbye to the golden generation?
Conditioning and training techniques are enabling stars across all sports to prolong their careers. One example is how tennis legend Roger Federer won the 2018 Australian Open at 36-years-old when people had been predicting his decline for years. Ronnie O’Sullivan is one man who has been compared to Federer because of his remarkable talent, but the Rocket is also matching him by defying retirement predictions.
Now aged 44, O’Sullivan looks like he could play for years. As a man who has broken all sorts of records and inspired a range of snooker cues, the Rocket is a player who will be greatly missed when he does hang up his cue. That might not be too far away, as O’Sullivan told Eurosport in a revealing interview from April 2020 that he plans to retire at the age of 50.
Mark Williams and John Higgins are two more evergreen stars who, like O’Sullivan, were born in 1975 and may be enjoying their last years at the top. Higgins has spoken about his struggle for motivation in the past, although Williams has stated his intentions to keep playing until he drops off the tour. This generation has dominated the snooker scene for over two decades, but all good things must come to an end.
An end to British and Irish dominance?
With the fading or the retirement of established stars, there will be spaces for new names to rise and claim titles. British and Irish players have always dominated the elite level of the sport, but statistics on the globalisation of snooker indicate that this trend may be changing. Asian players are becoming more heavily represented in the game’s rankings and look set to challenge for majors over the next decade. As of July 2020, the 25 non-Asian players in the world’s top 32 have an average age of around 38, with 11 of those players past the 40 mark. The 7 Asian stars in the same ranking have an average age of 27, with 4 of those players under 30.
This is clear proof of how the popularity of snooker is taking hold outside of the UK and Ireland, with China now one of the most prolific producers of new talent.
A big reason for this has been the success of Ding Junhui, who in 2005 became the first player from outside of the UK and Ireland to win the UK Championship. Ding is one of snooker’s premier stars and has inspired the creation of an academy in Sheffield bearing his name. Ding’s trailblazing performances are a big reason behind the rise of new Chinese stars, like Liang Wenbo and Yan Bingtao. The only question is when, and not if, an Asian player will follow in Ding’s footsteps and triumph at a major.
Sharing the titles around?
Breaking through and winning the first title at a Triple Crown event (UK Championship, World Championship, The Masters) hasn’t been easy in recent years, thanks to the longevity of that golden generation. Since the 2005/06 season when Ding claimed his first UK Championship, there have only been seven first-time Triple Crown champions across 44 events.
Compare that to a period between 96/97 and 01/02, where a third of major champions were first-time winners. That spell came after Stephen Hendry’s dominance ended, so we could see a similar string of new champions as the golden generation winds down. While the three-time major champion Judd Trump looks certain to add plenty of titles to his collection, we should also see more new faces lifting trophies in the coming years.
The likes of O’Sullivan, Higgins, and Williams could just share the next thirty majors between them and continue to dazzle audiences for the next decade. While snooker will become increasingly globalised and feature far more players from outside of UK and Ireland in the 2020s, the identities of snooker’s champions may hinge on when O’Sullivan and the gang call it a day.