Snooker / The Painful Price of an Upset

Watching the top players fall early in the Snooker World Championship was interesting at first, but now the later rounds are proving to be a yawn.

Every Saturday has its Saturday night blues, and every tournament that begins with a series of upsets must suffer in the later stages from the lack of the top players. Or, as Mark Williams tweeted last Sunday: "I'm watching The Exorcist."

No, Williams wasn't being a sore loser. The 2000 and 2003 world champion, who was booted in the first round this year, preferred to watch a horror flick than the Final 16 round of the 2013 Snooker World Championship. And who can blame him?

On Sunday night, all the event had to offer was Ricky Walden, Robert Milkins, Stuart Bingham and Mark Davis. All good players, all worthy competitors, but really nothing to write home about.

Upset comes with a price. Take, for example, the 2002 soccer World Cup. The thrill of the early rounds and quarter finals were invigorating, but by the finals, the teams that had caused sensations earlier didn't really have the chops to give us a good show like the masters from France, Argentina, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Missing the magic moments

In terms of snooker, the billiards-like sport that makes use of a longer table and 22 balls (smaller than the billiard ones) and its own set of rules, Williams hit the nail on the head when he tweeted that if Ronnie O'Sullivan loses, he just won't be able to watch anymore.

You have to wonder what happened to Williams, both at the snooker table and away from it. Watching O'Sullivan beat Ali Carter 13-8, the Welshman tweeted: "No one can play anywhere near the Ronnie's standard, and he's had 12 months off. He must have watched us all year and just laughed."

The idea's a little absurd. When a top player misses a few tournaments his stature often grows. O'Sullivan is unique, but throughout his career he was never invincible. Still, he does seem to be on form: He dispatched Carter – the loser in last year's final – with several magical shots.

The executives of "World Snooker" and the TV stations that broadcast the event would no doubt love to see a few more of these magic moments in the upcoming games. O'Sullivan is good for business, especially when some of the big names in the quarter finals – such as Judd Trump, Shaun Murphy and Ding Junhui – will be joined by relatively small fish like Walden, Bingham, Barry Hawkins and Michael White. White, for example is 41st in the world rankings and this is his first World Championship. The other three are in the Top 16, but it's also a first time for them in the Sheffield quarter finals.

Obviously, they all earned their current positions and won their way to where they are but the truth of the matter is that they all lack the wow factor. You wonder – and fear – if they really have what it takes to play their best at this stage, or present a level of snooker that justifies such an occasion.

No buzz about it

Something's missing at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield these last days. Williams, eager to weigh in, tweeted: "No buzz about it," "poor standard." The players who caused the early upsets, those still in the tournament (and those who have already lost) are used to short games in a week-long tournament and they rarely last the whole week. There's only one tournament that goes on for more than two weeks with long games, so none of the players are used to the format, but some of the quarterfinalists have even less experience than others.

So what happened?

Upsets are a welcome part of every sport but the early defeats of Mark Selby, John Higgins, Mark Williams and Stephen Maguire raised some questions.

"I had no drive, no buzz," said Selby, the world's top-ranked player. "Anyone can accept losing but the way I played, I didn't really turn up. This year I've played in almost everything and I just feel as though I've burned myself out playing too much."

Williams, who clearly has too much spare time these days, agrees. The number of tournaments has grown, as well as the distances the professionals must travel – including several yearly visits to China, where snooker has become increasingly popular. Several players have already gone on record saying that all the Chinese tournaments should be held consecutively. The top players usually attend most of the tournaments and naturally make it to the final stages.

When World Snooker Association chairman Barry Heran rejects the fatigue claims ("I am not a fan of burnout or using it as an excuse for under-performing. I sympathize with the older players, but if you can't keep up with the youngsters, move aside"), you get the idea that things aren't about to change. It will be interesting to see if the top players continue to suffer from fatigue in the coming years.

The first Chinese champion?

Ding Junhui has been tagged as a potential world champion quite a few times since he made his breakthrough in the middle of the last decade. Now, at age 26, he's in the World Championship for only the second time in his career.

Surprisingly, Ding made it to the tournament after losing in the first round of the China Open, the tournament that marked his rise eight years ago.

"I find it easier to play here in Sheffield than to play in China," he said. "There are so many things that happen around me in tournaments in China, but you need to be able to relax, concentrate, practice and get ready for your matches. Then you can win. But if you can't relax, then you have no chance."

So far, Ding seems very relaxed in Sheffield. Now, with a quarter final bout against Hawkins and a possible semi-final against the winner in the White-Walden contest, the first World Championship final seems closer than ever.

"I'm ready," he says.

Meanwhile, Shawn Murphy and Judd Trump have begun battling it out last night at the most intriguing quarter final match. Murphy already has the title and Trump has his share of titles and a World Championship Final appearance under his belt. O'Sullivan will probably await one of them in the semi-final. This World Championship really needs a classic. One can hope Trump and Murphy will be up to it.

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