Exciting action both on and off the tables has made this year’s Snooker World Championships a limelight-stealing tournament. Controversial comments, broken records and the retirement of one of the sport’s greatest players have made the whole world chalk up a cue.
Mark Allen has accused a whole nation of cheating; Mark Williams called the spiritual home of snooker a ‘shxthole’; legend Stephen Hendry got a 147 and then bid the sport goodbye, and Luca Brecel became the youngest ever debutant. The viewing figures are 20 per cent up on last year and the prize money has more than doubled since the takeover of Barry Hearn as Chairman in 2010.
Mark Allen accused Cao Yupeng of failing to declare an illegal push during the first round clash where Allen went out. He went on in the post-match press conference to say that other Chinese players had been involved in ‘fouls and blatant cheating.’ The Irishman’s comments were called into question, and he was rewarded with a £1,000 fine. Allen’s comments were seen as damaging to snooker’s legacy abroad, as the sport is growing ever more popular in China. Five ranking tournaments are to be held there next season. He had also made derogatory comments about the place he was staying during a tournament in China in March.
Hearn has said: "Time and time again Mark seems unable to control himself in public statements. Sometimes I am speechless."
Mark Williams also found himself on the wrong side of the respected Chairman when he tweeted "World Championships just around the corner. Shame it’s being played in the Crucible, shxthole, hopefully it will be in China soon." The treasured Sheffield venue has been home to the World Championships since 1977, and is seen by many as a sacred arena. The two time winner’s comments were heavily criticised by the Crucible faithful, and Hearn himself retaliated by saying that he would host the tournament there "until the day I die."
Both of these outbursts, whilst seen as scandalous and disreputable for the game, have actually done it a big favour. The sport is being talked about by non-snooker fans and is causing much excitement in the mainstream press. With the BBC a loyal as ever commentator, the sport is in roaring good health.
The legend Stephen Hendry has delivered many surprises this season. The seven times World Championship winner got his 11th Crucible 147 against Stuart Bingham in his 27th consecutive appearance at the competition. The holder of the most world ranking titles with 36, Hendry retired this season in a blaze of tributes, sadness and admiration. His retirement comes after a long run of bad form, and his decision to quit while ahead has been viewed with respect by fans. The announcement prompted a surge of tributes to the Golden Boy, adding to the current hype around the tournament.
There is nothing quite like a few surprises to add some intrigue to a sport. The demise of so many top seeds in the early rounds of this World Championships has shocked the Crucible. World number one Mark Selby, last year’s winner John Higgins and tournament favourite Judd Trump have been amongst the fallen, upping the competitive spirit of the event. Youngest ever debutant, 17 year old Luca Brecel, joined them on the way out but made his mark in an impressive first round match against Stephen Maguire. He lost 10-5.
It’s no wonder the eyes of the sporting world have turned to the World Championships this season. Critics were becoming cynical about the future of a seemingly declining sport, but will be swiftly swallowing their words as the excitement around the sport heightens. The off-table drama appealed to non-snooker fans this season, but there have been plenty of surprises on centre stage to satisfy the old timers too.
The Crucible -shxthole or not- is as good as it gets, and this year that’s very, very good indeed.