In 2020, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, Zhang Anda became a father. With travel limited and obvious concern for his newborn son, he remained in China while the World Championship took place in the British summer. Missing the event caused him to be relegated from the circuit and he considered packing in snooker for good at the age of 28.
Some 14 years after first turning professional he is now a ranking event winner. Zhang is £175,000 better off but all the spin-offs for getting in other tournaments are potentially worth around another £100,000 at least.
He made ten centuries in the tournament – one more than he managed the whole of last season – and compiled a maximum break in the final. He advances to the prestigious Champion of Champions event this week and joins the elite top 16, which means he will be seeded for the UK Championship.
The understated Zhang’s nickname is ‘Mighty Mouse’ but right now he feels like the king of the snooker jungle. It is an unlikely and heartwarming rise to prominence for a well-regarded player who had apparently reached his level, a mid-ranking journeyman but no more.
Zhang was ranked 57th going to the English Open. Only the top 64 in the official two-year rankings at the end of the season are guaranteed to stay on tour so his card was under threat until his recent heroics.
It raises the question as to whether the current system is too cut-throat. There is undoubtedly greater strength in depth throughout the tour than at any point in snooker history. Two years ago, Jordan Brown won the Welsh Open ranked 81st. The following season, Fan Zhengyi captured the European Masters title from 80th in the list.
The players in this section of the rankings are not mediocrities taking up space. On the contrary, they are seriously good players but face the annual threat of relegation, which must add to the pressure already felt in tournament play.
It may therefore be time to consider whether the qualifying criteria for the World Snooker Tour should be revised. Should more places be offered to players already on tour rather than risk losing them before they have reached their potential?
Zhang fell foul of the relegation merry-go-round three times after first earning his tour card in 2009. He ultimately decided to stick with snooker, requalified in 2021 and has now become one of the world’s best.
But how many others have been lost to the vagaries of tour qualification?
Any change would require a radical overhaul in the structure of tournaments, scrapping the current ‘flat draw’ system where every player comes in at the first-round stage. This sounds like a level playing field but in reality means players new to the tour can draw an O’Sullivan or Trump in round one, where there is no prize money for losing. This risks stalling the progress of promising young talents who run into players simply too good for them at such an early juncture in their careers.
A solution could be to actually increase the tour to 144 players and play each event to the same tiered format as the World and UK Championships, where four rounds of qualifying leave 16 players going to the venue to face the top 16. This would mean players would face opponents nearer their own ranking in the early rounds and most would be guaranteed prize money.
It sounds more labyrinthine but would not take any longer to play than the current qualifiers, which are often stretched out to five or six days at a time.
The argument against such a move is that it overly protects the top 16, but the ranking list changes after every event and players not winning matches would soon lose their elite status. And if this format is good enough for the sport’s leading two ranking events, why not all the others?
So much of the focus in snooker is on the fortunes of those at the top but thought should also be given to the players trying to make their way. The constant pressure of relegation is a fact of many sports but heading every year to the World Championship qualifiers with this sword of Damocles hanging over them is not conducive to producing a high standard of play.
A little more breathing space – maybe with the cut-off at 80th rather than 64th – would ensure this pressure eases and safeguards the careers of players who, like Zhang, are capable of making a genuine breakthrough.
Change is not easy. WST are rightly mindful of the wishes of broadcasters, sponsors and stakeholders. Some tournaments, such as the Home Nations events, thrive on having a galaxy of big names starting from the first round, bringing in audiences and creating a buzz which drives interest from day one.
There will never be any system that suits everyone and many will reasonably point out that the best players will always thrive regardless of how the tour is structured.
But players in the middle ranks are increasingly proving that they are not as far behind the leading stars as they once were. In this very competitive era, relegating large numbers every season could be seen as counter-productive.
Zhang Anda does not have time to ponder the minutiae of any proposed changes to the tour structure. For the foreseeable future he will be too busy playing.
His success is a reminder of sport’s power to amaze the watching public and its capacity to conjure up stories that seem unlikely until you see them play out.
Perhaps Zhang’s greatest quality is his unflappability. In good times and tough times he has the same cool demeanour, an inscrutable presence at the table which makes him very hard to rattle.
His sudden emergence as a world-class talent will surely serve as inspiration to other lower-ranked players too often written off as members of snooker’s supporting cast.
If he can do it, why can’t they?
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