The great and good of snooker will not have long to get over the excesses of the festive period with the Masters launching 2024 in fine style at the Alexandra Palace on January 7th.
This is the 50th staging of snooker’s leading invitation event and lights the blue touch paper on another 12 months on the green baize.
It is followed by the lucrative three-event Players Series, the conclusion of the European Series – with its £150,000 bonus prize – and a return to China for the World Open before attention turns to the marathon of the mind in Sheffield.
We don’t yet know the full field or the draw for snooker’s showpiece event but there is already a case to be made for one player: Mark Allen will go to the Crucible in April with his best chance yet to become world champion.
The Northern Irishman has ticked every other notable box. Indeed, even before he turned professional, he had won all of the major amateur titles, including his national event in every age division.
His early title victories on the pro tour were somewhat sporadic, but that changed last season when he won three ranking events within a few months of each other. This season he has so far won the Champion of Champions and the Shootout.
Allen has long been notable for his close cue ball control, seemingly always in ideal position. He also possesses a fiercely determined streak which makes him strong under pressure. Like his celebrated compatriots, Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor, he invariably comes good when he has to, as he proved by overturning a 6-1 deficit to beat Ding Junhui 10-7 in last season’s UK Championship final.
What he has now developed as well is a hard match-play game, often relying on good safety to create chances and prepared to close down frames rather than take undue risks. Finding the right balance between his natural attacking game and this more percentage approach has been a journey.
At times late last season he seemed to tip too much into grinding mode, and he was undone by Mark Selby in their World Championship semi-final.
Allen has only ever reached two Crucible semi-finals but must feel that 2024 presents a golden chance to join Higgins and Taylor in snooker immortality.
The problem, of course, is that there are so many other brilliant players to contend with.
Trump has been in three Crucible finals, winning the title in 2019. He has already won three tournaments this season as he seeks to ascend to the elite group of players who have become multi-world champions.
Neil Robertson, the 2010 champion, is in the same boat but may need a life-raft this year. Due to an alarming drop off in form, the Aussie is provisionally 30th in the seedings list for Sheffield, which means he will have to win two qualifying matches to reach the TV stage unless results dramatically improve in the second half of the season.
It seems unthinkable that a player who has been one of the two or three favourites for the title each year for the last decade may not even be at the Crucible, but if he does qualify then he represents a grenade in the first-round draw for one of the seeds.
There is still time for Robertson and others to find form before April. Luca Brecel, the reigning world champion, has been behind the pace this season but launches the Masters on January 7th and this would be the perfect springboard for the second half of the campaign.
What of Ronnie O’Sullivan? That’s a question that’s been asked for over 30 years and each time he answers it by doing something amazing. In 2022, it was a record-equalling seventh world title. In 2023, it was becoming the oldest UK champion three decades after becoming the youngest. So what does 2024 promise?
O’Sullivan is snooker’s great survivor. He has weathered the storms of his own self-destructive instincts as well as the threats posed by rival players of various generations and is still widely seen as the man to beat.
John Higgins, O’Sullivan’s close contemporary and rival since they turned pro in 1992, has been in the elite top 16 since 1995, a record unbroken spell, but faces a fight to retain his place. However, Mark Williams, the third member of this holy trinity, continues to chug along apparently without a care in the world, his top-16 position safe for now after his British Open triumph in October.
Who will be the new champions of 2024?
There have been those knocking on the door for a while – Zhou Yuelong, Noppon Saengkham and, of course, Jack Lisowski – but often a new winner comes out of leftfield, just as Zhang Anda has already done this season.
The middle-ranking players are far better than they have ever been. Any one of them could come through the pack in any given week. Often, it’s a player who has been around a while rather than a brand-new face.
Off table, challenges remain but there are reasons to be cheerful. 2023 saw major Chinese events restored to the tournament calendar, with at least one more likely in 2024. In addition, a lucrative ranking tournament in the Middle East is widely expected to be announced soon.
However, a potential stand-off is coming over the contracts players must sign to compete on the World Snooker Tour. Some top players want more freedom to pick and choose highly paid exhibition work. WST are charged with running a professional tour in concert with commercial partners and are duty-bound to enforce the terms of the contracts. It’s probably good news all round for lawyers.
There is also a campaign from players to revert back to the old tiered system rather than have every player enter at round one of tournaments, where you could draw a Trump or O’Sullivan. This would also most likely mean a reconstituting of the ranking system.
Fans by and large care little about such wrangling. They just want to watch top level snooker.
They are in luck. From London to Berlin, Yushan to Sheffield and all points in between, there will be much to satisfy and enthral in the coming 12 months.
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