With the 2022-23 snooker season now in full flow after a bit of a stop-start beginning, the big tournaments are coming thick and fast, and there are few bigger than the UK Championship. Now held in York each year, the event makes up the unofficial ‘triple crown’ of snooker tournaments alongside the Masters and the World Championship.
However, for a while it has felt as though the UK Championship has lost some of its lustre. Yes, the venue at the Barbican in York has been fantastic, as has the large crowds that have attended, but there was a sense that the UK Championship had become too similar to lesser tournaments on the calendar, that there wasn’t enough to distinguish it as one of snooker’s biggest occasions.
Leading players would often fall in the early rounds, creating open draws that are exciting on the one hand, but not ideal for broadcasters who want to see the biggest players competing at the business end of proceedings.
This year, the format has been shaken up, and will mirror that of the World Championship. The top 16 will be seeded straight through to the tournament proper, and 16 qualifiers will join them in York after contesting a tiered qualification tournament in Sheffield.
The move has brought mixed reaction. For some, having the world’s best 16 players guaranteed to be in the tournament from the last-32 stage is a positive. After all, the casual snooker fan tuning in to watch the BBC’s snooker coverage is hoping to see Ronnie O’Sullivan and Neil Robertson, players among the favourites in the UK Championship snooker 2022 odds, not lower ranked players who just happened to peak at the right time.
Others have been more critical. Indeed, when Barry Hearn took over at the helm of World Snooker in the early 2010s, one of his mantras was creating a level playing field in every tournament. This has been backtracked on slightly since Steve Dawson took the reins a couple of years ago, with greater protection for the top players in certain events. Many will argue that each player should have to compete from the very outset regardless of their ranking.
The covid-19 pandemic is still affecting snooker in a very real sense. Before it all kicked off in early 2020, a sizeable number of tournaments were held in China — big-money events that were fast becoming some of the most prestigious in the calendar.
Given China’s staunch approach to eliminating covid-19 altogether, the snooker circuit is yet to return there, and it’s unclear how soon those events will be able to resume.
That has brought pressure on the World Snooker Tour to make the biggest home-based events all the more alluring, especially for the top players, some of whom have been disgruntled at the smaller number of tournaments and earning opportunities. This souped-up UK Championship, with a bumper first prize of £250,000, should go some way to alleviating that pressure for now.
It’s clear that this change in format favours snooker’s biggest names. It would be a surprise to see anyone outside of the elite bracket of players challenging in the semi-finals or final of this year’s UK Championship. Last year saw a plethora of shocks, with the final contested between the then-unfancied Zhao Xintong and a previously out-of-form Luca Brecel.
This year you’d expect the biggest hitters to be stepping out to a rapturous reception on the tournament’s final Sunday. Whether this is a good thing, or in the spirit of sporting fairness, remains up for debate.
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