Ahead of the new snooker season, Richard Mann nominates five players who he will be following over the next few months.
Barry Hawkins (Ranking: 17)
Barry Hawkins' pedigree needs no introduction: runner-up at the 2013 World Championship and a semi-finalist on four more occasions at the Crucible. Throw in three ranking title wins and a run to the final of the 2016 Masters and Hawkins really has enjoyed a distinguished career.
He has been a mainstay of the top 16 for a number of years but will begin this season in the unusual position of sitting on its fringes. Number 17, in fact.
Hawkins' slide down the rankings is a result of a disastrous 2019/2020 campaign that saw the 41-year-old struggle badly for his best form and only make two quarter-finals in the whole season.
By the time Hawkins slumped to a second-round defeat at the UK Championship in December, it was evident he was short of confidence, and results continued to prove hard to come by thereafter until the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a shuddering halt.
It was that enforced layoff that afforded Hawkins the chance to recharge his batteries and crucially, refresh his mind after the demanding snooker calendar had appeared to take its toll.
“We’ve played so much over the last few years. I think it was just starting to drain me a little bit. It was nice to put the cue away. I didn’t hit a ball for three months,” said Hawkins after returning from lockdown with a handsome defeat of Alexander Ursenbacher in the first round of the World Championship.
“I’ve tried to change my lifestyle a little bit, the fitness, healthy body, healthy mind. I’m going to try to keep it going and hopefully I can start producing some of the form I’ve showed before.”
Though Hawkins would go on to lose to Neil Robertson in the last 16, there is no doubt that he produced some of his best snooker of the season in Sheffield and there is every reason to think he can take that form into the new campaign.
Given the amount of snooker the leading players play nowadays, it is no surprise that many drift in and out of form and with the carrot of returning to the top 16 sure to be driving Hawkins forward when the action returns, I’m confident he can make his mark in the next few months.
Scott Donaldson (23)
At the beginning of the 2015/2016 season, Scott Donaldson was ranked 93 in the world. Five years on, Donaldson finds himself on the cusp of breaking into the top 16.
It has been a remarkable upturn in fortunes for the Scot whose rock-solid temperament and love for the fight have seen him continue to progress, season upon season, and claim some notable scalps along the way.
One of those scalps was Ding Junhui, who despite winning the UK Championship last term, became a victim of Donaldson on three separate occasions in a matter of months.
Donaldson clearly isn’t afraid to mix it with the best and it has been pleasing to see his game develop over the last few years, particularly in the scoring department. Donaldson made 15 centuries last season, his highest tally since turning professional, and he will know he needs to maintain that level of improvement if he is to take another step forward.
He looks the type of character to do just that, though, and from a punters’ point of view, Donaldson is always worth keeping a close eye on in individual match markets given he remains criminally underrated and will fight tooth and nail every time he takes to the table.
I’d expect more of the same this year and while a ranking title victory might still evade him, he should continue to pay his way.
Louis Heathcote (82)
Louis Heathcote’s exploits last season didn’t escape the attention of Ronnie O’Sullivan who recently claimed that Heathcote was one of the few young players on the circuit to have ‘what it takes’ to enjoy a long and successful career.
Heathcote is unlikely to receive many bigger compliments than that, coming from someone notoriously critical of the standard of young players in the game and himself the greatest player of all time.
Heathcote has risen to number 82 in the world rankings following a breakthrough season last term that saw him claim some promising victories, most notably when beating Ali Carter in qualifying for the World Championship.
A run to the last 32 of the English Open gave sign that Heathcote has the talent and temperament to make his mark at major events and it will be fascinating to see if he can take another significant step forward in the coming months.
At only 23 years of age, he certainly has time on his side and in a sport where the next generation continues to draw criticism - particularly of those to hail from the UK - Heathcote is taken to lead the charge for the British young guns.
Ryan Day (37)
When it comes to snooker, Stephen Maguire and Ryan Day are two of the players whom I have always found almost impossible to resist. My weak spot, if you like.
Both have their frailties, that I can't deny, but both are supremely gifted operators who have often promised much more than they have delivered.
For Maguire, last season appeared to be a touchstone one as his brilliant victory at the Tour Championship saw him pinch the Coral Series and £260,000 from under Judd Trump's nose and saw him reclaim his place amongst snooker's elite.
Conversely, Day will start the new season down at 37 in the world rankings after a disastrous latest campaign, but it is worth remembering that in 2018/2019 Day made seven quarter-finals and the final of the Gibraltar Open to follow the three titles he claimed in the previous year.
A real natural who is beautiful to watch when at his fluent best, Day is a brilliant scorer when in the mood, but last year saw him return his lowest tally of centuries in the last four years.
Still, Day definitely hinted that better was to come when showing up well at the Championship League in June before making two centuries despite losing 10-6 to Jordan Brown in qualifying for World Championship.
With his ranking having slipped so low, Day is sure to be geared up to hit the ground running when the new season begins and there was enough encouragement from the Welshman when last seen to suggest he will be a force to be reckoned with again.
Brandon Sargeant (119)
A real left-field pick but Brandon Sargeant is a big talent who is more than capable of making his mark somewhere along the way in the coming months.
Still only 23, Sargeant will begin only his fourth season as a professional having earned himself a two-year card for the 2019–20 and 2020/2021 seasons when finishing top of the Challenge Tour in 2019.
Sargeant finished ahead of more experienced rivals, David Grace and Mitchell Mann, to get back on the main tour and though he found results hard to come by last term, his brilliant comeback victory over Ali Carter at the Shoot Out showcased just what a promising operator he is.
Sargeant displayed plenty of class and a good dose of bottle to come through that thrilling frame with a dual former World Championship runner-up and left those watching sure they had seen a potential star of the future.
Of course, it is still early days for Sargeant, but I think he'll start delivering on the big stage more consistently the greater level of experience he gains and he could easily pick up one or two more big scalps along the way.
Brandon Sargeant: remember the name.