Mark Allen is World Grand Prix champion
Mark Allen is heading to Riyadh

Neal Foulds snooker column: Eyes on the World Masters of Snooker in Riyadh as World Championship chat begins

Neal Foulds looks ahead to the World Masters of Snooker in Riyadh where a huge purse awaits snooker's biggest stars, many of whom are already gearing up for the World Championship.

Snooker enters a new dawn next week, with the World Masters of Snooker in Riyadh featuring some of the biggest names in the sport, eight of them to be precise along with two wildcards, all battling it out a for a huge first prize of £250,000.

It’s certainly not chump change and we have a stellar cast, headed by Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump who are sure to top most people’s shortlist. World champion Luca Brecel is in town, as too is Mark Williams.

Perhaps the form man heading to Riyadh is Mark Allen, fresh from a typically determined victory at the Players Championship only last week. Allen certainly earned his money in Telford, having endured a tough tussle with Zhang Anda in a final that while not particularly easy on the eye, proved to be another fine win for the Northern Irishman whose star continues to rise.

Zhang has become such a hard man to break down nowadays that we must give Allen great credit for being able to do so. Let’s not forget that John Higgins and Mark Selby were put in their place by Zhang earlier in the week, so it was always going to take something special to beat him, and Allen once again delivered the goods.

Allen with the world at his feet?

Add the Champion of Champions and Shoot Out to his trophy cabinet this season and Allen is enjoying another strong campaign, and I see plenty of people are already tipping him for the World Championship. He’s obviously a contender, of course he is, but Players Championship winners have historically struggled at the Crucible where it’s not always the form man who prevails.

There’s no doubt that Allen has become someone the other top players don’t want to face. In many ways, he’s a second version of Selby, with deadly scoring ability when on song but new-found steel and grit in his game. He’s now the ultimate match-player and is just very hard to beat.

Mark Allen is defending champion in York
Mark Allen has become a prolific tournament winner

He’s not the only one who’s gone that way, it seems. Just in the last few weeks we’ve seen percentage players like Martin O’Donnell and Zhang come to the fore, when not long ago players much preferred to be aggressive and saw that as their route to success.

If I’m being hyper-critical, I’m not sure the standard has been quite as high this season, particularly when O’Sullivan and Trump haven’t contested the latter stages of events, and it seems that players are banking on the idea that more solid, percentage snooker gives them a better chance of doing well. It’s hard to argue with what Allen is doing in the here and now, that’s for sure.

But when it comes to the World Championship, I dare say you’ll need more than that to win. I hear a lot of talk about Sheffield being a marathon that suits the grinder, but the very nature of a 17-day tournament means that if you are slogging away in every session, you are likely to be cooked by the final weekend, should you get that far.

That’s why someone like Ronnie has become such a brilliant Crucible player. He can battle hard when he needs to, limiting the damage when his standards occasionally dip, but when he’s playing well, he runs away with sessions and doesn’t play for longer than he needs.

Allen has most definitely got that in his locker, you only need to look at his fantastic display against Mark Williams last week to see that, but he’ll need more of the same if he is to ever become world champion. It’s all about finding the right balance and I think Allen is smart enough to know that.

Selby and Brecel hint at better to come

Sticking with the World Championship for a little longer, it was really good to see Selby find some form at the Players Championship and any time you beat Ronnie, you know you’ve played well. To thrash him 6-0, that takes something extra special, and he was by no means flattered by the scoreline.

He played brilliantly all night, potting and scoring like the Selby of old, and for all it didn’t win him the tournament, it might just be the performance that proves the catalyst for a big win elsewhere.

Mark Selby is all smiles having claimed another ranking title win
Mark Selby beat Ronnie O'Sullivan 6-0 in Telford

We have entered a crucial juncture of the season now, with the Tour Championship and a return to China upcoming, Riyadh before that, and the World Championship at the end of the road. Selby has peaked at this stage of the year so many times before, so we must take note of how well he played in Telford.

A word, too, on Luca Brecel who has found the going tough in his first year as reigning world champion. He isn’t the first, and I’ve spoken to Joe Johnson and Ken Doherty recently about this, with both recalling how hard it was for them the season following their World Championship triumph. Perhaps we are sometimes guilty of forgetting just what a big deal it is and for Luca, his life changed overnight. It was never going to be business as usual after that.

Nevertheless, he played really at the Welsh Open. By all accounts he’s been practising hard again, and enjoying putting the work in, which is such a massive part of the game. He did very little wrong right up until the point O’Donnell played the match of his life to beat him in the quarter-final, not the first time the Londoner has produced his best snooker against Brecel.

Brecel is on my radar for Sheffield, for sure, and then you’ve got someone like Shaun Murphy who has shown nothing all year but is a former world champion who will go to Sheffield fresh and hungry for success.

The same can be said of Neil Robertson, though he'll need to come through qualifying for the Crucible unless he can win the World Open next month, which is his only way of avoiding a tricky few days in Sheffield before the main event.

Gary Wilson is another who will rightfully be looking towards the World Championship with genuine belief that he can make a big impact this year. We’ve spent most of the season looking for someone to stop the O’Sullivan/Trump train, and while Allen has done his best, we must not forget Wilson, who has now won three rankings events in little over a year.

Gary Wilson
Gary Wilson is a player on the upgrade

He rarely looked like coming unstuck on the way to victory at the Welsh Open and has the game for the Crucible, as demonstrated when making the semi-finals in 2019. He lost to Trump on that occasion when I’m not sure anyone was going to stop his date with destiny that year.

But Wilson is a better player now, a multiple ranking winner no less, and while all of the Sheffield talk currently surrounds two or three names at the top of the rankings, I’m not sure it’s that clearcut at all. There is a lot of snooker to be played before April, and much to learn.

Big two manage workloads at Sheffield looms

It’s interesting to see that both Ronnie and Judd are making concerted efforts to manage their workloads before the World Championship, and the other huge events coming up on the calendar.

It’s a great shame with didn’t see either in Wales – and Ronnie has rich history with the Welsh Open – but with these two, you know that anywhere they enter, there’s a strong chance they will be contending at the business end, and that does take its toll at the end of a long season.

I think for Judd, he’s felt as if he was burnt out by the time Sheffield has come around in the last few years, and as a result was unable to find his best form when he really wanted it. With Judd, you’ll always get 100 per cent, so this way he’s giving himself the best possible chance of hitting top gear in the very biggest events.

If you lose your cutting edge at the Crucible, you won’t get very far, so I can understand his thinking.

As I write, Ronnie has pulled out of the second and final day of this week’s Championship League. Hopefully it’s nothing to worry about, and I’m sure we’ll see him in Riyadh, but as I’ve maintained for a while now, the World Championship and getting to the eight Crucible wins which would take him past Stephen Hendry is a huge motivation for him.

That’s even more so the case this year, with Ronnie also currently holding the Masters and UK Championship belts at the same time.

Riyadh riches and Golden Ball

All that said, taking a week off didn’t work for either when they returned to action at the Players Championship. With such good money on offer in Riyadh, where the final must surely be the most valuable best-of-nine frames snooker match ever played, expect both to be back on song and chomping at the bit.

On that final, I certainly can’t recall another match in this format being worth so much to the winner, so do get in touch if I’ve missed one.

It's clear the players are really keen to embrace this new investment in the sport, which to be frank, is needed. Next week will offer big money to the biggest stars who are probably doing very well anyway, but when next season comes around and we have a 128-man ranking event which we are expecting to have another big purse, that’s when some of those trying to make the game pay lower down the rankings will have a real chance to earn that big pay day. I know those players are relieved to have that opportunity.

More immediately, I’ll be working on Eurosport next week as we once again cover all the action from Riyadh live. That’ll be a first, and so could snooker’s first ever 167 maximum break, if the stars align and the new Golden Ball is potted at the end of any maximum.

It might seem like a gimmick at this stage, and I’m not sure if it will catch on, but by all accounts we are expecting a very big prize to be offered for anyone able to do it. We’ve had instances in the past where Ronnie has turned down making a maximum break in protest at what he has seen as poor reward – that most certainly won’t be the case next week.

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