We've assembled a stellar cast to bring you five to follow for the new snooker season – get thoughts from Neal Foulds, Paul Krishnamurty, Nick Metcalfe, George Weyham and Richard Mann below.
Best finish: X3 Semi-Finals
Like everyone, I can't wait for the season to really get started after what seems like an endless amount of qualifiers played behind closed doors. I'm looking forward to the snooker really ramping up now.
HOSSEIN VAFAEI is a player I really rate and I'm happy to stick with him this season in the belief he has the game to enjoy another deep run in a big event if things fall right.
To my mind, Vafaei is a much better player than his ranking and though a quarter-finals finish at the World Grand Prix was the best he managed last term, he beat players of the calibre of Ding Junhui and Zhou Yuelong there to remind us just what he is capable of.
Vafaei is a tough match player who can mix it with it with the best of them and he's reached the semi-finals of three big events previously. In one of them, Mark Williams needed to pull out all the stops to beat him in a deciding frame in the last four of the China Championship in 2019.
If Vafaei could enjoy a big run at a major event this season, it would give him a big boost personally but would also be great for snooker in Iran. I've got my fingers crossed for him.
Best finish: X2 Ranking Finals
An ongoing challenge over recent seasons has been trying to identify the Chinese youngster most likely to break into snooker’s elite. To emulate, and surpass Ding Junhui. Will it be Zhou Yuelong, Yan Bingtao, Zhao Xintong or even Pang Junxu?
Yan’s Masters victory sets the standard but he hasn’t consistently produced at the highest level yet. I suspect they may all be surpassed this term by one who has been forced to mature.
Three years ago CAO YUPENG had the world at this feet. Rising fast up the rankings yet still a novice and flaky in contention, as two ranking final defeats demonstrated, one from four up with five to play.
Then disaster and shame struck, as he was banned for match fixing. Many of us thought that was the last we’d see of him. Wrong. Yupeng is back, and with a vengeance.
He returned at the Championship League, winning his opening group with nine frames out of ten. In stage two, he won a classy group against Barry Hawkins, Bingtao and Matt Selt to qualify for finals day. His only defeat in four matches since was to John Higgins, in a decider. Of the 35 frames he’s won so far this term, 25 involved at least a half-century break.
Cao is still under the betting radar but probably not for long. When reaching the 2018 Gibraltar Open final, he was a mere 40/1 chance. Any triple-figure offers now represent solid value.
Best finish: X3 Semi-Finals
What a brilliant 2020/21 season JAMIE JONES had – his first season back from a 12 month ban. It was as if he had never left the tour.
In just his sixth event back, he made the Scottish Open semi-finals (a third ranking semi-final), defeating Kyren Wilson and Matthew Stevens on the way until he was halted by Mark Selby. At the U.K. Championship before that, he made the last 16, defeating future Welsh Open champion Jordan Brown and the dangerous Alexander Ursenbacher.
The Welsh Warrior, as he’s known, made the Crucible in April for a fourth time, defeating World Senior champion David Lilley, then two class acts in Michael Holt and Li Hang with considerable ease. He proved himself yet again on the big stage by taking out Stephen Maguire 10-4 from 3-0 down until Stuart Bingham was a bit too heavy handed for him in the break building department in the last 16. I doubt Jones could have dreamt of this moment when he was stacking shelves at Tesco a year previously.
In his interview after the win over Maguire, Jones stated he’s a much more rounded player now, has never felt so calm at a World Championship and is so patient in his play. He was prepared to play safety after safety against Maguire, and wait for his opportunity when previously he might of had a sling at one, missed and left the opponent in to counter.
It’s all about maturity with Jones. The time away from snooker, having a child of his own, has made him grow up. He has seriously took his chance since last year's Q School promotion.
Outside of Brown, he had the most sterling of seasons for a then outside top-64 player. He starts the season at rank 55 in the world. Even with nearly £100,000 banked in prize fund last season, there will be no relenting, but what a comforting sight after one season back to be fully in the 64’.
The only way is up from now on. I think Jones will be knocking on the top-32 door come the end of the season and it would not surprise me if he’s top-16 bound in roughly three seasons. Once Mark Williams retires, Jones will be vouching for top dog in Wales and a top-16 flag bearer for his home country.
I love everything about Jones. His demeanour and pace round the table reminds me of Ali Carter so much. There’s a non-arrogance strut like he owns the STAR table. His determination and bottle are huge assets. He’s a fascinating watch – the ultimate busy player.
The Neath native could be a target this season for other players now he’s less of an ‘unknown’ (say that very loosely for a player who’s been pro for over 10 years but no one knew how he would return) and will want to avoid second season syndrome. However, he’s experienced and good enough to carry on again from where he left off.
I think Jamie Jones could well be a dark horse this season to break his ranking tournament duck. I certainly believe he could make a maiden final along the line. He has brought so much consistency to his game – the most vital cog in becoming a top player in the sport. He’s capable of beating anyone on his day.
Best finish: X2 Fourth Round
It feels like JACKSON PAGE has been around for quite a long time now, but he's still only 20. Now, he'll want to start stepping up to the plate.
The Welshman turned professional in 2019, but struggled to pick up good results over the past couple of years. However, he impressively came through Q School in the summer – beating Michael Judge, Soheil Vahedi and Michael Georgiou along the way – and is making the right noises about succeeding on tour this time.
Page has admitted his approach to the game wasn't disciplined enough in the past, particularly on the practice table, but he's rectifying that as he aims for the big breakthrough.
The great Mark Williams is still a regular practice partner for Page – and something of a mentor too – and continues to talk up the youngster as having a highly promising future.
He has all the ability and talent, now Page needs to develop that mentality you need to really advance to the top of the game. I have a feeling we'll see that start to happen in the 2021/22 campaign.
Best finish: Welsh Open Semi-Finals, 2019
JOE O’CONNOR’s career still feels like it's awaiting lift-off, having announced himself to the snooker world with a run to the semi-finals of the Welsh Open in 2019 before struggling to make quite the same impact since. O’Connor lowered the colours of John Higgins in the quarter-finals there, having beaten Ding Junhui and Kyren Wilson earlier in the week.
Ronnie O’Sullivan – working for Eurosport – couldn’t hide his enthusiasm for O’Connor at the time, proclaiming: ‘He's gonna be a big star. He's got something different about him: he looks good; he looks calm; he looks the part. He looks snazzy'. As Judd Trump will testify, sharp shoes and a slick haircut are no guarantees to success, and O’Connor found the following season a largely frustrating one.
Still, this is a young man evidently learning a game that takes years to master, if that is even possible. Again, Trump would testify to that.
Last term was much more encouraging, though, with a last-eight finish at the German Masters and a good run to the last 32 of the UK Championship thanks to a win over Thepchaiya Un-Nooh.
For all O’Connor is from a new generation of snooker players who prefer to attack first and think later, potting with much more proficiency than when they are forced to engage in tactical exchanges, the 25-year-old is something of a throwback. He knows his way round the table and appears to wear a cool head on his shoulders.
If anything, one has questioned whether O’Connor has the firepower to take his snooker to the next level, but he scored really well when kicking off the current campaign with defeats of Steven Hallworth, Ken Doherty and Anthony Hamilton at the British Open before the classy Zhou Yuelong pinched the deciding frame of their last-16 encounter.
There were some really promising signs from O’Connor there, and with the feeling that this represents an important six months or so for the 25-year-old, I’ll be keeping him in mind once the season gets into full swing.
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