For a sport that is being increasingly influence by China, it’s perhaps no surprise that snooker has faced a tough time in the wake of COVID-19.
The upshot is that ‘several’, i.e. an unspecified number, of players have been forced to withdraw from the hastily-rescheduled event, which was moved from its traditional April timeslot to July.
Qualifying is set to begin on July 21, and a number of high-profile players who were expected to participate have now withdrawn. That includes former world semi-finalist Marco Fu, who tweeted that he is ‘feeling unsafe to travel’ to the UK from his Hong Kong home. The three-time women’s world champion, Ng On-yee, has also announced that she won’t travel over for qualifying, while world number 22 Zhou Yuelong has also declined to take part.
There are rumours to suggest that as many as ten tour card holders won’t make the trip to Sheffield, although World Snooker has moved quickly to deny that any high-profile campaigners are on the withdrawal list.
Ding Junhui, the former World Championship finalist, has said he will take up his place in the event despite missing the Tour Championship in June due to safety concerns. Yan Bingtao, now well established in the top 16 in the world and thus an automatic qualifier for the Crucible, has set up home in Yorkshire and so is unaffected.
The deadline for entries for the qualifying tournament isn’t until July 6, and so there is still a chance for more high-profile withdrawals.
The sport’s chief, Jason Ferguson, is adamant that the World Championships will go ahead without a hitch.
“We knew this would be a huge task in the climate, but not an impossible one – and we have now reached a point where players can make their own choice. We appreciate that a small number have indicated their decision not to come to the UK, but the vast majority will compete and, without question, the show must go on.” he said.
Snooker’s Changing Landscape Post-Coronavirus
You could argue that snooker can continue rather happily without a live crowd present in the arena.
It’s true that the hushed tones of the Crucible audience certainly adds to the atmosphere, but a number of players have said that they don’t particularly miss crowd members’ mobile phones going off or the rustling of sweet wrappers.
Indeed, Ronnie O’Sullivan has spoken of his preference for playing behind closed doors, feeling that it lifts some of the weight of expectation of his shoulders as a perennial fan favourite.
The show must go on, and snooker has drawn plaudits for the speedy manner in which it has recovered from the coronavirus – already hosting two significant events in the Championship League and the Tour Championship.
Social distancing between the players and the referee is possible, and with the official already wearing gloves and the players not touching the balls with their own hands there is no concern of the cue ball being a ‘vector for transmission’ of the virus.
What is interesting is that only ten of the 128 players on tour report having a table at home, and with the usual snooker clubs and practice facilities largely closed until recently the players have been considerably out of touch – all bar Stephen Maguire, that is, who was excellent in winning the Tour Championship.
Ahead of the revised World Championship, punters might be well advised to have a wager or two on underdogs that have been putting the hours in during lockdown.