I’ve heard commentators say several times this week that the standard in snooker is ‘higher than ever.’
I disagree, at least at the top level.
There’s no doubt that there is much greater strength in depth on the circuit now compared to, say, 15 years ago. Throughout the ranks, players are capable of very fine performances, although not usually when it comes to the final stages of ranking events.
However, at the top end I would say standards have fallen. Be honest, how many really good performances have there been at the Royal London Watches Grand Prix so far?
Mark Selby and Ding Junhui, yes, but not many others.
Steve Davis spearheaded the rise in standards in the 1980s. Stephen Hendry did the same in the 1990s.
For me, standards peaked a couple of years either side of the millennium, from around 1997 to 2003, where Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Williams, John Higgins, Paul Hunter and Matthew Stevens all produced some of their very best snooker.
O’Sullivan is said to be ‘in a class of his own.’ He himself is embarrassed by this. In his interview after beating in Liang Wenbo in Glasgow earlier this week he said he had only been in the last three ranking finals because ‘everyone else has played rubbish.’
This is going a little far. Ronnie is so good that he win tournaments playing at 75% of his best but doesn’t derive much pleasure from doing so.
When he says he has played badly after apparently excellent performances he is not looking for attention. It's just that he knows he is capable of better.
Ronnie's performance in beating Hendry in the Crucible semi-finals last season stands as one of the great displays of snooker.
But other than that he has only produced his very best stuff in short bursts, yet he is comfortably the best player in the world.
He played his best ever snooker in the 2000/01 season, although he himself believes he was at his best as a teenager.
Let’s put this into context: the standard is still very, very high. It is much higher than it was 20 years ago, perhaps 15 years ago but not ten years ago.
And snooker needs its top stars to start firing. The World Championship final – our showcase – wasn’t much of a spectacle this year even though the event itself was one the best ever.
Standards perhaps dipped because the number of tournaments has fallen (though they are now rising again) but for snooker to catch the general interest, they need to rise again.
Will they? There’s no reason why not.
But it needs several players to raise their games considerably.