Before King Charles received his crown at the coronation there was a crowning of a new World champion in Luca Brecel, the first from mainland Europe. Only 55 days have past and we are into the 2023/24 season. It will be fascinating to see how Brecel performs with the added burden of world champion. Knowing him, he’ll be like a duck to water.
Brecel is the defending Championship league champion but hasn’t taken up this engagement. The parties haven’t finished for the Belgian bullet quite clearly! I’m not a big fan of this event being the curtain raiser for the new season. It’s the third year in a row it has done so. I do like it as a watching brief to see which players come out the blocks and ones who don’t. Not forgetting the format of best-of-4 can make form a bit misleading.
Later on in the season, there’s a non ranking version of the Championship league – John Higgins won that in March.
John’s fellow class of 92 brigade Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams are entered in to compete and it’s the latter who might well take this a bit more seriously and is my first of four fancies.
There’s plenty of life in the old dog from the Welsh valleys. Willo had a consistent season last term but unfortunately no title reward, still seeking a 25th ranker. The best effort in a ranking event came at the early doors European Masters where he lost in the semi-final then he lost in the Masters final in January to Judd Trump.
The 24th ranking title came early on two seasons ago in the British Open, a tournament that consisted mainly of best-of-5s which isn’t too dissimilar to this event. The same applies to the WST Pro Series that Williams won in 2021, an exact replica of this event with round robin groups. Perhaps the combination of a short format and coming in fresh is what Williams needs to perform. He won the second event of the 2018-19 season and September time in 2017-18.
Williams has been getting his arm in with lots of exhibitions up and down the country and abroad since the World Championship, thrilling the audiences. My old snooker friend who owns one of the clubs he did an exhibition at in Preston said ‘He was the best I’ve ever seen and think the best we will ever have at the club. Crazy how good he was on the night’. He struck four tons in Preston, five the following night in Birmingham (included a 147) then flew to Bulgaria on the Monday and hit another max.
Williams came close to this title two years ago losing in the non ranking version final to Kyren Wilson 3-2, which invariably is the stronger overall version.
Williams has a decent looking first group to come through and looks a strong contender for the title at 12/1.
World ranked no30 next, Mr Marmite, Matt Selt. He’s a regular at the non ranking Championship league and though he didn’t win it last season, equalled the record for the most centuries in a single tournament with 23 (from 50 matches). Selt beat in that campaign Neil Robertson twice, Mark Selby and Judd Trump.
That event was a far cry from his form in the season where he failed to go past the last 32 in any event. However, he did at least make the Crucible in April and showed all his toughness to claw back three four frame deficits against Mark Selby to get to within a frame of the four-time world champion at 9-8 though lost the 18th frame. It was a gutsy effort which epitomes the player.
Selt made back-to-back semi-finals in the 2015 and 2016 Championship league so this test has been proven to be up his street. He earned more in the Championship league last season (£21,900) than any event and clearly enjoys the format. He is odds on favourite in his group consisting of James Cahill, Andres Petrov and amateur Sydney Wilson.
The Londoner is a former ranking winner at the Indian Open 2019 and the Turkish Masters last year – he is definitely a lively outsider at 50/1.
It’s the same price for one of the current top three or four Chinese players on tour, Pang Junxu.
Rookie of the year in 2021, the 23-year-old had a terrific season last term making what is sure to be his first of many ranking finals at the inaugural WST Classic, losing to Mark Selby. Pang was a semi-finalist in the Welsh Open, quarter-finalist in the German Masters and in this event last year, got to the final group stage having come through two stages, which included taking out Ryan Day in stage one then Ali Carter and O’Sullivan in stage two.
Pang showed his versatility in the long formats making the Crucible for the first time in April losing out to O’Sullivan 10-7 on the opening day. Pang hit seven breaks over 50 in the match including a fabulous 133. He belongs on the main stage.
Pang is a consummate all rounder, has a very well disciplined approach and had a belting record in first frames last season which is a positive for this. He won 28 of his 41 first frames last season – clearly Pang targets putting a marker down early.
Hopefully he picks up where he left off and has a similar season ahead where undoubtedly he will break into the worlds top 32. His future lies amongst the top 16 elite.
The event is being played at Leicester’s Morningside Arena where it’s a hotbed for snooker. Ben Woollaston has been a resident here since being a young teen and could outrun his odds of 100/1, especially as he has a decent looking first group stage.
The main threat comes from Bexhill’s Jimmy Robertson who Ben played and drew with in this event in 2020.
Between Ben and Jimmy, it’s the East Midlands native that has the edge in past Championship league campaigns. Woollaston made the semi-final of the 2015 version losing in a decider to Mark Davis then in the Covid hit 2019-20 season, Woollaston went a round better making the final group, and technically lost in a final frame shoot-out for the title against Brecel. Though it was non ranking, it would have been a huge title to win.
Woollaston again showed his liking to the format last season topping his first group stage with three wins from three including a 3-1 win over Selby.
It’s been eight years since Woollaston made the 2015 Welsh Open final and I firmly believe this format is a perfect fit to get a run going especially as he has chronic fatigue syndrome where longer formats can tire him out somewhat.
Shorter the better for Woollaston, he’s got the game to beat anyone and is one of the calmest customers on the circuit. Given his past exploits, he looks a better bet at 100/1 to Robertson at 66/1.