Change to UK Championship qualification splits opinion among players

November 11, 2022
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Phil Haigh ✍️  

Betway UK Championship 2016 - Day 12
The UK Championship trophy will be lifted on Sunday 20 November (Picture: Getty Images)

There has been a significant change to the UK Championship this season and it seems to have polarised opinion among players.

The UK has adopted the format of the World Championship, with the top 16 in the world rankings going straight to the main stages in York, and 16 qualifiers coming through to join them.

Those 16 qualifiers have come through tiered qualification stages at Ponds Forge in Sheffield, with the lowest-ranked players having to win four matches to make it to York, while those closer to the top 16 only having to win two games.

In recent years, all 128 professionals came in at round one, with number one playing number 128, two playing 127 and so on. Now the top 16 are drawn at random against the 16 qualifiers.

World Snooker Tour chairman Steve Dawson explained the change in April, saying: ‘This format works perfectly for the World Championship so it is also ideal for our second biggest ranking event, the UK Championship.

‘This guarantees a star-studded line-up for the final stages, while the qualifying event itself also creates drama and great storylines as 128 players battle for 16 coveted spots at the fabulous York Barbican venue.

‘We are also delighted to increase prize money for the event, to the benefit of every player on the tour. These changes will enhance the status of the Cazoo UK Championship as one of the outstanding events on our calendar.’

Joining the commentary team during the qualifiers in Sheffield this week, WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson gave his take on the changes.

‘It’s about  a mix of both [formats],’ he said. ‘One of the things we’ve been keen to do on the World Snooker Tour is to make sure every event doesn’t look the same. There is an argument to say we can differentiate those events with a tiered structure.

‘There are arguments both ways of course, if you went to a young player and said, “do you want to play in round one to a finish in a major venue at the final stages?” They’d probably say, “yes that’s what I want.” Having said that, if they’re playing Judd Trump or Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round every time, that player may have a different opinion.

‘It’s about a mix and I think some of these big events do justify this tiered structure. We have to be careful how we do it, we have to make sure ranking points are done fairly.

‘This year is a real experiment with the UK Championship, it’s had a real upgrade, this tiered structure will bring us to an elite final round like the World Championship at the Crucible. I’m really looking forward to seeing the players coming out into that arena, it’s an exciting time.’

Certainly not everyone sees it as a positive step, with world number 26 Matthew Selt explaining his take on the change.

‘I personally think this format is absolutely dreadful for everyone outside the top 16, that’s my own opinion,’ he said after qualifying for the main stages at the Barbican in York. ‘I think we’ve all been hard done by.

‘The draw cannot possibly open up now at York, you’re always going to be playing a top player. I don’t particularly like this set-up, I don’t particularly like this venue when we’ve been used to be playing at the Barbican. I’d rather be playing out the back of the Barbican than here in a qualifying format where there’s a lot more pressure, in my opinion.

‘My real gripe with the format this year, there’s been a few winners recently, like myself in India a few years ago, I only beat [John] Higgins in the semi-finals. Draws open up in flat draws. Draws don’t open up in the World Championship and now the UK Championship.

‘I think that’s very disappointing, because it’s unbelievably protective for the top 16 players now. Six of the top 16 were knocked out by the last 32 last year. What are the chances of six being knocked out in round one? Very low.

‘Listen, don’t get me wrong I can beat any top 16 player, but the odds are going to be slightly against you. Whereas if it opens up a fraction, you can start to feel good. But listen, if you want to be a winner of the second biggest event on the calendar, you’ve got to beat some top players.

Betfred World Snooker Championship - Day Four
Matt Selt has come through qualifying but is not happy about the new system (Picture: Getty Images)

‘Personally I think if you’re 17 in the world it’s not much better off than 65, that’s just my opinion and I’m a little bit salty.’

World number 19 Dave Gilbert is not a fan of the change either, saying: ‘I think anyone ranked a bit higher, just outside the 16 thinks the new qualifying criteria and the venues we’re playing in now…it’s not the best.

‘I think the ranking system needs to be looked at hugely. The top boys win two games now, at the UK and World Championships, they’re on £45,000. For everyone else that’s a lot of matches to win.

‘We should either go back to the old points system rather than the money list, or everyone’s in at round one, flat draw like it has been for years.

‘Obviously I know Covid has knackered things up and the loss of China is huge, there’s only so much money to go round and only so many people that can win these things and most of them are won by the same people.’

On the flat draw helping the lowest-ranked players, Gilbert added: ‘Personally I think that we’ve all had to go through these tough schools, it’s dog eat dog, you can either do it or you can’t.’

Betfred World Snooker Championship - Day Two
Dave Gilbert sees too much benefit for the world’s top 16 (Picture: Getty Images)

Other players see it differently, though, with 2021 Welsh Open champion Jordan Brown a supporter of the change.

‘I love the new format, I’m a big fan of it,’ he said. ‘I think really we should have more tiered systems in more tournaments. It gives the players lower down more chance to progress because in the flat draw you’re risking drawing one of the top boys first round. It’s not easy for these guys.’

The current Welsh Open champion, Joe Perry, expanded on the point, saying: ‘Hopefully they continue with it, they don’t just scrap it after a year because we’ve seen what it’s like for the players that come here for the Crucible qualifiers. It’s such a big achievement to qualify, even for players like myself, you feel like you’ve really achieved something when you qualify. If they can make that appeal to the lower-ranked players for the UK as well, that can only be a good thing.’

Perry is not in favour of a tiered system for every event, but feels it is the right thing to do for the UK Championship and the Barbican, although he would still like to see some changes.

2022 Cazoo British Open - Day 3
Joe Perry likes the tiered format but would like to see the ranking system tweaked Getty Images)

‘The Barbican is such a fantastic venue and it works for two tables,’ he said. ‘I played a lot of my matches out the front, but a lot on the wing tables and they didn’t play well, it wasn’t a great atmosphere playing on the side tables.

‘Going out the back in the sports hall was horrendous, I experienced that a few times as well, but even in the front on the wing tables wasn’t the same. It’s an even playing field now out the front, everyone’s got the same set-up.

‘I think there’s lots of positives, the UK is one of the bigger events on the calendar, you should feel really chuffed with yourself to qualify to the main stages.

‘I don’t like that the ranking list is still the same and the top 16 are seeded through to another tournament. If they win their first matches in the big two, that’s a hell of a lot of ranking points to catch up for everyone else, just for winning one game.

‘If WST could tweak the ranking system so that’s a bit fairer, I think it’s a good thing. I’m in favour of a tiered system, I think it benefits the lower-ranked players equally, if not more than the higher-ranked players.

‘Stories this week like Andres Petrov, he’d have drawn a top 16 player in the other system and probably got beat, this system gives him an opportunity to play some players around their own standing and progress like the way we all did when I first turned pro. You work your way up the levels and I think it’s a good thing if a few things are tweaked. I don’t want the other one scrapped completely, keep it for the Home Nations, but I’d go tiered for the big ones.’

Liam Highfield came through qualifying this week, just like Selt, Gilbert, Perry and Brown and he is also a fan of the tiered system and going into a two-table set-up in York.

‘Years gone by you’d be playing in a four-table set-up in the last 32. This feels a bit more prestigious again doing it this way,’ he said.

Betfred World Snooker Championship - Day Three
Liam Highfield is backing the tiered system (Picture: Getty Images)

‘It feels like an event just qualifying for it, and I think it’s better for the lower-ranked players just playing each other first round, getting much more experience, coming through the rounds.

‘I think all-round it’s better. The flat draws, it’s good for some tournaments, but you need experience of playing someone of a similar standard in them conditions.’

Heading straight to the Barbican will be Mark Williams, who is long advocated for the tiered system and thinks it suits everyone.

‘I think they should never have left the tiered system, I’ve said that from day one,’ said the three-time world champion. ‘A lot of players are saying  it’s better, the 128, but it’s not proving so. Most of the tour is skint, having tough draws.

‘We seem to be reverting back to the tiered system how it was years ago and I think it’s better for all. The lower-ranked players, when they do get to a top 16 player, they can be on £7,000-£10,000, there’s a lot less pressure on them than if you’re playing Ronnie O’Sullivan for a few grand or nothing.

‘If you’re already on a few grand, there’s less pressure, you can enjoy it more. Play people around you in the rankings to earn some money rather than play O’Sullivan first round.’

‘When O’Sullivan, me and Higgins come through in 1992, when we were qualifying, if we’d have been playing Jimmy White, Wattana, John Parrott, Davis in the first rounds, would we have come through as quick as we did? Probably not, because you don’t want to be playing players like that first round.’

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