Snooker made its triumphant return with the Championship League, the first tournament since the outbreak of Covid-19. 64 players competed for the trophy, and it was the Belgian Luca Brecel who eventually claimed the title, in a thrilling final that ran right down to the last frame.
The tournament was split into three phases, and all matches were played as the best-of-four frames. From 1-8 June, we saw 16 groups of four players, and every player battled the other three in the group – the player who obtained the most points, through wins and draws, advanced to the next stage. On 9-10 June, the 16 winners competed in further matches, whittling down the number of players to four. These remaining four players took to the table one last time on 11 June for a final group stage, where the winner of the Championship League was crowned.
In the group stages, there was a mix of expected results and shock defeats. Both Judd Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan sailed through, the latter without dropping a single frame. But not everything was smooth sailing for the big names. On 4 June, Mark Selby crashed out; a similar fate befell Neil Robertson on 7 June. On the final day of the group stages, we lost both Ali Carter and Mark Allen, the latter being knocked out by the most minute of frame score differences.
I did turn off a few matches early when it was simply a battle for a third place
The format was in parts liberating and restricting for the viewer (although not seriously so). A strong showing in the match’s first frame gave the players a massive upper hand, and the psychological advantage must have been immense – it meant that we saw a number of less-familiar players, like Ashley Carty and Sam Craigie, advance. It made every frame count, because there were so few in which the players could make a statement.
At points, however, the group result was already determined by the time we reached some of the closing few matches, thus diffusing a lot of the interest. Much though I enjoy watching snooker, I did turn off a few matches early when it was simply a battle for a third place that didn’t actually matter.
Previous Championship League tournaments featured best-of-six frames – I know that the reduced format was down to the number of players, but I wonder if next year’s competition could find a middle ground to allow a bit more snooker.
Whoever won the final frame would have the necessary points to win the title
The final session may not have featured the expected big names, but it was still gripping viewing. Dramatically, it all came down to a final frame finish. A dominant Luca Brecel had been in control of the group from the outset, beating Stuart Bingham 3-0 and securing a 2-2 tie with Ryan Day, but his greatest challenge was Ben Woollaston in the final match.
Woollaston started the fixture beating Day and losing to Bingham, but he stormed ahead to a 2-1 lead with a pair of fantastic century breaks (including a 141 clearance). Whoever won the final frame would have the necessary points to win the title.
In the end, it was Brecel who took advantage, constructing a 111 break and taking the trophy. He didn’t lose a match over nine contests, and he pulled out the final victory when it really counted, clinching his second major professional title. He also secured the £30,000 first prize and he qualifies for the Champion of Champions tournament in November, a fantastic result for the world number 37 and a worthy winner.
The Tour Championship will take place at the same venue from 20 June
After his victory, Brecel said: “It was the biggest test of my career, that final frame, because Ben was playing so well. It is just amazing. Most of the time I’m pretty cool under pressure, but this time I was very nervous, pretty shaky. I had to stay in quarantine for three days since Sunday, but if you win the tournament it doesn’t matter. I’m over the moon, I don’t know what to say.”
There may have been some doubts about bringing snooker back, but it’s hard to argue the event was anything other than a success. All safety precautions were followed, and the viewing figures were good – according to reports.
The Tour Championship will take place at the same venue from 20 June, a definite positive sign. It will feature an eight-man line-up, although Ding Junhui has withdrawn as a safety precaution, as he is currently based in China. And, if the tournament is anywhere near as successful as the Championship League has been, it should be another top-quality event.