The 2016/17 season is only three tournaments old, however the race to reach the World Grand Prix and Players Championship is already heating up.
The top 32 on the one-year ranking list will qualify for the World Grand Prix in Preston in February, then the top 16 on the same list will make it to the Players Championship in Llandudno in March.
The likes of John Astley, Nigel Bond and amateurs Darren Morgan and David Lilley have put themselves in contention for coveted places in those events, while the likes of Mark Selby, Ding Junhui and Marco Fu – as well as Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Allen who have not hit a ball in anger yet this season – languish outside the top 32.
Astley secured a return to the World Snooker Tour through Q School earlier this year. Now he’s forced himself into contention to qualify for two of the tour’s biggest events after a strong start to the season. We caught up with him as he prepared for next week’s Paul Hunter Classic in Germany…
John, after a solid start to your 2016/17 campaign, you lie 24th in the one year ranking list. You’re currently in line for a spot at the World Grand Prix and in the mix for the Players Championship places. Are those events something you have your eye on?
“It’s definitely become a goal since the first couple of events. When I started the season I wasn’t particularly looking at those tournaments, but now they have started to come onto my radar. They’ve become really big fixtures on the calendar and it would be excellent if I could get the opportunity to play in them.”
How does it feel to be back on the tour after regaining your card at this year’s Q School?
“It was great just to get through Q School, I had to beat some really tough players. To then follow that with my performances in Latvia and India was fantastic. It’s not easy when you originally qualify as you have to come in unseeded. It was especially good to get through to the last eight in Riga. I was surrounded by quality players like Mark Williams and Neil Robertson, I’m thrilled to be back playing against that calibre of opponent.”
Earlier this year you appeared in The Nap, a play about snooker staged at the Crucible Theatre, did that give you confidence going into this season?
“I would say so. It was just in March so not long before Q School and was probably good preparation. I got to play in front of crowds in a pressurised environment every night. It really gave me a big confidence boost heading into Q School and the season ahead.”
Astley performing in the snooker based play The Nap.
If you were to qualify for the World Championship this year would you feel more comfortable having played there before? Does that give you a unique advantage over other Crucible debutants?
“It’s obviously a different kind of game and it’s for show, but you still had to turn up and perform. The backstage surroundings are familiar now and I can say I’ve walked through that famous curtain over thirty times. I probably would feel more comfortable than other debutants, but that might not necessarily reflect on the table.”
It’s the Paul Hunter Classic up next for you. How much are you looking forward to heading out to Furth?
“I’ve not played in it for a couple of years due to being off the tour, but it’s always a great tournament. Furth is a really nice town and tournaments in Germany are really well supported by the fans. I remember the event fondly because I played as an amateur five years ago and managed to reach the last 32. I’ve beaten some really good players there like Barry Hawkins, so hopefully I can keep that run going.”
There’s now a large contingent of players on the tour from the North East such as yourself, Gary Wilson, Elliott Slessor, Sam Craigie and Mike Dunn. Do you find you tend to spur each other on?
“I don’t see it as a rivalry or anything but it’s good to have so many friends on the snooker scene from up here. We all practise a bit together. Myself, Gary, Sam and Elliott all live within 20 minutes of each other. It is good to see players being a bit more successful in the professional arena from the north east, there’s always been a good amateur game around here.”
The season really begins to pick up pace now with lots of events coming up. How do you find dealing with the volume of tournaments?
“It sounds a bit of a cliché but I just take one event at a time. It can be full on though. When I fly back from Germany I’m going straight to Barnsley for the Shanghai Masters qualifiers. I don’t mind though, I’m thrilled to be back on the tour and this is what I want to be doing. The travelling can take its toll but the key is to find the balance between practice, sharpness and staying fresh. I think over the last couple of years I’ve started to master that.”