The qualifying format for the Betfred World Championship was changed in 2015, with all 128 players needing to win three matches to make it to the Crucible.
The prevailing school of thought at the time was that this new format would leave the players who made it through three best-of-19 matches too drained to go deep in the final stages. Peter Ebdon’s view was that it would be “virtually impossible” for any player coming through the qualifiers to go on to the latter stages at Sheffield’s Theatre of Dreams.
The following year, Ding Junhui disproved that theory when, having dropped out of the top 16, he blitzed through the qualifiers and went all the way to the final before losing 18-14 to Mark Selby. In the semi-finals, Ding had beaten another unseeded player: 45-year-old Alan McManus who reached the last four at the Crucible for the first time since 1993.
To balance the argument, in 2015 only three of the top 16 seeds lost in the first round, and only one of the qualifiers (Anthony McGill) made the quarter-finals. Similarly in 2017, four of the qualifiers made it to round two, and only one of those (Stephen Maguire) went on to the last eight.
But on the first day of this year’s Championship, it was plain to see that those making the short journey from the English Institute of Sport, where the final qualifying round finished on Wednesday, to the Crucible were sharp, confident and eager to keep their winning streaks going.
Lyu Haotian has impressed so far on his Crucible debut
Joe Perry made a century and seven more breaks over 50 in a 10-4 win over defending champion Mark Selby. Maguire surged 6-3 ahead of Ronnie O’Sullivan, while Lyu Haotian and Graeme Dott built 6-3 leads over Marco Fu and Ali Carter respectively. Of the seeded players, only Kyren Wilson bucked the trend, going 7-2 up on Matthew Stevens.
After one of his best career wins, Perry said: “I don’t think fatigue is such a big thing in snooker. The fact that you’ve won three matches means you’re always high on confidence, and that overrides a little bit of fatigue. Maybe if you progress deep into the competition it might play a part. That’s a problem I’d love to have. It’s very tough to get through those three matches, but once you get here you have a better chance.”
Selby concurred: “If the qualifiers finished two weeks before the main event it would be different. But with only a two day gap, they are bringing that sharpness with them.”
The record for the most seeds losing in the first round is eight, set in 1980 and equalled in 1992 and 2012. As snooker’s strength in depth continues to grow, that record will surely be broken – possibly in the coming days.