Snooker like all sports to a greater or lesser degree was hit by the Covid pandemic in 2021 – notably with the suspension of tournaments in China, where several lucrative events are staged annually but in the last 12 months were lost to the calendar, and other tournaments such as the German Masters and Gibraltar Open being held instead at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes – a setting that has become very familiar to all involved in the sport.
However, that still left plenty to get excited about, and the stories and quality of play kept pouring out throughout the year. The biggest names kept delivering, and there were new, unheralded stars demanding their share of the spotlight. While these things are always hugely subjective…I thought the top five moments pretty much picked themselves this year.
No5 – Mark Selby joins the greats with a fourth world title
There are few more inspiring personal stories in life, forget about just sport, than what Mark Selby has made of himself. From a challenging childhood in Leicester that saw his mother leave the family home when he was very young, through to when aged only 16 losing his beloved father David from cancer, Selby has had it tough. But ever since then he has been making it very tough for all of his opponents on a snooker table.
Selby’s first world title came in 2014, made all the more special by beating great rival Ronnie O’Sullivan in the final. And when he lifted the trophy in May after an 18-15 victory over Shaun Murphy, it made it four Crucible triumphs in only eight years, and a ninth Triple Crown success. Whatever the occasional criticisms of his style compared to the likes of O’Sullivan and Judd Trump, the debate is over about Selby’s deserved place in the pantheon of all-time greats.
No4 – John Higgins wins Players Championship with a tour de force
When someone who has won as much as John Higgins has – including four world titles – describes a tournament as “the best week of my snooker life”, then you know something rather special has taken place. The Scot’s performance at the tournament for the season 2020-21’s best 16 players in late February was little short of extraordinary, and saw him produce snooker of a quality seldom seen in even his stellar three decades on tour.
Just a couple of months shy of his 46th birthday Higgins started off by beating the new Welsh Open champion Jordan Brown 6-0 – but the eyebrows went up considerably when he managed to repeat the whitewash score-line over the redoubtable Mark Selby in the quarter-finals, restricting him to an unprecedented and headline-making seven points. Kyren Wilson was next, at least grabbing a frame in a 6-1 loss. And in the final Higgins simply continued in the same vein against his old rival and fellow Class of 1992 member Ronnie O’Sullivan, beating him 10-3. He had dropped just four frames in total in the whole event.
No3 – Mark Allen shrugs off external issues to claim a famous home Belfast victory
Barring the Betfred World Championship itself, there was no tournament that Antrim’s Mark Allen more wanted to win than his home event in Belfast, Northern Ireland over the years. But for whatever reason, it had just always looked out of reach for the competitive and talented left-hander, who had never produced his best form in front of an adoring and expectant fan base and by his own admission really felt the pressure on home soil, and was slightly distracted by the well-wishers and demands for tickets.
So it was almost a surprise when after a turbulent year and in the face of a mountain of off-table problems including declaring himself bankrupt and divorce and child support proceedings, Allen finally came good in the grand manner in October – surfing a tidal wave of support to the final where he bravely managed to come back from 8-6 behind to beat friend and rival John Higgins 9-8 to bring the Waterfront house down.
No2 – Zhao Xintong announces himself with stunning UK Championship breakthrough win
As a 15-year-old and well before turning professional, Zhao Xintong was one of the young Chinese players to benefit most from the chances offered to participate in the major tour tournaments in his home country as a wild-card, inserted into the draw and playing in an extra pre-round. And he soon gained the nickname of ‘The Wildcard Menace’, grabbing those opportunities and by the time he was 16 beating the likes of Ken Doherty, Steve Davis and Barry Hawkins.
While always respected and even slightly feared by the top players as a danger-man after joining the tour, Zhao made steady rather than spectacular progress up the rankings. But that all changed in November. One of the fastest players on tour, and blessed with a huge talent and winning personality, Zhao just got better and better after surviving a coupe of final-frame thrillers against Thepchaiya Un-Nooh and John Higgins, and claimed his first ranking title with a 10-5 win over Luca Brecel in the final before saying he would celebrate singing ‘We are the Champions’ on the karaoke with a vodka in hand.
No1 – Jordan Brown stuns Ronnie O’Sullivan in Welsh Open final as 750-1 shot bags first title
The biggest Northern Ireland success story of the year went not to Mark Allen, but instead to former journeyman Jordan Brown, who fell off the tour first time round in 2010 and had worked in a petrol station during the eight long years before finally getting back on in 2018.
Then 33, Brown had never even reached the semi-finals of a ranking tournament previously before enjoying as a 750-1 title shot a scarcely credible week at Celtic Manor that saw the ‘Antrim Ferrari’ knock out Mark Selby in the quarters and then Stephen Maguire in the semis to set up the match of a lifetime in the final and a first career clash with red-hot favourite Ronnie O’Sullivan, himself a four-time Welsh Open winner.
After a terrific match Brown held his nerve in the decider for one of snooker’s greatest shock wins. He later admitted that the victory over O’Sullivan was even sweeter having been angered by the Rocket’s comments at the 2020 World Championship in which he claimed he “would have to lose an arm and a leg to fall out of the top 50” among other disparaging remarks about the quality of lower-ranked players on the circuit – whom he has also described as “numpties”. Brown, though, was moved by the warmth and generosity of O’Sullivan’s congratulations after the showpiece.