World Snooker: Golden oldies lead by example

As Official Data Provider for World Snooker, Sportradar enjoys an unparalleled insight into the stats behind elite snooker with Venue Supervisor Neil Tomkins taking a look at the trend for experiencing winning through at the highest level of the sport.

A recent BBC article pondered the question: “It’s long been thought that youth is key to sporting success. But is this changing?” In it, the writers behind it suggested that “sports stars seem to be getting older” and cited, among others, tennis players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as well as Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas as examples of dominating their respective sports well into their 30s. Even Tiger Woods is threatening to add to his haul of 14 ‘majors’ at the age of 42.

A quick look at men’s tennis grand slam events since 2008 shows that the average age of the winner has increased from 23 in 2008 to 33 in 2017. No surprise, given that the same players – Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic account for 36 of the 43 titles won since 2008.

Sportradar is entering its eighth season as Official Data Partner of the World Snooker Tour and we wanted to continue our data-led analysis with a look back over the period to explore the age phenomenon on the green baize. Our findings suggest that the pattern is the same as the aforementioned other sports.

Snooker is on the up with more tournaments than ever before, record levels of prize money and events and a huge worldwide audience, but its winners are certainly putting the ‘old’ in what could be described as a golden era.

“For those of you watching in black and white…” the champion’s hair is getting greyer!

Snooker’s best loved commentator, the late Ted Lowe, once whispered the first part of this quote when explaining to television viewers the position of the coloured balls during an early edition of Pot Black.

Although this is no longer relevant as nobody has watched in black and white for years… the second part of this quote is relevant with the ever-increasing age of the man holding the trophy at its major championships.

We looked at major ranking events from the 2011-12 season through to the most recent event of the 2018-19 campaign, the World Open in Yushan, China.

The above table shows that in 2011-12 the average age of a snooker champions was 31-years-old. Last season, this figure was over 37 and as the 2018/19 campaign gets underway, albeit with only two events completed, the average age of the winner is almost 40 following victories in Riga for 36-year-old Neil Robertson and 43-year-old Mark Williams in Yushan.

Snooker supremo Barry Hearn challenged the younger generation to “step it up” following the Betfred World Championship final between Williams and 42-year-old John Higgins in May, adding: “because unless they do, the final next year will be between a 43 and a 44-year-old.”

Snooker is a progressive sport, the game has changed dramatically in the last 25 years and continues to get more and more attacking. It is increasingly about scoring heavily and winning frames in one visit. Yet the older guys seem to be adapting their games perfectly. Additional qualities like a superior tactical awareness and a lack of fear means that the younger generation seem unable to match their peers. This is evidenced in the fact that over half of the ranking events during the 2017-18 were won by Williams, Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan – all born in 1975.

Picture via World Snooker

World number one, Mark Selby has been a prolific winner since 2011-12, with 20 wins from 91 tournaments at an average age of 31.19. The three-time world champion is in his mid-thirties now, so while he is a youngster compared to the ‘Class of ’92’, he will not help to reduce the incline for much longer.

China’s number one, Ding Junhui may help the cause to make the sport a young man’s game again, although already in his 30s, he wouldn’t make significant impact.

Of the younger generation who can reverse the current trend; Kyren Wilson (26), Michael White (27) and Anthony McGill (27) have already entered the winner’s circle with Jack Lisowski (27) looking ready to join them in the near future. While 17-year-old Welsh star, Jackson Page is developing a reputation as ‘one to watch’, but to put his achievements into context, O’Sullivan had already won the second biggest title on the professional circuit by the age of 17.

China has a succession of youngsters coming through, most notably led by Yan Bingtao (18), Zhou Yuelong (20) and Xiao Xintong (21). These three look to have the best chance of returning to the days when the world champion would regularly be in his early to mid 20s.

But of these, who will turn potential into results and dominate on the biggest stage? Because Williams, Higgins and O’Sullivan can’t go on forever…can they?!

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