Judd Trump's strained world title dream under threat from snooker's cultural revolution in China
China's remarkable rise to prominence in snooker provides the most ominous threat to Judd Trump's future hopes of a first world title, writes Desmond Kane.
Falling to earth from such a lofty pedestal was always going to hurt.
If Judd Trump was blighted by a strained shoulder before suffering a quite galling 10-8 loss to 1,000-1 shot Rory McLeod, a qualifier boasting similar odds at the Crucible as Nigel Bond becoming the next James Bond, it will be nothing compared to the pain he feels for the next few weeks amid the desolation of defeat.
- READ: The crying frame: Trump exit ranks as one of top five early Crucible shocks
- READ: 1,000-1 outsider McLeod stuns Trump in huge Crucible upset
For a man who had declared bullishly on the cusp of this tournament that this was “his time” to finally conquer the world, falling so sharply in the first round must have felt like hitting the ground without a parachute. He has time to reflect, and may choose to avoid the rest of this World Championship as a TV viewer.
Rory McLeod enjoyed the biggest win of his career.Eurosport
He could not be blamed. Nor should he be chastised too much for failing to speak to the media afterwards. At such times in life, it is easy to be lost for words.
Giving yourself the big sell is perhaps never shrewd, but we are all wise after the event. Especially when Trump’s attacking optimism appeared to be founded in fact: he is world number two, had lifted ranking tournaments at the European Masters and the Players Championship for the first time in season and had reached three other finals to suggest that his billing as joint-tournament favourite alongside defending champion Mark Selby was wholly justified.
“Mark Selby is especially tough to beat, but there's no-one else particularly to fear," said Trump almost tempting fate.
McLeod has apparently assembled around £500,000 in career earnings over 26 years with a cue in hand. Trump had garnered £345,000 this season alone. What looked a mismatch became a nightmare on Norfolk Street.
Yet it should not be ignored that the World Championship is a different animal from anything else in snooker. Everything else is small beer in comparison where a total of 71 frames are needed to emerge triumphant.
If Trump had been playing McLeod – curiously nicknamed after the lead character in 1986 film The Highlander despite being about as Scottish as the French actor Christopher Lambert who portrayed him – elsewhere, the match would have been over in about an hour. He surged 4-0 ahead, and was seemingly laughing.
Few would have foreseen the majestic Bristol talent encountering mulishness from the battle-hardened McLeod, the world number 54 from Wellingborough, as Trump eventually surrendered over six hours and 44 minutes with a highest break of only 65.
It was old-school snooker in which a gnarled guy from another generation armed with only three 50 plus breaks proved that the glorious but unfashionable art of grinding has not yet been lost on the green baize.
Whether a wincing shoulder problem prompted this defeat should not disguise the fact that Trump deserved to lose to a qualifier who turned professional aged 19 in 1991, a year after he was born. Bizarrely enough, Trump should take some solace from McLeod’s longevity. Good things come to those wait.
McLeod might be as slow as rust, but there is nothing rusty about his approach after 26 years as a professional, man and boy.
Like Trump, any professional sport’s leading characters continue to be unfastened by their own expectations; the intense pressure they place on themselves greater than any foe. The race is long, and it is only ever against yourself.
McLeod’s modest hopes amount to qualifying for the World Championship, he has only made it here three times in three decades. Trump’s lot involves making good on his early promise by clasping the old pot won by so many of the game's giants.
If he fails to win the World Championship, he might view his career as a failure such are the demands he places on himself and his vast ability. But fail he might.
At first glance, defeat to McLeod should be viewed as a trivial setback. At the age of 27, this was only Trump's eighth appearance at the event. He lost the 2011 final to John Higgins at the age of 21. He has also gone down to Ronnie O’Sullivan in the semi-finals in 2013 and Stuart Bingham two years later, men who progressed to win the tournament after toppling Trump.
Yan Bingtao is making his Crucible debutPA Sport
Mark Selby lost the 2007 final to John Higgins, and had to wait until his 10th appearance at the age of 30 before he won his first world title. At 32, he claimed a second. At 33, he could be a three-times champion. There is a feeling that if Trump wins one, he may win more than one.
He has been unfairly compared to Jimmy White, who lost six times in the final of the World Championship. White never won the world title not because he was a bottler but because he was unfortunate to confronted by two goliaths of the game in Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry in their peak years. In such a respect, Trump has an easier task than White despite the overall standard of the sport rising from the 1980s and 1990s.
There is no outstanding player in the sport. There are great players, but nobody who cannot be beaten on any given day. Dubbed the 'Ace in the Pack', Trump will have several more attempts to emerge from a deck he tends to shuffle well.
O’Sullivan and John Higgins, with nine world titles between them, are on the back nine of their careers. Trump is also six years younger than Selby which bodes well for future times.
But none of us are getting any younger. The age game also applies the other way. If Trump is younger than his contemporaries, he is also older than plenty on the rise. China are producing snooker players with as much relish as ships.
This World Championship has given us a glimpse of the future: China's number one Ding Junhui beat Zhou Yuelong, 19, in a Chinese derby, Shaun Murphy was involved in an almighty scrap to fend off debutant Yan Bingtao 10-8, at 17 the youngest player in the field who looks like he already holds a PhD in potting.
Xiao Guodong walloped Ryan Day 10-4 to reach the second round. Liang Wenbo, the English Open winner, joins Ding and Xiao as the third Chinese player into the last 16 after a 10-7 win over Stuart Carrington. Ding and Liang Wenbo will meet for a place in the last eight.
There is a cultural revolution in snooker in China coming this way. From a country of 1.357 billion that salivates over the sport, that is quite a red-ball army.
"I would think that in five years half of the top 32 players will be Chinese," said the World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn before the tournament started rolling.
Trump will still be around then, and one would imagine at his peak. By then, he could be a multiple world champion. He would hope to be. The alternative is bleak.
With every year that passes, Trump is not only confronted by his level of expectation, but by the inevitable rise to prominence of China.
Five-times champion O’Sullivan, who won his first world title at the age of 25, had this to say on the cusp of last year’s tournament.
"If he’s going to make it happen he’s got to make it happen in the next two or three years, because once you go into your 30s and you haven’t won the world title, and then there’s a new batch of young players coming through from China, from here, there and everywhere, you can start to think that: ‘Maybe I might not’ – and the pressure gets more and more."
Traditional boundaries of the British-based game are slowly being eroded. While the World Championship is remaining in Sheffield for the next decade, it will be a vastly different event by then.
A gathering storm from the Far East could provide Trump with a greater challenge to realise his ultimate ambition than he faces in the current climate. Here is a sport undergoing climate change.
It is a weather front that could easily see Trump miss the boat. For all his titles, trials and tribulations, Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White did not have to contend with the world’s most populous nation becoming sold on snooker.
Desmond Kane at the Crucible Theatre