'I could hardly breathe out there' – the pressure of the qualifiers

Mark Davis has made it through World Championship qualifying a record number of times, but is yet to advance beyond round two
Betfred World Snooker Championship
Venue: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield Dates: 20 April-6 May
Coverage: Watch live on BBC One, BBC Two, Red Button, iPlayer, Connected TV, BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app.

Attempting to reach the World Championships in any sport is pressure enough.

But imagine if you knew you would make history by doing so. If you had the weight of an entire nation on your shoulders. If your career and livelihood depended on it.

Welcome to the World Snooker Championship qualifiers. A tournament within a tournament.

While 128 tennis players get to sample the lush courts of Wimbledon each summer and more than 150 golfers tee off at The Open, only 32 cuemen can grace the Crucible every year.

And 16 of those qualify automatically, leaving just 16 other spots up for grabs. No wonder players insist the qualifiers are more nerve-shredding than the real thing.

More pressure than the Crucible?

Sheffield’s iconic yet intimate theatre can break as many players as make them – but the route to the Crucible is just as gruelling.

Mark Davis knows that better than any. Not only will the 46-year-old will be the oldest player in this year’s competition, he now holds the record for qualifying successes.

Wednesday’s win over China’s Lyu Haotian – not even born when Davis made his Crucible debut in 1994 – made it 10 victorious qualifying campaigns for the Sussex man.

“I’ve been to the Crucible and felt under pressure, other times I’ve enjoyed it – but these qualifying matches are always pressure, every one of them,” says Davis, who will face four-time champion John Higgins in round one.

“They are big games. The first game is massive, for £10,000 or nothing, and the last one is massive to get through. It sounds silly to say they are more pressured than the Crucible, but they probably are.”

Scott Donaldson would concur – seemingly cruising to the Crucible at 9-4 up against Lu Ning, he was all taken all the way to a deciding frame by the Chinese in the last qualifying tie to finish.

“I’ve never felt like that in my life, I could hardly breathe out there. I couldn’t push my arm through. I can’t believe I won that game,” panted the clearly exhausted 25-year-old Scot.

The qualifiers are a mix of the FA Cup second round and semi-final – a chance to play the big boys but also to run out, or trot gently through that famous curtain, at the sport’s seminal setting.

It’s the same for all. For those players who have never made it, the fear they never will. For those who have, the fear they will not return.

Famous names like Marco Fu, Peter Ebdon, Alan McManus, Ken Doherty, Jimmy White and Matthew Stevens crashed out at various qualifying stages and now have the uncertainty of if they will ever make it back.

The history makers

Of course, for those who do get to the Crucible, the gruelling schedule of three 19-frame qualifying matches at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield is a small price to pay.

Over eight days, 128 players are whittled to down to 16 through 112 matches. This year, there were 1,714 frames played. All before the real thing begins.

Michael Georgiou reached the third round of the UK Championship in 2016, but is possibly best known for winning the Snooker Shoot Out two years later

And yet, even then, some players were playing for much more. Like Michael Georgiou, a Londoner with Mediterranean roots who has adopted Cypriot nationality.

No Cypriot had ever qualified for the World Championship until his win over China’s Yan Bingtao set up a first-round tussle with Australia’s Neil Robertson.

“There’s a first for everything, so I’m hoping I can do them proud and hopefully gain interest in the sport over there and grow the game,” said 31-year-old Georgiou.

It’s one thing being the first from your nation to reach snooker’s hallowed home, but quite another to become the first-ever amateur to qualify.

Having been relegated from the professional tour in 2017, James Cahill has had to rely on invitations to ‘top-up’ fields for tournaments.

He’s made the most of them – beating Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy this season – and will regain professional status after beating fellow amateur Michael Judge to clinch a Crucible debut.

Cahill’s story is a tale others – like the many youngsters who dropped off the tour this week – can gain heart from. “It all depends how much you want it. I’ve always wanted it,” the 23-year-old Blackpool potter said.

“For lower-ranked players, it’s not easy but you’ve just got to carry on doing the right things. If they’re good enough they will do it.”

And his reward? A first-round meeting with ‘The Rocket’ Ronnie O’Sullivan.

“It’s the toughest draw,” added Cahill. “He’s played there for longer than I’ve been alive. But if you are going to win it, you are going to have to beat him at some point.”

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China in their hands?

A record six Chinese players will break off at the Crucible in 2019 – as many as Scotland and Wales combined. Only England will have larger representation with 15.

Zhao Xintong and Luo Honghao – just 19 and in his first season as a pro – booked Crucible debuts by beating tour stalwarts Matt Selt and Tom Ford.

More experienced pair Li Hang and Tian Pengfei also secured maiden passages and the latter, an elder statesmen of the Chinese game at 32, says a first-ever champion from the country is imminent.

“Every year, there are more young Chinese players and this year is very special – we have had nine players in the final qualifying round, nine players looking for the Crucible,” said Pengfei.

“I think we will see a Chinese world champion in the next five or ten years.”

Xintong’s victim Selt, a professional for 15 years, believes it could be this year after admitting his conqueror “scared the living daylights out of me”.

“He was phenomenal,” said Selt of the 21-year-old who will face Mark Selby. “People will say I’m chatting nonsense but if he plays his best at the Crucible he will take some stopping in winning it.”

Which leads us to the question…

Can a qualifier win it?

As Selt points out, he won 21 frames to lift the Indian Open title in March – you need to win 30 just to reach the Crucible. To lift the trophy, a qualifier must win 101 frames in little over three weeks.

Is it too big an ask nowadays to replicate Shaun Murphy’s 2005 feat – and, going further back, Terry Griffiths’ 1979 achievement – of coming from nowhere through the qualifiers to win it all?

Graeme Dott won the World Championship in 2006 and is a two-time runner-up

The best bets would seem to be experienced trio Ali Carter, Joe Perry and 2006 champion Graeme Dott – players with Crucible pedigree who made light of the ‘marathon’ to storm through qualifying.

Dott, set to make his 20th Crucible appearance, has won 15 consecutive qualifiers over the past five years and will face another former champion, Stuart Bingham, in round one.

“When I was in the top 16 I was the good draw but when I’m a qualifier I’m the bad draw,” the Scot quipped.

Two-time finalist Carter, meanwhile, thinks he’s through the hardest part, saying: “There’s no better practice than going through those qualifiers. That’s got to be the best preparation.”

Whether he’s right, time will tell. Just the 71 frames to go.


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