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Snooker's new aggressive breed

World Snooker Championship
Date: 18 April-4 May Venue: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Coverage: Live coverage each day on BBC Two, BBC Red Button and BBC Sport website (UK only), updates on BBC Radio 5 Live.


Mark Allen and Jamie Cope
Allen (left) and Cope have been setting The Crucible's baize alight this year

By Mark Ashenden

Rejoice! A new breed of snooker player has been born. This young, fearless, aggressive creature pumps his fist, sinks balls at lightning speed - and he wins.

Stephen Hendry did his bit for the old boys' brigade with a maximum 147 before bowing out to Shaun Murphy, and John Higgins is still hanging in there after surviving two last-frame deciders.

But as the World Championship reaches the business end, there is no doubt this year's headlines have been dominated by a new generation.

Steve Davis has been playing at the Crucible for 30 years and believes that youthful confidence allied with great skill is leading to a changing balance of player power.

606: DEBATE
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"We now see players needing to be more aggressive because they don't get so many chances, but when they take them, they generally win the frame," the 51-year-old said.

When reigning champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, who burst on to the world championship stage in 1993 as a 17-year-old, brushed aside Stuart Bingham in the opening round, snooker's continuing status quo seemed assured.

Just seven days later, the world number one was packing his bags and as his conqueror Mark Allen strode out of the arena after his 13-11 win, you sensed a whole new order was unfolding.

It was a staggering performance from the 23-year-old cueman from Antrim, Northern Ireland, in only his third Crucible appearance and an upset he even had the audacity to predict before the match.

Stuttering O'Sullivan in shock defeat to Allen

He seemed immune to the fear of failure with his long pots. And for every vintage break O'Sullivan knocked in, Allen looked intent on going one better, by potting faster and harder. The referee could barely keep up.

Trailing 9-7, Allen went on to blow his hero away in the final session, sealing victory with a century in the last. It was the manner of the win and his comments afterwards that were most striking.

Allen described beating one of his "heroes" as a dream, but he also remained confident enough to voice his unhappiness with O'Sullivan's comments made in January that snooker was "boring" and "dying".

"I take what Ronnie says with a pinch of salt," Allen said. "There are more than enough players to take the mantle. I don't think the game has ever been in better health player-wise.

"In any sport there should never be one player who runs the sport, and over the last few years it does seem that Ronnie has been doing that. He seems to get away with things other players wouldn't."

And the fairytale rumbles on. Having seen off an equally talented young star, Welshman Ryan Day, in the quarters on Wednesday, Allen admitted to feeling "flat" after slaying O'Sullivan, but added: "I'm here to win the tournament so I can't get too excited".

Only Higgins stands in the way of a remarkable final spot for Allen.

O'SULLIVAN vs ALLEN STATS
Pot success - 90% : 89%
Safety success - 87% : 84%
Balls potted - 357/396 : 345/388
Total points - 1243 : 1182
Long pots - 49% : 49%
Avge shot time - 18s : 21

Tenacity, grit and an unflinching stubbornness not to bow to defeat (not to mention some inspiring texts from his wife) have seen the Scot stagger into the semis after an astonishing 13-12 win over Mark Selby.

The 'Jester from Leicester' will have his time in the Sheffield sun, but another new kid on the baize has emerged this week who is likely to push him all the way in the coming years.

Jamie Cope squeezed every ounce of resilience out of Higgins in the second round, with the 'Shotgun' only going down after another final decider.

The 23-year-old qualifier from Stoke blitzed last year's semi-finalist Joe Perry in the first round with a stunning exhibition of long potting and he will be rueing missed opportunities against Higgins as he settles down this weekend to watch the climax on TV.

But his disappointment should fade quickly, with a bright future seemingly in the bag.

"Cope is a very attacking, aggressive player," Davis said. "It is very hard to judge when you see raw talent like that whether a player can go on and become a winner. But all of a sudden we are maybe seeing Jamie getting his due rewards."

Davis has been highlighting throughout the tournament the evolution of the "modern player" - something typified by Cope when he opted for an outrageous double to set up a 103 break before grabbing a 12-10 lead.

John Higgins

Higgins holds nerve against Cope

Only last month Higgins, a long-term critic of the governing body's efforts to promote snooker, said the sport was in a "downward curve", but after watching the likes of Cope close-up, the Scot is clearly feeling more optimistic.

"Mark Allen fully deserves his time because it's people like him and Jamie Cope coming through who are the future of this game," he said.

It also seems this more attacking style of play is reaping the rewards on the baize, shown in this year's tournament with more centuries than ever before - 75 up to the end of the quarters - beating the 2002 and 2007 record of 68.

Davis added: "The mentality of players now means players have to go for shots. A long time ago you were considered a little bit of a mug and were pushing the boat out too far. But you can't afford to be less than aggressive now."

Terry Griffiths, world champion in 1979 and coach to some of the top players including Allen, believes seven-time champion Hendry was one of the first to adopt the aggressive approach and has been instrumental in inspiring the modern player.

HIGGINS vs COPE STATS
Pot success - 93% : 91%
Safety success - 85% : 89%
Balls potted - 417/449 : 345/379
Total points - 1395 : 1212
Long pots - 63% : 59%
Avge shot time - 21s : 20

"Many of the young players, Allen and Cope particularly, have decided that's the way to win and the way to play," Griffiths said.

"You still get defensive play but the style of the top players is aggression. They like to open the balls up early to make big breaks and win frames."

Since its hey-day in the 1980s, snooker has been crying out for a young star with the looks and cue skills to attract a new audience.

The likes of Welshman Matthew Stevens - twice losing world finalist, and Paul Hunter, who died of cancer in 2006, showed glimmers of hope.

With world number two Stephen Maguire and 25-year-old Selby well-established, it seems there are others ready to pick up the mantle.

And so it's down to the final four in Sheffield. The 27-year-old Australian Neil Robertson takes on 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy, while Higgins faces the vibrant cue of Allen.

A World Championship spokesman said: "Allen is at the spearhead of a group of young players we hope will bring snooker to the next generation.

"The established stars such as Hendry, O'Sullivan and Higgins have been great for the game but the new breed are announcing themselves and proving that the game is in a very healthy state."

It can be officially declared that the death of snooker has been greatly exaggerated.



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see also
Allen sees off Day to reach semis
29 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Epic win sees Higgins into semis
29 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Murphy ousts Hendry to make semis
29 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Allen plays down colour blindness
27 Apr 09 |  Snooker
O'Sullivan criticisms anger Allen
27 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Awesome Allen shocks O'Sullivan
25 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Crucible photos
26 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Hendry behind despite 147 break
28 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Higgins edges out Cope in classic
27 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Higgins and Maguire ease through
23 Apr 09 |  Snooker
World Championship latest scores
29 Apr 09 |  Snooker
World Championship draw
25 Apr 09 |  Snooker
Snooker on the BBC
20 Jan 09 |  Snooker


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