Winning and losing at the Crucible

I've noticed an interesting pattern among those players who reach the final in the World Championship in Snooker. For many of them it seems better to actually lose the final. Of course everyone wants to win it, but if you take a look at the history it shows that handling a victory is a lot more difficult than winning in the first place. This naturally doesn't hold for the more experienced players like Ronnie O'Sullivan but for younger, more inexperienced players, being the runner up might be one of the best things that happened to their careers.

The first piece of data I'd like to present is the fact that no-one has ever defended the title the first time they became reigning world champions. Steve Davies, Stephen Henry, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Mark Williams, none of them could repeat their first victory the year after. Indeed, it's only Steven Henry and Steve Davies who have defended a title at all in the Crucible.

Next let's look at a few examples of wins and losses in recent history. In 2005 we saw Shaun Murphy take the victory. He dismissed his opponents with a form of play never seen before nor afterwards. No shot seemed to difficult for him, he potted everything in sight. But after becoming the world champion he struggled a bit and basically had to rebuild his whole style of play, leaving his impossibly offensive play for a more tactical one. He has said in interviews that he was very disappointed not having defended his world title and that surely must have had a detrimental effect on him.

Another example of a struggling champion is Graeme Dott. He won in 2006 but after that he started a decline which hit rock bottom during 2008. It seems he didn't pot a single ball during that year, I even saw him miss the pack of reds in the first shot of a frame. I'm glad to see though that his slump is over, he's won a couple of matches this year and won his first match this World Championship against the ever unlucky Barry Hawkins.

What about those who lose the final? Here we have two excellent examples to support my theory: Mark Selby and Ali Carter. Mark Selby has become the one that many people see as the true contender against O'Sullivan. And indeed, after his defeat against John Higgins in the final at the Crucible in 2007 he has displayed a lot good snooker and won several tournaments. It seems as if he took his game to the next level after being in the final. The same holds for Ali Carter who has had a fantastic season, taken his game to absolute top class and won his first tournament. It's clear that both these players has benefited a lot from their successes in the World Championships.

If you know your snooker history you'll be likely to point out that Graeme Dott did in fact lose a final before actually going on to win it. The thing is, I don't remember enough to recall how that affected his play afterwards but it could have been that bad since he came back to win the championship two years later. So if anything I'll count him as yet another case in point.

So there you have it. For many players it might actually be ultimately better for them to lose the final. They have a lot less pressure to live with, only the fantastic experience of performing really well at the most important tournament of the year. It's the really great players who manage to come back after an early win in their career and repeat it, even several times. This is a testament to how important the mental part of snooker really is.

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