Twenty-five years after he lifted his first and only world snooker crown, Ken Doherty is adamant the Crucible’s weighty traditions must not be allowed to wither amid unprecedented pressure to change.
he 17-day tournament stands increasingly isolated amid a non-stop calendar of short-form events, and another former winner, Neil Robertson, is among those who have questioned its continuing format, deriding it as “dated and stale”.
But for Dubliner Doherty, whose quest to reach the famous venue for the 20th time at the age of 52 was quashed by last week’s qualifying defeat to Rory McLeod, it is precisely those gruelling conditions that set the eventual world champion apart.
“It’s a very tough tournament to win,” Doherty said. “You need strong resolve as well as talent, you need composure and confidence, and it is not surprising that a lot of players seem to wilt.
“It’s about having strength of mind. It’s the adrenaline and excitement that keeps you going, because it is a marathon of 17 days of more or less constant pressure, even away from the table.
“I love the format and I love the tradition. When a place is on top of you like that, it creates so much pressure. You get a feel for the history and nostalgia for the place that you don’t get anywhere else.”
A stellar season of three ranking titles plus the Masters makes Robertson the obvious favourite heading into the tournament, but he is just one of a number of leading players this year who arrive burdened with question marks.
For all his talent, Robertson has not returned to the world final since his solitary win in 2010, and Doherty cautioned: “I think Neil is favourite with the way he is playing, but he also came with big expectations last year.
“You have got to question him because he has admitted he doesn’t like it. I think it could be a big year for Ronnie (O’Sullivan) to win his seventh, and there is a case for both the Chinese players (Yan Bingtao and Zhao Xintong) going very deep.”
Doherty reached two more world finals after his 1997 success, and confessed to mixed emotions as he retains strong memories of both his Crucible ascent as well as those other moments he feels could have enriched his legacy.
“Every year those memories come flashing back of potting those last few balls and what a wonderful feeling it was getting my hands on that trophy, something I’d dreamed of since the age of eight,” added Doherty.
“It would have been nice to win it again. I lost the final the following year and in 2003 and they are the ones that got away.
“I look back on my career and I think I could have won more, but there are so many good players who have never got their hands on the trophy, so whilst I feel disappointed in one respect I also feel blessed.”
O’Sullivan is scheduled to start his campaign for what would be a record-equalling seventh crown on the opening day, which will also feature defending champion Mark Selby, who returns after candidly acknowledging mental health concerns.
The four-time winner has reached only one ranking semi-final this season, at the World Grand Prix in December, and despite his top seeding Selby will not assume his accustomed status as one of the tournament’s most likely winners.
“I hope Mark will be able to put up a strong defence of the trophy,” added Doherty. “When Mark is playing at his best he’s very strong, and has proven himself very strong over the long format.
“Mark has the game and the temperament to win as many titles as O’Sullivan, but this year has been a very difficult year for him, and obviously his mental health concerns have got to take precedence.”