Si Jiahui and Anton Kazakov are snooker’s latest confirmed professionals, but their stories are just two of those written following an unforgettable two weeks at the WSF Championships in Sheffield.
The world’s premier international amateur competitions, offering direct access to the World Snooker Tour, this year’s WSF Championships attracted an unprecedented and diverse field of well over 300 players from 43 countries across two tournaments.
From established former professionals looking to regain their main tour status, to hungry amateurs hoping to claim a place for the first time, players descended upon snooker’s spiritual home of Sheffield, England to test their skills over nearly 700 matches across the fortnight.
Among them included Nigerian trailblazer Victor Ukueku, who having been inspired by watching his snooker heroes on television to pick up a cue in his home city of Lagos, made the pilgrimage to Sheffield to compete in his first international tournament.
And compete he did as incredibly he won his opening two matches against England’s Philip Blackburn and Seraj Eldughrey of Libya to qualify for the knockout rounds, before losing out to Gary Widdecombe in the last 140.
Like Ukueku, there were several other players well-travelled, from Habib Subah of Bahrain, to Alvin Barbero of the Philippines, to the precious talent of 11-year-old Matvei Lagodzinschii, who won three matches on his way to the last 64 of the Open tournament.
A player from much closer to home, but whose story would transpire to be no less remarkable was Sheffield’s own Jake Crofts, a 16-year-old player also competing in his maiden international event. Unknown to many prior to the start of the junior competition, the youngster grasped the opportunity to make a name for himself with both hands by winning six matches – including against former Polish champion Antoni Kowalski – to reach the final.
Although a clash with eventual champion Anton Kazakov would prove to be a step too far, the Ukrainian running out a 5-3 winner, the Crofts marked himself out as one to watch over the coming years and earned his place at next month’s Betfred World Snooker Championship qualifiers for the first time.
He will be joined by Lee Stephens, who just a week prior to his 40th birthday also enjoyed a fairy tale run to the Open final. From Chester, Stephens fell at the group stages of the same event in Malta back in 2020 but showed signs of improved form coming into Sheffield having won three matches at the recent WPBSA Q Tour 3 event in Leicester.
Having progressed to the knockout stages however, it was his narrow last 32 victory against Leo Fernandez that would pave the way for his run, with further wins against Jack Bradford, Joshua Cooper and former professional Daniel Wells taking him to the title match.
Like Crofts, Stephens would ultimately come up short in the final, but will proved to himself that he can compete among the best in the amateur game and will hope to carry his form into future tournaments.
The highest break of the event was made by two-time ranking event winner and one of the tournament favourites Michael White, but the beautifully constructed run of 141 to lead Si Jiahui 3-1 in the first semi-final would prove to be his final frame won of the tournament, as Si responded with three in a row to book his place in the final.
As in previous years, the mixed gender tournaments saw entries from a number of female players, with Australia’s 13-year-old Lilly Meldrum – a finalist in the World Women’s Under-21 Championship a week earlier – making her debut in the junior competition.
The Open event saw Romania’s Corina, Israel’s Idit Bnaya and world number four Rebecca Kenna compete, with Kenna improving upon her performance in 2018 by qualifying for the knockout rounds following victory against England’s Mickey Joyce.
There were also appearances from a number of players from the World Disability Billiards and Snooker Tour, with both William Thomson and Peter Geronimo winning frames during their group stage matches, the latter having led Daniel Williams 3-2, before the Welshman responded to turn the match around.
As well as the players, the tournament was also professionally run by a team of referees from around the globe. From Australia to Egypt, from Portugal to Morocco, the officials were a huge part of an incredible two weeks of snooker.
The WSF would like to thank everyone who supported and participated in the Championships. Further information about future tournaments will be released in due course.