Monday, 28 March 2011

China Open - Day one - Headline heavy in Beijing

As an action-packed opening day at this year's China Open drew to a close, it was difficult to pick out the stand-out story.

With Stephen Hendry proving he's prepared to fight for his top 16 place, world champion Neil Robertson showing rare form in China, Norway's Kurt Maflin winning on his TV debut and Ken Doherty being trounced by wildcard Li Hang, there was plenty to digest and no shortage of talking points.

And this was all without Jimmy White, who didn't show for the event after suffering visa problems.

Anyone who thought this tournament would be a drab showing ahead of the main showpiece at the World Championship next month, really needs to think again.

Here's how day one unfolded...

Seven-time world champion Hendry was first to make his mark on this terrific day of snooker.

As so often has been the case throughout his glorious career, the Scot saved his best for when he really needed it.

In threat of losing his place among the world's top 16 at the close of this season, a win against Matthew Stevens was pretty much essential. But with the Welshman coming into the competition as the form man off the back of progress to the last four at the PTC Grand Finals and winning the Championship League, his chances looked slim.

While Stevens was definitely not at his best and saw the run of the ball desert him, Hendry was taking no prisoners as he played superbly to win the match 5-0. This win sees Hendry climb from 21st to 16th in the provisional rankings, meaning just an opening round win at the Crucible could be enough to secure his status.

Stevens has had a gruelling schedule of snooker over the last fortnight, which means his defeat may be a blessing in disguise if he's to have a crack at the title in Sheffield. But for Hendry, who desperately needs the ranking points, this could hardly have been sweeter.

On the other table, qualifier Kurt Maflin was making history of his own. Becoming the first Norwegian to play televised snooker was an achievement in itself. But after winning a tough wildcard match with Cao Yupeng 5-3, he now faces what he calls the "biggest match of his career" against Ding Junhui in the last 32.

Plenty has been said about the prospect of Maflin losing his wildcard match in Beijing.

After bravely fighting through four qualifying matches to make it this far, it would have been harsh for him to miss out now. But a granite performance has earned him exactly what he deserves.

The next story of the day came courtesy of world champion Neil Robertson.

The Aussie has notoriously struggled to find form in China in the past, having never made it to a quarter-final here.

But after a slow start, he eventually ran out a 5-1 winner against Barry Hawkins. It looks like the Thunder from Down Under might be coming to form just in time for his title defence at the Crucible.

It wasn't such a sweer day for out-of-form Dubliner Ken Doherty. The 1997 world champion lost out on his place in Sheffield after a disappointing display saw him beaten by Jimmy Robertson a few weeks back.

He was looking to bounce back in Beijing, but despite putting in plenty of practice, his fortunes went from bad to worse as he was stuffed 5-1 by 20-year-old wildcard Li Hang. This probably ranks as one of Doherty's worst ever TV showings.

Li on the other hand has bags of talent and was potting balls for fun today, suggesting he could be one to watch out for to recapture his form. The talented Chinese star turned pro in 2008 after winning the Asian under-21 championship. During his two seasons on tour, he advanced to the last 64 in the Northern Ireland Trophy and the Grand Prix while climbing up to 71st in the world rankings.

He faces Graeme Dott next, who will have to tread carefully.

Elsewhere on day one, Marcus Campbell, Joe Perry and Nigel Bond survived the nervy wildcard round to book their places in the last 32. Tian Pengfei advanced on a bye in the wake of Jimmy White's withdrawal to meet Mark Selby.

As far as opening days go, this had it all. With another eight first round matches scheduled for tomorrow, there could even more fireworks.

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