Tuesday, 29 March 2011

China Open - Day two - Lee edges Williams in China classic

Snooker has rightly or wrongly built an image of being a bit dull over the years.

Even as an ardent fan of the game, I'm big enough to admit it can sometimes be grinding.

But what keeps me intrigued as much as anything is that every now and then snooker has a habit of delivering an absolutely classic match.

Today was one of those days.

The clash between Mark Williams and Stephen Lee was an epic, and one I'll remember for many years to come. It was the perfect advert for the best-of-nine-frame format of the game. And the perfect answer to the question of whether the China Open is just a warm-up for the World Championship.

Phil Yates said this match ranked among his top ten of all time. And believe me, there have been some classics along the way, and Phil is not one to sensationalise.

This was a glorious match. But I'll be honest and admit that when I was boarding the train into London at 06.40 this morning to make sure I was at my desk ready for the 07.30 start, I thought I was making a big mistake. It transpires, it was probably the best decision I've ever made.

Maybe you think I'm going overboard, so I should probably justify myself.

What made this match so special was that Williams scored four centuries, but was cruelly beaten 5-4 by a determined Lee. A player has never suffered defeat under these circumstances before.

The Welshmen played flawless snooker in the opening two frames as he raced into a commanding 2-0 lead. Two years ago - when his confidence was low - Lee would have lost this match 5-0.

But such has been his transition, he hung in there and got his reward.

Anyone who plays snooker knows the most demoralising part of the game is being slumped in your chair while you watch your opponent pot ball after ball. While they're growing in confidence with every shot, you're left sat hoping the earth will open up and swallow you.

Lee has been a fragile player in recent seasons finding confidence hard to come by. It's no surprise that his return to form this season has come at the same time he's rekindled his enthusiasm for the game.

Today, he was prepared to fight. And it was fight that won him this match. Because in truth, he ended up winning a match he should have come nowhere near winning. He deserves credit for taking his chances of course, but even he'll be confused as to how he's still in this competition.

In fairness though, Lee has lost plenty of games this season he's deserved to win, so maybe it's justice. But it's this kind of resilience that will mean John Higgins is cursing drawing Lee at next month's World Championship.

While this match was perhaps the best of the season, let alone the game of the day, we were also spoiled to seven more intriguing matches on day two in Beijing.

Among the games were another three which needed a decider.

Chinese star Ding Junhui kicked off his tournament on home turf, and nearly suffered an early exit. He found himself 4-1 down to Norway's Kurt Maflin in only his second televised match. But his experience eventually told as he staged a dramatic comeback, including two tons, to steal the match 5-4.

Ding has built a reputation for letting his head drop when he falls behind. Maybe he's come of age.

Mark Allen on the other hand lost out in a decider with Marcus Campbell.

The Scot has been one of the real success stories on tour this season. Unfortunately for him, most of his best performances have come in qualifying. Today, he got the chance to show the whole world how well he's playing. It was a performance made of steel.

Fellow Scot Graeme Dott didn't have such a successful day. He was another seed who was sent packing, losing 5-4 to wildcard wonder Li Hang.

Li beat Ken Doherty yesterday and was in equally good potting form today as he advanced to the last 16 of a ranking event for the first time in his career.

The final seed to sink was Stephen Maguire. He was beaten 5-3 by one of my tips for the tournament, Mark Davis. With no Crucible campaign to prepare for, Davis had the bit between the teeth to pick up vital ranking points, which could still see him end the season among the top 16.

Shaun Murphy was one seed who wasn't going to be budged. He trailed Joe Perry 3-1 at one stage of his match, but came back to win 5-3, and show again why he's such a good match player.

Elsewhere, Gerard Greene and Robert Milkins progressed through their wildcard matches.

Tomorrow will see the final eight opening round matches played. I doubt it'll be a dull day.

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