Friday, 25 March 2011

The China Open: Tournament preview

With this year’s World Championship on the horizon – just three weeks away in fact – it’s easy to forget the small matter of the China Open.

But beginning on Monday, the tournament held in Beijing is more than merely a warm-up for the biggest event on the calendar.

The China Open is in my opinion one of the most important tournaments of the season...

Firstly, it provides the players with good practice before the showpiece of the season in Sheffield, even if success in Asia doesn’t always translate to the Crucible.

Take the current world champion Neil Robertson as an example. Last year, he crashed out in the last 16 in China, losing 5-1 to Peter Ebdon, before going on to lift the world title.

Ebdon on the other hand, who looked to have found his groove in Asia, then went on to suffer a first round defeat to Graeme Dott in Sheffield.

More interestingly, it dates back to John Higgins in 1998 to find a player who has won the tournament directly before going on to win the world title. He won the British Open that year before conquering the world for the first time.

Secondly, it’s important we don’t underestimate what a pivotal role China plays in masking snooker a global game.

For years now, the Chinese been hot on the game. But since Ding Junhui won this tournament back in 2005, enthusiasm has been booming.

When the top players come to play in Beijing they enjoy red-carpet treatment, while tens of millions more tune in to watch the action on television.

Homegrown Ding is obviously the most popular attraction with the crowds, and last season he came mighty close to winning the event for a second time, but was beaten 10-6 in the final by Mark Williams.

Close behind the Chinese prodigy as a fans favourite though is Ronnie O’Sullivan. There’s been a lot of debate surrounding the Rocket and his attitude towards snooker in China. Earlier this season, he withdrew from the Shanghai Masters quoting personal reasons for his inability to compete, and in the 2008 China Open, he famously made lewd comments in his post-match interview after losing in the first round to Marco Fu.

Unsurprisingly with Ronnie appearing disengaged with the game this season, rumours are circling that he may pull out of this tournament as well. Many snooker followers have come to the conclusion he doesn’t like playing in Asia.

I have no idea if this is the case or not, but we shouldn’t forget he’s won three ranking titles on this continent, two of these being in the China Open. While Ronnie doesn't have to be at his very best to win titles, this still isn't a bad return.

One of the biggest problem with the China Open in years gone by is its ill-timing. If I'm honest, this doesn't do the event any favours. But I don’t think there will be many players viewing this year’s event as a distraction to their Sheffield preparations.

The players have become so accustomed to playing regular snooker this season that it becomes yet another chance to get match-sharp in time for the worlds.

Picking a winner like at every tournament this year is difficult mainly because the top crop of  players in the world are so evenly matched right now.

But a few players I believe could collect the winner’s cheque for £60,000 are John Higgins, Matthew Stevens and Shaun Murphy.

It’s been well-documented that Higgins has been in imperious form since his return, looking almost unbeatable at times. He’s a player who has never found it difficult to practice, and having not competed at the PTC Grand Finals or the Championship League matches at Crondon Park over the last fortnight, he could be fresh for the job.

Stevens and Murphy on the other hand are very much the form men in snooker at the moment. Stevens sealed his first Premier League spot in eight years earlier this week and will be on a high, while Murphy lifted the trophy at the inaugural PTC event in Dublin, and ran the Welshman close in the winners group final too.

As for the dark horses, I always think you should watch out for the players who haven’t qualified for the Crucible in China. For them, this is their last tournament of the season, and their last chance to pick up all-important ranking points.

Most notably in that band are Robert Milkins, Mark Davis and Gerard Greene. These boys will be desperate for a run, and will be hoping to cash in on any Crucible distraction that Jamie Cope, Stephen Maguire and Peter Ebdon may respectively be feeling.

We shouldn't forget that the China Open is one of the tournaments in the season where we don't get straight into the last 32 action of course.

For the eight lowest ranked qualifiers, they’ll have to come through the stressful if not gruelling wildcard round on Monday. The two dangermen in this section of the draw are Tian Pengfei and Xiwen Mei.

Tian is a widely-acknowledged talent after spending the 2008/09 season on tour and notably knocking O’Sullivan out of this tournament in the first round last season. He’ll be up against Jimmy White.

Then there's Mei. He beat Mike Dunn in the wildcard round of this season’s Shanghai Masters and also defeated Alfie Burden in the 2007 China Open. Marcus Campbell will have to be on his guard.

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