Sunday, 17 July 2011

Australian Open: Tournament preview - No Rocket but Aussie show goes on

There really is no rest for the wicked in snooker these days.

No sooner has the World Cup drawn to a close in Thailand and it's time to go down under for the first major ranking event of the season.

The maiden Australian Goldfields Open will shortly be underway - and the world's top players have already had a fight on their hands just to get there. But Ronnie O'Sullivan couldn't even overcome that hurdle.

The Rocket, who has a reputation for pulling out of tournaments on foreign soil, made it as far as Bangkok before pulling out of the event due to back problems.

A little like the boy who cried wolf, it's difficult to judge whether Ronnie is genuinely unable to play or whether he simply didn't fancy it. As usual, there's been the usual barrage of criticism banded around about his decision, including fellow professional Mark King, who used social networking website Twitter to air his frustrations. He ranted: "What a surprise THE ROCKET has pulled out of OZ, I reckon he has found a bone in his leg,what a load of bollocks,it must be nice to choose."

In my opinion, I find it difficult to believe Ronnie never intended on playing, because he did make it as far as
Thailand after all, and even by Ronnie's standards, his withdrawal is bizarre - but the show must go on.

And indeed, the show will go on. O'Sullivan is just a single player in a sport full of top stars.

His withdrawal is however good news for wildcard Steve Mifsud, who helped Australia the quarter-finals of the World Cup this week. He slots into O'Sullivan's place in the draw to play Dominic Dale, while Matt Selt is fast-tracked past the wildcard round and now plays John Higgins in round one.

O'Sullivan aside, the likes of Judd Trump, Stuart Bingham and Shaun Murphy have all been tweeting this week about the mammoth 24-hour to get to the venue in Bendigo, and have already safely landed in Oz. You have to feel a bit of sympathy for the players going such a long way away from their families to play in an event they could lose in the first round, but I guess that's the price of success as many of their fellow professionals are resigned to watching this exciting opening tournament from the comfort of their own homes.

With a fully-fledged ranking event now being played in Australia, it really does highlight what huge strides the sport has made to become global under the stewardship of Barry Hearn.

No-one will be more pleased than the 2010 world champion and Australian snooker hero Neil Robertson.

In the build-up to this season, many snooker pundits have been caught on record saying the world number five will enjoy a finer season than his last with the shackles of being world champion off his back.

But mark my words, he'll be playing with plenty of pressure on him next week in his homeland with fans desperate to see him lift his first title since September last year at the World Open.

His path is unlikely to be an easy one either. Veteran Nigel Bond, who beat Barry Hawkins in a nail-biter in qualifying, is waiting in the first round before a potential tie with world number one Mark Williams in the quarter-final.

It's going to be difficult for Robertson to dazzle, especially with the whole nation watching.

Behind Neil and in the same half of the draw, all eyes will be glued to Judd Trump to see how he follows up his trip to the World Championship final in May. A first round clash with Mark Davis will be no walkover and then there's Mark Selby, my tip to win the tournament, waiting in the second round.

The Jester has been in incredible form of late. Despite being stopped at the Crucible by Ding Junhui in the quarter-finals, he's on a real purple patch of form. His record-breaking performance against Stephen Hendry in Sheffield was a joy to watch and he's since won the Wuxi Classic title and been the kingpin in England's recent World Cup campaign, which saw them advance to the last eight.

He's playing as well as ever and definitely has the ability to go all the way here.

The top half of the draw definitely looks the kinder. Higgins will fancy his chances of making it through to the final, although the likes of Shaun Murphy and Mark Allen could cut down his route.

The lowest ranked player, David Gilbert, will kick off the tournament in the wildcard round against James Mifsud.

I'll be paying particular attention to Gilbert, the only player to advance through all four rounds of qualifying and who has the ability to progress quickly though the draw with a bye waiting in the first round.

Graeme Dott, who looked in impressive form to reach the semi-finals of the PTC1, has had to withdraw from the tournament with a neck injury meaning a win for Gilbert would see him fast-tracked to last 16 to play either world number one Williams or Barry Pinches, who provided the biggest shock in qualifying beating  Stephen Lee.

For Australia, it's a long overdue wait for a slice of the ranking tournament action - but I hope they enjoy it.

It's doubtful how much of this competition I'm going to be able to watch juggling my day job with snooker through the night. But maybe it's a good time to let fans from the southern hemisphere have their taste of the action. After all, we've had plenty down the years.

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