Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Selby lands silverware in Germany

A dominant Mark Selby won what he hopes will be the first of many ranking titles this season at the Paul Hunter Classic.

With a big crowd turning out in Fuerth for the fourth PTC event of the campaign, the Jester from Leicester pulled out all the stops as he steamrolled his way impressively to the trophy.

Included within his seven match wins were five whitewashes as he blew away the field with some exceptional break building.

One of these came in the final, where he defeated Mark Davis 4-0.

The only player capable of pushing him all the way this weekend was Ronnie O’Sullivan, who earned a lot of praise for another good run built on a focused attitude.

With the Rocket 3-1 up in the semi-final, Selby showed he can still mix it, coming back with grit and graft to win 4-3 to continue his fine record against the three-time world champion.

This was definitely the stand-out moment of his excellent weekend but, yet again, Selby proved he can score as well as the best players in the world.

Often criticised for his ‘negative approach’, some people seem to forget how lethal he is in the balls. While his safety game isn’t as opportunist as, say O’Sullivan, it’s a bit of myth to say he’s a negative player.

In fact, he’s probably as predatory as Ding when it comes to winning frames in one visit.

Anyone who watches him regularly will appreciate that.

So, Selby got his hands on his first ranking pot of the season, which means he already equals his ranking titles haul for the whole of last season.

Now, he’ll be desperate to add more. Starting in Shanghai next week.

Last season, he ended a career-high number three in the world rankings, and he's not far away from a place as world number one now.

But this has achieved through a consistent accumulation of points instead of finishing events on top of the podium. 

Defeats in the final at both the German Masters and China Open means too often last season he was the bridesmaid instead of the bride. That needs to change.

While a careful climb up the snooker pecking order means success now, when he hangs up his cue at the end of his career, he will ultimately be judged by the size of his trophy cabinet.

Right now, that cupboard is far too bare for a player of his stature in the sport. 

Selby’s all-round game is naturally very well equipped to win trophies, which leaves many people questioning why he doesn’t have more to show for it already. 

In brief, he’s actually been very unlucky. Selby has a habit of coming up against some of the best individual performances when he makes a final. 

That can’t go on forever, surely. I think we’ll see him turn a corner over the course of the rest of the campaign and start picking up top prize more regularly.

Eleven heaven for Ronnie

I’m the snooker fan I am today because of Ronnie O’Sullivan.

The way he played the game when I first started seriously watching gave me the thirst to follow it more – and I guess I’m not alone in that.

He’s one of the best break builders in the business.

He never misses a trick. Quick into the bunch, always looking to develop reds and flick high-value colours into command.

He can be only a couple of shots in to a break and he’s eyeing up big centuries, or even the maximum.

He was at it again in Germany. He made his 11th 147 break  to top the all-time record list, leaving Stephen Hendry one behind on ten.

It’s not the first time he’s led, but back in front, you wouldn’t bet against him making another this season.

His break in Germany was another worthy entrant to his list of great maximums. It’s hard to do anything but sit back and admire.

Why not take some time out to do just that...

Monday, 22 August 2011

Wonderful Woollaston wins maiden title

Promising-talent Ben Woollaston captured his first ever ranking title at the PTC3 this weekend - showing again how these tournaments can help players make their breakthrough.

The former European Under-19 champion battled back from 2-1 to beat Graeme Dott 4-2 in the final and put himself on the snooker map with his finest career moment to date.

While household names Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump have been the first to chalk up PTC wins so far this season, Woollaston's win came of some more of a surprise.

The 24-year-old from Leicester potter, ranked 69 in the world, came into the tournament in good enough form with three wins at the Australian Open qualifiers and a victory against Martin Gould in the PTC2.

He's long-threatened to produce the kind of snooker we saw from him this weekend  at the Academy, but never did anyone predict he would lift this trophy, having never been past the last 32 of a ranking event until now. Even going in to the final following wins against Rod Lawler, Kurt Maflin, Andrew Higginson, Ken Doherty, Alan McManus and Anthony McGill, Dott was the firm favourite as a fomer world champion and already having dismissed Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and O'Sullivan in the tournament.

But appearing unfazed by the pressure, Woollaston won the final three frames to secure his first title and collect £10,000 and 2,000 vital ranking points.

Now up to 59 in provisional world rankings, he's guaranteed his place at the end-of-season PTC Grand Finals and looks likes a good bet to break into the top 64, or even the 48, come the end of the season.

My immediate reaction is that even with the PTC series now established on the tour calendar and the top stars taking it more seriously than last season, Ben's win proves they're still a fantastic opportunity for lower-ranked players to make their mark.

Ben has definitely done that and as a result sees some of his vast talents and years of hardwork come to fruition.

He first broke on to the professional scene in 2003 as a teen sensation, but failing to retain to his spot, he next returned in 2009. This win gives him the points and confidence to ensure his professional status sticks long-term and should also provide great inspiration for other newer professionals.

His victory also means he joins the likes of Mark Selby, Tom Ford and Wille Thorne to make the honours list from Leicester. That in itself should give him great pride from an area so passionate about its snooker.

Well done Ben!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Paul Collier's Premier League nights: Skegness

The Premier League is back again - and that means referee Paul Collier is back with OnCue for another season of columns.

In a slight twist to proceedings for his column this year, Paul will be penning his thoughts after each night of action, giving a view from behind the television cameras, on what's really going on.

Matthew Stevens won the first event in Skegness. Here's how Paul found the new format...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Shining Stevens stomps to Skegness win

Matthew Stevens put on a real show for Lincolnshire's Skegness crowd - as he kicked off the new Premier League campaign with a bang.

The Welshman has retained his popular status within the sport despite a dip down the rankings in recent years.

And it's easy to see why after a shining display in front of the Sky cameras.

Winning qualification for this season's tournament through the gruelling Championship League, tonight he proved he still belongs with the big boys. A 3-0 semi-final win against Neil Robertson saw him gather momentum before he followed it up with another whitewash against John Higgins in the final.

Six frames without reply means he's off to a flying start, where his performance was as impressive as his flawless results.

While some players tend to fluster under the shot-clock format, Stevens seems to blossom under it.

He played by his instincts and in turn produced the kind of polished and assured performance that could see him go a long way in this tournament and mount a serious championship charge.

Stevens has always been a cool customer. He showed that asset in abundance again tonight, taking advantage of two players who will admit finding the format difficult. Never afraid to take on bold pots, Matthew was swift in his shot selection and need never look back.

A lot of the build-up to tonight's action revolved around changes to the competition this season, but with no matches going the distance, the Shoot-Out style deciding frame didn't come into play.

A 20-second shot clock instead of 25 kept the play punchy, and as imagined, the knockout style gave punters real value for money.

There can be no quibbles about whether Stevens was a deserved winner tonight, as he was streets ahead of his rivals. With only four nights to play each, opening whitewash defeats mean Jimmy White and Robertson are automatically under pressure.

For Stevens, he can enjoy the moment. It's great to see such a terrific talent in a rich vein of form.

The Premier League is back.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Premier League preview: Rocket targets ten

Ronnie O'Sullivan faces his stiffest test to continue domination of the Premier League this year.

The Rocket has almost claimed the annual invitation event as his very own with a record nine titles, and eight since 2001.

With his eyes on the prize again and a landmark tenth title up for grabs, he'll have to fight past the first format change of the competition since 2005, and more players vying for the trophy than ever before.

A summer shake-up means this year ten players will compete in the tournament and the format is more brutal than ever with the 25-second shot clock reduced to just 20.

Instead of a league format with matches played over six frames, this time round, each player will compete on four knockout nights with two best-of-five frame semi-finals and a final. Points will be awarded per frame won, before the tournament branches into its usual play-off conclusion.

That's not all for the changes with the deciding frames of matches switching to last year's ten-minute Shoot-Out format.

With plenty new to assess when the action gets underway, pretty much the only in consistency in the competition this year is the return of referee Paul Collier.

I've always been a massive fan of the Premier League action as it provides a welcomed change of pace to the rest of the events on the calendar, and tests players on their abilities to play instinctive snooker. The same cannot be said about some of the game's traditionalists who look down on the event. But we shouldn't forget the Premier League has been on the calendar since 1987, and has actually been established as one of the sport's most successful events.

It's always been a great money spinner for the sport's top stars and that's definitely the case this year with a handsome £60,000 up for grabs for the eventual winner. This comes at a price though with the £1,000 prize per frame win being scrapped. Again, while many people seem disgruntled by this change, I think it gives the tournament an extra edge with reward coming for the player prepared to push the boat out for the bigger win rather than pick up smaller reward for competitive defeat.

All these alterations means it will be a challenge in itself for reigning champion Ronnie to adapt and still continue his consistent success. But he remains the bookmakers red-hot favourite with reduced thinking time predicted to play even further into the favour of the game's most naturally-gifted player.

He loves the short format and remains the man to beat but a strong and wide field though, means his title charge is far from a foregone conclusion.

Despite losing to O'Sullivan 7-1 in last year's final, Shaun Murphy remains the most likely player to knock him off his perch. After winning the event himself in 2009, he's proved his ability to produce his best snooker across a number of formats. He's a solid match for anyone.

Then there's world number one Mark Williams and Masters champion Ding Junhui, who have both performed well in the past under this format.

Williams has made three finals without ever lifting the trophy while Ding has shown glimpses of what he's capable under shot-clock restriction and is renowned as a quick and prolific break builder anyway.

World and UK champion John Higgins has thrown his name back into the hat after absence from the event last season. His game has never been naturally suited to the Premier League format, but writing him off would be silly considering his tenacity.

Also in the field is Australia's Neil Robertson. The 2010 world champion has struggled to make an impact on the Premier League in the past but impressed advancing to the semi-finals of the competition last season.

Potting sensation Judd Trump returns for a second time with greater experience. He's a natural showman who will relish the television occasion and a real shout to give the Rocket a run for his money.

Jimmy White is back and will enjoy playing regularly back on the box while Ali Carter and Matthew Stevens complete the line-up and could be the dark horses.

A fleeting field of stars this season means the tournament has captured my imagination again, but still one of the tournament's primary advantages is that it gives some of the UK's biggest snooker-supporting regions a taste of competitive action.

That's none more so the case than this season's opening event in Skegness, a hotbed for the game in Lincolnshire. Robertson, White, Higgins and Stevens will play on the curtain-raising night, and I can't wait.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Great Twitter Debate

Logging on to Twitter this week, there's been one topic every blogger from the snooker community has had something to say about: Twitter itself.

For many, Twitter has become the most instantaneous way of keeping abreast of action from the baize.

With a strong network of snooker bloggers and fans all taking to the social networking site, the way in which people are following snooker has changed to the same extent as the game itself under Barry Hearn.

With the World Snooker live scoring system improving, but still unreliable, people seem to be turning to Twitter more and more to keep up to date with the latest scores.

When I say, right up to date, I literally mean ball-by-ball.

With numerous PTC and qualifying matches being played away from the television screens and a growing thirst for the latest news, Twitter has become a number one calling point with bloggers such as Matt from ProSnookerBlog always on hand to keep people in the picture.

His presence along with others at the recent PTC2 tournament made it one of the best covered competitions of its kind so far.

It's hardly a surprise in a world where new technology is evolving at such a vast rate that snooker should take the same path.

While snooker's new found Twitter culture  has been greeted with warmth by many, it's not the case for everyone with the tweeting during matches being given the big thumbs-down by World Snooker in Gloucester.

This has opened up a lengthy debate about how Twitter can best be employed to improve coverage of the game, without becoming an unruly free for all while players are trying to concentrate on playing the game.

The answer to this is of course, is by no means easy. But a flat out 'no' to tweeting helps no-one.

While I'm not the kind of snooker fan who feels the need to know about every ball being potted in every match, neither do I need convincing on how Twitter can be an effective tool in providing coverage for exciting non-televised matches.

A classic example is the deciding frame between Matthew Stevens and Fergal O'Brien in last year's World Championship qualifiers, where the Crucible fate of both these professionals swung on like a pendulum with only Twitter capable of painting the most accurate picture.

With a huge demand for live updates in an enthralling final frame, superb Twitter commentary was broadcasting a blow-by-blow account of the frame meaning despite the match not being seen on television, it still went down as one of many fans' games of the season.

This is evidence in itself of just how well new technology can assist snooker in providing greater exposure.

Traditionally, I've always said technology should be left in the media centre and, while spectating is the name of the game table side. That is definitely still the case for televised matches, but this rule is somewhat murkier when talking about non-televised play. Examples like the one above proves there's room for the rules to bend for the good of the game.

Taking myself away from specific examples, it's great to see the new snooker boom has led to an increased hunger for scores and results. So why should the game turn this enthusiasm away?

Somewhere down the line, there is a very valid argument for allowing tweeting of non-televised matches. Whether this is left in the hands of World Snooker, or independent blogger, isn't my decision.

But while there's demand, the game should be doing everything to accommodate it, and further enhance its relationship with fans.

The problem is striking the correct Twitter balance.  We've got to be realistic in admitting that the game survived long before social networking, and it will certainly survive long after it.

But to say no indefinitely to social networking would, in my opinion, be a grave mistake at a time when the sport is making fantastic strides in its modernisation.

It's up to the policy makers to address the issue, sooner rather than later.

Please share your views on 'The Great Twitter Debate'.....

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Hearn hits out at top stars

You don't get to Barry Hearn's position without being able to pack a punch.

That's why his harshly-worded letter addressed to the sport's top stars on Friday was right on the money.

Never scared to shy away from his responsibilities, he openly criticised the game's leading names and said bluntly: "let us start by behaving like professionals please." 

Hearn named Mark Williams, John Higgins, Ding Junhui, Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Judd Trump, Mark Allen and Matthew Stevens as he expressed his dissatisfaction after they all rejected an invitation to the new Brazilian Masters tournament.

It's no secret that Hearn is striving to open up the world market for snooker. A major event in Brazil is set to be another big milestone in that effort, but he feels let down by a lack of enthusiasm from the players he needs as ambassadors.

While the list of players competing still includes Mark Selby, Shaun Murphy, Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis, to make snooker truly global, he needs everyone behind him. I have to empathise with his frustrations.

We've said it time and time again, but just two years ago the same players and more were moaning because of a lack of tournaments. Snooker is very luck to have Barry Hearn. He has bent over backwards to enlarge the the snooker calendar. He works tirelessly to secure new competitions at venues across the world.

His efforts to rebuild the game can never be questioned, but his work alone is not enough to push snooker on. He needs the backing of all the players to achieve it. 

Snooker is in a far better place than it's ever been, so I sit firmly on Barry's side of the fence on this one.

But this doesn't mean I can't sympathise with the players. The game has exploded at a rate no-one could ever have anticipated. The globetrotting-style of the sport today means extra economic burden for the top stars. But on the other side, the prize money available is off the scale too.

For the sport's top players, I don't see a problem in balancing the financial books if they get right behind all the tournaments. With so much to gain, the top players should accept they are full-time sportsmen now, and not part-timers. I can't see anything other than cause for celebration from a money perspective.

The new-look state of snooker also means the players must spend more time away from their families than perhaps they ever have before. But like many other hardworking people across the country, this is the unfortunate reality of a career. I should point out here that the sport's top stars still enjoy more time away from competitive action than your average worker does away from the office, and stand to earn much more money.

Specific to the Brazilian Masters, the timing of the event isn't exactly great with the Shanghai Masters falling straight before. With no easy flight path and the preceding ranking event obviously of greater importance, players may think something has to give in a packed schedule, but as Hearn stated in his letter, the timing was non-negotiable.

Right now, snooker needs to take what it can to open up new exciting parts of the world. That said, I'll have less sympathy for Hearn in the future if the calendar continues to be skewed in years to come. Right now, with the game still in transition, it's to be expected.

Adapting to the greater demands of the sport under Hearn must without doubt be a tough juggling act for the players, but surely this is far better than the dark days, when they would be waiting months between playing each tournament. 

Snooker has grown off the scale. For this to be sustainable, the players need to throw their weight behind it, just like Hearn.  

What I will say before signing off on this blog post is that the current state of the game for the lower-ranked professionals and amateur players is completely different. I don't think they have it so lucky. But that's another debate for another day...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Guodong from strength to strength

Xiao Guodong was a lot of people's player to watch this season - and this week he showed why.

The 22-year-old Chinese cueman has come a long way since turning professional back in 2007 and is now established as one of the the most frightening break builders on the tour.

It doesn't matter where the balls are - he always looks like clearing up.

He did that regularly this week as he emerged as the surprise package in Gloucester to reach the semi-finals of the PTC2.

Wins against Reanne Evans, Rod Lawler, Craig Steadman, Jamie Burnett and Rory McLeod for the concession of just five frames powered him to the last four where he narrowly lost out 4-3 to fellow countryman Ding Junui.

It's taken Xiao a couple of seasons to settle down on the circuit after first breaking on winning the under-21 Asian Championship. Last season he won eight first round PTC matches and at least one game in all seven major ranking event qualifiers, and despite never make it to the last 16 at a PTC, he did enough to secure a place in the top 64 of the rankings by the skin of his teeth.

He wrapped up his place with a dramatic 10-9 against Kurt Maflin in the first round of qualifying for the World Championship, to avoid the rat race of needing to go through Q School or rely on a wildcard as he did to return in 2010.

Now in his fourth straight campaign as a pro, people are talking about him more than ever as a player capable of making real waves at the top end of the game.

A glorious Gloucester display puts right the wrongs of losing his opening qualifying matches in the Australian Open and Shanghai Masters so far. Now he's found his feet , I wonder whether he can live up to the expectations in what could now turn out to be a groundbreaking season for this sensational scorer.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Trump pulls the trigger for fine season

Judd Trump became the first player to win a second PTC title - but a lot has changed since his first.

When the Bristol potter won the EPTC1 title some 12 months ago, it was a case of the young lad did good. Defeating Anthony Hamilton in the final as well wins against former world champions Shaun Murphy and Peter Ebdon, there was an element of surprise to his triumph.

No-one could deny his talent even then, but success was proving hard to come by. That was his first title but he was still a long way from being household name.

I challenged him in a blog post to kick on with his career because the hype was getting boring. Fair play to him. Since then, he's done exactly that capturing his first major ranking title at the China Open and competing at the Crucible in the biggest final of them all.

The PTCs have been such a huge hit since their invention, largely because of their unpredictability. That explains why it's taken 14 events to muster a multiple winner.

Trump can feel satisfied at being then first, but even greater comfort will come from looking back at the vast leap he's made with his game since his first.

He's now firmly installed as one of the game's biggest stars. In fact, his game is so stunning these days that he captured his first trophy of the season with an emphatic 4-0 win in the final against Ding Junhui, taking him a mere 45 minutes.

Just like victory in Germany a year ago proved the catalyst to a fine year, this win could act as a similar springboard for the coming season.

After first round defeats in both the PTC1 and Australian Open, he's not exactly hit the ground running since lighting up the sport in Sheffield.

But now he's put the practice back in, he looked a little bit more like his old self this week, especially after his hard fought win against Neil Robertson in the last 16.

Big things are expected of Trump this season now he's built a legion of fans. His title in Gloucester could be the beginning of another fine campaign.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Lethal Lisowski leads the way to Shanghai

Jack Lisowski has been far and away the stand-out player in the qualifiers this week.

Three wins for the loss of just a single frame, he's rubbished the old line that it's a tough old graft in the qualifiers. Instead, he's made it look effortlessly easy with wins against David Grace, Mike Dunn and Marco Fu.

After winning the Rookie of the Year accolade at the end of season World Snooker awards, it was always going to be difficult for him to follow up his maiden season success. Some of his biggest fans have predicted he'll break into the top 32 of the rankings, some even the 16.

While at first these bold claims may have sounded knee-jerk, it's difficult to argue with it right now.

We all know how difficult life is in the qualifiers, but Jack is living proof that the cream of the crop always rises to the top.

Just like his housemate Judd Trump, Lisowski has a style of play all fans love. He goes for his shots and doesn't change for anyone.

And the way he's taken the professional circuit by storm, why the hell should he?

Last season he famously advanced to the venue of the German Masters, where he narrowly lost in the first round 5-4 to John Higgins. He gave the Scot a real run for his money and showed then that he's capable of producing in front of the television cameras too.

In Shanghai, he'll have to win in the wildcard round before facing Jamie Cope, a player he's well capable of beating.

It's exciting times in the Lisowski camp and he appears to be loving it. Well played Jack, taking the second season by storm just like his first!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Wattana on the warpath

James Wattana is continuing his impressive start to the season in the Shanghai Masters this week.

Making the most of his wildcard pass to the professional tour this season, he's already won three matches and is now just one victory away from returning to a major venue.

Wins against experienced professionals Matt Couch, Andy Hicks and Dave Harold prove he's in good form this week and now a scalp against Joe Perry is all that separates him from a glamour tie in Shanghai with Ronnie O'Sullivan.

The former world number five is a real veteran of the circuit but has been cast into the wilderness needing four wins to make any venue this season. He's showed plenty of his baize wisdom though, adding to his one win in the Australian Open qualifiers last month.

Ironically it was Couch who stopped him going further towards Australia after he beat Daniel Wells in the first round, but it's still four wins out of six so far on the major ranking events this campaign, in arguably the most competitive year in the history of the sport.

Competition to break into the top 64, to cut down the number of games you need to win to qualify for events and guarantee a spot on the tour next season, is fierce. But by winning at least one match at each tournament, you stand a great chance. The Thai player has done it so far, and is playing with as much tenacity as ever.

He'll be the underdog tomorrow but Perry won't relish playing him either, for he knows all the tricks of the trade. It's great to see him back fighting and making the most of the lifeline he was thrown to gain a wildcard.

Wattana hasn't been the only player from the depths of the qualifiers shining this week.

Fellow Passakorn Suwannawat has also won three matches and only Stephen Lee stands in the way of his qualification for a first major ranking event.

Suwannawat has dispatched of Adam Duffy, Jimmy Robertson and Steve Davis this week, a vast improvement from being dumped out by David Gilbert at the first hurdle on route to Bendigo.

A lot of fans have been commenting on how well he's played this week with his balanced game being a great springboard for an assault.

We shouldn't forget about Norway's Kurt Maflin either, who is fast building a reputation as the most dangerous in his section of the rankings. Between here and the Australian qualifiers, he's won five of his six matches with only Michael Holt having beaten him. Today he smashed Mark Joyce 5-0, the biggest warning yet that he's a name that will sticking around on the circuit. Liang Wenbo is next on his hit list.

Then the final man with three wins this week is India's Aditya Mehta, who I blogged about earlier this week. I challenged him to go on and build on his opening day win, and he has. He's beaten Jamie Jones and Rod Lawler, although the waiting Ryan Day will be tougher.

While winning four matches to qualify for events remains a struggle, players are proving it can be done.We'll see how these players fare tomorrow.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Can Mehta do better?

Aditya Mehta is one of a clutch of players vying for better luck on his second attempt on the professional tour.

When he first broke onto the circuit , rather fortuitously in 2008, he was the first Indian player to do so in over a decade since Yasin Merchant back in the 1990s.

After finishing runner-up in the Indian national rankings and the Asian Championships that year, he was only granted a place as a rival declined.

But known for his heavy scoring, Mehta was hoping to make it stick.

Despite eventually settling into life on the tour and advancing to the third qualifying round of ranking events on three occasions, it wasn't enough to retain his card. Again a runner-up in the Asian Championship last season, this time he was awarded his place as the Asian nomination.

An impressive 4-0 win against Stephem Maguire in last season's PTC5 again proved he could play but defeat in his first match at the Australian Open, 5-1 to Tian Pengfei, suggested he was in for another tough ride.

Today he showed different signs with an impressive 5-0 demolition of Grismby's Stuart Carrington.

Sure Carrington is in his maiden season, but the general consensus is he's a young player who could be here to stay.

There's not such overwhelming confidence in the fortunes of Mehta however. No disrespect, but he's one of a few players who slipped under my radar when I looked at the list of competitors this season. His result today made me stand up and notice.

I wonder what else he's got up his sleeve this week on the road to Shanghai...