Thursday, 10 November 2011

You're going to York

The standard of play at this year's UK Championship qualifiers has been exceptional.

In fact, some of the best performers this week didn't even make it to the tournament in York, the competition has been that fierce.

We know the qualifying scene is a dangerous jungle and that was reflected by the number of old boys who counted on their years of experience to make it through to the venue.

There was heartbreak for many but joy for 16 who earned the right to play in front of the BBC television cameras later this year in December.

A new best-of-11-frame format has definitely given the competition a shake-up, but here's who made it, how they got there and the challenge they face when the tournament kicks off at the Barbican...

Tom Ford: He came, he saw, he conquered and made the qualifying stages look as easy as pie. He's moved into the top 32 of the world rankings for the first time in his career this season meaning he needs just one win to reach the venues. This one win couldn't have been more straightforward as he blitzed Xiao Guodong 6-0. On paper, this was a tricky assignment, with many people even backing the young Chinese cueman to qualify. The talented 21-year-old showed both sides of his game this week with a hard-earned 6-5 win against Adam Wicheard and a whitewash to the expense of Mike Dunn. But Leicester's Ford has come a long way over the past year. He's matured and is taking the game far more seriously. His talent has never been questioned but, known to put his social life before snooker, his progress was stunted. That's all changed and now he only looks like moving up. He enjoyed a run to the last 16 of the Australian Open earlier this season but to make it that far again, he'll have to beat Neil Robertson. They met at the same stage of the UK Championship two years ago but the the 2010 world champion was a comfortable 9-3 winner.

Mark Davis: The experienced 39-year-old played the role of the spoiler when he beat Michael White 6-2. The young Welshman had been one of the stand-out players of the week leading into this match. Wins against Daniel Wells, Barry Pinches and Liang Wenbo meant he was threatening to go all the way through the rounds. He showed again what a brutal scorer he is in those matches but didn't quite have the answers to go all the way against a more hardened matchplay professional. A series of impressive displays in the PTCs means White only just missed out on a top 64 place at the last seedings revision but this run will do wonders to help him cross that bracket in the new year. As for Davis, he narrowly missed out on breaking into the top 16 for the first time in his career earlier this season but showed no signs of a hangover from that disappointment. It was business as usual and more evidence he's not willing to give up on joining the elite. He'll play two-time UK champion Ding Junhui in round one.

Rory McLeod: Another successful qualifying campaign for the Northamptonshire potter but still more abuse from the fans. When Rory hits the table it's never pretty but, he knows how to get results.You can't knock him for that. His first win was 6-4 against Sheffield's Adam Duffy but it was the second that was more impressive as he beat Barry Hawkins 6-2. McLeod is used to being last off the table but here, he was the third quickest out of the eight matches in play. He was fortunate to meet Hawkins on an off-day but his tactics were spot on. Barry is a player who likes to score and make big breaks on clean tables. Rory on the other hand, slows frames down and does well when the balls go scrappy. From early on in this match, he was in complete control. Last season, Rory met the reigning world champion Robertson in the first round, and lost 9-1. He's playing the the world champion again this time in a repeat of the Crucible last 16 tie earlier this year. John Higgins will be a heavy favourite and we all know he can scarp it out with the best of them.

Steve Davis: The Nugget's progression to York means we're in for a blockbuster of a first round match at this year's UK Championship. He'll be playing Ronnie O'Sullivan in a tie that pits two of the game's greatest legends against each other. Davis was in the zone from ball one of his matches this week. Fresh from disappointment of a second successive World Seniors Championship final defeat, he was in the right frame of mind to make amends. First up he beat fellow veteran Ian McCulloch 6-2, after he'd already won two matches to get this far, then he ran out a winner by the same scoreline against recent PTC-winner Andrew Higginson. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Higginson in my opinion can be hit and miss. In this match, he was definitely a miss. When you play the six-time world champion, you've got to be prepared to be patient. Victory against Davis is never going to be easy but, he didn't ever really set about playing the waiting game. His safety was sloppy and he paid the price. Davis said after his win that the UK Championship was always top of his agenda and that was reflected in his game play. Unsurprisingly, he kept it tight in the safety department, scored cleverly and nicked the close frames.

Stephen Hendry: Hendry. Minus a classy century break in frame four to level the match, he gave the Scot chance after chance. Hendry wasn't at his best either. As we've come to see regularly, he played well in patches. When the balls presented themselves, he looked dangerous in and around the pink and black spots but, it was far from convincing. He did enough to go through and on the whole, there was a sigh of relief from the watching public. Hendry has been part of the make-up of snooker for so long now, you can't help but feel a UK Championship without Stephen would be wrong. No-one has a divine right to play at the big venues though and Barry Hearn's changes to the game means there's less protection for the top players. Hendry has learned that to his misfortune. I can't imagine he enjoyed his return to the qualifiers but he can now look forward to a match up with Stephen Maguire at the Barbican.

Matt Selt: One of the most under-rated players on the circuit and he proved again this week what an excellent player he is. When he's on his game, he's got the all-round capabilities to trouble anyone. He really came to the table this week. First he beat one of China's hot prospects, Cao Yupeng and then he put pay to his county counterpart, Mark King. As someone remarked today on twitter, while Selt is off to York, the only way is Essex for Mark. Selt's name wasn't one I heard mentioned too much in the build up to this qualifying campaign but, in my opinion, he's always one to watch. We shouldn't forget that just this season he was a ranking quarter-finalist. At the Australian Open, he knocked out a combined 11 world titles in Higgins and Hendry, before losing out to Murphy. Another world champion is in waiting when he goes to the venue. Graeme Dott will have to have his wits about him when they meet.

Dominic Dale: The Welshman is capable of adding a bit of colour to any tournament. His form over the past 18 months has been so impressive, he now only needs one win to make it to a venue. That win came against Nigel Bond, a player who at the back end of last season was qualifying for everything going. Dale is another qualifier who made an impact in Bendigo earlier this season. The former Grand Prix and Shanghai Masters champion was the man responsible for beating home hope Robertson on his own soil. His draws aren't getting any easier with Judd Trump next in this competition. Dominic has been around too long to start worrying about who he's playing though. He'll go in as underdog and against a player the whole crowd will be cheering on but, who knows, maybe he could spring a surprise in this shorter format.

Marcus Campbell: Another of the older generation professionals who refuses to let the younger players take him for a ride. The Scot was one player inside the top 32 of the rankings who could easily have failed to qualify when you consider his opponent. He was up against Ben Woollaston, winner of a PTC already this season and a player who had faced a big battle just to get this far. Already this week, he'd battled back from behind against Sam Craigie and kept his cool throughout Michael Holt's tantrums, to have a shot at the venue. Perhaps that had worn him down because ultimately a slow start in this match cost him. Marcus put his foot straight on the gas and built a commanding lead that was too big to knock down over the shorter distance. Some vital points banked for Woollaston but, for Campbell, he'll play Matthew Stevens in the first round.

Ryan Day: It took the three-time ranking event finalist less than two hours to secure his place at this year's UK Championship. The former world number six was on fire, rattling in break after break en route to a brutal whitewash of Jamie Burnett. When you see Day in form like this, you wonder how he ever fell down the rankings. I still believe he's destined to climb back up into the top eight and a run in this tournament could kick-start that. His first round draw doesn't come any tougher though as he faces current world number one Mark Selby. In that form, we could be in for a cracker. Burnett showed his scoring prowess in his win against Tony Drago but there was no competing in this one.

Ricky Walden: Back out of the top 16, maybe the pressure has been lifted from Walden. Steady growth helped Ricky earn a place among the elite but, as soon as he got there, it was like he lost his game. Ranking defeats to Dave Harold and McLeod left many people questioning him. He was too good for Jamie Jones though, clinching qualification against him with a 6-2 win. Jones is one of a few very popular players on the circuit at the moment. Consistent runs in the PTCs has seen him rocket up into the top 48. This was the tournament people were earmarking as the one he would breakthrough in, and make a big venue. Victory against Jimmy White in his first qualifier proved he could perform on the bigger occasions but he met Ricky in good form. Time is on Jamie's side. He's still only 23 and will have plenty more cracks. For Walden, he'll be eyeing up a quick return to the 16 as he should now be at his peak. Stephen Lee is his first round opponent, in a match that could go either way.

Li Yan: This vastly talented 19-year-old transformed this week from a player who is good on his day to a real force to be reckoned with. I honestly believe he can go right to the top. For a first year professional to win four matches and qualify for the UK Championship, it's not an achievement to be under-estimated. I can't find enough superlatives to describe his performances this week as he beat Stuart Carrington, Andy Hicks, Jack Lisowski and Fergal O'Brien on a fairytale run. He really is the full package. A great potter, good under pressure, superb technique and tenacious. His finest win will be seen by many as the one against Lisowski. Jack has been a real force in the qualifiers since becoming a professional last season, showing all young players exactly how to make their mark. He blew him away 6-2. But in his final match, he needed a different performance. Many experienced professionals struggle to out-fight Fergal in this format. Li was too hot to handle for even O'Brien. The beauty about his run is that he can now go to York with nothing to lose. He's already exceeded all expectations. That's why he could continue to be dangerous. His reward for the run is a match up with 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy.

Joe Jogia: Equals his best ever run at a ranking event by qualifying for the last 32 of the UK Championship. Jogia is no stranger to the qualifying circuit having spent many years as a professional but, he's still one of the more unlikely names to see going through to a main venue, because he hasn't made it a regular habit. Here, he became another player to profit from Jamie Cope's demise. The Shotgun lost his place in the top 16 at the end of last season and has been on a hiding to nothing ever since. Everytime I've seen him play, he hasn't convinced me he's got the resillience to bounce back. Jogia has improved since the creation of the PTC series, so much so, he's now in the top 48 of the rankings. After beating Anthony McGill in a decider, he ran out a 6-3 victor over Cope and will play world number two Mark Williams in York. No-one will begrudge Joe of his success. People in the qualifying arena of the game will know what a talented cueman he is. Now he has the chance to show many more in front of the television cameras.

Robert Milkins: It's perhaps fitting that in a year when the UK qualifiers came to Gloucestershire, a man from the county would go through to the main tournament. His progression here is not just a nice anecdote though. Milkins can play. He's a very attacking player and, in the end, had a bit too much for Peter Ebdon, beating him 6-3. Couple this with a dramatic deciding frame win against David Gilbert in the previous round and it adds up to another good qualifying return. Having not had much of an impact on the PTCs since their launch, he's become a little bit of a forgotten man. But he's still been picking up results in the bigger ranking events. He won through to the German Masters and went as far as the last 16 at the China Open last season. This year he again got through to the last 16 at the Shanghai Masters after beating Hendry. These are signs that maybe he's on the up. A date with Ali Carter will give him the chance to really test his credentials as we go in to the business end of the season. Ebdon on the other hand, appears to be finding life difficult this season.

Adrian Gunnell: A satisfying week at the office for the experienced 39-year-old. Since turning professional back in 1994, Gunnell has reached the last 16 of a ranking event four times. To repeat that, he'll need to beat Northern Ireland's Mark Allen. Rather than get ahead of himself, he should first look back on a very good job done in qualifying. Wins against David Grace and Dave Harold set him on his way but the icing on the cake was beating Joe Perry 6-4. Adrian has been steady over the last couple of seasons but eventually fell out of the top 48 in the rankings. He needs more than just the odd win to halt his slide. This will be a welcomed boost.

Peter Lines: Qualification has evoked memories of his famous run to the quarter-finals of this tournament two years ago. That year he won three matches in qualifying before beating Marco Fu and Mark Williams in Telford. To date, that is still his best performance in a ranking event. Lines is a gritty and determined player, assets he needed to count on in abundance to make it to York this year. Back-to-back 6-4 wins against Robin Hull and Alan McManus guided him to the final qualifying round, where he faced his biggest test. He recovered from 4-1 and 5-3 down to beat 1997 world champion Ken Doherty in a gruelling deciding frame shoot-out. Now through to the venue, he faces Martin Gould. It will be extra special for him to play in York, as a Yorkshire lad.

Marco Fu: How much did Marco Fu need that? Since the China Open earlier this year, he hasn't been able to buy a win. First round defeats in that tournament and the World Championship ensured he dropped out of the top 16. And in this campaign he's withdrawn from the Australian Open, lost his qualifier for the Shanghai Masters and majorly struggled in the PTCs. He's actually now in threat in dropping further down, out of the top 32. His chances of beating Anthony Hamilton here were close to zero but he somehow found the strength to battle to victory. An unbelievable clearance in the deciding frame won him it on the final black to book himself a tie with Stuart Bingham. Maybe this is the boost he's been looking for.

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