Sunday, 4 December 2011

The story so far...

It's great to be back in York.

We're just two days into this year's UK Championship but what a pleasure to be here.

The Barbican is a superb venue for snooker and with ticket sales through the roof, the atmosphere has been fantastic.

A strong crowd always adds to the occasion in big matches at big tournaments - and that's been proved the case again.

Picture by Monique Limbos
In such a massive tournament, the pressure is on the players to perform. They haven't disappointed.

World number one Mark Selby has put in the most impressive performance so far. A 6-0 demolition of Ryan Day sent out a stiff warning to his title rivals, showing he means business and proving exactly why he's leading the ranking list.

Keen to add to his win at the Shanghai Masters earlier this season, he made light work of game that looked tricky on paper and further dispelled any myth that he's a negative player.

Ronnie O'Sullivan looks equally determined to chase silverware this week. After losing the first frame to Steve Davis he eventually ran out a comfortable 6-1 winner. Like a sign of all great champions, he steadily rose through the gears as this match progressed but, the most impressive part of his display was how he kept his game in check despite early scrappy spells. His patience bodes well for a bid for the title.

These two top 16 players weren't alone in opening with a sparkle. Neil Robertson and Graeme Dott ran out 6-1 winners against Tom Ford and Matt Selt respectively, while Martin Gould was far too strong against Peter Lines, and won 6-2.

The closest matches were actually yesterday. John Higgins and Ding Junhui both needed slices of fortune in deciders with Rory McLeod and Mark Davis respectively.

Higgins' ability to come through a stern battle is hardly surprising and only confirms why he'll be at the business end of this tournament. But for Ding, it was a marked improvement for a player who has often been questioned for having a soft centre.

No-one will be more pleased with their  first round win though than Ali Carter. He's desperately struggling for form and confidence but managed to emerge a 6-4 winner over Robert Milkins. That will do the Essex potter wonders.

Stephen Maguire is another player lacking in the confidence department right now. He did all the basics right to beat Stephen Hendry by 6-3 in the battle of Scotland. Yet again, it was difficult watching the seven-time world champion labour at a big venue, missing balls he just wouldn't have in years gone by.

It's not all been about the winners. A big congratulations should go to TV debutant Li Yan. The Chinese cueman came through a gruelling four matches just to make it here and  can be proud of his performance. He eventually lost 6-3 to Shaun Murphy but showed enough glimpses of quality to suggest a bright future in the game.
Picture by Monique Limbos

It's never in front of cameras but all in all, he looked comfortable.

Talking of tough, it really was hard watching Marcus Campbell. He lost 6-2 to Matthew Stevens as another top 16 player ran out winner but, even seeing him out competing was worth commendation.

Campbell went out into the arena to play despite hearing news that his friend who follows him at all the major tournament had died suddenly in his York hotel. It was a brave effort to fight on, which earned him plenty of plaudits. A massive well done to him. But Stevens showed signs of another top player desperate for a good week.

In fact, the only top 16 not to progress so far is Stuart Bingham. Despite leading 3-1, he lost 6-4 to Marco Fu. This result will go down as a shock considering Marco's poor recent form but glimpses of brilliance in this hard fought win suggests he may be over the worst of his struggles.

The standard of snooker has been superb so far. So much so, it's difficult to complain.

A lot of debate has been had surrounding the new shortened format. Personally, I think the best-of-11-frame matches have been pitched about right so far. I wasn't in support of the changes in the first place but it's pointless moaning about them now. We may be losing an extra session of play but, the matches still seem a fair distance with more frames being played in the single session than normal. The appeal of seeing a player being tested doesn't feel like it's lost.

Either way, with the quality of play we're being treated to, how can we argue?

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