Monday, 31 January 2011

Shoot-Out: The people's verdict

Love it or hate? Everyone has an opinion on the Shoot-Out hosted at Blackpool last weekend.

Rather than listen to me witter on about how good or bad I thought it was, it's time to give everyone else the voice.

After an hour or so scouring the web, here are some of the stand-out views to read...

Bond is back

Nigel Bond has been a great ambassador for snooker during his 21-year spell as a professional.

Although he hasn't enjoyed a glittering career, his hardened style of play ensured he enjoyed seven uninterrupted years among the top 16 from 1992 to 1999.

Within this spell, he also enjoyed the brightest moment making it to the final of the World Championship at the Crucible in 1995.

His only ever ranking event triumph came in the 1996/97 season, when he lifted the British Open title after a 9-8 win against John Higgins in the final.

But as well as this success on the table, Nigel is a cracking bloke off the table too. His laid back attitude to the game probably explains why he still holds a spot in the top 48 rankings today.

At the age of 45, and with retirement from the game looming large, to still be competing at such a high level is a testament to what a good player Nigel is.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Shoot-out hailed a success

A packed arena and a smile on every player's face. That is the a sign of a very good weekend for snooker.

Like with any new concept in our great game, there always comes a level of scepticism.

But anyone who walks away from Blackpool, or switches their television off having not enjoyed that, must be in the minority.

Whether people like it or not, snooker is undergoing transition right now. Events like this quickfire Shoot-Out have been designed to draw in a bigger crowd and new fans to the sport. They aren't there to undermine the tradition of the game, but simply move it forward, and make sure it evolves in a market where entertainment matters.

And it's certainly working.

There was plenty of noise from the fans, the player's loved it, and the quality of play wasn't sacrificed either. I dipped in and out of the action over the weekend, which is probably how it's intended to be viewed. And I thought the event was a roaring success, as do many of my peers.

In a way, it didn't really matter who won this tournament. The real winner was snooker.

But we shouldn't take any limelight off of the champion. Nigel Bond rolled back the years to beat Robert Milkins in the final and lift the trophy.

It's great to see one of the old guard back at the top, and having fun to boot. The same can be said about a lot of his fellow professionals too.

I have no doubt this event will be back next year. Top stuff!

Friday, 28 January 2011

Snooker party rocks into Blackpool

Blackpool is one of the most popular party towns in the UK.

This weekend  the snooker party will be coming to town. Snooker and the word party are hardly ever uttered in the same sentence, but by the sport's usual standards, this all-new Shoot-Out event is crazy.

With ten-minute matches, 15-second shot clocks in the final five minutes, the rule that a ball must always hit a cushion if not potted, and a ball-in-hand rule, it really is radical stuff.

And if October's Power Snooker event wasn't enough to drive the game's traditionalists barmy, this one surely will, as the game faces yet more change to win increased public popularity.

Just like the IndigO2 event, the Shoot-Out will also be decided on points and quickfire style, as the top 64 players need to be narrowed down to just one winner inside a single weekend.

Sky will be airing the tournament, and even if it does ultimately end in failure, I'm sure they can deal with it, after the week of controversy they've endured.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Murphy fights intensity to win CL group three

Shaun Murphy joined the list of last year's Premier League players to win a Championship League group.

Following on from the successes of Mark Selby and Mark Williams, the Magician edged out Mark King 3-2 in the final after losing the first two.

Clearances of 139 and 137 in frames three and four, left King stunned by a huge switch of momentum. While King advancing would have been seen as a shock, Murphy proved again why he's classed among the elite.

He continues to play such a consistent level of top snooker, and that comes even in such an intense. He said after his victory: "This is the most intense practice I've played since being a boy. I can't remember the last time I played all day for two full days, probably not since I was about 12. Even at the World Championship you will only have a couple of sessions a day.

"The fact you get into the Premier League if you win the Championship League is a bonus but there's also good money at stake and this is a great tournament in its own right - everyone wants to win it.

"Hopefully I can get into the Premier League anyway by winning one of the major events or being high up in the rankings but this is another avenue that is still open."

Stephen Hendry, Matthew Stevens and Mark Allen will be joining Marco Fu, Ali Carter, Peter Ebdon and King in group after Stuart Bingham and John Higgins bit the dust.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Nearly man Allen has plenty to celebrate

I know I love snooker, because no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I often think about it.

It's no surprise then, that today, when I was sent to work in Northern Ireland, I got thinking about Mark Allen.

Right now, he's playing what we call 'championship winning snooker'. The only problem is, he's just falling short of the lifting trophies part.

In each of the last two major events, the UK Championship and the Masters, he's advanced to the semi-finals. In Telford, he lost out to eventual winner and one of the generation's greatest players John Higgins in red-hot form. Then at Wembley, he surrendered a 4-1 lead against Marco Fu.

From the outside, this looks as if Allen is fast growing into the nearly man of snooker. And yes, in recent tournaments, he has nearly landed the title.

But in fact, there is plenty for him to be positive about...

Monday, 17 January 2011

Can Ding build on Masters success?

Ding Junhui joined a select list of very talented snooker players last night, as he won his first ever Masters title.

While his 10-4 victory in the final against Marco Fu was hardly vintage, it was certainly dominant. Victoriess against Mark Williams, Graeme Dott, Jame Cope and then Fu earned him his third top prize in snooker, and he's still only 23-years-old.

Yet in some people's eyes he's still under-achieved in his career so far.

That's because people forget how young he is, and that with his vast talents comes the expectation of the whole of China. The fact that more than 100 million people tuned into watch him lift the Masters trophy in Asia alone, shows what immense pressures lie on his shoulders.

Ding lifts Masters trophy

Snooker made history yesterday with its first ever all-Asian final hitting screens.

More than £100 million tuned in from Asia alone to watch world number four Ding Junhui win his maiden Masters crown.

He beat Hong Kong's Marco Fu 10-4.

More to follow...

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Masters - Day Six - Allen hailed as new Masters favourite

It's about time Mark Allen won the a major event.

That's what the snooker world seems to be agreeing on as his brilliant run at this year's Masters continued yesterday.

After knocking out the tournament favourite Ronnie O'Sullivan in the first round, and being told he needs to go on and win it by the Rocket, he toppled world champion Neil Robertson 6-4 in the quarter-final, before he said the same.

John Parrott and Steve Davis seem to agree in the  studio as well.

Allen faced the Aussie in good enough form to most professionals. But with the match locked at 4-4, the Northern Ireland man produced the kind of form usually reserved for that of a champion.

He won the final two frames in virtually one visit, showing the kind of focus he's perhaps been lacking in the early years of his career. As I sat watching the match yesterday, I saw a more considered Allen in action. Still showcasing his vast potting talents, he was purposefully weighing up the consequences of his attacking shots far more thoroughly than in the past.

Now, with two of the best wins of his career under his belt, the whole of the snooker world is talking about the tournament as his to lose.

That may be a little far, but you catch their drift that Allen has a great chance to make his mark. In fact, the only thing that has stopped him winning a major event before now is how good other players have been, because he's for a while now been good enough to win competitions based on his own ability.

Nothing much has changed in that sense, but maybe now it's just his time. A time he needs to take.

But he shouldn't be planning his winning press conference just yet.

If he was in his hotel room watching Marco Fu last night, he'll soon have realised his work is far from done. The Hong King potter pulled Peter Ebdon apart with an impressive 6-0 whitewash.

Ebdon wasn't at the races and couldn't get going at all, but that didn't stop Fu taking his chances well and playing some quality snooker along the way.

Fu recently drifted out of the top 16. While this run won't give him any ranking points to support his bid to get back in, it shows what every well-informed snooker already knows. On his day, he's good enough to be comfortably among the elite, and even good enough to still win events.

You get the feeling the Wembley crowd will want Allen to win this semi-final, and he'll go into it as favourite, as he now is for the title, but Fu has never been one to crave neutral support. He'll make it difficult for Allen, who for the first time in his career must deal with the tag of being a favourite, whereas in the past he's only ever been a pretender, although a very talented one.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Masters - Day Five - Plenty left in tank as Ding and Cope reach last four

Going down without a whimper isn't something we usually associate with Graeme Dott and Mark King.

But yesterday Ding Junhui and Jamie Cope played so well, they cruised into the semi-finals. If you read my Masters preview last week, you'll know I didn't fancy either player to enjoy a good run at Wembley.

That's because of the form they've shown leading into the tournament and the difficult first round draws they were handed. But they've shrugged that off, and easy wins in the quarter-finals means they have plenty in the tank left to make their semi-final a cracker.

Ding's transition is form is so vast, I think he can lift the trophy now.
He's the kind of player who, if he gets it together, is very dangerous.

Three centuries in his 6-2 win over Dott shows he means business. The young Chinese potter personifies a confidence player. But with two wins under his belt, and enjoying his best run at the event since he finished runner-up to Ronnie O'Sullivan in 2007, he'll have the belief to go all the way.

And when Ding plays with belief, he can be devastating in the balls.

He faces a tough match against Cope before booking his place in the final though. The man from Stoke smashed King 6-1 last night.

What happened to the player who knocked out Mark Selby? Because King was never in this match. We know what a fantastic potter Cope is, and he's enjoying a terrific debut at Wembley.

While some of his more experienced professionals still struggle to get to grips with playing a such a large venue, Cope is having no such trouble. Although he's met Shaun Murphy and King both playing way below par so far, you can still see he plays with a fearless streak.

That's why he has a chance, but Ding will prove his biggest test of the week so far, when they meet on Saturday.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Masters - Day Four - Robertson too good for Hendry

It's been well documented the trouble the higher seeds have had so far at this year's Masters.

But one man who had no such problem was world champion Neil Robertson.

He took on seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry, who knows this place like the back of his hand returning to this event for the 23rd year running.

After establishing a 2-1 lead, it looked like it could be the Scot's day, but Robertson found his form to end up a worthy 6-3 winner.

All areas of his game looked sharp, and I wouldn't be alone if I said I think he's the man to beat now.

Robertson has yet to put in a bad performance at any of the major ranking events so far this season. While the Masters doesn't carry any points, it's definitely a trophy the classy Aussie will want to get his hands on.

With Ronnie O'Sullivan, Mark Williams, Mark Selby and John Higgins already out, it's difficult to see who can stop him. But his draw in the last eight could certainly have been easier.

He faces Northern Ireland man Mark Allen, who after beating the Rocket, is another favourite for the championship.

Will that bother Robbo? I doubt it. 

The big stage just doesn't change his game. Allen will try to out pot him. This will make for a great match, but I think it's going to take a more dogged performance to take him down.

Although many of the household names have already gone home, it's worth considering, with the likes of Mark King, Graeme Dott and Peter Ebdon left in the pot, it could be just the kind of challenge those guys crave.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Masters - Day Three - Allen ousts Rocket

Keeping with the trend of this year's fascinating if not upside down Masters, crowd favourite Ronnie O'Sullivan bit the dust.

Conqueror Mark Allen took the most prized scalp of in snooker with a 6-4 win over the four-time Masters champion.

Continuing on from his impressive form at the UK Championship, where he reached the semi-final, the Norther Ireland potter put in a stellar display, taking the chances Ronnie gave him.

Allen is a player who every time you watch him play, he looks closer and closer to delivering his first major title.

And with some of the competition's biggest names already out, this could be his time.

While Allen is sure to take plenty of confidence from this win, it was an all too familiar tale for O'Sullivan.

Although defeat wasn't quite on the scale of his capitulation against Stuart Bingham in Telford, his attitude was equally as uninterested. Again there was something not quite right about his mindset. Anyone can miss balls. Ronnie did today, and made some poor shots selections too. The kind Allen was in the mood to punish. But O'Sullivan seemed to be preoccupied.

With other interests in his life, I suggested earlier it may be time for Ronnie to take a break from snooker. His talent, although still considerable, is being stifled by a lack of motivation.

Snooker is evolving around him, when perhaps in the past he's led the sport. While the crowds will flood in to watch him no matter what, personally, it may be time for Ronnie to step away and take a view on whether he still needs snooker.

For Allen, it's full-steam ahead.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Masters - Day Two - More shocks at Wembley

Last time I blogged, Mark King had just sprung a surprise on the defending champion Mark Selby.

A full day's work and an interview with Martin Gould later, and there's been three more added to the list of Masters casualties. So far, all four of the bookies' underdogs have won their matches.

And this does is confirm what a strong state the top 16 players of snooker are in, and endorse how far the sport has come to improve entertainment value

Last night, Peter Ebdon, a man seemingly on the brink of falling out of the elite, found a power of strength to overcome Ali Carter 6-5.

The Captain may have won the first ranking event of the season in Shanghai, but he's struggled for form ever since, most notably at the UK Championship where he was eliminated in the first round by Mark Joyce.

Ebdon is the kind of player always quick to pounce on any frailties. Carter's inability to score heavily didn't go unpunished.

Today, the surprises continued.

First, in form Mark Williams fell 6-4 to Ding Junhui.

The Chinese star has been hit and miss for most of the season, while Williams has galloped back up the rankings. The form book went out of the window, as did form in general, with Ding scraping through a mediocre match-up.

Then tonight, world number one John Higgins was given his marching orders, at the expense of his close friend Graeme Dott.

We all know Dott is made of stern stuff, and after losing to the fellow Scot in Telford, it was obviously time for revenge, as he ran out a 6-4 winner.

With half of the first round ties now played, the competition couldn't be any wider open. Although the likes of Ronnie O'Sullivan and Neil Robertson will be licking their lips now, with their chances to win the title now even stronger.

I won't even bother predicting tomorrow's matches. Stephen Maguire faces Marco, followed by O'Sullivan against Mark Allen.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Masters - Day One - Mark King defeats Wembley King

Mark Selby's defence of the Masters crown was over before it even begun.

The Jester from Leicester suffered only his second ever defeat at Wembley, with a shock loss today in his first round match with Mark King.

On a weekend where giantkillings have stolen the headlines in football's FA Cup, snooker stirred up its very own fairytale story.

Selby, present in all of the last three Masters final, was hoping to begin a road to history today. Victory at this year's competition would have seen him level the great Paul Hunter's Wembley record of three titles in four years.

The task is seemed was tailor made for a player like Selby too, who loves a challenge, and often produces his best under pressure.

But world number 16 King, who rarely gets the praise he deserves as one of the sport's toughest match players, used the absence of pressure on him to spring a massive surprise.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ladbrokes Mobile Masters: BIG tournament preview

No ranking points up for grabs, but the Masters still remains one of the biggest events on the snooker calendar.

Hosted at a massive Wembley arena, and competed in by only the top ranked players in the sport, the tournament is swamped with prestige, and down the years, we've enjoyed golden moments on the baize.

When the Masters hits our television screens, you can always guarantee high class snooker and a fantastic atmosphere.

This year will be no different...

Friday, 7 January 2011

Williams joins Selby in Championship League super group

It's lovely having bags of time off work over the festive and New Year period.

But on Wednesday, when I went back into the office, I certainly started paying for it. This week has been completely manic.

A story list of over 30 stories to contend with as well as trips to Wales and Wolverhampton in the opening three days is all part and parcel of being a journalist though I suppose. Well, that's what I studied so many years for. It's difficult for me to complain. But the truth is, I really enjoy it.

The only downside is that I've fallen a little bit behind on the snooker front. But mark my words, when the Masters begin this Sunday, I'll be paying a lot more attention.

This week though, I've missed out on Mark Williams becoming the second player to progress to the Championship League.

After finishing second in Group One, the Welshman went all the way this time, coming out Group Two champion with an impressive 3-2 win over Ronnie O'Sullivan in the final.

He only scored one century compared to Ronnie's two in the final, but winning the close-fought frames proved the difference.

Williams now adds his name into the hat for the Premier League.

He said: "I played quite well with a few good breaks but the last two groups have been as tough as you can get in snooker.

"In the final I hit a 138 from nowhere and he made two centuries from nowhere. It's excellent match practise and if you win it you get into the Premier League, one of the events everyone wants to get in.

"I'm delighted to have won and would much rather get through than have to come back for another group.

"I loved every minute of being in the Premier League last year and unfortunately I missed out on the semi-finals by one frame so I would love to get in it again."

I talk about the return of Williams regularly on this blog, but making the UK final and beating O'Sullivan in a short format final all inside two months, proves he is back to somewhere near his best, and surely shouldn't be discounted at the Masters as a potential champion. 

Beaten semi-finalists Ali Carter, Shaun Murphy as well as O'Sullivan and John Higgins all progress to Group Three, where the new entries will be Mark Allen, Peter Ebdon and Marco Fu.

Action returns in the Championship League on 24 January.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Selby sets the marker

Mark Selby crept past his rivals to become Group One champion in the Championship League event, and progress to the next phase.

The Jester from Leicester only won one frame more than he lost to advance to the semi-finals, as he won three and lost three matches to end up fourth in the group of seven.

Crucially though, he came back from 2-0 down to beat group winner John Higgins 3-2 in the last four, then defeated Ali Carter by the same scoreline in the final.

Selby said: "I didn't play fantastically but just dug deep and did what I had to do.

 "I played OK yesterday and made a couple of centuries but with it being a short format you can just scrap it out and that's what I did.

His run to the finishing flag bagged him £6,100, and confirms what we already knew about Selby, and indeed snooker.

It doesn't matter how well you play early on in a competition, it's about hanging in there and producing when it matters. Selby is the master at that. His reward is a place in the Championship League final group.

This marks the conclusion of the first Championship League group.

Mark Williams who finished second in the group goes through along with Carter, Higgins, and fifth-placed Shaun Murphy to join Ronnie O'Sullivan, Neil Robertson and Jamie Cope in Group Two.

Stephen Maguire and Dott were the unlucky ones.

Full list of results (day two):

Williams 3-0 Carter; Selby 3-1 Dott; Murphy 3-0 Maguire; Williams 3-0 Dott; Higgins 3-1 Carter; Murphy 1-3 Carter; Williams 3-1 Maguire; Higgins 3-2 Selby; SF1: Higgins 2-3 Selby; Williams 0-3 Carter; FINAL: Selby 3-2 Carter

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Carter finds form as the year turns

Qualifying for the 2011 Premier League began in Essex yesterday with the start of an exciting best-of-five frame format Championship League.

It was Essex home boy Ali Carter who enjoyed the brightest start in Group One, with three wins out of three seeing him top of the table at the close of play.

2010 couldn't have finished any worse for Carter.

A disappointing display at December's UK Championship in Telford made sure he was eliminated in the first round by the competition's second-lowest ranked player, Mark Joyce.

But just like throughout the majority of his career, Carter proved yesterday why he should never be written off, as he dusted himself down and came back stronger.

He beat Stephen Maguire 3-2 with two breaks over 80, defeated Mark Selby 3-1 including an effort of 101 in the final frame, and then whitewashed Graeme Dott with three breaks over 60.

It was an impressive haul, and a perfect start to the new calendar year.

Carter didn't make the cut for last year's Premier League, but surely stands a great chance after being so quick out of the blocks here.

Full list of results (day one):

Higgins 3-0 Williams; Murphy 0-3 Selby; Maguire 2-3 Carter; Dott 2-3 Higgins; Williams 2-3 Murphy; Selby 1-3 Carter; Maguire 3-1 Dott; Murphy 3-1 Higgins; Williams 3-1 Selby; Carter 3-0 Dott; Murphy 2-3 Dott; Selby 3-2 Maguire.

Group one continues today.