Thursday, 30 June 2011

Gallopping Gilbert leads the way to Oz

David Gilbert is starring in the kind of comeback dreams are made of.

At the end of last season, he had just been relegated from the professional tour and was probably feeling as low as ever.

Despite runs to the final qualifying rounds of both the UK and World Championship, a mere one win in the opening 13 events of the campaign meant he was fighting a losing battle to survive.

But Barry Hearn handed him a lifeline, as he did so many players. Q School saved his skin. From the grim reality of facing life back on the amateur scene, he managed to dig deep, find some form and bounce straight back into the big league - without taking a single look back.

Four wins this week mean he's the only player to have come through all the qualifying rounds to reach this year's first Australian Goldfields Open. Given the shear strength and depth of the game today, that's an achievement in itself.

But the way he's done it, has been pretty special too. The English cueman has won two deciders against Passakorn Suwannawat and Dave Harold, swept aside experienced Alfie Burden 5-2 and tonight put the icing on the cake with a whitewash against long-time top 16 man Mark King.

From the doldrums, I bet he can hardly believe it. Now, he faces the prospect of playing 2006 world champion Graeme Dott in Bendigo, if he can come through the wildcard round, and he must be brimming with confidence.

I'm delighted to see Gilbert back firing on all cylinders. The former World Snooker Young Player of Distinction has enjoyed his fair share of success in his career, including a memorable match-up with the great Stephen Hendry at the Crucible in 2007.

But, I still get the feeling he hasn't quite enjoyed the kind of life in the sun on the senior tour we would have expected after such promising junior years. The great thing about snooker now is that it's not too late for players to make their mark. Maybe at 30-years-old, his best days are still in front of him.

Full list of qualifiers for Australian Open:

David Gilbert, Joe Perry, Barry Pinches, Martin Gould, Stuart Bingham, Matt Selt, Rory McLeod, Liang Wenbo, Barry Pinches, Marcus Campbell, Ryan Day, Andrew Higginson, Tom Ford, Ken Doherty, Dominic Dale, Mark Davis and Nigel Bond

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Yu Delu makes his mark

Yu Delu won't go far wrong this season if he maintains his desire to make a name for himself.

The 23-year-old Chinese potter was one of four players given a wildcard by Barry Hearn to play on this season's professional circuit.

It's fair to say he was the least established of the quartet, but, he's the only one still standing on the road to the new Australian Open.

Impressive displays this week have seen him beat Michael White 5-4, Joe Swail 5-1 and Joe Jogia 5-2.

Now, only Ryan Day stands between him and a date with Northern Ireland's number one Mark Allen in Bendigo. To make it that far in his maiden qualifying event would be some feat, but it wouldn't be the first time he's played in the last 32 of major ranking event.

As a regular at the Asian event wildcard rounds, he's progressed to the last 32 of the China Open three times and made it to the same stage of Shanghai Masters once. To get this far, he's already beaten the likes of Jogia, Rod Lawler, Andrew Norman and Mike Dunn in the Far East.

Beating Day would be his victory greatest yet. But win or lose, his efforts haven't gone unnoticed, and I now know a little bit more about Yu Delu.

Mocked McLeod wipes out White

Rory McLeod has had his reputation dragged through the mud.

Since progressing to the last 16 of this year's World Championship, the furthest he's ever been in a major ranking event, he's been openly ridiculed by a large proportion of the snooker world for being slow and laborious.

By his own admission, his Crucible win against Ricky Walden was far from vintage, but the extent to which he was pillared was harsh and unfair.

That means high up on his list of priorities this season will be silencing a few of his critics. And his 5-3 win in the Australian Open qualifiers today against one of the sport's greatest legends, Jimmy White, should go a long way in keeping some of them quiet.

The Whirlwind is still one of the most popular players on the professional tour, and is playing some of his best snooker in several years.

That's why we shouldn't take anything away from what was an excellent win in a difficult match for McLeod.

While today alone is unlikely to change the public perception of Rory, it only goes to confirm what a force he is in the qualifiers. I've seen him play many times in the cubicle set-up. As well as being a tenacious and hard-grafting player, he's also a very capable break-builder, proved when he made a 147 in last season's PTC series.

It's difficult to argue against the dullness of some of his televised displays in recent years, but by the same token, we all know the different pressures that come with playing in front of the cameras.

Disappointingly for Rory, he's spent most of his career locked in the qualifiers, and has therefore not had the chance to settle and produce anywhere near his best form in that environment. That explains why he's only enjoyed one win at a major venue since he first turned professional 20 years ago.

While that record doesn't make for particularly good reading, we must not forget what a stern qualifier he's been down the years with perhaps, only his shot selection stunting his progress.

Saying that, I expect to see Rory at least one venue this season. His win against White means he plays Robert Milkins tomorrow with his practice partner Peter Ebdon waiting for him in Bendigo.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Time for Tian to shine

Talented Tian Pengfei proved why he's one to watch out for this season.

The 23-year-old Chinese cueman made three centuries and another break of 95 as he steamrolled past poor Anthony McGill 5-1, in their Australian Open round two qualifying match today.

Building on his equally comfortable 5-1 first round win against India's Aditya Mehta yesterday, Tian now only needs one more victory to complete his route on the yellow brick road to Oz because his next opponent, Anthony Hamilton, has withdrawn from the tournament.

To make it to the first Australian Open in Bedigo, he just needs to beat Mark Davis on Thursday. It's a big ask against the world number 19, but who would bet against him now.

Barely troubled so far this week and obviously playing with plenty of confidence, he'll be a tough nut for Davis to crack - and the two have got history. He beat Davis at the 2010 China Open after being given a wildcard for the event.

Tian's form so far this week is showing the snooker world - not for the first time - what an able player he is, and it's all thanks to the chance he's been given by the Q School, where he secured his return to the professional circuit this summer.

Despite coming through one of Barry Hearn's brand new initiatives, Tian is far from a hidden talent of the game though.

In fact, he first turned pro back in 2006, aged  18. His two seasons on tour took him to the last 32 of two ranking events and even though he fell off the circuit in 2008, he's been given plenty of wildcard opportunities since. Being an opportunist, he's gone on to make his wildcards count with wins against Davis, Andrew Higginson and three-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Those sort of results prove he's got the raw capabilities to win one-off matches, but this season is a chance for us to judge whether he's matured enough to become a househould name in the snooker world. So far, he's ticking all the boxes.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Brecel and Filipiak lose on tour debut

Woderkids Luca Brecel and Kacper Filipiak have the ability to become two of the greatest snooker players of all time.

But today their proud tour debuts turned into baptisms of fire. It was the start of what can only be described as the steep learning they must travel through before reaching the top.
Belgium's Brecel, 16, was beaten 5-1 by Sam Baird and Poland's Filipiak, 15, fared even worse going down 5-0 to Li Yan in their opening matches in the Australian Open qualifiers.

These results have already led many to question whether their inclusion on this year's tour is too premature? But other great young players have been there before. Judd Trump is a prime example. It doesn't mean we should doubt them.

Brecel and Filipiak are the 2010 EBSA European champion and 2011 European Under-21 champions respectively, thus proving they're already capable enough to compete at this level.

They've earned their places here on merit, but this doesn't mean they were guaranteed to be automatic successes on the professional tour. In fact, it's inevitable they would find the step up to the big league a tough one.

What I do believe though is that they'll look back and remember today as a crucial step towards their progress. As far as learning goes, it will prove invaluable. They say you learn more in losing than you do winning. So don't expect too much from these guys too soon. This season is about finding their feet and improving their strength of character as much as their game.

To Hull and back

I love sport because it's one of the only walks of life where fairytales can happen.

In the first round of the Australian Goldfields Open qualifiers today, Robin Hull played in his first ranking event match since the 2007/08 season, after which he was forced to prematurely retire from the sport due to illness.

A virus hindered his balance, meaning he couldn't walk in a straight line, never mind play snooker.

He played in the World Championship in 2002 and earned a place among the top 32 in 2003, but many people thought we'd seen the last of the Finland's greatest player of all time.

But after breezing through this year's Q School, he took his place back on tour - and won his first match today 5-1 against professional newbie Dechawat Poomjaeng.

This marks a remarkable turnaround for a player who is still one of only three players to have made more than 100 competitive centuries but not been a member of the top 16.

Based on today's display, it looks like we could still be seeing some more of 36-year-old Hull.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Doing battle to go down under

Qualification for the first Australian Goldfields Open begins tomorrow.

With 100 professional tour cards now up for grabs, instead of the traditional 96, an extra round of qualifying has been created.

But with only 99 cards handed out so far, Marco Fu and Igor Figueredo not entering and Indian wildcard winner Lucky Vatnani choosing not to show for his first major ranking event match against Kurt Maflin, it's the traditional 96 players battling it out, and no need for any preliminary matches this evening.

Not only does tomorrow mark the start of the first major ranking event of the new season, but it's also the first down under in Australia, so there's plenty of excitement from the players.

With the start to this season being a lot earlier than usual, you can expect many of the results to come down to who's put in the hardest hours of practise over their shortened summer.

It was obvious from the PTC1 competition that not everyone was as sharp on the baize as you'd expect for the beginning of a fresh campaign. But this event means a whole lot more.

Despite a bit of ring rust, I'm expecting competition to be as fierce as ever in Sheffield this week.

The opening round sees tour debutant and Belgium wonderkid Luca Brecel begin his trail to the southern hemisphere against Sam Baird, while Grimsby's Stuart Carrington takes on Scott Mackenzie.

Daniel Wells returns against veteran James Wattana, in form Q School victor David Gilbert meets Passakorn Suwannawat and Crucible qualifier Andrew Pagett takes on Adam Wicheard.

Other interesting ties pair young sensation Kacper Filipiak with Li Yan, newley-wed Ben Woollaston with Adam Duffy, and the talented Sam Craigie with David Grace.

Let's hope it's a g'day mate!

Daniel Wells EXCLUSIVE interview: "I'll do whatever it takes to achieve my potential."

Back on tour and back in Wales.

Exciting young Welsh talent Daniel Wells is no stranger to the professional circuit having spent the 2008/09 and 2009/10 seasons competing with the big boys.

It was a big learning curve for him as he lived and breathed the game from his base in Sheffield, practising every day at the Academy alongside the likes of Ding Junhui and Peter Ebdon.

He had plenty of good days and won many supporters but, when he lost his card, he faced life back among the amateurs and, with it, came making the long journey back to his homeland in Wales.

In a frank interview with OnCue, he admits there were moments when he doubted his professional future, but a fantastic campaign has changed all that.

He won four of his six amateur events in 2010/11 to finish top of the Welsh amateur rankings and regain his professional status. His most recent trophy saw him crowned the amateur European champion after beating former Irish professional Vincent Muldoon 7-4 in the EBSA Championship final in Sofia earlier this month.

Ready for his third season in four as a professional, Daniel hopes this is the beginning of a long stay at the top of the game.

Speaking on Saturday night ahead of qualifying for the first Australian Goldfields Open, find out how he's feeling about his return...

Talking Snooker... with SnookerIsland

Welcome to the first of a new series of articles I'll be running on the blog, called Talking Snooker.

With snooker's online community continuing to grow, namely on Twitter, this feature will bring the sport's many bloggers together to do what we do best.

First up, Roland from SnookerIsland joined me for a chat. With the first PTC of the new season done and dusted, we spoke about what the new campaign holds, and more importantly, some of the players to look out for.

Here's what we had to say... 

Paul Collier's players to watch

It's a new season but some things never change.

Resident columnist Paul Collier has been signed up for another year to work alongside OnCue snooker blog.

For most of us, World Snooker's shoddy efforts to supply live scoring was the closest we could get to capturing any of the action from the PTC1.

But our man on the ground Paul was in Sheffield refereeing.

With previews to the new season scattered across the web, there's been plenty of discussion about the top eight players, Judd Trump and Ronnie O'Sullivan.

But what about the rest?

Paul outlines his players to watch this season...

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Rejuvenated Ronnie powers to PTC title

Ronnie O'Sullivan put a huge stamp on the new snooker season by claiming the first title at a canter.

It was a case of Rocket by name, rocket by nature as he made eight centuries across his seven PTC1 matches including two in his storming 52-minute win against Joe Perry in the final.

He also beat Joe Jogia, Stuart Bingham, Martin Gould, Bjorn Haneveer, Andy Hicks and Mike Hallett en route to victory, leaving the rest of the field in his wake.

After an indifferent last campaign which saw him drop down to as low as 11th in the world rankings, there were huge question marks hanging over what the new season would bring.

But his legion of fans can go away from this first event in Sheffield knowing he's very much in the groove.

Ronnie took a huge step towards rejuvenating his passion for the sport just ahead of the World Championship, in my opinion, when he recruited the help Dr. Steve Peters. This had an almost instant impact as he showed a much better level of application for the Crucible, where he made the quarter-finals.

He's carried on that progress to lift the first piece of silverware of the season, as well as bag £10,000 prize money and vital ranking points in his bid to retain top 16 status.

This win just shows that when Ronnie is left to his devices to play snooker, he has still got the game. But the test will now come to see whether he can maintain this level of focus and play.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The BIG season preview

You can tell how far snooker has come when the off-season is shorter than the gap used to be between ranking events during the season.

The start of the PTC1 event in Sheffield today marks the start of the 2011/12 professional season - and that means there's plenty for a young blogger and snooker fan to think about.

In fact, a day probably hasn't gone by since the World Championship that I haven't taken time to make some judgments on what to expect from the new campaign.

It's not possible to outline all of these - but here are some of my thoughts as the curtain raises on another season on the baize.

Friday, 17 June 2011

UK Championship slashed

"It's like moving to a new house; it looks brilliant and the estate agent was a conman."

That's how one of my twitter followers described this morning's news that the UK Championship - the second biggest ranking event on the snooker calendar - is falling victim for frame slashing.

It was announced earlier this year that the tournament would be moving home from the Telford International Centre back to the Barbican Centre in York, where it was last staged in 2006.

This was greeted with applause from the snooker public. It felt as if common sense had prevailed with the switch back to a far more accessible and user friendly snooker venue.

But today that great decision has been undone, in my opinion.

Now, all matches up until the semi-finals will be played as a best-of-11 frames, but more importantly, over just one session and all televised.

I admit there's nothing worse than missing a classic out on the non-TV tables, but watering down the test of the competition is not the answer.

The reason the UK Championship has had very few unlikely winners throughout its history is because the matches are played over a longer format, meaning the top players tend to prevail.

I'm not saying we should seek to protect the top players, but with so many new shorter format tournaments being designed, I would hope the UK Championship would remain untouched in order to help it keep its feel as one of the real majors.

I often use the UK as a good indication of who should do well in the World Championship. Now, the two have very little resemblance

I didn't like what the game did to the old Grand Prix last season when they reduced matches to best-of-five frames, and I don't like what they're doing to the UK Championship now.

It's all very well shortening competitions and creating new ones to win fresh audiences, but what about the fans that have been with the game for years? Surely they deserve the old classics to be left alone.

Reading this post back, it seems a pretty damning verdict but when you're passionate about something, that's what tends to happen.

I have the feeling this decision is more about money. Switching the tournament to two tables instead of four means less staffing costs for World Snooker and BBC.

But if that really is the case, could they just say so.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Joe Perry EXCLUSIVE interview: "I want to get that winning attitude back"

Joe Perry is a straight talking kind of guy.

He's not concerned about painting a rosey picture.

Despite enjoying a run to the semi-final of the World Championship in 2008, and playing some of the best snooker of his career for a few months after, his career has fallen drastically away ever since.

He knows that, and he's big enough to admit it.

As we sat in Starbucks, just a short walk from his club in Cambridge, he had no hesitation in looking me square in the face and telling me how he hasn't been good enough. He told me his tale of how a lack of confidence has halted his climb to the top of the game.

But now ranked at number 27 in the world, Joe is ready to rekindle his form.

Here's what he had to say in a frank encounter...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Ready to rumble

We said it last year, and we can say it again.

This is going to be the biggest season snooker has ever seen.

With just a week to go until the new action-packed season kicks off, my excitement is close to bursting point.

Long gone are the days when there would be as long as a four-month break between the end of the World Championship and the start of a new campaign.

With supremo Barry Hearn continuing to wave his magic wand at the game, we continue to go more global and snooker is fast becoming an all-year calendar.

This is thanks largely to the creation of the new PTC series. These 12 events are now a cornerstone of the event schedule for the players.

With 2,000 ranking points available for the winner of each of them and a whopping £70,000 up for grabs to the eventual Grand Finals champion, players can't afford to miss out.

Snooker players have harped on about wanting a full-time job for years. Now, they've got it. And if they don't take the chance to play in all or at least most of them, they only have themselves to blame when they go tumbling down the rankings.

The harsh reality is that you cannot survive at the top end of the professional game anymore without applying yourself to these competitions.

No-one found this out more than legend of the game Stephen Hendry. He had no interest in them, and because of this, he only held onto his top 16 status by the skin of his teeth last season.

If he doesn't change his attitude, he could find himself watching next season's Masters from the comfort of his own sofa.

For players like Hendry, and other who have families and partners, it's a tough ask. On the road most weekend, often living out of a suitcase. But it seems you can't afford to not do it these days.

For all professional players, snooker is their livelihood. But instead of hours on hours at the club, they must play competitively. It's great for the fans, and indeed, for younger players.

With not as many commitments as the older players, this is a fantastic opportunity which players in the past have simply been starved of. They get the chance to play the top guns week-in-week-out, and climb the rankings as quickly as others fall.

This all fits into Hearn's vision of making the sport as a level playing field. No-one is protected. It's a dog eat dog world (well circuit), and after last season's maiden run, the players are ready to rumble.