Friday, 30 September 2011

A quick salute to the Captain

Ali Carter withdrew from the Warsaw Classic in Poland today following more trouble with his Crohns disease.

While his absenteeism is a great disappointment, I'd like to pay some praise to his terrific battling qualities.

Ali's struggles are not new - but he's managed to play in many tournaments with his condition, which takes terrific courage.

His results this season certainly haven't been as good as he'd like, but full marks for his attitude and willingness to battle through to play snooker.

Wishing you a speedy recovery, Ali!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Ronnie returns to Premier League party

Ronnie O'Sullivan proved again why he should never be written off in the Premier League.

Following a distinctly mediocre showing in Guildford, where he crashed out to Shaun Murphy 3-2 in the semi-finals, there were murmurs the Rocket was ready to surrender the crown he's dominated for so many years.

But tonight in Doncaster, he was back looking sharp as he beat fellow Essex professional Ali Carter 3-1 in the final.

Although it was bizarre circumstances that carried him across the winning line, as the Captain fouled three times in a row to lose the frame, O'Sullivan was still well worth his win.

A 3-0 victory against Matthew Stevens in the last four set him up nicely as he comes away from the fourth of ten Premier League nights leading the group.

While this competition is expected to be the most frantic tussle in years, you can pretty much bet now that Ronnie will be among the title contenders come the business end of the event.

He probably still has plenty left to offer in this tournament but showed again a glimmer of why he's been so successful in this format down the years.

As we've come to expect, he was swift and clinical.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Preparing for Poland

This weekend's PTC6 tournament sees the game taken to Poland.

With Eastern Europe being hailed as another up and coming hotbed for snooker, the Warsaw Classic is another chance for snooker to put itself on the map in a smaller nation.

Photographs from the venue suggest it's being taken very seriously, and for many Polish fans, it's a chance to watch snooker live for the first time.

It will be interesting to see just how large the crowds are that turn out, and whether this is indeed a place the sport needs to add to its annual journey.

With a few scraps in the rankings still unresolved before revisions are made after this event, there promises to be some excellent matches.

Sadly for the home crowd though, there are some notable absentees from the top 16.

The four highest ranked players in the world, Mark Selby, Mark Williams, John Higgins and Ding Junhui have all declined to travel. I can't say I blame them with plenty of points in the bag and the chance to have a rest after what has already been a hectic start to the season.

Legends Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stephen Hendry have also opted out, but it's no reason to be too gloomy considering many of the tales from the PTC series this season have been orchestrated by players lower down the snooker pecking order.

Saying that, these players missing means attacking forces Neil Robertson, Shaun Murphy and Judd Trump will be among the favourites to lift the trophy, which is by no mean a runners-up prize for the home fans present.

When snooker travels away from the UK shores, I'm always keen to see the home players enjoy success.

That means 15-year-old pro debutant Kacper Filipiak has a great chance to impress the locals, and kick start his season. The young sensation has enjoyed some flashes of brilliance already since joining the circuit, and has already won plaudits from O'Sullivan, who tweeted that he's a future world champion in the making.

But as expected, consistency has proved hard to come of. But with the home fans likely to be right behind him, it's a great chance for him to show everyone what he's got in his locker.

Higgins still the man to beat

Andrew Higginson's PTC win in Sheffield may have dwarfed John Higgins' return to form - but mark my words, the Wizard of Wishaw is back in business.

Although he failed to get his hands on his first trophy of the season, I have no doubt he's still the man to beat in this year's UK and World Championships.

We've got to that stage of the season where you begin judge players' form ready for the first of the big tournaments.

It's no surprise therefore that four-time world champion Higgins looked like he found an extra gear in Sheffield.

He's always had that ability to raise his game when the biggest events creep closer - and I expect this season to be no different.

Returning from his ban in the last campaign, Higgins needed no extra incentive to land the biggest trophies, but I've got a feeling that desire is unlikely to subside.

Now he's started to be classed as the greatest players of all time, records are in his sights.

He's already set himself the loft goal of matching Stephen Hendry's incredible seven world titles, and even despite the imperious double last term, deep down, I think Higgins still wants to prove himself.

The grey clouds that smoldered over his career more than a year ago still haven't been forgotten by everyone in snooker.

And coming back feels like the second chapter of his career. A chapter I'm sure he wants to be even more successful in.

Strengthened by his experience, Higgins has added tenacity and shear determination to his already classy game.

Last season I would have said Higgins and Williams were out in front as the players to catch. Now, it's just Higgins. That doesn't mean John is a banker for the top prizes. The chasing pack is so large, there's plenty of chances for him to slip up. The new world number one, Mark Selby, comes to mind as a prime candidate.

But even though the world rankings read that Higgins is the third best, I reckon he'll still take the beating. In fact, whoever defeats Higgins at the UK or World Championships, should expect to go on and win the title.

Higgins will be cranking up his practice, getting stronger with each event. This will again make him the toughest man to beat.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Ranking rumours

This is just a short blog to share some of the rumours being banded around in Sheffield this weekend.

While Barry Hearn has made huge strides to improve the amount of tournaments for players to compete in and create a new, fairer ranking system, everything isn't quite yet perfect.

Next season, there's likely to be even more changes to the game.

Using the weekend largely to chat, I found out different nuggets of information.

Like all rumours, some will be true and some are just gossip.

Anyhow, here's what I heard:
  • The ranking system will be changed to be determined by prize money
  • The PTC series will be reduced to 8 events
  • There will be a ranking event held in Brazil next season
  • There will more ranking events in China (up to 6)
  • New players on tour will be given two seasons

Academy calling

I took the chance this weekend to visit Sheffield for the PTC5.

With a camera in my hand, I first dropped in to the Star Snooker Academy.

Home to many of the tour's Asian players, I checked out the facilities they reside in.

I then headed to the World Snooker Academy. Check out a small selection of pictures from the day...

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Higginson's maiden title is a platform to build on

Andrew Higginson enjoyed the biggest success of his career tonight beating world champion John Higgins 4-1 in the PTC5 final.

Victory in Sheffield marked his first ever ranking title and could prove the spark for one of the game's friendliest stars to finally push on.

Despite first turning professional back in 1995, the 33-year-old only first really made his mark on the circuit at the Welsh Open in 2007, where he made his first competitive 147 break and went all the way to the final.

Following that superb run, it was difficult for anyone to argue against his great talent, but it was clear he was a player depending on his confidence.

Back then, people talked about that run becoming a platform for more consistent success, but despite earning greater respect he's been unable to reach those heady heights again.

Higginson has remained a formidable force in the qualifying cubicles. In fact, he's won at least one match in each of the seven ranking tournaments he's played in this season and he's a player most look to avoid on the way to a venue. While this suggests consistency, my own experience of watching him play says he can be hit and miss. Some people argue he struggles under pressure. I wouldn't go along with that entirely but I know that while on his day he's a match for anyone, when he's off colour, it exposes a game with a soft centre.

So, it's perhaps because of this that he's retained a decent ranking but not gone on to trouble the latter stages of the televised tournaments.

This weekend though, he was excellent from start to finish and showed what he can achieve with a healthy dose of confidence. He grew with every win and proved again that he can beat the very best when he's playing well.

Even in tonight's final, a Higgins returning back to form couldn't stand in his way. He was on song and looked every inch the calm and accomplished break builder we see regularly off the television cameras.

His run to the £10,000 top prize also saw him beat professionals Jack Lisowski, Dave Harold, Ian McCulloch, Ben Woollaston, Xiao Guodong and Joe Meara as he steadily gathered momentum on his title charge.

This PTC trophy is at least a tangible reward he can take away from a solid career as a professional and is a marker of a tournament where he really got it together, and showed what he's capable of at his best.

But in my opinion, the challenge for him now is to step up and reproduce a similar level of performance on the television cameras, where everyone can see.

This win lifts him up to world number 20 in the provisional rankings and means he's finely placed to potentially claim a top 16 place before the end of the season.

The plaudits being dished out to Higginson tonight were so numerous you know he's a popular player. But while he should take some time to enjoy what he's achieved, you also wonder whether this can spur him on to flourish some more.

Well played Andrew!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Hendry crashes out of top 16

Stephen Hendry has hit his last competitive cue ball before the next rankings reshuffle - and is officially out of the top 16 for the first time in 23 years.

The eagle-eyed ranking hawks among us would have known that his 5-1 defeat to Robert Milkins at the Shanghai Masters in fact sealed his fate, because he hasn't entered the PTC6.

But a 4-3 loss to Anthony Hamilton in the PTC5 today was when the end of an era really struck me.

The seven-time world champion is without question the most successful player of all time and at 42-years-old he's lost the top 16 status he won as a teenager.

This saddens me as much as it will his legion of fans, but we can't pretend it hasn't been coming.

Hendry has for years been a pale resemblance of the player who dominated the sport throughout the 1990s.

It's been five years since he played in his last ranking final at the 2006 UK Championship and he last lifted a trophy at the 2005 Malta Cup.

By his own admission, a severe loss of confidence has been the core reason behind his falling the past 12 months. But for me, Hendry's chief problem has been his struggle to accept his slide. That's not a massive surprise because the Scot is a born winner. He's a born champion. And when his game deteriorated to the extent he could no longer be a champion, I think that hurt him most.

The frustrating thing for Hendry's fans is that he can still play. Of course, he'll never lose his game completely but producing it consistently is a thing of the past.

The stark reality for Hendry is that he won't be competing in January's Masters and will have to face the qualifiers if he wants to make it to the UK Championship.

I wouldn't back Hendry to bounce back into the top 16. Personally, I think he's lost the heart for the battle anyway.

But while we must concede that Stephen is not the player he once was, his legendary status will never be touched.

Hendry: the greatest of them all.

Paul Collier's Premier League nights: Motherwell

The Premier League crossed the Scottish borders for its third outing last night and just like the players, Paul Collier is feeling the effects of a packed schedule.

He revealed all in his latest column for OnCue...

It's been a hectic couple of days to see the very least.

I travelled from my home in Wales to Sheffield on Tuesday night ready for an 8am start at the amateur rounds of the PTC5.

My Premier League commitments meant I couldn't stay until the end, so I shot across to Birmingham for my flight to Motherwell and I'm already back at the World Snooker Academy.

Life is fast-paced for everyone but I can't complain though because Scotland is always a good place to visit for snooker. The Regal Scottish used to be held at the civic centre in Motherwell but because that's under refurbishment and wasn't quite finished for this year's Premier League event, we decided to try a new purpose-built sports venue, and it was relatively successful.

There was a decent crowd in who clearly love their snooker. The only negative on the night was the seating. We set up the venue in the usual way but instead of comfortable chairs, we had to make do with basketball style benches with padding on them.

I think if we come back, that will have to be looked at.

The snooker side of things was flawless. John Higgins only lives a mile or two from the venue and his children actually come here for some of their sports classes. So he really did feel at home and got a fantastic reception.

It was one of the best I've witnessed in the Premier League.

Unfortunately, he couldn't convert that to a win on the evening. It was Neil Robertson who came out on top. I think it's fair to say he's a player who's never looked completely comfortable playing with a shot clock but last night his performance was extremely controlled.

He was regularly running down  into his five-second warning, but didn't ever rush. It was arguably the most comfortable performance of the Premier League campaign so far.

I don't know if he's been working on it but he looked excellent.

It was a great night to be involved in.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Robertson masters Motherwell

Neil Robertson has been largely written off in this season's Premier League - but victory in Motherwell proved he could still yet mount a challenge.

I've always thought the Australian was destined to be a player caobale of producing his very best in this event. After all, just like the Premier League, he's one of the more glitzy and glamorous players in the sport.

He's got the kind of swagger that's needed to be successful in the Premier League.

But since taking his place alongside some of the game's very best in this format, he's struggled to adapt.

His first few appearances in the Premier League proved the danger a shot-clock could pose for many players. When the buzzer sounds to remind the player he has five seconds remaining, Robertson would almost always rush his shot as if he just had one remaining.

That's an easy mistake to make when you're not used to playing against a timer in every other event. It's difficult to slide straight into the new pressures the Premier League nights throw up and Robertson isn't alone in finding it difficult.

But like anything, practice makes perfect - as Neil is beginning to show.

Despite yet more patchy form in the event last season, Robertson managed to sneak quietly into the semi-finals. That wasn't enough to convince people he was slowly making strides in the format. Instead, at the start of this season's tournament his chances were immediately thrown on to the scrapheap by many, as he was labelled unable to produce under the format.

A 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Matthew Stevens on the first week in Skegness did little to dispel this theory, but tonight Robertson got down to business.

His semi-final match looked like a mountain to climb on paper against world champion John Higgins in pretty much his own backyard. The entrance Higgins received to the arena was sensational, but that didn't put Robertson off as he coasted to a whitewash victory.

Neil found out first hand exactly how it feels to lose on his own patch as favourite, beaten earlier in the season by Dominic Dale in the Australian Open. He wasn't afraid to dish it out to John in return.

It was in the final though that Robertson showed he may just have turned a corner in playing Premier League snooker. After losing the first frame on a re-spotted black, the 2010 world champion replied with back-to-back centuries on the way to a 3-1 win.

Beating Ding wasn't gimme either. The Chinese potter played superbly to beat Shaun Murphy 3-2 in his semi-final, although just as much credit should go to the Magician who played well enough to win in what was arguably the best match of the Premier League so far.

Despite racking up the air miles from Brazil just to be here, Murphy was still at the races and played his part in a terrific contest. Ding played close to his best.

Robertson probably went in to tonight's matches as the underdog of the four players, but we shouldn't be surprised by his ability to find his feet.

Similarly, his performances in the PTC series last season left a lot to be desired. Already this term he's beginning to show signs of challenging at the business end of those tournaments more consistently.

While Robertson may be a slower starter than some in formats new to him, that doesn't mean he can't turn his hand to any form of snooker.

That's why his performance tonight shows he could yet be a dark horse in the Premier League.

Talking Snooker... with Maximum Snooker

Welcome to the second in my series of Talking Snooker features.

Created to get snooker's wide community of tweeters and bloggers working together, this article is all about sharing views about life on the baize.

Last time out, Roland from SnookerIsland helped me the raise the curtain on the new season. This time, Steve from Maximum Snooker takes to the hotseat to discuss what's happened so far in the summer months of the campaign.

Here's what we had to say...

Monday, 19 September 2011

Will snooker come back to Brazil?

There's a certain proportion of people in the snooker community who love to pour cold water on anything new within the sport.

The doom and gloom mongers have been out in force over the last few days criticising anything and everything about the inaugural Brazilian Masters.

I'm not for minute suggesting the event was a complete success; far from it.

There's plenty of room for improvement - but that's to be expected of any new event.

We all remember snooker's maiden voyages to China and Germany, where crowds where pale in comparison to those they get today.

Expensive ticket prices were quoted by many as the reason for low attendances this week in South America. That's a very fair point, but unfortunately what we must remember is that for promoters, staging snooker events is all about making money.

The harsh reality is that promoters rarely have the long-term welfare of the sport at heart. Instead, it's all about business.

There's no point dismissing that point because if snooker is to return to Brazil next year, or ever again, sponsorship is key. That means we'll have to wait and see what the TV figures were like. This coupled with revenue generated from ticket sales will determine whether baize action will come back to the samba culture.

On a personal note, I enjoyed all of the matches I watched from Brazil. The tournament ended with a worthy winner in Shaun Murphy and featured a couple of other great matches along the way.

Probably the biggest pull of the week though was local lad Igor Figueiredo. His first round win against Jamie Cope went down a storm with the natives and his presence definitely gave the event extra edge.

It's not unusual for a home hope to add value to a sporting event and Igor, as one of the tour's brightest characters, certainly spiced up proceedings.

It's fair to say that Brazil's relationship with snooker, although it has been simmering for while, is still relatively in its infancy. But by the same token, the tournament earned enough interest to suggest there is a fairly rosey future there for the sport.

This year's Brazilian Masters may just be what is needed to increase the country's appetite for the game. And who knows, maybe in the not too distant future, we'll be coming back here for a ranking event, or even watching a small clutch of Brazilian players break on to the professional scene.

Barry Hearn would not have been expecting miracles from a single trip to Brazil but at least now the seed has been sewn for the growth of snooker on another corner of the planet.

Samba star Murphy makes history

Awesome Shaun Murphy made history in Brazil last night becoming the first player to win a professional event in South America.

The Magician was in stunning form as he took just 64 minutes to beat Graeme Dott 5-0 in the Brazilian Masters final and make sure his name is at the start of snooker's newest chapter.

It was an ice cool display in the sunny Brazilian climate, rounded off with a tournament high 139 break.

While it's always great to see the 2005 world champion in full flow, Murphy's win, in my opinion, is more a reward for his terrific attitude to the game than his vast ability.

It's been well-document that many of the sport's top stars turned their noses up at an invitation to kick start a new snooker revolution in the Samba capital.

Murphy, of course, was not one of those players.

As always, he put himself up to represent the game in a new quarter of the world  and came out of it with a landmark title to add to his CV.

And that pretty much sums up Shaun's terrific attitude to the game in general.

Big, small, in the UK or abroad, Murphy's respect for tournaments is always consistent. He is a fantastic ambassador for the sport and that's the reason he'll take his place at the top of the game for many years to come.

He's the kind of player Barry Hearn's changes were made for.

Intent on squeezing every inch of success from his talent, you can't help but admire his attitude. It's absolutely top class.

Well done Shaun!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Samba snooker underway

At a time when snooker is constantly breaking new ground, last night saw the start of first professional tournament in South America.

This year's Brazilian Masters, being contested by 13 invited professionals plus three Brazilian wildcards, is the first time the sport has been played here since Barry Hearn's Matchroom set up for Steve Davis to play as part of the 15-reds snooker in 1985.

A return has been on the cards for a while but it's finally happened thanks in large to Hearn's determination.

While Hearn's excitement for the tournament may not have been matched with the same positivity by hosts of the top players who refused their invitations, the field still looks strong.

World number one Mark Selby put on a show last night to fight back from 2-0 down against Stuart Bingham to win 4-3 in the opening match. There were wins for former world champions Graeme Dott and Peter Ebdon, while the biggest cheer of the night came when former pro, homegrown Igor Figueiredo, defeated Jamie Cope 4-2.

Extorninate prices has ensured early crowds have been poor, but there's no doubt local lad Igor pulled in the biggest yet.

It's definitely not time to hit the panic button yet though. With two more Brazilian wildcards in action tonight as well as legends Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis, we're sure to see a tad extra footfall.

But like all maiden tournaments, you should expect ticket sales to be slow.

South America has been earmarked as a key area for snooker to conquer en route to giving the sport a global presence, so that alone means the tournament should be classed a success. It's also worth pointing out that when many top names refused to back attend for financial reasons, reliable Hendry and Davis stepped forward to prove their place as still the sport's best ambassadors. That has done nothing to harm their vast popularity among the fans.

Some people have already marked the tournament a failure but as the famous saying goes: Rome wasn't built in a day. 

On that note, while this tournament is certain not to capture everyone's imagination, don't surprise if we're coming back to playing ranking snooker in years to come.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Selby tops rankings amid controversy

Welcome back readers!

After a little over a week sunning myself in Marrakech, I have returned to controversy on the baize.

Mark Selby's dramatic 10-9 win over Mark Williams in the Shanghai Masters final on Sunday has gone down like a storm after an incident in frame 17 the Welshman claims cost him the title.

Referee Eirian Williams has come under attack after judging an escape from a snooker by Selby hit red instead of pink.

After a lengthy stoppage the decision went Selby's way and proved the turning point for his run of three staright frames to clinch the title from 9-7 down.

I'm probably too late to cast any real judgement on the incident and make any point that hasn't already been covered, but I do sympathise for Williams (Mark) who has seen his temperament questioned this week.

Selby's comeback is the fourth in a string of matches where Williams has let what looked unassailable leads slip in big matches.

Two of the others were against John Higgins at last season's UK and World Championship. The most recent was in Australia where Stuart Bingham bounced back from an 8-5 deficit to win the title dramatically 9-8.

Williams is at the stage of his career where legendary status is already guranteed, and to a certain extent, he's playing with greater freedom than ever before. But by the same token, these slip-ups are not the hallmarks of the great champion of Williams we know.

While luck has played its part, Williams has built a reputation as one of the best players for seeing out matches. The same cannot be aid of him from his most recent form.

Saying that, I don't expect this succession of clincher's disease syndrome to affect Williams' ability to win a few more titles yet.

The controversy, whether handled rightly or wrongly, is the reason we watch the sport. The drama, thrills and spills give every sport its cutting edge. I guess this final for that reason we go down in the sport's history but I hope it doesn't overshadow the great success of man-of-the-moment Mark Selby.

Victory in Shanghai lands him his third trophy of the season  following success at the Wuxi Classic and PTC4 event. The Jester from Leicester is playing arguably the most clinical snooker of his career and shining in Shanghai takes him to world number one.

According to Snooker Scene, he becomes only the ninth player to occupy that spot since way back in 1976. That's no mean feat in itself. As I've said before on the blog, this is reward for his consistent performances over the last 12 months.  But at least now he has a major ranking title to his recent armoury as well.

Well played Mark!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Mark Williams EXCLUSIVE interview: “My aim was to get back to world number one and somehow I’ve done it.”

There’s no questioning that Mark Williams’ return to the top of the world rankings has boosted his status as one of snooker’s greatest legends.

The two-time world champion has always been a popular hit with the fans, and that hasn’t waned with age.

His attacking style of play is still as prominent as ever. Renowned as one of the best single-ball potters in the game and always keen to pull out exhibition shots, he’s a star with bundles of natural talent.

OnCue caught up with the Welshman at the latest Premier League night in Guildford, to talk about life back at number one, another crack at becoming world champion and his formidable record abroad...

Friday, 2 September 2011

Williams keeps Welsh flying high

Proud Welshman Mark Williams ensured a perfect start to this season's Premier League for his home nation with a grab-and-steal performance in Guildford.

The world number one kicked off his campaign with a 3-0 whitewash of Jimmy White and then picked up maximum points for the night beating Shaun Murphy 3-1 in the final.

Following Matthew Stevens' win in Skegness a fortnight ago, it means the Welsh duo sit pretty at the top of the early league standings.

Williams' display was perhaps not as polished and classy as Stevens, but it was still effective.

Minus an impressive break of 105 in his opening frame, most of his success was built on his ability to counter-attack frames and feed of his opponents scraps, a quality he'll need in abundance to advance through a deadly group of ten.

Williams was a long way short of his imperious best but still picked up six points, proving he can scrap it out with the best of them.

The final in Guildford definitely wasn't the one fans had come to see, with Ronnie O'Sullivan and White crashing out in their semi-finals.

Defending champion Ronnie was beaten 3-2 as his match produced the first Shoot-Out style deciding frame of the Premier League. It wasn't as exciting as it could have been with Murphy racking up a fatal century following a ball-in-hand opportunity.

White on the other hand was well off the boil. With two of his four nights already played and still yet to register a point, qualification to the final play-offs now looks near impossible.

Check out the blog tomorrow for my exclusive interview with Guildford winner Williams later this weekend...