Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Long live the King

Not only are some of the top players thousands of miles from home but a lot of them look out of their comfort zone too.

There's been some notable wins for players outside of the top 16.

Add this to the the withdrawals of Ronnie O'Sullivan and Ali Carter, it means we go into second round of the World Open on Hainan Island with only eight of the top 16 left battling for the title.

That kind of return is almost unheard of when you look back at most of the major ranking events we've watched this season - but full credit must go to the qualifiers who have helped blow this tournament wide open.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Top of that list is Romford's Mark King who scored an impressive 5-1 win against Mark Williams.

No-one will be overly surprised or begrudge King of his great win.

He's one of the most likeable players on the circuit and has built a reputation in the game as someone always capable of an upset.

Williams knows this only too well. In fact, King has now won each of their last four meetings and you have to go back as far as 2004 to find the last time the Welshman came out on top in this head-to-head battle.

Everyone will remember King's famous wins against Mark Selby at both the 2008 World Championship and in the 2011 Masters when he was defending champion. Turning the bookmakers' odds on their head is not new ground for him.

King - by his own admission - isn't one of the sport's most natural players. In fact, he once described himself as the "worst break-builder in the top 16".

His hardworking attitude has seen him enjoy a career in and around the top 16, peppered with some memorable wins against the top guns. You can bed sure he would have come to China determined to do a job - and that's exactly what he did today.

Joe Perry also enjoyed  a 5-4 victory against the top 16's Matthew Stevens today. This was a result that surprised a few but, after interviewing at the start of this season, I'm never surprised.

He has such a relaxed attitude to travelling the world playing the game that after meeting Joe you quickly understand why he has the potential to do very well abroad.

Jamie Cope can also look forward to a last 16 match following a deciding-frame win against Martin Gould.

Picture by Monique Limbos
It's been well-documented that The Shotgun has lost his way a little in recent seasons since his super-fast breakthrough. He still remains a frightening potter though and won the last three frames to shoot down his seeded opponent.

Robert Milkins went one better than that. He managed to win four frames on the spin to fight back to victory from 3-1 down against Stephen Maguire.

Milkins has long been regarded as one of the tour's big under achievers. He has the fast and attacking style of game to rival the best yet has a habit of dipping in and out of form.

Maguire is the exactly the kind of opponent who would allow Robert to play his natural game. With one win under his belt he could definitely be one to watch as the plot thickens this week.

We shouldn't forget Michael Holt either. He was impressive to beat Stuart Bingham 5-0 yesterday and is showing all the right signs of a man back on the rise to top form.

It's been a great week so far with China proving a happy hunting ground for players outside the top 16 to make their mark. It's not over yet. There could be more to come in tomorrow's second round matches.

Last 16 line-up:

John Higgins v Jamie Cope
Jin Long v Robert Milkins
Graeme Dott v Marcus Campbell
Stephen Lee v Neil Robertson
Mark King v Tom Ford
Mark Allen v Judd Trump
Shaun Murphy v Joe Perry 
Michael Holt v Mark Selby

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Ding downed on home soil

Ding Junhui proved again the power of pressure as he suffered a shock first round exit in front of his home crowd in China.

The world number seven crashed to a 5-1 defeat against fellow countryman and wildcard entrant Jin Long; a result which stunned his fanatical fans on Hainan Island.

This continues a wildly unpredictable run of current form for Ding. In the last three ranking events he's sandwiched triumph at the Welsh Open with first round defeats at the German Masters and now the World Open.

While this inconsistent run of tournaments can sometimes be part and parcel of life at the top of sport, it's important to point out the severity of pressure Ding finds himself under whenever he plays in his home country.

His record at home is far from a bad one. He famously won the China Open as a wildcard himself back in 2005 and returned to the final of the same competition in 2010. He also won the Wuxi Classic in 2008 followed by the runner-up prizes in each of the following two seasons.

Unfortunately around these successes have come some disappointing performances as well.

The fierce competition of life at the top end of the game means no player can always win matches and play well but it would be naive to believe that some of these matches come down to the weight of expectation put on his shoulders.

Ding's popularity is on a completely different scale to other players who enjoy home support on their own soil. He is a national hero in China. His legions of fans treat him like an A-list celebrity and expect him to win every time he plays.

He's still a young lad. I can't believe this isn't sometimes a little too much when he gets on the table.

It's not easy for Ding but let's not take anything away from Jin Long either.

Even if he has nothing to lose this week, it was a gutsy win all in the name of pride. He earns no ranking points or prize money for his exploits this week but is still showing what a good player he is.

The 30-year-old has been on the circuit before, of course. He has enjoyed five seasons on the tour in total, most recently dropping off in 2010.

He has struggled to really make his mark but does boast the Asian champion title in 2005 and 2008, two runs to the last 48 of the World Open plus an impressive 13 ranking event wins in the 2008/09 season.

He may have been given a chance this week many people believe he doesn't deserve but he must be given full credit for taking it with both hands.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Shining in Hainan

The World Open gets down to the proper business tomorrow.

With a £75,000 cheque up for grabs and to be played on Hainan Island, in China, there's no doubt this is a big event on the snooker calendar.

Unfortunately today's wildcard round ended in unfair elimination for Sam Baird and Nigel Bond. This only goes further to highlight how these preliminary round matches spoil the start of a professional ranking tournament.

I have nothing against Jin Long and Lu Ning, who won there matches today, but I can't help feel they haven't earned their place in the last 32 of the tournament. They've been given a win-win opportunity while their opponents have been dealt a duff hand.

Baird and Bond have both won their qualifying matches, flown for nearly a day to get here and have been sent packing early. They have every right to feel aggrieved.

I rarely criticise Barry Hearn. He has done more for snooker than I could probably ever have hoped in such a short period of time. But he talks about making the game a level-playing field for players throughout the rankings yet there's nothing level about this system enforcing an extra hurdle to the path of players outside of the top 16.

Michael Holt, Joe Perry, Mark King, Jimmy Robertson, Robert Milkins and Tom Ford were all lucky enough to come through the test but, in my opinion, it's one they should never have been made to overcome.

For years the wildcard rounds of tournaments have been in place to bring in punters, give local players the chance to face the professional players and enjoy some exposure for the country's rising names. That's all very well but my idea would be to add in a few exhibition matches before the first round instead of cruelly snatching away the opportunity other players have earned to play in the last 32 of a tournament on merit.

Ok, rant over. It's time for some 'proper' snooker.

The last 32 field is without Ronnie O'Sullivan and Ali Carter, who both pulled out on medical grounds. This means byes to the last 16 for Marcus Campbell and Ford.

Despite these two notable absentees, there's still plenty to look forward to.

This tournament is an important one as it's the time of the campaign the top guns start thinking about building momentum and form for the approaching World Championship.

There are several of the game's stars starting to crank it up. Ding Junhui arrives fresh from his Welsh Open triumph. That could be the catalyst he needs for the end-of-season run. Stephen Maguire and Shaun Murphy seem to be back on the right trail, Neil Robertson will still be confident from his recent Masters win and Mark Selby showed greater resolve in Newport.

I get the feeling Judd Trump and Mark Allen could come good again anytime soon while with the Crucible looming, maybe Mark Williams and John Higgins are getting ready for take off.

With the matches are set to be played over a best-of-nine frame format until the semi-final, before increasing to 11 and 19 thereafter, a few will be happier that the matches revert to a more traditional length for ranking events outside the top three.

It's great to be back in China too. Despite an opening day that has infuriated many, it's time to get serious again.

Bring it on.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Talking Snooker.... with Snooker Bingo

The business end of the season is definitely upon us but a lot has happened since the last edition of the Talking Snooker feature.

When SnookerHQ joined OnCue at Christmas time, we had plenty to look forward; The Masters, The Welsh Open and the German Masters.

Those tournaments are down and it's time to reflect again on all the action plus many more talking points from the green baize.

You should know the drill by now; two bloggers put their heads together to dissect the lastest news .

This time out Tom from SnookerBingo joins the debate to talk everything snooker including Ronnie O'Sullivan's return to the winning circle, Neil Robertson's victory at Alexandra Palace, Ding Junhui's return to form in Newport, Mark Selby's critics, hints of changes to the World Championship format plus much more.

Tom is one of a few of the comics on snooker's Twitter community. His account pokes fun at the commentators' numerous cliches. His incisive analysis always gets people talking.

Here's what we had to say:

Friday, 24 February 2012

The battle to Beijing

Another week of qualifying drew to a close in Sheffield today and the reward for the 16 qualifiers is a glamourous trip to the Far East.

They'll have a treat in store when they touch down in Beijing too; greeted like superstars with the red carpet laid out.

The Chinese snooker fans are the most enthusiastic in the world and know how to put on a show. This kind of fanatical entrance is probably like nowhere else in the world and it gives the qualifiers a real chance to further boost their reputation with with snooker's largest group of fans.

It's definitely exciting times. So, who made it?

New-look Premier League: Collier's verdict

The restructure of next season's Premier League has been largely been greeted with the thumbs up.

It's fair to say not everyone was happy with the format of the tournament last season but a switch back to a more league-based set-up seems to be going down well so far.

When the tournament cues off for its 27th campaign in August, there will be 10 players split into two groups of five.

Each player will compete in four matches over a best-of-six-frame format. After all the matches have been played the top two in each group will progress to the semi-final knockout stages.

That's it in a nutshell but for more on the changes, click here.

OnCue asked Premier League referee Paul Collier his thoughts on the revamp.

Here's what he had to say...

I think there's a tendency when change happens to wrongly assume something has been a failure in the past; but it's not always the case.

Although the tournament wasn't universally popular last season, the number of full-house crowds and exciting matches we had showed the event was a success again.

The big problem was that it didn't follow what people consider a traditional league format.

I'm always quite positive about change because I think it shows you are trying to make something better.

Personally, I'm quite pleased to see the back of the Shoot Out style deciding frames. I think it made the matches difficult to follow.

Last year's event was designed on the basis that fans want to see a result when they come to watch snooker. There may be an element of truth in that but I think the fact there can be matches drawn in the Premier League makes it a little bit different.

I'm sure there will be some more new venues to visit at next season's tournament too, and I welcome that wholeheartedly. It's great for us to take the snooker roadshow around the country and you can't really lose. If one venue turns out to be a failure, it's not the end of the world because you know we'll be somewhere else the following week.

I've also heard a rumour the finals weekend may be held in Grimsby, so watch out for that.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Craigie cracks on

This week's China Open qualifiers has served up plenty of impressive performances; but one player has caught my eye more than most.

Sam Craigie - enjoying life on the main tour for the first time this season - has been in inspired form.

Wins against Adam Wicheard, Liu Song and Gerard Greene have captured the imagination of many and means he's just one step away from qualifying for his first major ranking event.

His performance today was of the highest order with breaks of of 137 and 129 helping him to a win against the former top 32 man.

Tomorrow he faces Ricky Walden to determine whether he can go all the way to Beijing. Many will expect his fairytale run to end but this is a second chance for Craigie who has already played in the last 48 of ranking event this season, narrowly losing out 5-4 to Ken Doherty on the road to the German Masters.

This experience will serve the 18-year-old incredibly well and there's no doubting he has both the ability and steely determination to spring a surprise.

These are not his only successes in his maiden season. Wins against David Grace and Liu Song helped him on his way to a run in qualifying for the Australian Open, he beat Andrew Pagett in the UK Championship qualification process and captured victories over Stephen Lee and Michael en route to the last 16 of PTC11.

Craigie already has a lot to look back on with pride this season but he could be set for more yet.

His glittering amateur career suggests we shouldn't be surprised by his exploits either.  He's won national titles at under-14, under-15, under-16 and under-21 levels as well as captaining the England under-16 national team.

He was the youngest ever winner of the Junior Premier Tour at just 14 but even at the age of 10 was predicted by some as having a bright future in the game.

Keep your eye out for Sam Craigie.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Heading in the White direction

The long and windy road to the China Open began for the game's qualifiers this week.

For some it will feel like a journey as long as the Great Wall of China itself, with many difficult tests along the way.

Picture by Monique Limbos
It's become a bit of cliche that there are no easy games along the qualifying road but, today, Michael White dispelled that theory as he powered his way past David Gilbert by an emphatic 5-0 scoreline.

Breaks of 112 and 103 plus a frame-winning 90 at an average shot time of just 14 seconds prove again why this 20-year-old Welsh lad really is one to watch.

I've had the pleasure of watching him play live once before and thanks to the new live streaming service on World Snooker, I've seen him in full flow on countless other occasions too. His ability is plain for all to see.

He is a scoring machine; a real aggressor at the table. You can watch him break build fearlessly and soon see why he is predicted such a bright future in the game.

He came almighty close to earning his major ranking event debut at the UK Championship earlier this season but although he did miss out in the final qualifying round, his run did still see him into the top 64 of the world rankings for the first time in his career.

Michael is fast-becoming renowned for his predatory break building skills and you sense it's only a matter of time before we start seeing him at the televised stages of events.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Fan profile: Robert Nastase

A brief break in the snooker diary gives OnCue the chance to profile another of its overseas readers.

Find out more about Romanian fan Robert Nastase who, like many others, discovered his love for the game because of Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Name: Robert Nastase

Age: 19

From: Hunedoara, Romania

Occupation: CCTV operator and security officer

Followed snooker since: The end of 2002

First memories: The first match I remember completely was the quarter-final of the 2003 World Championship between Paul Hunter and Peter Ebdon. Hunter won the decider but Ebdon came back after trailing 12-10.

First favourite player: Ronnie O'Sullivan. He is the reason why I started watching snooker in the first place. No player can entertain you as Ronnie did back then.

First live match: It was at this year's Master at Alexandra Palace. I watched Judd Trump play Stuart Bingham. The venue had unreserved seats so I was able to get a great view. I soon learned snooker is at least two times more entertaining when you're watching it inside the arena. It was also great to get the chance to watch one of the game's current greatest players, Judd.

Best memory: Ronnie's maximum break against Mark Williams at the Crucible. I was literally jumping in the house in disbelief. This might be one of the great 147s of all time.

Greatest player: This is a tricky question but I'm going to say Ronnie although Stephen Hendry is the greatest professional. If you could have the mixture of Ronnie's natural talent and Hendry's professionalism, you'd have an unbeatable player.

Favourite player: O'Sullivan again, but I also like Mark Allen. He is developing well. I think great things will come from him in the future.

Snooker in 10 years' time will...grow into a truly worldwide sport with many tournaments being played beyond the UK and Asia. I think a lot of good players are going to come from Europe. I also think many more frames will be won with one visit.

If I could make one change to the would be to at least double the number of points given for a foul. Four points means very little in today's game and a player is normally happy to afford four or five fouls to find the right line.

I love snooker because...of the mixture of elements it takes to be successful, just like in real life. You need patience, intelligence, sharpness, focus, composure and ability to handle pressure. Any mistake can be punished but a moment of luck can also be the difference between winning and losing. It's a great game and a true gentleman's sport.

Want to be featured? Get in touch. Email

King Ding of Wales

Ding Junhui's capture of the Welsh Open crown marks his sixth major title and confirms his place among the elite band of top players in today's game.

His 9-6 win against Mark Selby in Newport is his first top prize since his triumph at the Masters a little over a year ago, and the manner in which he sealed it was trademark of the Chinese superstar.

Picture by Monique Limbos
With a narrow lead of just 6-5, he went on to hit back-to-back centuries to move just one frame away from victory and taking the game beyond the world number one.

This is exactly what Ding does best. He showed again just why his proficient break-building is such a valuable asset.

The world number seven is absolutely blessed in this department. He scores quickly and heavily and keeps the cueball under close control.

He was winner in a high-standard final in which both players impressed.

But Victory last night sparked debate in certain quarters over whether the Chinese prodigy has under-achieved.

He first truly burst onto the scene winning the 2005 China Open, just a day after his 18th birthday, to become the second youngest winner of a ranking title behind Ronnie O'Sullivan.

By the age of 20 he had already chalked up three ranking titles and was tipped by many to go on to dominate.

Instead, he has gradually added to his haul and perhaps hasn't won titles as quickly as many predicted because of the such intense competition among players at the top end of the rankings.

Despite this, there is no denying Ding has blossomed into a wonderful player.

He is still only 24-years-old and has already won two UK Championship titles plus a Masters trophy. Earlier this year he came almighty close to reaching the World Championship final. Only an inspired Judd Trump denied him a shot at the Crucible crown but it is universally believed he will one day win the sport's biggest prize.

Ding is China's greatest snooker import and his achievement of kick-starting a wave of popularity  for the sport in his native country is arguably his most impressive of all. The titles he has won at such a young age while having to adapt to life in a foreign country, away from his friends and family is not to be under-estimated.

He has established himself among the top eight players in the world and is always considering to be one of a clutch of players capable of winning every big tournament.

If you ask me about Ding, I think he's doing just fine.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Fixed for the Welsh final

Ding Junhui and Mark Selby will contest today's Welsh Open final knowing neither of them have reached top form yet.

It's been a funny week for both players in Newport but yet they are still living to tell the tale with the chance to pick up silverware.

Ding was sat in his chair in the deciding frame of his quarter-final clash against Stephen Lee with defeat staring him large in the face. His fortunes soon changed when a spectator's mobile phone sounded and cost his opponent a pot.

Picture by Monique Limbos
His performance in the semi-final against Shaun Murphy was largely improved but was still aided by an out of sorts Magician.

The Chinese star has yet to hit top gear but will not be complaining as this run to the final comes as perfect timing after a difficult patch.

Since losing to Neil Robertson in the quarter-final of the UK Championship he's struggled to match his own very high standards.

His defence of the Masters was halted on the first day against Ronnie O'Sullivan and he was also knocked down at the first hurdle in Germany by his fellow countryman Yu Delu.

As for Selby, his luck came far earlier this week. He nearly fell a cropper to ranking event debutant Sam Baird in round one. He had to fight back from 3-2 down to win on a decider.

Poor performances in each of the last three events have suggested he's finding it difficult coping with the pressures of being world number one.

It was universally recognised that coming to Newport he needed to step it up a notch and show added resolve. Although his performances haven't been utterly convincing, he's showed his trademark battling qualities and is still standing.

Last night he was berated for slow play and 'boring' snooker as he beat O'Sullivan 6-2 to book his place.

You cannot deny the Rocket was nowhere near the kind of form that saw him win the German Masters and through to the semi-finals here but a lot of credit must go to Selby for that.

The Jester has got Ronnie's measure. He knows how to play him and never let him find his stride. He is a tough and determined character but applied an effective defensive game and fed of his opponents mistakes.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's called great matchplay snooker. The great thing about Selby is that he always has proficient match tactics. But when they don't go to plan, he doesn't go to pot.

When Selby meets O'Sullivan there is always a great clash in styles. That is why the match has become one of the most fiercest rivalries in the modern game. Ronnie finds it difficult to break Selby down and that was probably in his head before this match began.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Selby wasn't playing good snooker himself but managed to stall O'Sullivan and win ugly. Top players have to accept they can't always play well. It's easy to win when you play well. Selby  has a great advantage that he can get results even when he's not at his best.

This quality makes Mark a good bet for the title today.

However he plays, he'll be fighting all the way and never knows when he's beaten.

While he can enjoy sitting at the top of the world rankings because of his consistency, Selby knows when his career ends he will ultimately judged on titles won. His return in that department isn't as high as it should be. He's won just two major ranking events and will know the importance of adding to that tally. 

The good thing for Ding is his vastly improved tactical game. He's one the sport's best all-round players and is capable is standing toe-to-toe with Selby if the match turns scrappy. He's got a good record of winning titles considering he's still just 24-years-old. Long gone are the days of his soft centre. He can now back up his excellent break-building skills with the ability to be patient for his chances and bounce back from a deficit.

The head-to-head stats between these two makes for interesting reading. Out of their 14 meetings, they've each won seven apiece and predicting the outcome of this match is as tough as that suggests.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Down to the nitty gritty in Newport

We're at the stage of the Welsh Open we call the "business end" of the tournament.

Only eight players remain in Newport, each with two wins under their belt and bidding to become this year's pride of Wales.

There are only three days left on the baize and it's a game a day with the winning post now in sight  There may be no Welshmen left in the hat, but we've still got a stellar line-up.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Ding Junhui faces Stephen Lee in the first quarter-final; and it's an important week for both men.

The Chinese star has gone a little off the boil of late. After taking a break at the back end of the PTC series, he's returned a little ring rusty.

Defeats in the opening rounds of the Masters and German Masters has left a few question marks hovering, and he's yet to claim a trophy so far this season.

He was near the top of most people's list to lift some silverware this term but, as yet, it hasn't materialised.

Long gone are the days when Ding battled his eternal enemy, confidence. These days he's capable of springing into life at any point. A 4-0 demolition of Mark Davis followed by a dramatic deciding frame win versus defending champion John Higgins so far suggest he's on the comeback trail.

Lee has his owns priorities. Fresh from a good run to the semi-final in Berlin, he's looked comfortable building on that. Back in the top 16, his task is now to re-establish himself among the elite. Wins against Tom Ford and Michael Holt have put him on the right track, but Ding will pose his toughest test yet.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Next on the menu is Shaun Murphy against this week's star man, Mark Allen.

The tenacious Northern Irishman has glided to the quarter-finals so far with back-to-back 4-0 wins against Stephen Hendry and Ken Doherty. Allen is just oozing with confidence and it looks like only a matter of time before he chalks up his maiden ranking title.

Murphy has both the experience and form to stand in his way though.

He's been hitting the cue ball at his crisp best in recent weeks but looks like he's still got a few gears to go through in this tournament yet.

Shaun has the safety game and tactical nous to stop Allen's so far bulldozing form. He may still be too hot to handle.

In the other half of the draw, Ronnie O'Sullivan meets Judd Trump.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The Rocket is always a dangerous proposition, but perhaps now more so than for a long time. The pressure was on him in Germany to fight to retain his top 16 place ahead of this season's World Championship. He duly replied by winning the tournament.

As a result, he's steadily played himself into fine form.

His 4-1 win against Mark Williams today was impressive. He had the cue ball on a string.

He's obviously got the taste back for winning ranking events and could easily add another on Sunday.

Clashes with Trump are becoming a regular occurrence but this promises to be another thriller.

Judd has had the better of the meetings so far but could need a bigger performance.

After beating O'Sullivan at the Masters he said Ronnie could still win trophies if he avoids him in the draw. That adds a small plot to this match. But more importantly, this is a game between two players who massively respect each other, and the quality should be high. 

Picture by Monique Limbos
The final match sees Stephen Maguire lock horns with Mark Selby.

The Scot has enjoyed a stark resurgence of form of late. His victory against fellow countryman Higgins at the UK Championship has been the catalyst for a splendid run helping him to the PTC12 title and runner-up in the German Masters.

His 4-2 win against Matthew Stevens today showed there are few signs of him letting up.

You can see he is enjoying his snooker again, and what a difference it makes to be winning. Stephen is a boisterous player who has rekindled his authority at the table. When he hits top form, he's as good as anyone to watch.

Selby has not been playing such finely tuned snooker. You get the sense that since taking his place at the head of the world rankings he's felt the pressure of being the one everyone wants to beat.

A 4-1 win against Martin Gould got him here. He's back at latter stages of an event and probably has done enough so far to give himself something to build on. We know Mark can often produce his best in the biggest matches so this tough tie could be right up his street.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Vintage Hendry sends Thunder down under

This year's Welsh Open is fast-becoming a tale of the veterans.

Following on from Steve Davis' heroics in Newport yesterday, Stephen Hendry took centre stage today with an impressive 4-1 victory against one of the title favourites, Neil Robertson.

Picture by Monique Limbos
As funny as it may sound, my immediate reaction to this result was not one of complete surprise.

I admit, Hendry is a far cry from the player who dominated the sport throughout the 1990s and established himself as the sport's most successful player ever. That said, his fall down the rankings is not a result of a loss of his game. Instead, it has been consistency that has cost him.

It's probably more frustrating for the Scot that he can still produce his best from time to time. Even now, he continues to show glimpses of his old self. The difference these days is that this is only in very small patches.

Anyone who's been watching Hendry recently will know he's actually been threatening a result like this for a while now.

His form in the cubicles has not been that of player struggling to come to terms with life outside of the game's elite. On the contrary, he's dusted himself down and produced some good snooker at times.

In the aftermath of the Nugget's win, a lot of people on my blog went on to claim his game has aged better than Hendry's. Victory against Robertson today proves that is a myth.

The seven-time world champion may be long past his best but being able to turn up and outplay one of the sport's top names shows he's not lost it yet.

There's arguably been no better player consistently over the season than Robertson and even he left Newport wowed by Hendry's vintage performance.

This kind of dominant display is more of a rarity for the Scot these days, and, because of this, his fans enjoy it even more and it's made even more special.

Well played Stephen.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Nugget rolls back the years

Steve Davis stole the show on the opening day of the Welsh Open.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The Nugget rolled back the years to knock out Ali Carter 4-3 in Newport; but it was the manner of victory that was even more impressive.

The six-time Crucible king compiled two centuries en route to this famous win as he proved he can still mix it with the big boys.

The great thing about Davis is that despite his vast success in the sport, his hunger to win remains prominent.

When I watch him play, I get the feeling he still enjoys the adrenalin rush of battle as much as he did back in his heyday.

Davis was such a great multiple champion in this sport because of his outright will to win. Although ability took him to his highest levels, his desire was arguably better than anyone else.

To still be competing with the game’s top stars today probably goes to strengthen that point.

Steve is at the stage of his career where he can probably enjoy his snooker more than ever. Although he will still be driven on by winning, his success and legendary status in the sport has long since been secured.

If anything, it is days in the sun like this that will only enhance people’s memories of his best. The fans love it when every now and then Steve rolls back the years.

I bet Davis will be loving it too. Well played Nugget

Nearly time for Newport

The tournaments are coming thick and fast now and today it's time for the start of the Welsh Open.

We're back in Newport and in a country which has produced some of the game's real greats.

The Welsh Open has an excellent history and this week's line-up suggest we could be in for another.

It's big week for Sam Baird and Adam Wicheard, who will be making their debut at a major venue. They are two young players who excite me. While they both boast a proficient attacking game, they've also shown all-round matchplay to come through some tough ties.

Many of the other qualifiers are more experienced players that will go down well with the adoring Welsh crowd.

Former world champions Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, Ken Doherty and Peter Ebdon all made it through. Then there's Andy Hicks, Mark King, Mark Davis and Fergal O'Brien who continue to show age is no barrier to competing at the top level.

Picking a winner for this tournament is as usual, a minefield.

The top 16 is packed with players good enough to be regularly winning trophies.

My first question is whether Ronnie O'Sullivan has got a taste for success after his win at the German Masters double? Could he make it a quickfire ranking event double?

You can't mention the German event without a word for Stephen Maguire. He was sensational all week and was of course runner-up in the Welsh Open just a year ago.

Looking further, Mark Selby is in need of a decent run at a major tournament after stalling of late. Neil Robertson continues to be a threat at every tournament and then there's Ding Junhui. He lost to Yu Delu in the first round in Germany and will be keen to bounce back.

We know Judd Trump is capable and Shaun Murphy is coming back to his best.

It would be silly to write off reigning champion John Higgins or Mark Williams either. They're both experienced champions and are never far away from top form.

My pick this time round though is for Northern Ireland's Mark Allen. A maiden major ranking event title continues to elude him but you feel it can't be far away now. His performance at the UK Championship captured everyone's imagination and victory in group 6 of the Championship League just last week shows he's match sharp.

The opening rounds of this year's tournament will again be played in a best-of-seven-frame format. This isn't universally popular but means every match is on TV.

Full first round draw: 

John Higgins v Liang Wenbo
Ding Junhui v Mark Davis
Graeme Dott v Tom Ford
Stephen Lee v Michael Holt
Shaun Murphy v Mark Joyce
Mark Allen v Ken Doherty
Ali Carter v Steve Davis
Ronnie O'Sullivan v Marco Fu
Mark Williams v Andy Hicks
Stuart Bingham v Mark King
Judd Trump v Fergal O'Brien
Matthew Stevens v Barry Hawkins
Martin Gould v Peter Ebdon
Mark Selby v Sam Baird
Stephen Maguire v Adam Wicheard

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Comeback king Ronnie wins German Masters

Ronnie O'Sullivan produced an inspired comeback to steal the German Masters title from Stephen Maguire in an epic final.

The flying Scotsman found himself with a commanding 6-3 lead after the first frame of the evening session but the Rocket conjured up a great fightback, winning six of the next seven frames en route to a special 9-7 win.

Picture by Monique Limbos
This is O'Sullivan's first major ranking title since he won the Shanghai Masters back in September 2009 but, this may rank as highly as many of his previous 22.

His clenched fist after he knocked in the championship ball painted that picture very clearly.

Ronnie has waited a long, long time to get back into snooker's winning circle but you could just see the delight as he got his hands back on a trophy. It just shows that when he's motivated, he still loves playing snooker and, more importantly, can still be a winner.

In the end, he rose to the occasion in this superb final at an excellent venue. 

His form has fluctuated this week but the one consistency has been his great combative skills. He's had to dig in deep at times, battling against glandular fever and the prospect of potentially losing his place among the world's top 16.

None of this deterred him though. He didn't want to lose this week and it was great to see him competing and up for the fight.

In the short-term, this gives O'Sullivan the vital ranking points he needs in his bid to stave off falling into the qualifiers. He's still not totally safe but this win does go a long way to securing his automatic qualification at the World Championship.

Picture by Steve Kent
But in the slightly longer term, this is proof Ronnie can still challenge for major titles.

It would have been easy for Ronnie to roll over in the packed Tempodrom arena. After winning the opening frame of this great final, he had to sit back and watch Maguire flick into top gear and storm to a 4-1 lead with the aid of three century breaks.

He kept clinging on before finding some rhythm of his own. A run of five straight frames hauled him back in the match.

At that point, he was hitting the cue ball sweetly and knocking in some terrific long pots.

That's why the fans love Ronnie but he was about more than that in Germany.

Earlier in the week, Ronnie was forced to battle back from 4-0 down against Andrew Higginson in the first round before recording a dramatic 5-4 win.

That was the platform for this win and his tenacity has been spot on all week. He's showed bottle and fought hard throughout. That will make him feel good and will be especially sweet for his legion of passionate fans.

Ronnie can fly back to England feeling like a real winner again but the same should be said of the German hosts. The informed and enthusiastic crowd were fantastic all week and this event is quickly becoming one of the best on the snooker calendar.

Maguire should take heart from this tournament too. The Scot outplayed Ronnie for large chunks of this final and is playing arguably as well as when he won the UK Championship back in 2004.

The tournament - and in particular the final - was a great spectacle.

The game has a very bright future in Germany.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Final orders in Berlin

The support at this year's German Masters has been sensational.

Both of today's semi-finals at the Tempodrom - in Berlin - have drawn in sell-out crowds of 2,500.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Now, these superb German fans can look forward to the terrific final they deserve.

In the red corner, it's three-time world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan. His form has fluctuated over the last few days. He had to recover from 4-0 down to get past the first hurdle of Andrew Higginson, but produced an impressive comeback under pressure.

His 5-1 win against Joe Perry round two was excellent, he then beat Matthew Stevens in the quarter-final but laboured to a 6-4 win against Stephen Lee in the last four.

Ronnie - battling against glandular fever - doesn't come into this match on top of his game but would dearly love to return tob the sport's winner's circle.

This is his first major ranking final since he lost to Neil Robertson in 2010 World Open and you have to go back as far as the 2009 Shanghai Masters to find his last major win.

It's great to see O'Sullivan back in a final.

Although he may say differently, it's obvious his battle to cling onto his top 16 status ahead of the next seedings revision ready for the World Championship, is providing him with great motivation in Germany.

Ronnie has often produced his best snooker when his back is against the wall, and has fought admirably in Berlin when, at other times, he may have thrown in the towel.

He's played some important matches this week and, despite his ups and downs, is still here to tell the tale.

His fighting attributes have been second to none. He's showed excellent know-how.

He looks like he wants to prove a point this week but how he feels in the morning could yet have a massive impact on the outcome of this final.

On the other side of the fence, Stephen Maguire - in the blue corner - will come into the match brimming with confidence.

The Scot arrived in Germany in excellent form in the recent ranking events.

He enjoyed a run to the quarter-finals of the UK Championship after beating defending champion John Higgins and won his first trophy for more than three years when he picked up the PTC12 title in Germany last month.

Tonight, he put on a real classy performance to beat Masters finalist Shaun Murphy 6-0.

He can also take heart from a dramatic 5-4 win on the final black against Judd Trump, after trailing 4-2.

It's fair to say Maguire couldn't be happier. He's cueing well, scoring heavily and in bullish mood.

He's got his killer winning edge back and has returned to show every inch of the top player he is. He's enjoyed a lengthy stint among the world's top eight ranked players but will know the importance of returning to winning ways with titles.

The head-to-head statistics between the two players doesn't make for good reading for Mags though. He's lost 13 times against Ronnie in their 16 meetings.

But although the bookmakers suggests otherwise, in my opinion, Maguire is the man to beat tomorrow. His form is too difficult to argue against.

We all know Ronnie loves the big occasion though. His run this week has already put him provisionally back inside the top 16 so, in theory, he can let loose enjoy himself.

Whatever happens, it should be a corker.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Rocket Ronnie roars back

Ronnie O'Sullivan did his popularity ratings in Germany absolutely no harm today with a sensational comeback in the Tempodorm.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The pressure could hardly have been bigger going into his match against Andrew Higginson.

Ronnie - ranked provisionally 18 in the world - set about his business in Berlin with his place in the top 16 and automatic qualification to the World Championship hanging by a thread.

After slumping to a 4-0 deficit, he was all but written off and talk started about his last ranking event whitewash at the 2006 China Open.

But, we all know Ronnie loves a challenge and he came charging back to win it 5-4.

Higginson missed chances to win the match but it was vintage O'Sullivan as he proved again how good he is under pressure. His back was to the wall, the shackles were off and he responded well. He played solid snooker under pressure to complete a turnaround the German fans will cherish.

Suddenly, from the brink of defeat, he's ready for a last 16 meeting with Joe Perry and stands a good chance of enjoying a much-needed run.

I read earlier that since reaching the World Open final in September 2010, Ronnie has been to only one major ranking event quarter-final. His unlikely win from the jaws of defeat today could be just the boost he needs get there again and launch an overdue attack for major honours.