Saturday, 31 March 2012

Beijing's final call: Ebdon v Maguire

Stephen Maguire will lock horns with Peter Ebdon for the right to lift the 2012 China Open title tomorrow.

That's a sentence I never thought I'd find myself writing. It's been an intriguing week of action in Beijing and while Ebdon's run has been a remarkable surprise, Maguire closing in on a first ranking title for four years has been brewing.

The Scot will count himself unlucky to have lost out to Ronnie O'Sullivan in the German Masters final earlier this year but people have since predicted his speedy return to the winner's circle.

For Ebdon, his chance to contest in a ranking final is a bolt out of the blue after a poor season.

It's ironic that both players' last ranking event wins were at the China Open. Maguire lifted the title in 2008 while Ebdon won the trophy the following year.

Maguire's form since the turn of the year has been impressive. He appears to have taken control of his often explosive temperament and found a way to produce his boisterous best snooker on a consistent basis.

For a player of his remarkable talent, it's difficult to believe he's had to wait so long to add to his four ranking event wins but tomorrow could see him back on the board.

Everyone takes joy from watching Maguire in top gear. He strikes the ball with authority quickly applies the pressure. He goes into the match a clear favourite but by it;s by no means a certainty.

Ebdon's best is somewhat more fragmented as he's long been the kind of player to craft his wins out of grit and determination using his phenomenal mental strength to make up the extra inch against more naturally-talented opponents.

This isn't a trait to be belittled.

In fact, if Ebdon takes home the top prize tomorrow he'll set a new record for the biggest gap between first and most recent ranking title victories after winning the Grand Prix back in 1993.

His staying power is a credit to his great dedication to the sport. While people enjoying poking fun at his style of play, I believe he deserves every bit of his success.

He's managed to beat John Higgins, Neil Robertson and Ding Junhui this week. Why not Maguire?

Friday, 30 March 2012

The final four in China

We're down to the semi-finals of this year's China Open - and there are four great players left to contest them.

An action-packed day in Beijing left us all salivating and it's not often one morning sees both Judd Trump and Ronnie O'Sullivan packing their suitcases ready to head home.

Neil Robertson and Ali Carter were also casualties.

But how about who's left...

Stephen Lee v Stephen Maguire

You don't have too look much further than this match to find two players right at the peak of their form.

Both have reached a major final since the turn of the year and Lee was the winner of the latest ranking event; they're both back playing at their authoritative best. When these two are on song, they're both a pleasure to watch.

The way they've both been playing has helped them earn their way to being many people's outside tips to win this year's World Championship.

This week has done little but strengthen those claims. Today, Lee recovered from 2-0 down to beat Trump 5-3 and Maguire enjoyed triumph over O'Sullivan in a match that went down to a final re-spotted black.

Seeing the back of two of the game's top names will only build on their confidence. The shackles are off, they're both playing well. They'll go for their shots and will both fancy their chances of making the final. This should definitely be the more glamorous of the two semi-finals. It's not one you'll want to miss.

Peter Ebdon v Ding Junhui

It's a decade since Ebdon enjoyed the greatest moment of his career winning the 2002 World Championship.

After a season fighting to even stay within the top 32 of the world rankings, I never thought I'd see him contest a major semi-final again; but here he is.

His results this week have been all down to his graft. Yesterday he pipped current world champion John Higgins on a decider and he followed that up today with another hard-fought win against Robertson, one of the most consistent players on this season's circuit.

Ebdon still has his critics but his ability to fight tooth and nail in matches have brought him huge success throughout his long career. Although his commitment to the game has probably waned over the past 18 months, he hasn't lost his ability to put in the methodical preparations ahead of certain tournaments, and perform.

This week has seen a return to his steely old self and, although some fingers have been pointed at his 'negative' tactics, Ebdon's knowledge of the table and determination remain assets to be admired.

His next task lies in the form of home favourite Ding Junhui. The Chinese star is a player Ebdon rates extremely highly. In fact, Peter goes to particular lengths to share how much he thinks of him as a player.

We should expect the same type of grafting performance from Ebdon as he attempts to keep Ding on a tight leash. The home hope is an excellent break-builder and, coupled with his new-found belief, will take some distracting from the job in hand.

Ding is always under pressure when he plays in China but confidence will be high now he's come this far and he can use his following to his advantage. The sheer size of challenge in front of Peter will rev him up and take him back to his glory days. This could be a classic.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Ebdon comes good, but what about Higgins?

Peter Ebdon got everyone talking in Beijing today with a masterful 5-4 win against John Higgins.

This is a welcome return to form for the Force as he got back to his battling best to scrape past Higgins despite struggling for form all. While Peter can cheer a big win, the consequences could be far greater for the four-time world champion.
Picture by Monique Limbos

This is supposed to be the stage of the season where Higgins comes up with his best, just in time for the World Championship. Unfortunately, today just summed up the rest of his season as he stuttered again.

Ever since November it's been widely regarded that the Wizard of Wishaw would start climbing through the gears in a timely fashion for his world tile defence. The fact that it hasn't quite happened here for him will only set the alarm bells ringing with Sheffield next on the calendar.

Form doesn't bode well for Higgins as he gets ready to charge towards a fifth world title but sometimes it's not always about how you're playing. Higgins has proved time and time again what a formidable match player he is; one of the greatest. That's why you can never write him off.

He might not be in everyone's immediate thoughts to trimuph at the Crucible. But his might suit him down to the ground. Many of his greatest successes have arrived in face of adversity. So never say never.

It's important this result doesn't become all about Higgins though. Ebdon hasn't become a bad player overnight. He's as tough to beat as most and has obviously been putting in the hours on the practice table to haul himself back into contention. Many fans feel fondly about Ebbo and you get the feeling he's not quite ready to call time yet.

It's not all about what happens on the table that could impact how things unfold at the World Championship. World number one Mark Selby - suffering from a neck injury - decided to pull out of his match with Ding Junhui  today in fear of making the problem worse.

Picture by Monique Limbos
It would take a minor miracle for the Jester to lose his place at the head of the world rankings. With that out of his mind he'll be pumped up for silverware next month. This tactical move to take a break shows he means business as he's due a serious assault on the world crown.

Ronnie O'Sullivan was back at the races today as he extended his formidable run against Mark Williams with a 5-1 win. The Rocket hasn't lost to the Welshman in a decade; an incredible head-to-head record between two of the games greats.

It's no secret how highly Williams still rates O'Sullivan. You always get a feeling of the mutual respect between these two when they meet. Perhaps this contributes to Ronnie always going into the matches on the top of his game with the attitude to match while Williams maybe lacks a bit of belief.

Carter's struggles also seem behind him. He destroyed Lu Ning 5-1 as he shows you don't have to be fancied to perform.

It's also important to mention Judd Trump at this stage. Defending his China Open crown, his 5-3 win against Stuart Bingham was almost a carbon copy of their match at the Masters. While he let Stuart stay within a touching distance, he seems to have a developed a streak where he can kill a player off at the business when it suits. This is a fine quality and proves he's set to be at the top of the game for the long-term.

There's very little to say about Stephen Lee. He beat Graeme Dott 5-3 as his hot streak of form rolls on. The same could be said about Stephen Maguire too. It took a decider to see him battle past Ricky Walden but, whatever the conditions, he seems capable of winning of late.

That only leaves Neil Robertson. Still sporting an amazing perm he dispatched of Stephen Hendry showing the qualities of a champion again as he quietly goes about his work of fighting through the early rounds.

As always, the quarter-final line-up is a belter. Let's get down to business.

Quarter-final draw: 

Judd Trump v Stephen Lee
Stephen Maguire v Ronnie O'Sullivan
Ding Junhui v Ali Carter
Neil Robertson v Peter Ebdon

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Survival of the strugglers

If yesterday was a day where the favourites prevailed, today was all about two struggling players in the top 16 coming back fighting.

Picture by Monique Limbos
A week ago it was unknown whether the Essex duo Ali Carter and Ronnie O'Sullivan would even make the trip to China.

Now, they're both in second round thanks to their dogged determination.

The Captain has been in a really bad way of late; with his fight against Crohn's disease even threatening to cut his snooker career short.

But Ali has always been known for his battling attributes, and used them here to edge past Dominic Dale 5-4. In a season which has brought little cheer for Carter, this is a big win; his first in 2012, in fact. It's been difficult for him to even play at times and enthusiasm has been low but this result could be the start of  a brave march.

Here's for hoping anyway, as the snooker cicruit is a much brighter place with the inclusion of Ali.

The Rocket hasn't had an easy time in the health department either with glandular fever sapping him of all his energy. After winning the German Masters and advancing to the semi-finals of the Welsh Open to extend his stay in the top 16, he's been a no-show at both the World Open on Hainan Island and the PTC Grand Finals in Galway.

Some critics have questioned the full extent of his suffering but unless you've ever come up against glandular fever it's impossible to make an informed judgement.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Whether you're Ronnie O'Sullivan or anyone else, it's not an easy sickness to fight.

Despite that, he's made the trip this week. He was nowhere near his best but managed to conjure up a 5-4 win over Marcus Campbell from a 3-0 deficit.

The Scot found out the hard way that you've never beaten O'Sullivan until you're over the line. He's always capable of pulling something out from under his sleeve. He'll be satisfied with his comeback but still faces the wrath of his sceptics.

People are saying he's only here because of the World Championship. That may be true. The Crucible is on the horizon and is the most important event for every player.  But the bottom line is: he turned up in China, he won and he still gets slated. He just can't win in some people's eyes.

This wasn't all for the deciding-frame wins. Stuart Bingham managed to sneak past Joe Perry but it was easier for others.

Lu Ning continued his good run with an impressive display to beat Shaun Murphy 5-2. Back-to-back contributions of 114 and 119 helped the youngster on his way as he continues to make the most of his wildcard opportunity. Murphy was left to simply hold his hands up in defeat, beaten by a man in great form.

Peter Ebdon enjoyed the taste of a major ranking event win by beating Matthew Stevens while Ricky Walden sprung the surprise of the day taking down Mark Allen 5-2.

John Higgins and Mark Williams both came through with ease against Rory McLeod and Jin Long respectively. It's no shock to see a return of their efficient displays as the World Championship creeps ever closer.

Now it's time for the last 16.
Tomorrow's second round draw:

Ronnie O'Sullivan v Mark Williams
Judd Trump v Stuart Bingham
Mark Selby v Ding Junhui
Ali Carter v Lu Ning
Stephen Maguire v Ricky Walden 
Stephen Lee v Graeme Dott
John Higgins v Peter Ebdon
Neil Robertson v Stephen Hendry

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Comeback king Ding

Ding Junhui's form in China is often the subject of furious debate.

The pressure on him to perform in front of his home crowd is immense and, as a result, his performances have sometimes fallen short of his own high expectations.

Picture by Monique Limbos
But today on the second day of the China Open in Beijing he used the full force of this home support to his advantage; fighting back from 4-0 down to beat Ben Woollaston 5-4.

As much as you have to feel for Ben who was taught a harsh lesson inside the melting Chinese cauldron, Ding showed his class in abundance.

And, anyone left questioning whether Ding can handle the gruelling pressure was answered with a powerful 'yes'.

You cannot under-estimate the impetus this superb comeback will give Ding as he looks forward to the rest of tournament.

You'll all remember how Ronnie O'Sullivan performed the exact same fightback in the first round of the German Masters last month before going on to lift the title.

Ding now knows he can handle anything that is thrown at him this week and will be riding crest of optimism in the next round. This could be a big win for him in the grand scheme of his season.

He faces an opponent equally high on confidence himself next. World number one Mark Selby is in waiting for Ding fresh from his 5-0 battering of wildcard winner Li Hang.

En route to this routine win, the Jester broke his own record for the number of centuries made in a single season surpassing the 54 he made in the previous campaign. Who said he was boring?

Today's matches went exactly by the form guide. Stephen Lee's winning streak continued with a 5-1 victory against Tom Ford while Stephen Maguire came through by the same scoreline.

Graeme Dott recovered from 2-1 down to beat Mark King 5-2 while Judd Trump was far too strong for Jimmy White.

The tournament is bubbling nicely as it looks like everyone means business with the Crucible on the horizon. Tomorrow sees play in the other eight first round matches.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Let me be your fantasy

A new revolution could be about to sweep the green baize world; in the shape of Fantasy Snooker.

Lifelong snooker fan Stefan Wojciechowski is the man behind the bright idea which is set to launch at the end of Apeil in time for the new season.

Although still under construction, will host the online game where fans are invited to select and manage players throughout the season picking up points for their performances across ranking events.

Stefan said: "The user will be allowed to pick up to two players per tournament and is assigned a bank of virtual money which they get to spend throughout the season.

"Each player is priced according to his world ranking which will fluctuate as the season progresses. You can change these selections as many times as you like before each tournament deadline."

The innovative idea - similar to fantasy football games that have proved so popular among football fans - is free to enter and thanks to funding from Stefan and his two partners will offer prizes of £500, £200 and £100 for the top three finishers.

Stefan hasn't set himself any ambitious targets for particpants in its maiden season but said: "Our main aim is to produce an enjoyable user-friendly game which will grow over time."

Keep your eye on OnCue for more updates and follow Stefan's progress via Twitter by following @fantasysnooker

The good, the bad and the Hendry

It was another episode from snooker's funny farm in Beijing.

The curtain came down on this year's China Open today and there was barely a dull moment.

Jimmy White represented 'the good' by building on his two wins in qualifying to beat Omar Alkojah 5-3 in the wildcard round and set up a mouth-watering last 32 clash with defending champion Judd Trump.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Although a generation apart, these two great talents are cut from the same cloth. They are two of the best left-handers to ever grace the green baize and are experts in the business of entertaining.

They are two of the most popular, attacking and expressive cuemen to play the sport. Trump is the heavy favourite but this will be a classic nonetheless; a match for the fans.

For Jimmy, it's great to see him back competing at the television stages of a ranking event. Unfortunately the Whirlwind will always be remembered as the nearly man after losing in a record six World Championship finals but he's more than that.

Despite his Crucible heartbreaks he still boasts an impressive 10 ranking titles and is one of the game's greats for his simple ability to dazzle and draw in the big crowds.

Jimmy is the second oldest player on the professional circuit behind Steve Davis (source: Snooker Scene) but this hasn't stopped him competing to retain a respectable place among the top 48 in the current world rankings.

His hard work and love for the sport have helped him stay in contention. While qualifying for Beijing should be classed as a success, it's also a reminder that he's still capable. We're now wondering whether he can do the same to make a romantic return to Sheffield next month.

It was also a good day for 14-year-old Lu Haotian. To be put forward to play as a wildcard card entrant here shows he's a great prospect.

There's no doubt he can play but, today, he was given a different kind of snooker lesson to those he would come across on a practice table or in a junior match.

Ebdon is a wily old professional who knows all the tricks of the trade. He beat young Lu 5-2 but the youngster showed the world he is one for the future and must have learned a thing or two.

Neil Robertson managed to book his place in the last 16 with a hard-fought 5-4 victory against Jamie Cope but still falls into 'the bad' category after sporting an absolutely abysmal haircut.

His barnet was more Bee Gees than that of a young Australian. His curly mop is an absolute howler.

On a more serious note, Michael Holt and Jamie Jones endured a bad day at the office and will go home seething after falling foul to the stinging wildcard round.

Holt lost 5-3 to former professional Li Hang while Jones lost 5-3 to Lu Ning, who also beat Nigel Bond at the same stage of the World Open. There are big calls from fans to scrap the wildcard rounds. While for player's like Lu they serve a great purpose in giving television exposure and good match practice to young players, it feels somewhat harsh to see a former professional sweep up from the successes of the hardworking qualifiers.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Stephen Hendry caused quite a stir in Beijing as well today. The seven-time world champion will be chuffed to bits to have beaten Martin Gould 5-4 to reach the last 16 but it wasn't without controversy.

The Scot looked to have lost in a tense deciding frame.

After missing, he walked away from the table unscrewing his cue as though all hope had gone. But he was reprieved as Gould missed frame-ball red and allowed Hendry to steal the match.

I don't for one minute believe this was an act of intentional poor gamesmanship from the legendary champion but even if only in frustration, Stephen should be experienced to know better.

You can only guess as to whether Hendry's actions knocked Gould out of his rhythm but some say unscrewing his screw should have been his concession of the match.

It still remains unclear and the debate will rumble on but Hendry lives another day at the China Open.

And that was just day one. Bring on tomorrow.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Back in China

Returning to Beijing for next week's China open evokes fond memories of Judd Trump's breakthrough event a year ago.

Picture by Monique Limbos
It's difficult to believe that just 12 months ago the Bristolian was yet to carve his name on a major ranking event trophy - and many were beginning to question whether he'd ever go on to fulfil his undoubted potential.

His 10-8 victory against Mark Selby in last year's final was to kick-start what has been a super year for the attacking 22-year-old.

A year down the line, he's been to the World Championship final, has lifted the UK Championship title, played in a Masters semi-final, has won another two PTCs and is up to number three in the world rankings.

It's been quite the meteoric rise. We've seen Trump blossom into one of the sport's leading lights. In fact, he's gone full circle over the past year.

From a player who was rubbished as hype, he's gone on to being talked up as the single most exciting player in the modern game then onto being proclaimed as the man who could go on to dominate the game.

Now, he goes into most major events among the favourites but is not immune from critics. Unfortunately, this is part and parcel as life as a top player and, fortunately, he has achieved that status in a very short period of time.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Ding secures deserved PL place

Ding Junhui can walk away from this year's Championship League knowing it's a good job done - as he secured a deserved place at the 2012 Premier League.

This qualification process has been running since 2009 but it's not all about the end prize.

Picture by Monique Limbos
While the Premier League is a delightful money-spinning carrot at the end of the line, this tournament held at Crondon Park is both profitable and popular with the players as a stand-alone event too.

It provides excellent match practice in the run-up to the World Championship and supplies extra cash for the game's top players.

The whole format is pretty gruelling with matches coming thick and fast against top quality opposition. That alone makes a place at the Premier League a deserved reward for the eventual winner but for Ding, who beat Judd Trump 3-1 in the final, it's even extra deserved.

He won the Welsh Open - a major ranking event - just a few weeks ago yet the powers that be at World Snooker decided that would not be one of the immediate automatic routes to the Premier League. That seems a little harsh but, at least now he's booked his place.

It's also interesting to note that Ding only won his place in the seven-strong winners' group after emerging through the final group as winner. Matthew Stevens did exactly the same last year, winning group seven, before going on to win the overall event.

As we've seen so many times before, momentum is a powerful tool in snooker.

Why is going to Gloucester great?

World Snooker has this week announced that all of next season's UK PTCs will be held at the South West Snooker Academy in Gloucester.

This has been greeted with universal cheer.

The decision to see all four of the events here is a no-brainer.

Here's why Gloucester is such a great venue:
  • The venue allows spectators making the event feel more like a proper tournament
  • The main table is a first class set-up
  • It's run by great snooker people
  • The facilities easily beat those at Sheffield
  • There are more tables
  • World Snooker earn money from the venue to stage then event.
Bravo to World Snooker. It's a great move.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Fan profile: Dan Armstrong

It's time for another of OnCue's popular fan profiles.

Dan Armstrong shares his baize views this time including how he dreamed of playing like The Nugget and hios opinions on the shortening of formats under Barry Hearn.

Name: Dan Armstrong

Age: 29

From: Ramsgate, Kent

Occupation: Freelance writer

Highest break: 133

Followed snooker since: Early childhood. As long as I can remember, really.

First memory: I was too young to remember a specific match. My earliest memories of snooker are of the players personalities in the mid 1980s. They really were larger than life and made a brilliant game even more absorbing. Snooker was such a huge part of popular culture in those days. It was everywhere. I vividly remember the early days of Big Break on BBC1 and Pot Black, of course.

First favourite player: Steve Davis. I wanted so badly to be able to play at his standard. I would study everything he did on a snooker table then attempt to copy it on my mini-table.

First live match: I went to the 1990 World Championship semi-final. Two of my favourite players, Davis and White, were looking for a place in the final.

Best memory: My highest break of 133. There was a little bit of luck on my side that day. I had some beneficial kisses but, it that was an incredible feeling.

Greatest player: I have to say Stephen Hendry. His records speak for themselves. There are more naturally-gifted players, such as Ronnie, but while Stephen's records still stand, he's the man.

Favourite player: It's still Steve Davis. He is a true legend of the sport. He is one of the greatest players ever and a terrific ambassador for the sport. I love watching him play. He cemented my love of snooker but there are lots of other players I look forward to watching these days as well. Martin Gould, Stephen Lee, Shaun Murphy, John Higgins, Rory McLeod, Ding Junhui and Neil Robertson to name just a few. Then there's Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump. Their recent battles have been a joy to watch.

Snooker in 10 years' time will... hopefully be at a level of popularity on par or greater than it was in the 1980s. All the elements are there. Generally I've agreed with the changes Barry Hearn has made so far and they are bearing fruit already. Event attendance is picking up, as is interest in clubs across the country. Internationally, the game has never been more popular than it is at the moment. There are some terrific new players on the scene already, particularly from Asia. Change is never universally popular, so while it'll be a bumpy ride at times, snooker seems to be on the right track.

If I could make one change to the game: I'd reinstate the traditional best-of-17-frame matches at the UK Championship. As far as change to progress the sport in the public consciousness is fine, complete change is not. The UK & World Championship formats should not be fiddled with. Shorter matches may be preferable for some new viewers but it doesn't always help the players. If a player has a bad session, the best-of-11-frame matches eliminate any chance for them to find their form in another and bounce back. Longer matches are a true test of a player's skill and mental focus. If every tournament had short matches, new fans are going to tire of the format as much as traditionalists would be driven away. For snooker to thrive there must be a balance of traditional and new-style tournaments.

I love snooker because... it's the perfect game. It's as simple as that.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Galway glory for Lee

There is plenty to admire about Stephen Lee.

As he captured the PTC Grand Finals title in Galway, Ireland, with a 4-0 win against Neil Robertson it seems like a perfect time to take a look at why.

Not only does this victory bring an end to the Aussie's sensational record in major finals that has seen him win in all of his previous nine, this is a big win for Lee in its own right too.

Picture by Monique Limbos
This is his fifth ranking title win and his first in six years.

At 37-years-old, most players begin to see their game fall o into a state of decline but Lee seems to have found a new lease of life recently.

In fact, this win is a great reward for a formidable run back to form. He's now back comfortably in among the top 16 of the world rankings and has achieved passage to at least the quarter-finals in each of the last four events.

He was a quarter-finalist at the Welsh Open, followed by a semi-finalist at the German Masters before finishing as runner-up in the World Open and now winning this title.

Achieving this level of consistency is proof of his return to his best.

To play in two consecutive ranking event finals with the game enjoying such a boom of competition at the top end is an achievement in itself but it's perhaps even greater when you consider how it all ended for Lee in the World Open.

He was comfortably beaten there 10-1 by Mark Allen but has shown great bouncebackability this week in Galway to lift a trophy here and scoop the £70,000 top prize. A defeat of such magnitude as he suffered on Hainan Island can dent the confidence but, right now, Lee is on cloud nine.

He's playing with a smile on his face and looks as sharp as ever.

Things are good for Stephen off of the table and that's being reflected on it. He's got his new cue and is clearly benefiting from the increased opportunity to play in competitive events.

Lee is not the kind of player who can spend hours after hours strapped to the practice table. That may have been a contributory factor to his loss of form for a few years. But with the sport now under the stewardship of Barry Hearn, Lee is playing regularly in the form he loves best.

Lee's resurgence has captured the imagination of most this week but it hasn't happened over night. In fact, people have spoke about Lee winning a PTC title all season as he's been threatening to trouble the top order for a while now. He didn't win any of the 12 preliminary events but, instead, saved himself for the big one.

The series has been a long slog for everyone this season but Lee is worthy of his win.

He's got his head down and worked hard this season, clawing himself back into contention for the biggest titles again.

While his career has been in the shadows of the other players who broke onto the professional circuit alongside him in the class of 1992, maybe he's not quite finished yet. Ronnie O'Sullivan, Mark Williams and John Higgins have all enjoyed bigger successes but, Lee remains the player with the sweetest cue action of them all and is showing all the signs of of continuing at the top for a little while longer yet.

Well played Stephen.

Friday, 16 March 2012

You've got to hand it to Xiao

Xiao Guodong has won plenty of plaudits this week in Galway; and rightly so.

His march to the quarter-finals of the PTC Grand Finals goes to shows, not for the first time, what a fantastic prospect he is in the game.

Picture by Monique Limbos
But it's been the manner of his path to the last eight that has impressed people most. The young Chinese star has beaten Dominic Dale and Judd Trump despite nursing a broken hand.

He joked after a career-best 4-2 victory over Judd that he should break something before he goes into every tournament. The freak injury was caused three weeks ago after sleeping awkwardly on it.

He was told by a doctor not to play snooker but, it hasn't deterred him.

While I'm reluctant to praise someone for ignoring a doctors orders when this blog could be read by many youngsters, I still feel compelled to give Xiao some credit for his great display of fighting qualities.

I'm lucky enough to have met Xiao earlier this season when I visited the Star Snooker Academy in Sheffield during the PTC5. Our brief conversation was enough to ensure his performance this week against all the odds comes as no surprise to me.

What I saw that day was a player with all the qualities to go on to become a top player. The keen snooker fans among us already know much about his fantastic ability. He's a deadly scorer and has one of the best timings of the cue ball I've seen from a player outside the top 16.

But there's much more to him than that. Xiao was forthcoming in speaking to me. He loves snooker, has embraced life in the UK and is keen to speak as much of the language as regularly as possible. This shows his great commitment to becoming a success.

I also congratulated him on his narrow 4-3 loss to Mark Allen just an hour earlier. For many in his position in the rankings this would be a result to take plenty of positives. His philosophy was simple though. He'd lost the match so therefore it was a bad result, irrespective of his opponent. This shows both the belief he has in his ability and that he fears no-one.

The PTC Grand Finals tests players over a best-of-seven-frame format. This makes picking a winner very tough. It levels the playing field and gives everyone a chance. Xiao could well go on to lift the title this weekend. But while he obviously backs himself to do well in the sport, he responded to claims he could go all the way by saying he's just taking it one game at a time. That level-headed approach is yet another excellent asset for a player still so young.

In short, I rate Xiao extremely highly. He's a hardworking player who is prepared to put every effort in to making it at the top. He's in great company in Sheffield and has confirmed this season that he's definitely one to watch.

Quarter final line-up:

Andrew Higginson v Xiao Guodong
Mark Selby v Stephen Lee
Neil Robertson v Joe Perry
Stephen Maguire v Ricky Walden

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Going to Galway

It's time to turn up the heat as the players return for the final section of a packed campaign.

A break in the busy snooker calendar has become somewhat of a scarce luxury this season but, after just over a week off the baize, the boys are ready to return.

A trip to Galway, Ireland, for the PTC Grand Finals is the start of the final three ranking events of this year's circuit and a sure sign the World Championship is on its way.

The 24 players making the trip across the Irish Sea to play for the £70,000 top prize is a mix of players from across the rankings who best performed in this season's 12 PTC events.

With a mix of household names, more experienced professionals and the game's emerging talents ready to cue up it promises to be another excellent feast of snooker. One of the best parts about the PTC Grand Finals - being played for a second time - is that it's an event played with just one table. This gives all the tournament's competitors a chance to shine in front of the TV cameras.

The likes of Ronnie O'Sullivan, Judd Trump, Ding Junhui, Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire, John Higgins and Mark Selby are among the more well-known stars competing but it isn't a completely star-studded line-up. Mark Williams, Mark Allen and last year's winner, Shaun Murphy, all failed to make the cut this time round.

Completing the draw includes this season's PTC winners Andrew Higginson, Ben Woollaston , Tom Ford and Michael Holt, who this week have the chance to earn more money and vital ranking points as a result of their trophy triumphs.

There's also Jack Lisowski, Jamie Jones and Xiao Guodong competing alongside more seasoned professionals including Fergal O'Brien, Mark Davis and Dominic Dale.

The mix of names in the hat makes for an intriguing competition, and it's great to be back in Ireland too. It's always been one of the favoured stop-off points on the calendar and this event should prove to be no different.

It's good to be back.

Monday, 12 March 2012

60 seconds with... Simon Bedford

It's been a turbulent season for Yorkshire's Simon Bedford on and off the table.

Suffering a fractured back in a car accident returning from the PTC in Poland threatened to derail his season.

Not realising the extent of his injuries, he battled on to achieve some solid results. This secured his professional status for next season despite missing out on qualification for all the later ranking events.

With his problems behind him, Simon is already switching his attention to the new campaign.  He's teamed up with 1986 world champion Joe Johnson in his base in Bradford ready to give life on the green baize a good go again.

OnCue caught up with the man who first turned professional in 1996 to ask him some quickfire questions...

How do you assess your season?

It's a strange one really because I was happy with how I was playing and enjoying some decent results in the PTCs early on. But it all changed on my way back from Poland. I had dropped Adam Duffy off in Sheffield and was heading back to Bradford when I had the collision. I'd fractured my back but didn't realise so ploughed on playing.

I got to the last 16 of PTC11. I lost there to Martin Gould and started to feel pains in my back. I then went to see a physio and was told the news about my injury. I was lucky to have already got enough points on the Order of Merit to return to the tour but it's been a difficult recovery. There were times where I couldn't even walk but now I'm looking forward to getting practising again.

Tell me a little more about where you're based...

I play at Cue Gardens in Bradford just off the motorway.

It's an amazing facility and is combined with a great darts academy. It's a good base for solo practice but I usually travel to Sheffield to go to the academy to play other players. Not many people realise I work full-time laminating fibre glass on top of my snooker. You can't be guaranteed a living from snooker so it's a good way to make sure I have something to fall back on.

You went through Q School to get back on to the tour last season. How relieved are you to avoid that this time round?

I'm definitely happy because it's a bit of a nightmare and a very stressful tournament. It's not a nice way to do it because it's so tough but at least you go into the season confident after beating other good players. After all that hardwork, it made my injury this season extra disappointing but I'm ready to have a real go again.

You've had some good results in the PTCs. They've had some mixed reviews but how have you found them?

I love them. It sometimes feels like you need bottomless pockets on the circuit because they're so expensice but they're enjoyable to play in. The events in Europe, in particular, had a special feel. If you can get a few results, I think it's easier to relax and enjoy them more.

Next season is a big one for you. Have you set yourself any targets?

I'm just going to see where it takes me and take it as it comes. It's good to have goals in mind but I always think it creates extra pressure, especially if you don't meet them early on. I'll be working with Joe Johnson. He's a great guy, so I'm optimistic.

How did you first get into snooker?

My brother, John Bedford, was a professional when I was 14-years-old. That was probably a little later than most other professionals starting playing but that's when I really got into the game.

Which player did you like as a youngster?

James Wattana. He came to play in Bradford when he was 18-years-old and I started practising with him; it was a great experience. I then went on to travel around to tournaments with him and he was my idol.

He was the bees knees back then and a great player to be around.  He's such a nice bloke. He probably taught me more than anyone along with my brother. I remember Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry fondly like everyone but James was always the player for me.

Mark Williams is up there as well. He's so laid back. Everyone can play at the top of their game during practice but, the way he plays matches like that, is phenomenal.

What is your career highlight?

A lot of people remember me for getting to the Crucible in 1998. That has to be my highlight. I played Davis there and lost 10-6. It was amazing to play such a legend at the World Championship but, once you taste that kind of big game, you want it more; but I haven't been able to get back there.

What is your career lowlight?

I qualified for the Grand Prix in 2008 after beating Williams. That was a great feeling but I went on to lose to Peter Ebdon in Aberdeen, and played poorly. It was so frustrating to know how well I could play but failed to deliver.

What are is your strength?

I'm a good safety player. I've built my career on being hard to beat and making it difficult for my opponents to win. I don't care if I win pretty or ugly, I just play to win.

What is your weakness?

It's probably break-building. I often create chances through good safety but go on not to score enough to make them count.

If you weren't a snooker player, what would you be? 

I've done lots of odd jobs down the years and I'm a little different to other players in the sense that I work while playing. If I didn't play snooker at all though, I might have been in the RAF. I always had an interest in that.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Fan profile: Martin Linton

OnCue takes its fan profile over to Ireland this time out.

Regular facebook forum user Martin Linton shares his baize views. 

Name: Martin Linton

Age: 24

From: Donegal, Ireland

Occupation: Currently working for a company that installs attic insulation alongside my part-time work as a stand-up comedian.

Highest Break: About 25

Followed snooker since: As far back as 1997. I must have been between 10 or 11-years-old.

First Memory: I remember watching crafty Ken Doherty against Stephen Hendry in the 1997 World Championship final. I was at my Granny's house.

First favourite player: I started out just following the game and not supporting anyone in particular but, Ken was always my main man. He's done so much for the game over here in Ireland, it's difficult not to put him at the top of my list.

First live match: My first live match took a long time to come. I went to the PTC Grand Finals last years and saw Matthew Stevens beat Marcus Campbell 4-0.

Best Memory: There are so many to choose here but because I've always liked Shaun Murphy, I have to go for his run to win the World Championship in 2005. He beat John Higgins, Steve Davis and Peter Ebdon along the way. It was a big surprise back then.

Greatest player: For me, it's Steve Davis. He's great for the sport and it's remarkable that he's still going and enjoying himself at his age.

Favourite player: Shaun Murphy. When he's on form, he's unbeatable. I think he can win another world title, and it could be this year.

Snooker in ten years' will... hopefully have more players from Europe on the tour. I also think an Asian player will have won at the Crucible by then. Everyone knows how quickly the game is growing in China so I think it's only a matter of time.

If I could make on change to the game... I'd take a look at the structure of the PTC series. A lot of the players further down the world rankings end up out of pocket just travelling to and from the tournaments. More should be done in the game to help these guys.

I love snooker because... the skill and concentration involved in the game is immense yet it is made to look so easy by those at the top of the rankings. On any given day anybody can beat anybody so it never fails to excite. It's an unreal game and I hope it continues to get stronger and stronger, building a greater reputation across the world.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Awesome Allen wins first ranking event

It's fair to say Mark Allen hasn't enjoyed his time away from home in China; but now he can return to Northern Ireland a champion.

A sensational 10-1 victory against Stephen Lee today earned him the World Open title and his first ranking event win.

It's a great milestone for Allen and a very sweet win.

Just a year ago he was battling against depression. Today he's playing as well as ever and being tipped for more titles.

It's taken Mark a little while longer than expected to join the circle of ranking event winners. He climbed so quickly up the rankings into the top 16 after turning professional 2005, many people thought this day might have come sooner. Now he's there, it doesn't really matter though. He's young enough to go on and enjoy even greater success.

It's been an excellent week for Allen but we've not learned anything new about the tenacious potter from Antrim.

Twice he was on the ropes this week. He trailed Judd Trump 3-0 and Mark Selby 5-2 but lived to tell the tale and lift the trophy. That shows his incredible fighting attributes once more.

His performance in the final was out of this world but we already know he's capable beating anyone in the game when he's on top form. He was unplayable at times this week; a real crowd pleaser.

His performance at the UK Championship just before Christmas gave me the feeling this big breakthrough wasn't too far away for Allen. That theory was proved correct on Hainan Island and he could now go on to add more trophies to his collection which is already bulging from an excellent amateur career.

Allen is not everyone's cup of tea. He has quickly built a reputation as a bit of a motor-mouth. That hasn't helped him win friends but it does appear to have galvanised him to adopt an approach of 'me against the world'. It appears as if he loves the thrill of controversy. Whether he means to incite or not, I don't know. But it does bring the best out in him.

Love him or hate him, he's a cracking little player; and he's here to stay.

Well played Mark Allen.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A formidable final

You could hardly wish for a more perfect final in the Haikou World Open.

Stephen Lee's meeting with Mark Allen is the coming together of two massively in form men.

Allen - chasing his maiden ranking title - produced a sensational comeback against the world number one Mark Selby.

After trailing 5-2 he won four frames on the spin to complete a thrilling turnaround against arguably the toughest player in the game.

The Antrim potter couldn't have wished to have played better as he stormed back. It was worthy of winning any match and he'll probably feel he should go on and win it now.

Enough has been made of Allen's twitter comments this week but I'd rather focus on what he's doing on the table.

He's shown the kind of siege mentality this week that is quickly becoming his trademark, shining in the face of adversity. Just like in the UK Championship earlier this season where he reached his first ranking final, he's fighting tooth and nail for the trophy.

It appears he plays better when people are criticising him but his performances in China has earned him plenty of supporters for the final.

Allen is ready and desperate to win a ranking event. Expect him to turn up with his A-game.

Lee - searching for his fifth ranking title - is enjoying a super run of form himself, playing better snooker than he has for many years.

He arrived in China off the back of runs to the semi-final and quarter-final of the last two ranking events and he's managed to notch his performance up another level again.

He controlled Robert Milkins in the semi-final to record a 6-2 win.

He's back in the top 16, enjoying playing again and striking the ball like he did when he was at his very best.

Lee will be as eager to lift the trophy as Allen. His last major final was at the Masters in 2008 and you have to go back to the 2006 Welsh Open to find his last win.

A return to the winning circle will act as great motivation and a win would also put him up to number six in the world rankings ahead of Neil Robertson and Stephen Maguire no less.

Whatever way it goes, a thriller is guaranteed.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Milkman delivers

You have to go back a fair way to remember a time Robert Milkins has played as well as he has this week at a major ranking event.

He's looked in fine form all-week long and a hard-earned 5-3 defeat of the world champion John Higgins today was the icing on the cake. He said: "I’d never beaten John before and to beat him like that when he was playing so well was extra special for me.

"That was a dream, not just beating John but playing like I did. He chucked the kitchen sink at me. I’d have been devastated if I’d have lost that match the way I played."

It means his run so far this week on Hainan Island equals his previous best major event performance, when he also reached the last four of the Irish Open back in 2005.

Although such progress has been scarce since he turned professional in 1995, it doesn't mean we should be overly surprised.

As I've already said this week, he's one of the best break builders outside of the top 16. His style of play is enjoyable to watch. He's quick and fluid, capable of reeling off frames when he's on song.

The confidence he'll get from beating Higgins will be immense.

That's why no-one should be writing him off to go on and lift the World Open title on Sunday.

"I take every match as it comes, but I don’t think I’ll have a tougher match than I had tonight. I’m here to win the tournament, just like the other three," added Milkins.

People may ask what's made the difference to Robert's performances this week. He says working closely with Terry Griffiths has helped. It wouldn't be the first time the Welshman has weaved his magic.

He'll have to get himself up again tomorrow ready to face Stephen Lee, another player in good nick. The other semi-final sees Mark Allen faces Mark Selby. They were both comfortable winners today and will fancy their chances of going all the way too.

It's a tough one to call.

Semi-final line-up:

Mark Allen v Mark Selby
Robert Milkins v Stephen Lee

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Time for Lee to win big again?

Stephen Lee's recent reemergence to form begs one potent question; can he return to winning the sport's biggest titles again?

If you discount the PTCs, you have to go back as far as the Welsh Open in 2006 to find his last major win.

Not too long ago, many people - although still realising his exceptional talent - had resigned his best days into the past tense.
Picture by Monique Limbos

Maybe they were too quick to mark his card.

An impressive 5-2 win against Neil Robertson in China today took him to his third consecutive ranking quarter-final and things could hardly look brighter for him.

He made three centuries en route to beating the Australian and is cueing as beautifully as ever.

His win also sees him inside the top 8 of the world rankings for the first time since the 2004/05 season. His confidence is clearly sky high, so it would be difficult not to place him back within the pool of top players who should realistically be competing for honours.

It is always the case that with good performances follow greater expectations but Stephen has never been one to shy away from what he can achieve on the green baize.

Lee always has been and still is a wonderful player. I am one of his biggest admirers.

But from what I've seen, the key to him playing well is how happy he is when playing. For a long time he has lost the enjoyment for snooker.

Now, things have turned around again. He appears to be one of the great beneficiaries of Barry Hearn's new snooker regime. He's been playing regularly over the past two seasons and it's helped him regain his place among the world's top 16 and return to somewhere near his best.

Even more recently he's got a new tip on his cue, is practising more regularly and making the most of matches on the circuit. I believe he can return to winning ways and add another trophy to his cabinet.

Stephen Lee in top form adds great value to a tournament but he's not the only left on Hainan Island who intrigues me.

His quarter-final opponent Graeme Dott has so far gone quietly about his business but could do with a boost himself. Then there's Mark King and Robert Milkins who have surprised a few this week. It's great to have new faces at this stage of the event.

John Higgins is looking solid. He's had an unusually patchy season but you get the feeling he could be about to crank it up just in time for the run to the all important World Championship.

Shaun Murphy and Mark Selby are still in the hunt. That's no surprise. They're two players who travel well and apply a great attitude wherever they play.

Then there's Mark Allen. He took the prize scalp of Judd Trump today; recovering from 3-0 down to pip him on a decider. He's attracted plenty of attention for what he's chosen to say off the table again with a number of harsh quips at China.

The most important thing for him is that he's doing his talking on the table too.

Quarter-final line-up:

John Higgins v Robert Milkins
Graeme Dott v Stephen Lee
Mark King v Mark Allen
Mark Selby v Shaun Murphy