Friday, 29 June 2012

Life begins at 40

Mark Davis and Marcus Campbell have proved age is just a number this week at the Wuxi Classic.

Picture by Monique Limbos
These two veterans - fast-approaching their 40th birthdays - are both through to their maiden major ranking event semi-finals, showing you're never too old to make your mark.

Branded journeymen of the tour long ago, not many would say these two belong at this stage of a big event, but maturing like fine wines they seem to be finding a way in their latter years playing professional sport.

Barry Hearn deserves a lot of thanks for their progress. He has given them more tournaments to play in and with it has come consistent runs at the PTCs and regular qualification for major venues, which has seen them rise into the top 32 of the world rankings.

Have they hit their level? Maybe not. This flow of regular snooker has helped them become sharper and more confident than ever before, and they are now just two wins away from the dream of winning a major title.

This week, they've profited from many top players struggling to find their feet in the early stages of the season but have brought a solid, if not spectacular, game to the table to help them quietly through the rounds.

Now, people are taking notice.

Picture by Monique Limbos
They need to seize the opportunity. We all know they can play the game but these runs could help reignite hopes of a late burst into the top 16, while winning a tournament would be the chance to prove what they're truly capable of.

Can they go all the way? They probably won't get a better chance than this to win a title, but it still won't be easy.

Davis faces man of the moment, Stuart Bingham. He beat world number one Mark Selby today, in what was his third win of the week that went to a decider.

Bingham should be great inspiration to Davis though. He won his first ever major title just a year ago in Australia at the age of 36. That victory has given him great belief and his start to the season has been so good he's already won two trophies and will be favourite tomorrow.

Campbell's test isn't much easier.

Ricky Walden stands in the way of place in the final. He coolly dispatched of former world champion Graeme Dott in the quarter-finals 5-0 and has got something to prove himself.

I always class Walden as one of the great underachievers. Since defying the odds to win his first ranking title at the 2008 Shanghai Masters, he hasn't gone on to build on his success.

In fact, he's only just regained his place among the elite after struggling to make an impact during his last spell there. He doesn't lack the confidence and always gets better once he has a win or two under his belt.

For all four players, this could be the best chance they have to land a title this season. They won't want to let it slip.

Bring on the semi-finals.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

A word about Williams

Mark Williams is looking a fine bet to continue his sensational record in Asia this week.

A 5-3 win against Mark Allen booked his safe passage to the quarter-finals in Wuxi and he now has a fantastic chance to claim a seventh title on this continent, adding to his three Thailand Masters and two China Open wins.
Picture by Monique Limbos

It doesn't matter where Williams plays, he's always capable of producing.

The Welshman will be the first to admit he doesn't enjoy playing away from home and his family, but it hasn't stopped him coming up with the goods. Once he's out there, he manages to get down to work and make his time away worthwhile.

His beating of Allen comes after a 5-0 thrashing of Tom Ford in the first round and shows he's well in the groove. Participating in the APTC1 event last week looks to have helped his match sharpness and he's now among the favourites to go all the way with so many seeds knocked out early doors.

On paper, world number one Mark Selby is his biggest challenger but he can't meet the Jester until the final. This would be a re-match of their famous meeting in last season's Shanghai Masters where Selby controversially stole the match from under the nose of Williams, following a dubious refereeing decision.

This was to be the last final Williams played in all season and was the turning point towards a downturn in form. This defeat came shortly after he'd also lost the Australian Open from a winning position against Stuart Bingham.

William's greatest asset is usually temperament and his ability to perform no matter what the circumstances, but it's too much of a coincidence to believe these shattering losses didn't play a part in a season where he went on to enjoy few successes.

This is the second campaign in succession where he's started with a spring in his step and if he can get his hands back on silverware, it could kickstart a return to top form.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Judd in time

Judd Trump definitely knows how to have a good time - but today it was back to work and pretty much business as usual.

Picture by Monique Limbos
He looked close to his awesome best as he hammered Dominic Dale 5-1 on his return to the baize.

There were murmurs this morning that the world number two could be in line to join the growing list of seeded players to exit the Wuxi Classic at the very first hurdle.

In the eight weeks since his defeat to Ali Carter at the World Championship, young Judd has been enjoying himself in the sun of Las Vegas and Dubai.

His tweets in the close season suggest there's been little happening on his practice table and this was deemed as ill preparation by many.

But I believe a break is just what he needed after a long, but successful season. In a campaign where he won the UK Championship, a PTC and climbed to a career-high world ranking, it's only right that he took some time away to enjoy his progress, spend some of his prize money, get away from the game and recharge ready to go again.

I don't think playing snooker all year round is any better for you than taking breaks at the right time.

And on today's evidence, Trump proved that theory entirely correct. He made two centuries, a clearance of 75 and looked as cool as ice en route to a routine win.

It looks like Judd might be ready to steal some of the Rocket's thunder too. With O'Sullivan missing, his Grove buddy stole all the applause with a welcome to the arena even greater than that of home hope Ding Junhui.

If he can find something else up his sleeve this week, Trump could soon be unrivalled as the star of the show in the eyes of the passionate Chinese contingent.

This post wouldn't be complete without a word too for Rod Lawler. He's not had the luxury of enjoying a holiday this summer. He's been non-stop hard at work, but is reaping the rewards of match sharpness.

Lawler ended the season off of the professional tour but recaptured his place immediately through QSchool, went on to qualify for this event and today beat recent World Championship semi-finalist Stephen Maguire 5-4. So much for taking a break being the best answer...

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Like a bull in a China shop

Neil Robertson just cannot get his game together in China.

The formidable Aussie is widely regarded as the main man to beat in the game this season but he was denied a quick start out of the blocks by Scotland's Jamie Burnett, who beat him 5-1 in the first round of the Wuxi Classic.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Defeat here is hardly terminal for the 2010 world champion, but it does bring his poor record in China to attention once more.

In his 13 ranking event visits to China since 2007, at the China Open, Shanghai Masters, World Open and now the Wuxi Classic, he's managed just one quarter-final and one semi-final; a disappointing return for a player of his great talent and who has enjoyed such success elsewhere.

In the same spell, six-time ranking event winner Robertson has lost five times in the first round and openly admits he struggles to produce his best when he touches down in snooker's most promising new nation.

It's difficult to judge exactly why Neil's performances are so pale in comparison to his success elsewhere, but I'd guess his preparations could be where the problem lies.

Robertson has had plenty of pre-tournament faux pas during his professional career and isn't renowned for his efficiency in the build-up to tournaments. Perhaps the combination of trying to get this right along with the effects of travel and different conditions at the venues is something that effects his game.

This, of course, is only a presumption. It could be that his poor form in China is simply playing on his mind.

But Robertson need not worry too much. He'll be keen to rectify his record here sooner rather than later as he strives to become one of the greats over the next few season but, by the same token, he's such a good player that I'd expect his bad fortune to turn. As for this season, it is still yet young and plenty of time remains for him to show us exactly what he's made of.

The Aussie wasn't the only one to stall today at the Wuxi Classic. Ding Junhui lost 5-2 to Mark Davis as the pressure of playing in front of his home crowd seemed to tell again.

The China star has often flattered to deceive in front of his own and there was arguably greater pressure on him today, as he's actually from Wuxi. This tournament was originally created because of him back in 2007. He's performed well at this particular tournament in previous years but may just have wanted it that little bit more now it's become a fully-fledged ranking event.

Ding will have plenty of other opportunities to wow his natives though, with another four major ranking events sceheduled for China this season.

Inconsistency has long plagued Ding though and his form in China could merely be down to his patchy form in general instead of pressure. Either way, he needs results anywhere this season with his place in the top 16 starting to come under pressure.

Among the other first round casualties was World Championship finalist Ali Carter. He lost 5-3 to Fergal O'Brien and will be disappointed not to kick on from his Crucible success.

The problem the Captain faces now is trying to get himself up for every tournament just as he did for the big one. That isn't easy.

Michael White endured ranking event heartache too. He lost 5-4 to 14-year-old Zhou Yuelong in the wildcard round as his debut ranking event appearance came grinding to an early halt. This is a cruel way for things to end for Michael after he fought so hard to get here in the first place. This again highlights why so many people are so staunchly against the wildcard rounds, but he shouldn't dwell on it too much.

I've had the pleasure of watching this young Welshman play on several occasions and he's impressed each and every time. He's a fine player who will be a force once he finds his feet and adapts to life on the bigger ranking event stages.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

It all starts in Wuxi

The season is about to get serious.

Tomorrow sees the return of televised ranking event snooker with the start of the Wuxi Classic.

Previously an invitational event, this tournament returns for a fifth season in succession but has now earned its place as a fully-fledged ranking event. It carries a good batch of ranking points, offers a £75,000 top prize and as a result is more importance than ever before.

Stories like this show just how important it is for top players to support new events and help them go into much bigger, money-making tournaments.

It's crazy to think that we're still only in June and snooker is very much back on our radar. While we've still had plenty of action to enjoy since the lights went down at the Crucible with QSchool, qualifying and APTC1, this is where the action really begins and the big names come back into the fold.

Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins chose not to enter and Matthew Stevens pulled out this week with a back problem. But minus these three, we're at full strength with the game's top stars all hoping to hit the ground running for the new campaign.

Among those bidding to lift the title is defending champion Mark Selby. He beat Ali Carter 9-7 in last season's final and will be looking for a quick start to remedy a poor World Championship.

Injury restricted his practice time in the build-up the Crucible and in the end he was easily beaten by Barry Hawkins in the first round, and faces him again here as he looks to get back on the track.

The seven-week break may have flown by but no-one will be more refreshed than young Judd Trump. He's been enjoying his summer in style as he jetted off to Dubai. I think it's important with such a snooker schedule calendar these days that top players, especially someone so young, know how to take time away from the game.

I admire Judd for the way he works hard on the table but also that he knows how to play hard as well. He's got the balance just right. While he didn't start the season too well last year, he's a year older and wiser and should be right in the frame here.

Big things are expected of Neil Robertson's this season. He'd dearly love a trophy at the first time of asking but hasn't yet produced his best in China, and is yet to win an Asian trophy. I'd expect that to change at some point, and this tournament could be it.

In contrast, Mark Williams has always been good at transferring his form overseas. He's won five ranking events in Asian territory and, although he loves his home comforts, is good at getting on with the job in hand.

If you're looking at the form guide for a winner, go no further than Stuart Bingham. He's already landed two trophies this season and will be in confident mood for more.

Shaun Murphy is worth keeping an eye on as well. He spoke earlier this week about his desire to win at least one major title this season, after missing out last time. Sometimes setting a target can be just the motivation you need. His focus is always good.

No prizes for guessing who the home fans will be cheering on though. Ding Junhui continues to be China's biggest star and would love to win this tournament for a second time.

He doesn't always rise to the occasion on his homeland but I don't think he's the kind of player to feel the pressure either. If he's playing well, he can win this tournament and the atmosphere would be sensational.

Elsewhere, Stephen Maguire ended last season in improved form and ironically last won a major ranking event at the 2008 China Open. He's capable of returning to winning ways.

Then there's Mark Allen. He'll be hoping to hit the headlines in China for the right reasons this time and definitely has all ability to ensure the crowds are cheering him on this time round.

It's not all about the big boys. There are some experienced campaigners making up the qualifying side of the draw but the major news is ranking event debutant Michael White.

He's another in a long line of talented Welshmen to grace the sport and looks at first glance to have plenty of potential to sit proudly alongside them.

You can watch all the action on Eurosport. Enjoy the tournament.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Bingham on a Ballrun

Stuart Bingham is quickly acquiring the taste for a trophy after winning his second of the season before many players have even picked up a cue.

It's only June and already the Basildon potter has lifted the Pink Ribbon pro-am title in Gloucester and has now added the first ranking trophy of the campaign at the new APTC1 tournament.

Bingham won a thrilling final 4-3 on the final black against Stephen Lee as his impressive start continued.

Stuart has never been afraid of hard work and while some players have opted to take an extended summer break, he's gone straight back to work and is reaping the rewards.

Last season was one of massive significance for Bingham. He won his first ever ranking title at the Australian Open, moved into the top 16 of the world rankings for the first time and celebrated the birth of his first child.

These were milestones in his life and becoming father, in particular and understandably, took his full focus away from snooker. This saw a mixed bag of results after the turn of the year but he looks ready and raring to go again this season.

His return to form comes as perfect timing with the defence of his Ozzie triumph close on the horizon and with the Wuxi Classic beginning in China on Monday, he'll be in the groove right from ball one, will be lifted by his winning feeling and nicely acclimatised to the Asian conditions.

Some of his opponents - who have been flying out from today - may be a little rustier. Bingham has chosen to get a headstart by playing plenty of snooker already, and should see the benefits of that again next week.

Well played to Stuart. There aren't many players who get a greater cheer when they win a tournament . He's a popular lad on the circuit and is a great ambassador for the philosophy that you get out of the game what you put in.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Chinese boom continues to grow

China's prominence within the world of snooker is showing no signs of waning.

The start of the new APTC series tomorrow marks another massive milestone for a country whose love affair with the sport has gone through the roof.

Barry Hearn's short-format PTC events have been held in the UK and Europe over the past two seasons, and have gone a long way to helping snooker become a full-time profession for its players.

As these events - which have become a cornerstone of the new-look snooker calendar - head into a third campaign, going to Asia represents how the series and the continent continues to get stronger within the game.

The PTC events will be running slightly differently to in past seasons. The imminent APTC1 is one of three events that will contribute towards an individually ranked Asian PTC Order of Merit. The top four players on this plus the winner of each event will qualify for a place at the PTC Grand Finals later in the season.

As China continues to flex its muscles in the world of snooker, their contribution and relationship with the sport is only going one way. Season after season there are more and more events springing up as the natives' love for the sport continues to rouse both interest and, more importantly, sponsorship.

China is a snooker hotbed that cannot be ignored. Securing this new APTC series is another big step in showing their presence within the sport is here to stay.

Visa problems means many professional players are missing for the inaugural event but participation should climb next time with vital ranking points up for grabs.

Click here to see the full list of professional players in action at APTC1.

The way things are going I don't think it will be too long until the snooker season dedicates a large chunk of its time to an Asian-specific strand of the tour.

This is great news and essential to the continued development of the sport.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Making the venues

Snooker's qualifying hopefuls have been on the yellow brick road all week bidding to follow in the footsteps of Dorothy and pals by making it to Oz.

Only 16 could complete the journey and qualify for one of the most open fully-fledged ranking tournaments of all time.

Only nine top 16 players have chosen to enter this year's Australian Open in Bendigo with Judd Trump, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Mark Williams and John Higgins among the most high profile absentees.

This made the motivation for qualifiers even greater with the chance to earn big points Down Under with some top stars missing.

With the warm-up heats for the Wuxi Classic just a week earlier too, the season has been a tale of qualifying so far. They've been dominating the early action, as the pretenders get match sharp ready for an assault of the game's top order.

Peter Ebdon, Barry Hawkins, Mark Davis and Joe Perry can already look forward to playing at two venues after qualifying for China and being upgraded to a seeded position in the draw for the Australian Open to fill in for the absentees.

Then there were those who made it through qualifying twice. Michael Holt, Marcus Campbell, Tom Ford, Jamie Cope and Jamie Burnett fall into that band as well 1997 world champion Ken Doherty.

The Darling of Dublin is still one of the circuit's most loved players.

While he's already starting out in a fresh career in the snooker media his performances of late suggest he's still got plenty to offer on the table.

The back end of last season saw him arrest his slide down the order by reclaiming his place among the world's top 32 at the final rankings revision. This spurred him on to qualify for the Crucible, giving the snooker public a timely reminder of his whereabouts on the professional scene.

Wins against Michael Wild and Jack Lisowski have given him the perfect start to the new campaign as he looks to continue his revival.

All the qualifiers are desperate to get a venue under their belts at the start of the season and some will be pleased even more than others.

Alan McManus managed to duck and dive his way through the rounds to book his place in Australia, and his first ranking event for nearly two years.

Rod Lawler won the full four matches to earn a place at the Wuxi Classic after only securing his professional status for another two years thanks to victory in Q School.

Cao Yupeng, who sensationally beat Mark Allen at this year's World Championship, showed his potential again by making it Down Under while Lisowski is also there and showing signs of getting his rapid climb to stardom back on track.

Elsewhere, Michael White can also look forward to his first taste of ranking event action with success at the Wuxi Classic qualifiers.

It wasn't roses everywhere though. Mark King, Jamie Jones and Gerard Greene are the kind of players who may have been expected to be prolific qualifiers this season but are left to stew on two failed qualifying bids already. Thankfully, the season these days is long and a chance to put their early disappointments right won't be far around the corner.

Success isn't all about qualification for those players lower down the rankings. Martin O'Donnell has made a positive start to life on the tour with a win at the Wuxi Classic and two for the Australian Open. Likewise, Michael Wasley got as far as the third round for the same tournament.

Aditya Mehta and Thanawat Thirapongpaiboon have stood out already. They've a both got four wins under their belts, made it as far as a final round of qualifying and look like there could be more to come.

There have been so many plots already unfolding at the qualifiers this season and more will definitely follow, but now I'm looking forward to seeing the big boys come to the table next.

Draw for the Wuxi Classic:

Mark Selby v Barry Hawkins
Martin Gould v Jamie Cope
Stuart Bingham v Peter Ebdon
Shaun Murphy v Ken Doherty/Wild Card
Neil Robertson v Jamie Burnett/Wild Card
Ding Junhui v Mark Davis
Graeme Dott v Michael White/ Wildcard
Stephen Maguire v Rod Lawler/ Wildcard
Mark Williams v Tom Ford
Mark Allen v Dave Harold/ Wildcard
Allister Carter v Fergal O'Brien/ Wildcard
Stephen Lee v Marcus Campbell
Matthew Stevens v Joe Perry
Ricky Walden v Michael Holt/ Wildcard
Andrew Higginson v Robert Milkins/ Wildcard
Judd Trump v Dominic Dale

Draw for the Austrlian Open:

Stuart Bingham v Matt Selt
Andrew Higginson v Ryan Day
Barry Hawkins v Xiao Guodong
Matthew Stevens v Liang Wenbo
Martin Gould v Ken Doherty
Ali Carter v Cao Yupeng
Mark Davis v Jack Lisowski
Neil Robertson v Nigel Bond
Shaun Murphy v Marcus Campbell
Dominic Dale v Tom Ford
Peter Ebdon v Michael Holt
Ding Junhui v Alan McManus
Stephen Lee v Rory McLeod
Ricky Walden v Jamie Cope
Joe Perry v Marco Fu
Mark Selby v Jamie Burnett

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Give Allen a break

Mark Allen may be the talk of the town after being hit by an £11,000 fine - but it's time to let his snooker do the talking again.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The controversial Northern Ireland star learned his fate yesterday after potentially libellous comments against Cao Yupeng and other Chinese players landed him in hot water following his exit from the World Championship earlier this year.

He was ordered to pay a £10,000 fine plus £1,000 in costs by the WPBSA, and summoned to attend a media training course after accusing his opponent Cao and other Chinese players of being cheats.
Allen also knows that one more step out of line in the next six months will automatically lead to a three-month ban from the sport.

In my opinion, these are fair and justified punishments for Allen, who stepped way out of line with these distasteful, ill-timed and unfair comments.

While Allen understandably has his critics, I would hate to see his card indefinitely marked by snooker fans.

Allen should be man enough to take his punishment on the chin and deserves a fresh chance. It's time to start judging this great young talent for what he does on the table. In the past six months, he's reached the final of the UK Championship and won his maiden ranking title at the World Open.

This is only the start of the success for such a fantastically entertaining and capable player.

If he's judged solely on his ability, you wouldn't find many critics but it's his comments off the baize that have lost him some friends. With the start of his season imminent and disciplinary hearings concluded, now seems like a perfect time to bury the hatchet and give him a fresh start.

I hope flirting with the snooker authorities doesn't lead to Allen becoming a complete snooze in press conferences. It's important he thinks more before he speaks, but I also hope this doesn't mean the end of a player who is confident enough to speak his mind.

As long as he understands where the line is and doesn't cross it, it's quite refreshing to see someone with a bit of character.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Living the professional dream

The start of a new season means the realisation of a dream for the tour's newest professionals.

Sean O'Sullivan (SOS) and Michael Wasley (MW) are two of a cluster of players starting out in their top class snooker careers.

They took some time out of their busy schedules and preparations to talk to OnCue. Here's what they had to say....

How did it feel to win your professional tour card?

SOS: Turning professional is what I have wanted to do since I started playing snooker when I was nine-years-old. It's a dream come true and I will try my absolute best to make the most of this opportunity.

MW: Winning the match that sealed my place at Q School was a great feeling. It was extra special because Paul Mount, who has given me so much support, was there watching. Turning professional has been a dream of mine for a long time but when you're younger I don't think you appreciate just how difficult it is to do. This is just one of my goals achieved. The hard work starts now. I've got so much more I want to achieve.

Tell us more about yourself...

SOS: I'm 18-years-old. I play at Upton Park snooker centre just down the road from the the West Ham United FC stadium, but I'm not a Hammers fan! I'm a die-hard Gooner. I first got into snooker through playing pool because my Mum and Dad used to work in a pub. From three-years-old I would always be on the pool table kneeling on a stool. I was picked for London under-18s team when I was eight-years-old and at nine-years-old I played my first game of snooker with my Dad. I haven't looked back since. Off the table I'm very relaxed and chilled out, but also a Facebook and Twitter maniac.

MW: I'm 22-years-old and live in Gloucester. I've been playing at the South West Snooker Academy ever since it opened and have done my fair share of grafting to make it to professional status. I'm very fortunate to be playing at this academy and that makes me even more determined to make the most of my opportunity. Not a lot of people do more for snooker players than Paul Mount. It's absolutely superb. The practice facilities are top class, there are plenty of players to practice with and Terry Griffiths is around to coach.

What kind of player are you?

SOS: I tend to be quick, but don't rush. I'm an attacking player and don't turn down shots that I think can win me the frame. With the experience I've gained from playing each match, I've learned when to push the boat out and when not to, but I'm still learning the game, of course. The best part of my game is long-potting but I need to improve my safety to compete at the very top level.

MW: I just try to play the game as well as anyone. I like to take my chances when they come along but Q School was very gritty and I showed I could play that way as well. It was a lot more tactical so it's not practical to only play the game one way.

What excites you most about professional life?

SOS: The prospect of climbing up the rankings, playing some of my heroes throughout the season and hopefully qualifying for a venue.

MW: I'm just looking forward to being part of it all. I played in between six and 12 tournaments last season, but now I'll be playing lots more. It's going to be a busy season but I'm young with no attachments so it's exactly right for me, and a great opportunity.
Have you set yourself any goals for your first season?

SOS: I just want to enjoy the experience. I'll be trying to win as many games as possible and just see how it goes. I don't want to put too much pressure on myself too early knowing I have the second year as well.

MW: I've got a few reasonable targets. It's going to be like climbing a mountain so I just want to show steady progress. I'm going to go into every game wanting to give a decent showing and try not to worry about my ranking too much in the first season. It would be great to qualify for one event. That would be a massive milestone. 

Where do you see yourself in five years' time?

SOS: I hope I'll be doing well on the tour, pushing up the rankings and who knows how far. I believe anything is possible. Just look at my mate and practice partner Martin Gould. Not too many years ago he was in the same position as I am now in the 80s of the rankings, but now he's a top 16 player and Power Snooker champion.

MW: Every player wants to climb up to the top 16 and be world number one, one day and I'm no different but there are many more targets to meet before you get to that level. I'm going to set myself lots of little targets along the way and see if my hard work pays off. 

What is the best piece of advice you've received?

SOS: My Dad told me the day before Q School event two that I didn't realise how good I actually was and that if I started believing in myself and think lucky, great things would come. He was right. I'm not surprised because my Dad isn't often wrong. I wouldn't be where I am now without the support from my parents.

MW: Lots of different people have given me lots of advice down the years but there's one thing Terry Griffiths said to me before Q School that made the big difference. He told me that every ball counts and that just made sure I put everything into every shot which gave me a greater chance of potting each time. It's that higher pot success that wins you matches. It's a very simple piece of advice but gave me the extra edge.

Pink power for Bingham

Stuart Bingham set down his marker for the season with an excellent capture of the Pink Ribbon pro-am event today.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Ballrun cruised to the title of this charity event at the South West Snooker Academy in Gloucester in impressive fashion. He recorded back-to-back 4-0 wins over Mark Allen and Peter Lines making two centuries in each match.

This win comes at a perfect time as the new season is soon to start for him with the defence of his Australian Open in Bendigo close on the horizon.

Bingham is one of the tour's real nice guys who everyone likes to see do well but it's also fitting to see a player, who has devoted so much of his career to playing in pro-am events, come out on top.

This is the third year running the Pink Ribbon has been hosted and thanks goes largely to SWSA boss Paul Mount. He puts more into the game than most, offering top class practice facilities for players and  has worked tirelessly to ensure this wonderful fundraiser and awareness booster for breast cancer charities goes ahead.

It's also an event players enjoy, and a lot of that comes down to appreciation for the hard work and dedication Paul puts in. He's one of the game's real gems. He put money into the sport with the creation of the academy at a time when the trend was to take it out.

It's disappointing World Snooker couldn't help spoiling the party. They insisted Paul took down live streaming of matches featuring professional players, as it breached their contracts. Although I haven't read the contract, I found this to be a distasteful and ill-timed decision.

My players to watch: 2012/13

The start of a new season is all about looking ahead of predicting what might happen.

There are bound to be plenty of movers and shakers in the snooker ranks as the twists and turns of long, busy season play out.

With the campaign still in its infancy, take a look at my players to watch... 

Luca Brecel. There's a sense of inevitability about naming Brecel in a 'players to watch' list, but it is difficult not to echo the views of many in the game. The young Belgium's talent has never been in question. He shows maturity around the table way beyond his years and has as many different shots in his locker as an established top 16 professional. The test now is ensuring he uses them at the right times. His fairytale run to the Crucible showed massive progress and will without doubt become a milestone of his early career and a great building block to greater success. His age affords him to play with a care-free attitude and I expect him to consistently win matches at the qualifiers and rise the ranks and be comfortably among the top 64 by the close of the campaign. 

Jack Lisowski. Ready to get back to business. This is Jack's third season as a professional. After taking to the tour by storm in 2010/12, he won Rookie of the Year. This prompted many snooker enthusiasts, including myself, to tip him for a rapid rise to the top. He kicked off in the same manner last season to qualify for the Shanghai Masters and reach the semi-finals of PTC5, but his progress stalled in the second half of the season as he struggled for the first time. Some people say you learn more on a bad run than a good one and this sticky spell only really came under scrutiny because of his previous success. In a way, he was a victim of his own success. Professional snooker isn't easy and you'd be silly to doubt him now. Jack is an immense talent and a great player to watch. He'll kick back on this season and remind us why we love watching him. I believe he'll break into the top 32. 

Tom Ford. The Leicester man is my tip for a crack at the top 16. Ford enjoyed great success last season. He qualified for the Australian Open, UK Championship, Welsh Open, World Open and German Masters, won a second PTC title and got as far as the semi-finals of the Shoot Out. This showed as good as consistency in the professional ranks from Tom as ever before. I expect him to be a regular at the venues again at the minimum this season. I think he's reached the stage of his career where he knows what he wants to achieve and is ready to put in the work and reach the goals his talent would justify. 

Jamie Jones. His run to the quarter-finals at the Crucible suggest he's a future top 16 player in the making. The taste of success and snooker stardom in Sheffield should be just the motivation he needs to develop from a formidable qualifier into a household name. He seems to enjoy playing in front of the bright lights, big crowds and television cameras. He lit up the Crucible with some excellent break-building. The big challenge for the Welshman is continuing to shine in the drab qualifiers now he's had a taste of the big time, but his attitude is so good that shouldn't be a problem. 

Michael White. Another fine Welsh potting machine. An effortless break-builder who excites a lot of snooker fans. I'm adamant that this season will be his breakthrough. White hasn't qualified for a big venue before this season but is expected to do so a few times this year. He sits comfortably inside the top 64 of the rankings thanks to some impressive runs last season, especially in the PTCs. His biggest achievements last season were playing in the Shoot Out, reaching the semi-finals of PTC7 and getting to the final qualifying round for the UK Championship. Expect to see him spring up on your TV screen this season.

And, no list of 'players to watch' would be complete without an entry from the top 16. With the sheer volume of tournaments in the calendar this season, you can expect to see more than half of top 16 players win a trophy, but who do I think will come out with the most? 

Neil Robertson. The Australian seems to be getting better and better as his all-round game continues to evolve. He's fast becoming the kind of player who equips himself well throughout the season and is always in the running. Last season he won the Masters, but this time I think he'll win multiple ranking titles. It would be particularly special to see him crowned champion in his homeland...

At the end of any 'players to watch' list, there's always a feeling that you could have mentioned many more but, of course, this season is bound to be a good one for more than just the names above. So, here are a few other players I believe will also move up the rankings and enjoy spells in the snooker headlines this term. Joe Perry, Yu De Lu, Michael Holt, Robert Milkins, Liang Wenbo, Peter Lines, Mark Joyce and Tian Pengfei.... 

Let me know your players to watch. Drop a comment below with your six to watch...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Money matters

More revelations came to light surrounding Ronnie O'Sullivan's semi-retirement from the game today.

WPBSA Chairman Jason Ferguson released a statement - in response to yesterday's comments from the four-time world champion - and it didn't pull any punches.

He quashed rumours that the contract forces players to compete in events, explaining they are free to play as and when they wish after they've signed up.

He added that the contract is in place to ensure all World Snooker players are treated fairly and that no-one, including world champion O'Sullivan, would receive bonus appearance money.

And, he also confirmed O'Sullivan is free to sign up to the contract at any point of the season.

Click here to read the full statement.

After a sharp intake of breath, this certainly made for interesting reading.

I'd like to make some clear points in reaction to this statement. It is absolutely correct that no player should be treated differently under the World Snooker contract.

As Snooker Scene blogger Dave Hendon sums up perfectly here, it is not the responsibility of World Snooker to pay players to appear in events. World Snooker has a pot of money to pay prize money to players based on their performances in various events.

It is an entirely different issue if individual sponsors decide to use added financial incentives to ensure the sport's top players attend their tournaments. This activity is commonplace across many top sports and is probably fair when you consider the ticket sales top players such as O'Sullivan help to drive.

Ferguson's statement comes across a little harsh towards O'Sullivan, in my opinion. While it would be naive to believe money wasn't a factor in Ronnie's decision not to sign the contract, I believe there were many more reasons as I outlined at length yesterday in the blog post below.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

This is not the end of Ronnie

A half-hearted attempt at retirement?

That's the conclusion many people jumped to this afternoon as the four-time World Champion Ronnie O'Sullivan announced he will take a break from the sport.

In a statement made through his club and promoters The Grove today, he said: “I have decided not to enter any tournaments for the time being including this year’s Premier League and forthcoming WPBSA ranking events.

“I have not signed the player’s contract as I feel the contract is too onerous and am in a stage of my career where I don’t wish to make this commitment.

“I still want to play snooker and visit those places around the world such as China where snooker is enthusiastically received and adored.

“I hope to remain involved in the sport in some way in the future.”

While these comments make for pretty grim reading for Ronnie's fans at a first glance, I don't believe we've seen the last of him yet.

O'Sullivan has built a reputation throughout his career as a player who continuously flirts with retirement, which in my opinion is a bi-product of a man who experiences fluctuating emotions.

But this time things feel very different. There's no knee-jerk reaction here. Instead, I think Ronnie has thought long and hard about his relationship with snooker and come to a balanced and justified decision.

After 20 years as a professional, I doubt it has come easy.

O'Sullivan isn't the kind of player who has relished the busy schedule designed by Barry Hearn, yet I do still believe he needs snooker in some form. That's what convinces me that he will be back.

Like many other top players, the green baize has been a lifestyle for Ronnie down the years. His life probably wouldn't be complete without it, yet he isn't reliant on the game either.

The reality of the Ronnie's decision is simple. He cannot enter any World Snooker events until he signs the contract, but taking a break from snooker is a luxury Ronnie can afford. As world champion, he's assured seeded status at the major ranking events later in the season should he decide to opt back in.

O'Sullivan knows his decision isn't irreversible and has never been one to tow the line. He's at a stage in his career when he's not chasing the dream. He's achieved more in the sport than many can dream of. If he walked away now, he would go down a legend, boasting a formidable record. But if he did hang up his cue, there would be a deep sense of unfinished business too.

While Ronnie has always striked me as the kind of player who would prefer to retire from snooker rather than see snooker retire him, his performance in Sheffield just over a month ago still proves he still has the ability to be at the very top of his profession, and has so much more to give.

But for now, I can't direct any blame at his decision. The serious demands of today's game would take its toll on anyone but for a man who has ongoing health issues and already sees his time with his children limited, he has to make the decision that will ultimately make him happy.

O'Sullivan can, and probably will, come back later this season.

But losing Ronnie, even if just in the short-term, is a big blow. He still remains the biggest attraction in the sport, sells out venues and gets the game in the press.

No-one is bigger than the sport. Snooker will live on and hopefully we'll see him again before very long firing in all cylinders.

In the meantime, enjoy your break, Ronnie.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Seasons greetings

There really is no rest for the wicked on the green baize these days.

It hasn't even been a month since Ronnie O'Sullivan rounded off a fine campaign with the capture of his fourth World Championship triumph, and we're already under way with a fresh one.

This my friends is the reality of modern day snooker.

Long gone are the days of professional players dusting down their cues six times a year to play in major tournaments and left to their own devices to keep match sharp in between. Players are now well and truly full-time sportsmen and will play up to 50 weeks of snooker in the new season.

There used to be a time when snooker would shut down for three or more months after the Crucible conclusion on the first May bank holiday weekend.

But it's only early June and it's already back to business.

While fans of the sport can joyfully lick their lips at the prospect of another busy season, what does this packed schedule mean for the players?

First, there's Ronnie. He says he won't be back to play until Christmas but this is unlikely to be the norm. I expect some of the higher-ranked players to pick and choose when they play this season, with the sheer volume of tournaments and expenses of travelling bound to take its toll.

The Wuxi Classic - where qualifiers for started today - will not be attended by everyone and the second Australian Open could see even fewer make the trip.

This is a luxury players can afford with such a busy workload. Tournaments will have to stand up to the scrutiny of the players who, at the end of the day, are in the sport to make money.

But on the whole, I believe most tournaments will be packed with participants. Most players want to go to work to earn a living and build a successful career, like anyone else. If they don't, they won't survive.

The young players lower down the rankings list need to play in everything as they continue in their quests to carve out a name for themselves and climb higher, while the older players down the rankings fear sliding further.

Then, there are the higher-ranked players. They need to play in nearly everything to protect their position and keep the ranking points ticking.

Sure, the new packed calendar does give players relative freedom to skip the odd event, but the sport's growth under the stewardship of Barry Hearn has seen a relative part-time game develop into a full-time profession. This is a reason to celebrate and the reason you'll see many, many hard-working players doing their utmost to take as large a slice of the growing  prize fund pot as possible.

So, strap up, sit tight and enjoy of another season of drama in the world of snooker. This is a sport for the modern man and one that is moving faster than ever before.