Saturday, 15 September 2012

Flying high to Shanghai

Suitcases packed, passports at the ready and all aboard the aeroplane to Shanghai.

The global snooker roadshow rolls on next week with the Shanghai Masters; the second of five major ranking events being held in China this season.

Ricky Walden etched his name on the first China trophy, the Wuxi Classic, back in June. But who will come out on top this time?

Such has been the rapid growth of snooker tournaments across the world over the past few years, the impact of travel and distribution of tournaments remains a hot topic. Some players travel better than others. Although this will definitely play a part in what we see in Shanghai, the outcomes of the week will, as always, come down to what the players do with their cues.

We talk about growth of the circuit  and snooker calendar at every opportunity, and the Shanghai Masters is a casing point. When Ali Carter won this title some two years ago, it was the first major ranking event of the season. Now, it is the third.

I am positive this is a big reason why the gap in quality between the very top players in the world and the chasing pack is as small as it has ever been. This makes every tournament  wide open but, with only three players in the 32-man field in Shanghai coming from outside of the top 32 of the world rankings, it really is the case this week.

Only Steve Davis, Robert Milkins and Jimmy Robertson managed to navigate through more than one qualifying round to reach the venue. But the job isn't done yet with them, and a few others, still having to face wildcard matches to make it to the first round proper.

As usual, the overall winner of this title could come from a whole clutch of names.

World number one and now fighting fit Mark Selby returns to Shanghai as the defending champion. He beat Mark Williams 10-9 in last year's final after a controversial decision from referee Eirian Williams.

Selby played a hit and hope shot trying to escape a tough snooker in the 17th frame and it wasn’t clear whether he hit the intended red or fouling pink .

Referee Williams judged it to be red which proved the catalyst for Selby's narrow victory.

It's ironic though that Selby won the title here a year ago fresh from capturing the Paul Hunter Classic. He's already defended that title this season and is line for another double.

Williams is never to be written off abroad. He already boasts eight titles overseas and regularly finds a way to perform despite not being the best fan of travelling.

Ding Junhui will as usual be the home crowd's favourite but has sometimes struggled with the pressure of playing on home soil. He's yet to really produce his best in China outside of the China Open, which he won as his breakthrough event in 2005.

Neil Robertson is another who finds it difficult playing in China. But you'd expect a player with such class to eventually come good.

Mark Allen makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't enjoy China, but still managed to win his first ranking title here earlier this year at the World Open.

Stuart Bingham, Martin Gould and Stephen Maguire have all shown good form to already win a PTC this season, and Judd Trump will enjoy the grand reception the keen Chinese snooker fans will give him and could easily respond by producing his best.

If it's about the form book, Shaun Murphy and Stephen Lee produced arguably the best snooker I saw on my recent trip to Gloucester and Mark Davis has reached the semi-final at each of the last two major ranking events in Wuxi and Bendigo.

Form can be deceiving though. John Higgins has only just started playing again after a lengthy summer break but could well find himself in the mix, such is the strength of his ability to win scrappy.

This rounds up the usual regular suspects when it comes to the bookmakers' favourite but Peter Ebdon and Walden have both won big titles here in the last six months and Barry Hawkins was the winner of the last major ranking event, The Australian Open.

In fear of fence sitting, among this huge lists of names I'm going to tip Australia's Robertson to go all the way this week. A player of his immense talent is bound to come good soon in China. He's not the kind of player to get bogged down by the stats, or be beaten in the mind. He's got one of the best all-round games going, and I like the look of his path to a potential final.

I fancy him to be £75,000 richer in a little over a week.

First round draw:

Mark Selby v Jamie Cope
Stuart Bingham v Tom Ford
Ding Junhui v Mark King / wildcard
Shaun Murphy v Dominic Dale
John Higgins v Jamie Jones / wildcard
Martin Gould v Ryan Day / wildcard
Ali Carter v Robert Milkins / wildcard
Stephen Maguire v Peter Ebdon
Mark Williams v Mark Davis
Ricky Walden v Steve Davis / wildcard
Matthew Stevens v Joe Perry
Neil Robertson v Fergal O'Brien / wildcard
Stephen Lee v Marcus Campbell
Graeme Dott v Jimmy Robertson / wildcard
Mark Allen v Marco Fu /wildcard
Judd Trump v Barry Hawkins

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