Thursday, 29 November 2012

BIG UK Championship preview

The UK Championship is a tournament where down the years the best players have usually come to the fore.

The second biggest ranking event on the calendar begins on Saturday in York and all the top stars will have their eyes on the prize.

This fantastic event - now in its 36th season - has an incredible history, fantastic prestige and the BBC cameras out in full force.

For many fans of the sport, this is the first slice of action since Ronnie O'Sullivan won his fourth World Championship at the Crucible back in May.

In fact, a lot has happened on the baize since then, such is our ram-packed schedule nowadays. But despite a calendar bursting with tournaments, the UK Championship remains one of the real jewels in the crown of the campaign.

As people tune back in to watch the snooker next week live on the BBC, one of the big discussion points will be world champion O'Sullivan's absenteeism, but the game is about far more than just one man.

There is a whole host of great players thinking big and plotting to win one of the sport's premier prizes.

Judd Trump returns to York as defending champion and boosted by some wonderful performances this season which have seen him climb to number one in the world rankings.

His capture of the title nearly a year ago was a landmark win for this great young player as I reported here on the blog. Judd is a different proposition 12 months down the line. He remains a young, exciting prodigy but he has built on his success and carries an even greater fear factor.

Trump has the ability to grow into one of snooker's real greats like Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis and O'Sullivan, who have all enjoyed career highs at the UK Championship.

The Bristolian is maturing with each and every tournament and will take some stopping here.

Three-time UK champion John Higgins - another of the greats - has proved this season he can tame tenacious Trump. The Scot is back on song and playing snooker somewhere near his very best. He has a habit of stepping his game up when the biggest tournaments come around. He's in a motivated mood and alongside Trump as the biggest contender for the silverware.

But the fight won't stop there. Mark Allen reached the final a year ago and loves the big occasion. He has been lighting up the circuit in recent weeks with a series of stellar performances. He is another out-and-out attacker who breathes fresh air into the game.

He'll walk out into the packed Barbican venue determined to strut his stuff and put on a show. Northern Ireland's gem looks ready to make a big breakthrough in his career. It could be now.

Australia's Neil Robertson will be on the tips of the tongues of the game's tipsters too. He is the modern-day all-rounder; a formidable match player and competitive animal. There isn't any part of his game left lacking. He is a fine left-hander who can pot long balls, make big breaks and mix it up with safety. He is quite the package and always a contender.

I've been impressed with world number two Mark Selby recently as well. He's another great fighter but also one of the very best century-makers around. His injury problems are well behind him and he is likely to have a sting in his tail as he fights to get back to the top of the rankings.

I'd be surprised if the winner next week came outside of this circle of five players, but you can never say never with the competition so fierce. Ding Junhui, Shaun Murphy, Stephen Maguire, Mark Williams and recent Premier League winner Stuart Bingham have proved in the past they know how to win.

The tussle for the title is likely to be enthralling, but there will be many more plots to play out in York.

The list of qualifiers through to the venue this year are excellent on paper.

Luca Brecel, Belgium's 17-year-old starlet, attracts plenty of press attention. He's now qualified for both the World and UK Championship in 2012 and has another chance to show off his god-given gift. He's one of the best shot makers I've ever seen, who is at an age where he has the luxury of playing without consequence. He can frighten a few.

China's superb Cao Yupeng will also complete the prestigious World/UK double. He plays the game with great craft.

Jack Lisowski is ready for his BBC debut. He's a fine cueist with a bright future and the kind of young player who is great for the game. Welshman Michael White has similar promise. He's a deadly scorer and will be a handful for years to come.

It's not all about the pretenders to the throne. Six-time UK champion Steve Davis OBE has made it to the last 32 and will get a chance to hit the baize and roll back the years as well as provide a backbone to the BBC media team.

Let the battle commence.

UK Championship draw:

Judd Trump v Mark Joyce
Ali Carter v Steve Davis
Stuart Bingham v Jack Lisowski
Stephen Maguire v Fergal O'Brien
Mark Williams v Mark King
Ricky Walden v Luca Brecel
Graeme Dott v Martin Gould
Shaun Murphy v Robert Milkins
John Higgins v Michael Holt
Mark Davis v Cao Yupeng
Matthew Stevens v Dominic Dale
Mark Allen v Marco Fu
Neil Robertson v Tom Ford
Barry Hawkins v Liang Wenbo
Ding Junhui v Ryan Day
Mark Selby v Michael White

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