Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Time for the Tempodrom

The players can expect a warm welcome at this year's German Masters, even if the weather will be somewhat frostier outside.

Temperatures are expected to drop as low as a chilling -14C in Berlin this week but, inside the Tempodrom, the German fans will be ready to give the sport's top stars a heartwarming entrance.

The tournament was one of the real success stories of an excellent campaign  last year. In particular, the reception Mark Williams and Mark Selby got as they entered for the final was sensational. It was an iconic moment for European snooker and only beaten on the final night at the Crucible.

It was evidence of the snooker boom in Germany and living proof a ranking event belongs here year in, year out.

Barry Hearn has numerous successes to report since grabbing the sport by the horns a little over 18 months ago but none may get near this move to unlock the relatively untapped market for snooker in Germany.

The thirst for snooker among German fans is sizable and surely, once the players get on the baize in Berlin, there can be no complaints as to why the worldwide snooker roadshow stops here.

As well as enthusiasm for the sport and their ability to bring down the roof, the German fans also boast a wealth of knowledge about how the game is played.

This is no surprise to me though. While a return to Germany is something new, they've actually been watching the sport seriously for decade.

They'll enjoy and deserve this tournament, and I expect it to grow as an event season after season.

This year's line-up is particularly tasty. Williams returns as reigning champion and, in fact, his triumph here last year was his last tournament win. He'll be hoping to get his hands back on a trophy and prove a few critics wrong who have written him off of late.

Likewise, John Higgins hasn't really hit top gear so far this season and he will be looking to bounce into form ready for the World Championship.

Ronnie O'Sullivan didn't play in Germany last season. That's one of the reasons he finds himself perilously close to losing his top 16 status. Despite staving off the fall from the elite just a few weeks ago, he needs a good run here to ensure his automatic qualification to the Crucible.

Elsewhere, world number one Selby has been poor by his own high standards at the recent Masters and UK Championship. He could do with a turn of form while Neil Robertson comes here fresh as the new Masters champion and looking for more of the same.

Shaun Murphy has showed signs of a return to his best. He's a player who has always travelled well and could be a threat again.

Then there's the player everyone is talking about: Judd Trump.

The Germans already love him and are sure to give him a heroes welcome.

He's the winner of the last major ranking event and riding high on confidence. That said, his loss to Robertson at the Masters and the storm in a tea cup after with the Aussie has cast a few shadows over his otherwise impressive form. It's time to see how he reacts to a little adversity.

These are not the only questions to be answered this week. Will Ding burst back onto the scene? Can Mark Allen recapture his marvels in York? Is Stephen Maguire edging back into contention for a big title? Can Ali Carter reverse his fortunes?

Bring on the snooker.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Chinese whispers

Players who are unenthusiastic about travelling to play snooker in China need to get real - and quick.

There are more people playing snooker in China than the rest of the world combined; it's a national phenomenon.

Barry Hearn obviously understands this because, as of next season, there will be five ranking events here.

As normal, there will be the China Open and Shanghai Masters. The Haikou World Open - making its tournament debut this season - will be returning, the Wuxi Classic is being upgraded to as fully-fledged ranking event and a brand new tournament with a £125,000 top prize is launching.

This huge prize fund proves sponsors are willing to plough money into the sport and that the boom is very much alive.

Sure, an increased number of events will mean more travel for the British players and that it becomes more difficult for home nation fans to follow all the action. But, there is a whole new global market out there for the game which much be captured.

The enthusiasm for snooker in China is gigantic. Youngsters are flocking to play on the baize and huge TV figures are only getting bigger.

When the players go out there, they are treated like world superstars and given the full red-carpet treatment. The Chinese are mad for the sport.

A lot of this, of course, is down to Ding Junhui. He remains the nation's shining light but will soon be joined at the top by many more. We are seeing some of these come through already, including Liang Wenbo, Xiao Guodong, Yu Delu, Li Yan, Liu Chuang, Cao Yupeng and Tian Pengfei. But this is just the start.

As more snooker is played in China, the country's thirst for the game will only evolve. They will produce more players and put even more money into the sport.

That's the truth. Certain players need to accept the game is going global, with or without them.

Fan profile: Micky Horton

It's that time again when OnCue gets the baize lowdown from one of its readers.

This time out, Micky Horton answers the questions and tells us about his magic moment meeting Canada's Cliff Thorburn.

Name: Micky Horton

Age: 32

From: Lucan, Dublin but live in Scotland

Occupation: Salmon farmer

Highest break: 104

Followed snooker since: I started out playing pool in our local social club. There was a full-size snooker table which I used to sneak a go at when the barman wasn’t looking. I potted a long red in the top corner and that was me hooked. 

First memories: I started watching snooker when I was 13-years-old and I remember Jimmy White making a 147 against Tony Drago at the 1992 World Championship. My birthday was five days after the final and I asked for a snooker table as my present. Regretfully financial restraint and the fact we were living in a tiny council house put pay to that but I did get the Hamlyn Encyclopedia of Snooker which I studied relentlessly. My love for snooker was born. 

First live match: I was at the 1998 Irish Open when Alan McManus lost to Mark Williams. I was completely in awe by the way Williams dominated the match. The atmosphere was electric. I have since watched better matches but this one remains in a special place. 

Best memory: I met Cliff Thorburn when I was 14-years-old. I remember he was an absolute giant. He had  a drink of whisky and ginger with my dad and signed my notebook. He was a true gentleman. I've also watched the re-run of Alex Higgins' 69 clearance break against Jimmy White. The way he took that was simply the greatest thing I have seen in snooker. 

Greatest memory: Stephen Hendry. I used to always root for his opponents because I like the underdogs. But on the table, he was ruthless and never made mistakes. He was a born winner who had the full package in the game. If he had met the current top 16 in his prime I am confident he would still be number one in the world. I just wish he would have eased up on Jimmy in at least one of their World Championship final meetings. 

Favourite player: Tony Drago. I love watching his speed around the table. I've seen him at many tournaments and he is one of the nicest people in the game too. As a lad from Lucan, I would have to also mention Fergal O'Brien. He's a local lad to be proud of. 

Snooker in 10 years' time will... become a lot like the darts. There will be a lot more money being spent on merchandising and regretfully I feel they will try and put a soap opera feel to the game with emphasis on player personalities and rivalries. I hope I am wrong. 

If I could make one change to the game... I would allow a free ball after every foul. It would speed the game up but not to a detrimental level. It would also help bring more interesting turnarounds in matches. 

I love snooker because... it's a great ambassador for hard work and sportsmanship, it offers edge-of-your-seat excitement and it's not completely corrupted by money so you know the majority of players are giving it their all because they love what they are doing.

Mixed fortunes at Crondon Park

Neil Robertson and Stephen Hendry's snooker stories couldn't have been any further apart at Crondon Park this week.

While the Aussie built on his impressive Masters victory with triumph in the Championship League group three, the seven-time world champion was dumped out after losing all six of his matches in Essex.

This marks the rise of one of the game's new greats but sadly the fall of snooker's greatest great.

Picture by Monique Limbos
It doesn't get any better than this for Robertson.

On Sunday he was lifting his first Masters title and with it a cheque for £150,000, proving he's the man for the big occasion. But two days later when he emerged through a tough group in the Championship League, he showed he can tough it out too.

Many people expected Neil not to bother with his Crondon Park outing, instead he showed what a true professional he is.

From the packed house at Ally Pally playing for thousands of pounds, he went to playing behind closed doors for just £100 a frame.

He battled through illness, fatigue and the obvious comedown from a big win to prove he's the real deal. We all know snooker isn't all big venues, television cameras and mass crowds.

But when the conditions were the exact opposite, he still managed to deliver. That is the mark of a model professional and a player who is going places.

Unfortunately, legendary Scot Hendry didn't fare so well. He lost all six of his matches and saw calls from his fans to hang up the cue.

I dare say he's having the exact same thoughts himself. From the days when he dominated the entire sport, he's now struggling just to keep in touch with the new generation of top players.

It's important to add Hendry played well in patches in these six matches, and was unlucky to lose three on a deciding frame. But trust me, this will be scamp consolation for a player who only cares for winning.

Hendry has never been one to take defeat lightly, and he'll see no positives from his most recent outing.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Robertson thunders to Masters title

Neil Robertson continued his imperious record on the big stage to claim his first Masters title.

The flying Australian was just too strong as he sent Shaun Murphy down under with an impressive 10-6 win at Alexandra Palace, as he kept his 100 per cent winning record at finals in tact.

This goes down as his seventh consecutive major final win, and you can even make that outstanding total up to 10 if you include his two PTC wins in Warsaw and Killarney this season plus his 2003 triumph at the Masters qualifying event.

Picture by Steve Kent
This phenomenal statistic just goes to prove what we already know about Robertson: he's the man for the big occasion.

It may be obvious but there really is no easy match by the time you get to a final. You can guarantee you'll be playing someone with both bundles of talent and on a healthy run of form.

This has never distracted Robertson though. He is a player who lives for the big stage and has so much mental strength, he always delivers when the pressure is on.

Neil is fast becoming one of the great champions of the game but I imagine this Masters title will rank among one of his best performances of his career.

That's because not only did he go out and prove what a great player he is, but he proved what a complete player he has become.

He showed he's got it all. The tactical game, the long-potting ability, the killer break-building instincts and an abundance of bottle.

To beat Murphy, who recaptured some of his best play this week too, speaks volumes about his own level of performance.

All week long, he put on a masterclass of hard match snooker.

Looking at the bigger picture, Neil now populates a list of only four overseas players to have won the Masters and picks up his first major title since the World Open back in 2010. But I guess the wait for his next will be considerably shorter.

Robertson has come on leaps and bounds in recent months.

He is currently ranked at number four in the world but has been the most consistent player on the circuit this season. He's made more century breaks than anyone else and sits pretty at the top of the one-year ranking list.

This Masters win will be the jewel in the crown of what has been an outstanding season for him so far but he'll have his eyes set on more big prizes before taking his summer break.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Magic Murphy into Ally Pally final

Shaun Murphy pulled out a classy performance to reach his first Masters final - and now has a shot at the famous snooker treble.

His 6-4 win against John Higgins - including three centuries - continued his impressive form this week at Alexandra Palace, with a few saying he's playing as well as when he lifted the world title back in 2005.

Picture by Steve Kent
Tonight in particular was typical Murphy in many ways with his silky cue action in full flow and making the game look effortless to shake off a trademark gritty - if not on top form - Higgins.

Based on that, it would be fitting for Shaun to go all the way in this tournament and become only the eighth player in the game to win all three of the World Championship, UK Championship and Masters titles.

Already on that very special list is Steve Davis, Alex Higgins, Stephen Hendry, Terry Griffiths, Ronnie O'Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams.

Shaun won't want to get ahead of himself too soon though. Facing Neil Robertson in tomorrow's final, he comes up against a player with a formidable record in finals and it's a chance for either one of these players to get their name on the famous Masters trophy for the first time.

Until this year, neither Murphy nor Robertson had been beyond the quarter-finals of this tournament. This is a big deal for both of these excellent professionals, and it promises to be a cracker.

Don't miss out.

Roberton's revenge to reach Masters final

Neil Robertson won sweet revenge over Judd Trump as he brought his run at the Masters to a halt.

The Australian potter - overcoming the challenge of a fresh tip - showed his full raft of matchplay abilities as he stormed to a satisfying 6-3 win.

Picture by Steve Kent
He led 5-1 before fighting off a mini-revival, but was a worthy winner overall.

It means he's into his first Masters final and, just as important, he denied Trump a hat-trick of wins against him in BBC events.

Robertson went into this match having lost to young Judd at both the World and UK Championship. Add the spice of Trump accusing him of being a slow player and you have a grudge match on your hands.

Neil is a fierce competitor and would have come into this match desperate to bite back.

Well, bite back he did. The world number four is a smart player and put about his task of derailing Trump by finding an excellent balance between attack and defence. Neil is a great tactician and was prepared to play the waiting game but also knocked in some great long pots and scored well at times.

He deserved to win fair and square - but the needle was clear to hear after the match.

Judd said: "He played his normal speed. He's always quite slow.

"He did what he had to do. He got in front but he was a little bit boring in the first couple of frames and I lost interest. He put my under pressure from the start and did what he had to do.

"If I'd played my best game, I'd have won easy. I've got myself to blame."

Picture by Steve Kent
Neil added: "He's got a couple of mates in the crowd. They're probably alright lads and everything but I don't like the fact that they say hello to me before the game and then are screaming for the white to go in or when there's a fluke saying 'good shot Judd'

"He (Judd) didn't really say anything to me at the end of the match.

"It was quite strange because usually when someone wins to make a final, they wish you good luck. It was a bit disappointing.

"There's a lot of people that love him, a lot of people that don't.

"Some people are a little bit fed up of the things he does and he's nothing like that. If you guys would film him 24 hours a day, he's nothing like the character he portrays on Twitter.

"Why doesn't he want to be Judd Trump? Why does he want to be Mario Balotelli?"

Neil won't dwell on the building feud though.

Instead, he can now look forward to his first Masters final and goes into it with a fabulous record of winning all six of his previous major finals.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Murphy marches into maiden Masters semi

Shaun Murphy took advantage of an out-of-sorts Mark Selby to book a place in his first ever Masters semi-final.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The Magician, who has cued beautifully in both of his wins at Alexandra Palace this week, beat the world number one 6-2 and will now be brimming with a confidence as he launches an assault at the only major missing title from his collection.

The world number six is the envy of many of the game's top stars because by the age of just 26 he had both the World Championship and UK Championship trophies in the bag.

To complete the prestigious majors trio, only the Masters is missing and until tonight he'd not been past the quarter-final stage.

There was no danger of him losing out in the last eight again tonight though as he was in superb form for the second match in succession.

Positive Murphy took the game to Selby. The Jester was way off of form but it's a credit to Shaun that he didn't let him get a foothold of the game. After falling 1-0 behind, he hit back hard and motored into a commanding 5-1 lead. There was no way back from there.

Murphy is playing well and will fancy  his chances of going all the way now but next up is world champion John Higgins.

The Scot - like Murphy - has won both his matches with frames to spare this week and will present a steely test.

He'll need a little bit of magic to see him through.

Robertson sets sights on Trump

Neil Robertson staved off a fightback from Mark Williams to reach the Masters semi-final and now sets about his task to tame Judd Trump.

The Australian potter looked in complete control of the battle of the left-handed world champions after building a 4-1 lead but was made to sweat before stumbling over the line 6-4.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Neil can breathe a sigh of relief but knows if he'll have to be more decisive if he wants to continue his run at Ally Pally and beat the boy wonder Judd.

On paper, Trump goes into tomorrow's clash as favourite but it is by no means a formality.

His performance against Ronnie O'Sullivan was worthy of beating anyone but he couldn't have done any more to fire up Robertson ahead their semi-final clash.

After beating him in the UK Championship just over a month ago, Judd accused Neil of being a slow player. The Aussie mentioned this in his post-match conference today, so it's obviously riled him and could work out to be perfect motivation.

Trump has the beating of most players right now and comes into this match with the comfort of victories against Robertson in both the World and UK Championships.

But it hasn't been all one-way traffic. You may remember Neil beating Judd 4-1 in this season's PTC8 final in Killarney.

The win was far from pretty but was perfect proof of how he's matured as a player.

Robertson appears to be paying far more attention to detail and has toughened up his matchplay snooker, tailoring his game for individual games in order to counter the style of his opponents.

This comes at a time when Neil also seems to be putting  more emphasis on his preparations for matches and tournaments.

This is the sure sign of a player coming of age and caring more about winning titles than style.

You should have no doubt Robertson will continue to go for his shots in this match but if he wants to reach the final he'll need to Judd on a tight leash. He has adopted a style of matchplay this season which makes him more equipped to do so.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Super Trump thrashes Ronnie

Judd Trump dished out one hell of a beating to Ronnie O'Sullivan in the quarter-finals of the Masters.

His 6-2 winning margin goes down as the joint worst defeat the Rocket has ever been on the end of at this tournament but further it arguably confirms a shift among the superpowers of the sport.

Picture by Monique Limbos
O'Sullivan has now lost three matches on the spin to Judd and can do little except sit back and admire the talents of snooker's newest star.

Ronnie will take no pleasure in seeing one of the game's young guns have the beating over him but, on this form, Trump would have beaten anyone.

As he raced into a 4-0 lead by the interval the onslaught was relentless. His break building blew Ronnie away. And it's not often you can say that.

I don't know if Ronnie worries himself enough to be haunted by Judd but it's obvious that although he's playing well this season and his ranking could still be false, he is definitely playing catch up to the world's top, top players.

Even the odd loose shot that he would not have made at his peak is costing him in certain matches. The likes of Judd and the rest of the new generation of players are brutal punishers and he can't always get away with winning at 80 per cent.

This is making it difficult for players such as Ronnie - who struggles for consistency - to bounce back and have a crack at winning a big title.

Trump's win has earned him plenty of plaudits today, and rightly so. But in my opinion, it's the fact that he doesn't let these kind of wins and performances go to his head that make him such a special proposition.

It would be easy for a player so young to get caught up basking in the glory of beating a legend. But as well as the riches of his talent and riding high on confidence, Judd remains grounded.

He was straight on Twitter after his win today talking about having a long way to go to win the title.

This attitude is what will ensure he stays at the top end of the game for a very long win. He isn't prepared to rest. He is completely driven on by winning and will not be satisfied until he's lifting the Masters trophy on Sunday night.

Well played Judd!

In close quarters

It's been an exciting opening four days at the Masters - and now we're ready for the business end of the tournament.

Every top 16 player has made their Alexandra Palace debut and we're down to the final eight and set for the quarter-finals.

If there really were no easy draws in the first round, there definitely isn't now after the bookmakers' favourite won in every match.

We may not have had the drama of a deciding frame in the competition yet but some of the snooker on show has been of the highest order with a few players staking a claim as title contenders.

The pressure is about to step up a notch as the first round winners return for their second match of the tournament...
Picture by Monique Limbos

The pick of the quarter-final draw sees Judd Trump take on Ronnie O'Sullivan.

The Rocket has a formidable record at the Masters having already played in nine finals.

He's never an easy draw in front of his home crowd but hasn't had the beating of Judd in their recent meetings.

Trump has beaten him twice this season in the final of PTC9 in Antwerp and more recently en route to his UK Championship win.

Psychologically this will give Judd a huge boost going into the match but this could yet turn out to be his biggest test against O'Sullivan to date.

Trump is the man of the moment, riding a huge wave of confidence. He and played match-winning snooker at the perfect time to see of Stuart Bingham in round one but Ronnie also looked in good shape when he beat defending champion Ding Junhui on the opening day of the tournament.

Ronnie loves a challenge and might see this match as the perfect time to remind people of what he can do while the focus has been on Judd. Either way, they're both big game players so this could be another classic.

The quarter-final Australia's Neil Robertson takes on Welshman Mark Williams also promises to be a gem.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Both of these players are currently ranked within the top four of the world and have proven themselves as great champions.

You can expect a high-standard match between two great attacking left-handed players, who know how to mix it safety-wise too.

Williams has already carved his name on this special trophy twice before and showed glimpses of his flowing best when he beat Stephen Maguire in the first round.

He's experimenting with a new cue at the moment but  has the advantage of a relaxed attitude towards matches, which will ensure he copes with the switch.  

Robertson also scored an impressive win against Mark Allen in his opening match.

He made some big clearances along the way and looked bang in focus.

He's capable of beating anyone and always looks as if he tailors his gameplan according to who he's playing. Neil has come on leaps and bounds as a player over the last 18 months. His safety has improved and he's making less mistakes owing to the fact that he seems to have slowed down when break building.

Mark Selby comes up against Shaun Murphy, and they both go into this game with contrasting records at this tournament.
Picture by Monique Limbos

World number one Selby has only played in the event four times but has already won it twice and finished runner-up in another. Conversely, this will be Murphy's fifth appearance at a Masters quarter-final but he has yet to convert that record into a place in the last four.

He showed signs he could be ready to go that step further this year after a proficient 6-2 victory against Martin Gould in round one.

Murphy looks in superb nick after four good days of match parctice at Crondon Park and admitted he's pushing the boat out a little more than usual after seeing the success it has brought his opponents in recent tournaments.

Selby stuttered in his first match against Stephen Lee. Despite building what looked an unassailable 5-1 lead, he eventually edged through 6-4 but was nearly pushed to a decider.

He'll be looking for a better performance in this one because he knows Murphy is reliable at picking up results when his rivals slip away from their best form.

Despite such a sensational record at the tournament Selby lost to Mark King in the first round last season and will be keen to recapture his form in London after another patchy performance this week.

Two Scottish world champions come head-to-head as John Higgins locks horns with Graeme Dott as well.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Higgins has struggled at the Masters in recent seasons. Before beating Matthew Stevens 6-2 earlier this week he had lost four of his last five first round matches here.

That suggests he finds it tough in London but his overall record is not so bad as he's twice won the title and twice finished runner-up.

He's yet to hit top form this season but could easily start producing in this match.

John will need to count on all his steel to get past Dott who continues to prove himself as one of the toughest match players around.

He was nowhere near his best against Ali Carter but managed to scrap through 6-3 and show how important it is to have a match-winning B-game. This tie could either way. They're both capable break builders but also know how to tough it out.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A quick word about the flying Aussie

It wouldn't be right to sign off for the day without a few words about sensational Neil Robertson.

The Thunder from Down Under played out of his skin to beat Mark Allen 6-3 in the best match of the tournament so far.

Time and time again we talk about how far Robertson's game has come since he won the world title in 2010 and he's now proving that consistently.

Picture by Monique Limbos
He could hardly have drawn a tougher opponent in the first round at Alexandra Palace than the recent UK Championship finalist.

The fact that the Northern Ireland number one enjoyed pot success rate of 92% and still lost the match speaks volume about Neil's level of performance.

He's always had a natural flair for long potting and is one of the world's best in that department.

But now he's added the same kind of ability to clear as the likes of Stephen Hendry and John Higgins at their peaks plus a tactical nous that continues develop, it's hardly a surprise to see him shining.

People are saying Judd Trump or whoever beats him this week will win the Masters but that statement is arguably more applicable to Robertson who now has one of the best all-round games among the players at the top of the sport.

Never afraid of the big occasion, Robertson stepped up to win this excellent match and will take some stopping from here on in.

Can Higgins conquer Masters misery?

John Higgins will be hoping a switch of venue to Alexandra Palace will bring him better fortune in the Masters.

Since winning the prestigious title back in 2006, he's lost four of his last five first round matches and openly admits he found it difficult playing at Wembley.

Picture by Monique Kimbos
He put his bad record behind him today with a comfortable 6-2 win against Welshman Matthew Stevens, who hasn't played in this tournament himself for five seasons.

Higgins may be well due a win at the Masters but he could also do with a return to form in general.

It's been a stop-start season so far for the Scot as he's struggled to reach the same heights he did to win the World Championship in May last year.

There's been murmurs since his win in Sheffield that Higgins has grown into a player who is "boring to watch" but his continued steely approach will ensure he remains a tough match for any of the world's top players for a few years to come yet.

John is far too good of a player to be kept down for too long and still has more trophies on his radar.

While players around him look intent on attacking their way to the title, Higgins has the tactical game to trouble the new generation and will be desperate to put in a good performance at a tournament where he's struggled to make his mark in recent years.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Murphy dampens Gould debut

Shaun Murphy was busy proving his title credentials but for Martin Gould it was an unlikely 'bad day at the office' on his Masters debut.

The Magician met the Pinner potter at Alexandra Palace and while many predicted a close encounter,  Murphy's experience told with an emphatic 6-2 win.

Picture by Monique Limbos
There's no doubt both of these players boast class in abundance. They're two of the game's best long potters and have silky smooth cue actions.

Barring the miss of a simple green in frame two Gould would have been first to show this, opening a 2-0 lead.

As it was, Murphy nicked the frame on the counter-attack to level and won three straight frames after as he went on to dominate.

While Gould struggled to string his best play together in front of an army of fans, Murphy was in the groove and proving why he could yet lift the trophy this week.

An impressive knock of 139 sealed a super win and polished off a great display.

Martin will be hurting from the defeat because he knows he can do better. But this isn't the last of him. He'll be back at the Masters next year to show what he's really made of.

For Murphy, he progressed to his fifth Masters quarter-final but has yet go further. His time could be now.

Bingham: "The honeymoon is over"

Disappointed Stuart Bingham saw his Masters dream crushed at Alexandra Palace and then exclusively told OnCue: "I need to get back on track."

The Basildon potter stepped out to make his third appearance at the prestigious invitation event but it's the first time he's qualified as a member of the top 16.

Picture by Monique Limbos
This rise up the rankings is owed largely to his maiden ranking title win in the Australian Open earlier in the season.

But today he lost 6-3 to title favourite Judd Trump and admitted: "The honeymoon is over."

By his own admission, it wasn't his best performance but in an upbeat conversation after the match he was looking to the future.

He said: "It's great to play at the Masters on merit by working my way into the top 16. I feel like I've earned my place here but I never got going.

"The venue was excellent. I got goosebumps coming down the stairs and I would have loved to have won and played Ronnie, but it wasn't to be.

"I'm still enjoying my practice and I've recently moved to a new club in Rayleigh. I think that will be a good move but I've lost a little bit of self belief since winning in Australia.

"I've not played as well at the PTCs this season and I lost in the first round of the UK so I feel like I need a couple of results again."

As for Judd, he was also a little way short of his glittering best but still scored two centuries and appeared to employ a more measured approach en route to victory.

His safety was in decent shape and he stepped up his game at exactly the right time, winning the final four frames from 3-2 down.

Trump will always be difficult to live with and Bingham says it's tough playing against such formidable opposition.

"You do have it in the back of your mind who you're playing, it's quite daunting and a little bit of pressure builds on your shot. But I'm confident I can return to form," said Bingham.

"I beat four top 16 players at the Australian Open and went on to win it so I've got a different mindset now. I know if I play well I can win a tournament, rather than just striving for it."

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Ronnie rises to Masters challenge

Ronnie O'Sullivan looked like he was right at home at Alexandra Palace as he scored an excellent victory in the curtain-raiser of this year's Masters.

His 6-4 win against defending champion Ding Junhui proves that when the conditions are right, he's still one of the best around.

Picture by Monique Limbos
A masterclass of long potting steered him through to the quarter-finals but in actual fact, it was having his head in the right place that made the difference.

The setting was perfect. He was on the big stage, playing in front of his kids and at home in London. Ronnie was in his comfort zone, and it brought the best out of him.

As he established a commanding 4-1 lead, he looked unstoppable. Ding showed great temperament and a steely determination to level at 4-4, albeit with the aid of a fluked red in frame six. The momentum had shifted but a content O'Sullivan took the last two frames to clinch a great win.

This continues an impressive record for Ronnie in this competition. He's now played in 19 tournaments and won his first round match 15 times.

On this form, you'd back him to go all the way. O'Sullivan has already appeared in nine Masters finals, winning four titles highlighting his glittering record at this prestigious tournament.

The Rocket has played some of his best snooker at this event and produced a fantastic century to wrap up this match too. This was the first hundred scored at Ally Pally since 1936, and also Ronnie's 50th in this fine tournament.

Ronnie has had his troubles. That means he comes into this tournament as the world number 16, the lowest ranked player in the competition. But he remains among the favourites to lift the trophy.

On today's display, it's easy to see why.

He has a class about his game that he's always capable of bringing to the table on the big occasion.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The World is waiting

There's always a dramatic sense of tension that comes on the final day of qualifying - and it was no different as players scrambled for their place at this year's World Open.

No fewer than seven of today's 16 final round matches were settled on a deciding frame as the competition was as fierce as ever.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Sam Baird (pictured right) was arguably the stand-out winner.

The 23-year-old has long been tipped as a bright prospect on the baize but really showed his ability this week. He's produced good snooker in all his matches but was especially cool under pressure today fighting back from 3-1 down to beat Mark Davis on a decider.

His reward is a place at his first venue. This highlights not only his, but the kind of talent that is still hiding down the lower end of the rankings.

That wasn't all for the deciders. Mark King recorded an impressive victory against Liang Wenbo. The Chinese star has shown greater resolve this week, proving a switch to The Grove may be a decent one, but narrowly missed out to the Essex potter.

Jamie Jones was left gutted after a last-gasp loss to Tom Ford, Ricky Walden edged past Gerard Greene and Barry Hawkins crept past Ian McCulloch.

The marathon match of the day saw Dominic Dale edge out Dave Harold, while Nigel Bond managed to survive a scare. He led Fergal O'Brien 4-0 but was forced to win a decider before booking his place.

Picture by Monique Limbos
That was it for the nailbiters but the story of the day came courtesy of Marco Fu (pictured left).

He made his second professional maximum en route to a 5-2 victory against improving Matt Selt, triggering yet another debate over whether making a 147 is getting easier.

They are definitely coming more regularly.

That's a combination of more matches being played, a higher standard and cloths perfect for break building.

This may mean maximums are becoming less special, but easy they are not.

Stephen Hendry is heading back to a venue after beating Mike Dunn 5-2. This will delight the Haikou crowd. He's a legend wherever he goes.

The easiest winner of the day was Robert Milkins. He dished a whitewash out to Ryan Day as he further enhanced his reputation as a deadly scorer.

Elsewhere, Michael Holt continued his resurgence with a 5-3 win over struggling Peter Ebdon, Joe Perry breezed past Anthony Hamilton 5-1 and Andrew Higginson put an end to Yu Delu's good run this week with a 5-3 victory.

Alfie Burden lost to Marcus Campbell by the same scoreline but will be kicking himself after establishing an early three-frame advantage.

Jimmy Robertson booked his venue return, overcoming hard-to-beat Rory McLeod in what should probably go down as one of the best wins of the day.

And finally, Jamie Cope eased past Jamie Burnett 5-1.

It's surprising what can happen in just one day at the qualifiers hey? Well, thanks to the emergence of Twitter and the start of live streaming, you can keep right in touch.

Full list of final round results:

Joe Perry 5-1 Anthony Hamilton
Marcus Campbell 5-3 Alfie Burden
Mark King 5-4 Liang Wenbo
Ricky Walden 5-4 Gerard Greene
Andrew Higginson 5-3 Yu Delu
Tom Ford 5-4 Jamie Jones
Jimmy Robertson 5-3 Rory McLeod
Dominic Dale 5-4 Dave Harold
Barry Hawkins 5-4 Ian McCulloch
Sam Baird 5-4 Mark Davis
Marco Fu 5-2 Matt Selt
Stephen Hendry 5-2 Mike Dunn
Robert Milkins 5-0 Ryan Day
Jamie Cope 5-1 Jamie Burnett
Michael Holt 5-3 Peter Ebdon
Nigel Bond 5-4 Fergal O'Brien

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Masters: BIG tournament preview

The Masters remains one of the most prestigious titles in snooker - some would even say bigger than the UK Championship.

This superb invitational event - although it offers no ranking points - has a rich history and earns the winner a handsome £150,000.

Only the World Championship betters it for prize money, and arguably prestige too.

Some of the game's greatest cueists have made their mark at the Masters, as it's a tournament every player gets revved up for.

It's a title every player wants on their CV.

But with only the top 16 invited to play, it is also one of the most difficult trophies to win.

Like every season, there's so many players capable of winning the event. The field is packed with quality, as usual.

That will never change. But what has changed is the venue.

Barry Hearn has moved the Masters to Alexandra Palace for the first time and it promises to give an already popular London-based event another boost.

The atmosphere is expected to crank right up this year.

I can't wait for it to get going.

They said...

Shaun Murphy goes into the tournament full of confidence after a run of fine form in the Championship League this week. He said in a blog: "I can’t wait to get there after four good days at Crondon Park. It was very nice to win Group Two and the Championship League has given me a great preparation for Ally Pally.

"I will certainly go there pleased with the state of my game, knowing that it’s in good shape. It’s easy to get over-bullish but my results suggest that I am playing well and I’ve been practising hard.

"Of the major events in our calendar, the tournament is the one which I have the worst record of all in. I’ve never reached the semi-finals."

World number one and two-time winner Mark Selby is among the favourites to lift the title. He said: "Each player seems to excel at a different type of tournament and with me, it appears to have been at the Masters.

"The big crowds seem to bring out the best of me and I play my best snooker."

Though, it's Neil Robertson's who has picked up more ranking points than anyone so far this season. The Aussie said: "I'm looking forward to it and it is a tournament everyone dreams of winning.

"This year, I'm as well prepared for the Masters as I've ever been so hopefully I can take a lot of the form that I've shown this season into it.

Hopefully I can start a new run of major tournament victories, beginning with the Masters - I have as good a chance as anyone this year."

While for Stuart Bingham, it's no territory now he's at the top end of the rankings. He said: "It's nice to be in the elite finally and it does make it more special knowing I'm there because I'm in the top 16.

"You always wish that you're going to get there one day and it has taken me ages, but maybe now I'm a better player because of it."

Last time out...

Ding Junhui added this illustrious title to his armoury after a 10-4 victory against fellow countryman Marco Fu in the final.

It was nearly different, though.

He led 6-2 at the interval but was pulled back to 6-4. Only an excellent snooker in frame 11 denied Marco coming back to within a frame, before he went on to score a comfortable victory.

Aside from the final, it was a tournament full of shocks. Seven of the eight players who made it through to the quarter-finals had beaten higher ranked players to get there.

At the bookmakers...

Selby appears to be the bookies' favourite with odds of 11/2, followed closely by Trump and O'Sullivan both at 6/1.

Good money may go on Allen at 14/1 or Williams at 12/1.

The rank outsider is Lee with odds of 40/1.

Click here for the full list.

My tip...

It's difficult to pick out a winner in such a quality field. Trump's win at the UK Championship proves he's a man for the big occasion. He'd be my favourite along with Selby, who has a great pedigree in this tournament. I'm going to stick my neck out  for Murphy though. He's playing well and has yet to enjoy real success at the Masters.

Full first round draw...

Ding Junhui v Ronnie O'Sullivan
Mark Williams v Stephen Maguire
Judd Trump v Stuart Bingham
Shaun Murphy v Martin Gould
John Higgins v Matthew Stevens
Neil Robertson v Mark Allen
Mark Selby v Stephen Lee
Ali Carter v Graeme Dott

Masters moments

The Masters is enriched with a great history.

OnCue looks back at some of the best moments from down years of this famous old competition....

Williams and Hendry go all the way

Hendry hits back at Hallett

Selby beats Ronnie in 'that match'

Battle of Northern Ireland

Hunter's hat-trick

Kirk hits max


Thursday, 12 January 2012

Murphy ready to march on

Marathon man Shaun Murphy has kicked off 2012 in the perfect style - and must surely be targeting major honours for the year ahead.

The Magician has long had a reputation as the ultimate professional. He applies himself excellently to each and every tournament he plays in and can always be counted on to be a consistent performer.
Picture by Monique Limbos

In fact, he's arguably one of the most reliable players at getting to the business end of tournaments time after time.

That's why he's so well equipped to enjoy success at an event such as the Championship League.

While others may view it as a knock around, you know Shaun will be giving it his all.

And, the 2005 world champion couldn't have wished for four better days of competitive practice.

He made the final of the Championship League Group One before losing to Judd Trump but immediately went to the next level with tonight's 3-0 win against Mark Selby in the Group Two final.

That puts him in with a real shout of a return to the Premier League but that is only the start of the benefits for him.

He cued beautifully throughout, and this is typical of Shaun. He's a player who treats every tournament tournament with great respect and is always in with a shout of silverware.

As much as he talks about the satisfaction of what he's achieved in the game so far, I can't help but feel he's desperate to return to the real top of the game this year. He last won the World Championship in 2005 and the UK Championship in 2008. Although he's part of a special crowd of players to have carved his name on both of these prestigious titles, you know he's got more in his locker.

For a player who was promised so much success, I can't help but feel he's a little starved of a top, top title. It's been a while.

Talking of the biggest prizes, the Masters kicks off this weekend. Judging by his slick performance at Crondon Park this week, maybe he's ready to stand tall again and win another big one.

Murphy is always a safe bet but perhaps 2012 could be a very big year for him.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

New year, same Trump

Judd Trump continued his winning streak into the new year with victory in the Championship League Group One.

Crondon Park is only a few miles from house in Romford and the young potter definitely looked right at home in Essex.
Picture by Monique Limbos

After winning the UK Championship at the back end of 2011, he started the new calendar year in exactly the same manner, with another impressive win against more of the world's best players.

Again, he wasn't at his best from the off but turned it up when it mattered producing some excellent snooker to bat away Shaun Murphy 3-2 in a quickfire final.

For all the plaudits, Judd did earn some critics after his big win in York, for challenging himself to go on and dominate the sport.

He was called naive and even arrogant to think at such a young age he could go and blow away the rest of the game's top stars.

In my opin, this ambition is simply another of Trump's many assets.

He has ayouthful and fresh approach to the game, that comes naturally to him.

While some of snooker's more established professionals seem content on sitting back in certain events, skipping tournaments here and there and blaming the system for their slide down the rankings, Trump has been the complete opposite.

Although the Championship League is an exception because it has no ranking points attached, his philosophy remains the same.

He has seen the increased in tournaments as a chance to climb up the rankings at even quicker rate than he would have before.

He's already up as high as number five in the world and is promising to climb to the top. No event is an obstacle to him. He wants to play in everything and the more he plays the more he wants to win.

Judd is critical of himself even when he wins matches. He grumbles about dropping too many frames and continues to strive for perfection.

That's the kind of determined attitude that is developing him into a great champion already.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Back at Crondon Park

The return of the Championship League for a fifth season may not be a universally popular decision among the fans but for the players it means top quality match practice and an extra few quid in the back pocket.

Today saw the start of the first of eight events in Essex as the game's top stars fight it out for a place in next season's Premier League.

But even those who miss out on the top prize have plenty to gain.

With matches played over a best-of-five frame format, there's £100 up for grabs for each frame, plus £3,000 for each group winner, £2,000 for the runner-up and £1,000 for the semi-finalists.

All eight group winners then go through to a finals group with the winner earning the place in the Premier League.

Matthew Stevens came out on top last season and you'll hear no complaints from his quarters about fixture pile-up.

While the event may not rank high up on the agenda of most fans, it's a different story with the players. In fact, 13 of the world's top 16 have entered.

In an age where the expenses of playing professional snooker has risen, this a great chance to boost the coffers and, for those playing this week, excellent preparation ahead of the Masters.

Scottish trio John Higgins, Graeme Dott and Stephen Maguire are the only three among the elite not to enter but this isn't the greatest surprise given the chance they have to play each other in practice and the huge trip they'd have to make down to the south of England.

The Championship League may not be the trendiest or most sought after title on the circuit but offers two of the greatest prizes: money and match sharpness.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Maguire wins in Munich

Stephen Maguire may not be the biggest fan of the PTCs but his victory in Munich means a welcome return to snooker's winning circle.

On his day, the Scot is as good as anyone in the top 16.

Picture by Monique Limbos
He's a free-flowing scorer who strikes the cue ball with real authority. While he's done enough to retain his spot among the game's elite he's also been without a ranking title for four years.

His last success was back in 2008 at the China Open.

For a player of his quality, he should be winning events more regularly than he has done. That's why his 4-2 win against Joe Perry to capture the PTC12 crown will be greeted with cheer.

After showing signs of a return to his best at the recent UK Championship, Maguire pulled out all the stops in another successful tournament held in Germany.

His long-potting was excellent and he was back break-building with confidence.

Maguire hasn't been afraid to voice his unhappiness of the current PTC series format. He's among the group of top players who see the small tournaments as buying ranking points and has grown frustrated  at the expenses.

But fundamentally, this win could be priceless for Maguire. Although it remains to be seen, I wouldn't be surprised to see Stephen build on this success, and win another title before the end of the campaign.

That next title could potentially be at the PTC Grand Finals in Galway in March. If he does go on to scoop the winner's cheque for £70,000, I doubt we'll hear too many complaints from his corner then.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why Maguire has failed win more in recent seasons.

But I'll try nonetheless. Stephen strikes me as a player who puts a lot of pressure on himself. He has a fiery temperament and sometimes struggles to keep his game in check when he isn't playing well.

He's a far better player when he relaxes and as another blogger said earlier today "plays with a smile on his face".

Maguire certainly has plenty of reason to smile tonight as he heads back to Scotland.  His trip to Europe will remind him of how it feels to be a winner, which should set him in good stead for the rest of the season.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Fan profile: Dirk Thomas

With the PTC series heading to Germany for the final stop of the season, OnCue also heads into Europe for the next fan profile.

Find out more about Dirk Thomas, who shares his hope that one day there will be European players among the top ten in the world.

 Name: Dirk Thomas

Age: 43

From: Sinn, Germany

Occupation: A youth worker in the Evangelical Church. We host snooker and pool events once a week.

Highest break: 37

Followed snooker since: 1989. When I first got cable TV.

First memories: Wondering about the silly looking glasses Dennis Taylor wore.

First favourite player:  Stephen Hendry. He was such an exciting player to watch at his peak. A few years after I started following the game he became the golden boy of snooker.

First live match: At the German Masters in Berlin in 2011. It was great to watch five matches at the same time. I can't wait to do it all again in February.

Best memory: Mark Selby's sly look in his eyes in the German Masters final as he took the miss-option and so Jan Verhaas had to re-spot all the balls after Mark Williams had spread them everywhere with a hit-and-hope shot. While Jan was struggling to get all the balls back it position, it was great fun and comedy for the fans.

Greatest player: Ronnie O'Sullivan is the greatest player of all time. Stephen Hendry is the greatest winner of all time - but I think no-one gave more to snooker than good old Steve Davis!

Favourite player: Ronnie. I hope he plays on for a few years yet. I also like watching Judd Trump and Mark Williams.

Snooker in 10 years' time will... have players from the continent within the top ten of the world rankings. There's a real euphoria for snooker in Germany and I hope it will result in bringing new talent to the worldwide baize.

If I could make one change to the game... I would make the pockets bigger when I play. Only joking. I like it just how it is.

I love snooker because... it's fantastic to watch the professionals competing with such skill, concentration, tactics and mental strength.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Heading to Munich

The second and most crucial half of the season kicks off on Friday as the PTC roadshow rolls to Munich for its final chapter.

Sixteen remaining potters are crossing to Germany to fight it out at another of the exciting European venues, which have been the real success story of this season's series.

PTC12 is the final short format pro-am event of the campaign and being held in Germany is a fitting end.

Fans are expected to turn it in their droves, showing more hard evidence of the current snooker boom in Germany.

We've seen this season it's no myth how much the Europeans love snooker and while numerous PTCs held in Sheffield have flattered to deceive, the European-staged tournaments have been a real draw.

This event is likely to be no different, not least because it's the last chance for player's to claim their place in the vital top 24 in the Order of Merit, to qualify for the PTC Grand Finals being hosted in Ireland later this year.

To view the current standings in the Order of Merit, click here

The final PTC of the season also stands a good chance of producing another winner from outside of the game's top circle of players.

Mark Allen, Martin Gould and Stephen Maguire are the only three top 16 players to make it this far but have yet to won one of the events between them before.

Lower down the ranks, the likes of Michael Holt, Marcus Campbell and Andrew Higginson have already chalked up PTC wins and will be keen to add to their tally.

There's plenty of other contenders around too. Seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry has definitely got the experience and will have a large proportion of the crowd on his side. Ricky Walden and Marco Fu are two of the form men after their runs in the UK Championship, while Joe Perry has plenty of experience as well.

Interestingly, a win for Walden would also see Ronnie O'Sullivan slip out of the top 16 at the forthcoming seedlings revisions.

Or will the trophy be lifted by an even more unlikely contender? China's Xiao Guodong has been one of the success stories of the season so far. Could he follow in the footsteps of Ding Junhui to become a ranking event winner?

David Grace is scrapping for his life to stay on tour, Mike Dunn is on the comeback trail after suffering from kidney stones, David Gilbert is enjoying life back on the professional circuit and Kurt Maflin is desperate to become the first Norwegian to win a World Snooker event.

Then, there's David Gray. Are we ready to see the first amateur win a PTC?

You can put forward a strong argument for any of these players putting together a run of four wins to claim the title. Whoever comes out on top, you won't miss a trick following with Eurosport's continued great coverage.

Last 16 draw:

Kurt Maflin v Andrew Higginson
Marcus Campbell v Michael Holt
Ricky Walden v Xiao Guodong
David Gilbert v Joe Perry
Mike Dunn v Mark Allen
Stephen Hendry v Marco Fu
David Grace v Martin Gould
Stephen Maguire v David Gray

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

My players to watch: 2012

As another year gets underway we know we'll be seeing plenty from the game's top stars.

But, who are the more unlikely candidates to enjoy success in 2012?

OnCue runs through half a dozen players to keep a careful eye on in the coming year....

Xiao Goudong

Currently ranked in the top 64 of the world, the 21-year-old Chinese player is an incredible attacking force. He strikes the ball cleanly and is among the best potters outside the top 16. His best strength is break building but the PTC series has toughened up his all-round game this season. He showed how far he's come winning the Chinese National Championship last month. He's since set himself a target of breaking into the top 48 but I believe he could leap even higher over the next 12 months.  He's a fearless competitor who should look forward to an excellent year.

Jack Lisowski

People across the sport have already touted Jack as one of the brightest young players in the game and, so far, he's definitely living up to his billing. He was crowned last season's Rookie of the Year and has continued to climb up the rankings this season, helped by consistent performances across the PTC series and qualification for the Shanghai Masters His attacking style of play make him exciting to watch and popular with the fans. Sharing a flat with snooker's star man Judd Trump is unlikely to see his opportunist instincts subside but we've seen before luck favours the brave. Lisowski has immense talent and is already closing down on a place in the top 32. His rise is almost certain to continue.

Ben Woollaston

The Leicester potter made his mark on tour last year capturing the PTC3 title and there could be plenty more success ahead. He's learnt a lot since he first became a professional as a 17-year-old in 2003 and is still developing now. Now ranked comfortably inside the top 64, some pressure has been lifted and he can focus on a push up into the top 48. He's blessed with a great attitude towards the game and has excatly the right hardworking attitude to ensure he continues to progress.

Michael White

A great scoring machine. The young Welsh potter has upped his performances this season and as a result has broken into the top 64 of the rankings. People who have seen him play in the PTC events and at the qualifying stages know what a dangerous player he is. Once he's in the balls he scores freely and quickly, owed largely to his great snooker brain. He gets down and plays, meaning he keeps problems to a premium. This year should be the one he goes on another level and reaches his first venue.

Sam Baird

The 23-year-old needs a good second half of the season to ensure he's among the professional ranks beyond the summer but he's shown enough signs to suggest he could do it. Sam has a balanced and well honed all-round game but has struggled to build on early wins in a lot of the PTC events this season. A win in the qualifiers could quite easily see his confidence rise and inspire him to go further. When he gets going, he's as pleasing on the eye as anyone. He could be a player to watch in 2012 if he starts the year well.

Craig Steadman

Craig could be ready to enjoy his second spell on the professional circuit later this year after a series of impressive displays as an amateur in this season's PTC series. He's won a total  of 22 matches and reached the last 32 on four separate occasions, meaning he's well in contention to earn professional status through the points he's picked up in the Order of Merit. He'll have to wait until the summer to find out if he's done enough but he's already proved he's capable of mixing it with the fully-fledged tour players. Providing he does secure his spot, he'll fancy his chances of improving on his fortunes from when he was last a professional for the 2009/10 season. He's strong in most departments and one of the most feared amateurs in the country. A big year could be ahead.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

My predictions for 2012

It's that time of year again when OnCue takes a look into its crystal ball.

Last year I made 10 predictions, and five came true. To remind yourself of what I said 12 months ago, click here.

But it's time to be brave and bold again.

Here are my bets for 2012:

1. Judd Trump will end the year as world number one
2. The new season will begin with eight PTCs instead of 12
3. Marco Fu will return to the top 16
4. Jack Lisowski and Xiao Guodong will break into the top 32
5. Grimsby's Ashley Wright will win a pro tour card
6. Ding Junhui will make the World Championship final
7. Ronnie O'Sullivan will end the year in the top eight of the rankings
8. Mark Allen will win his first ranking title
9. Ryan Day will win a PTC
10. Ben Woollaston will qualify to play at the Crucible

Think you can do better? Post your predictions below....