Sunday, 10 February 2013

Welcome the Welsh Open

Wales is blessed with a fantastic snooker heritage - and that's where we are heading to for the next ranking event.

The Welsh Open is the third longest running ranking tournament on the circuit and has a fine history.

But with the sport focused on the future and generating many new exciting tournaments, it doesn't quite have the standing it used to. Matches until the quarter-finals are now played to a reduced best-of-seven-frame format, which hasn't helped its position in many people's eyes.

Try telling this to the Welsh fans. It is only right and proper that a nation which has produced players with legendary status remains a stopping point on the calendar.

This proud snooker nataion has to go back as far as 1999 to find the last time a Welshman won the Welsh Open. It was Mark Williams. In fact, he is a two-time winner of the event and the only Welsh player to win the competition since it began in 1992.

Williams arrives in Newport drastically out of form but leading the hopes of a nation who would dearly love to see a home winner again.

Any tournament carries an extra buzz when a player from the host nation remains in the hat, and here is no different. The Welsh are well represented in the draw this year.

As well as Williams, we have Matthew Stevens, Ryan Day, Dominic Dale, Daniel Wells and, most remarkably, amateur player Gareth Allen.

He was awarded a place in the qualifying stages because not every professional player decided to enter the event. He beat Rory McLeod 4-2 and has seen his final qualifying match against John Higgins fast-tracked to Newport. This means he will make his ranking venue debut in his home country against one of the greatest players of all time. It is a real fairytale story.

A restructure of the qualifying format for this event means less wins were needed for many lower-ranked players and some of the top 16 players were required to play a tie in the cubicles in Sheffield before being assured a spot. This means Allen isn't the only new or newish face set to star in the tournament.

Gloucester's Michael Wasley has made it through to his second consecutive venue in a debut season on tour that has seen his hardworking attitude shine through. Fellow impressive rookie Ian Burns will make the trip, as will Craig Steadman.

The Welsh Open still gets superb BBC and Eurosport coverage, so it's great to see new faces earning a chance to shine. You can expect to see this happening more and more into next season as many events switch to a flatter 128-draw structure.

This also means big names could miss out. Recent German Masters winner Ali Carter was one of those unlucky ones losing in qualifying.

But who elseis through? Legend Steve Davis, popular Alfie Burden, former finalist Andrew Higginson, promising youngster Sam Baird and emerging Indian star Pankaj Advani are a few.

These provide the vital smaller plots of the tournament - but who is in the running to go all the way?

Ding Junhui is the defending champion. He beat Mark Selby in the final a year ago, who is in the habit of winning lately.

Judd Trump on the other hand is struggling but is perhaps waiting to burst back into life.

John Higgins is always in the mix. Stephen Maguire could be as sharp as anyone with his hefty practice regime through his mammoth Championship League participation.

Shaun Murphy has been a finalist and semi-finalist at the two recent BBC finals and looks to be getting closer. Mark Allen looks a whisker away from a trophy and Neil Robertson will as usual come into the event up for the battle.

Personally, I'm backing Higgins.

Sit back and enjoy another great snooker show.

First round line-up:

Ding Junhui or Dechewat Poomjaeng v Mark King
Marco Fu v Mark Allen
Gerard Greene v Sam Baird
Robert Milkins v Mark Williams or Liu Chuang
Neil Robertson v  Ian Burns
Craig Streadman v Stuart Bingham
Ricky Walden v Tom Ford
Ken Doherty v John Higgins or Gareth Allen
Judd Trump or Mike Dunn v Dominic Dale or Daniel Wells
Andrew Higginson v Michael Wasley
Graeme Dott v Fergal O'Brien
Pankaj Advani v Shaun Murphy
Stephen Maguire v Anthony Hamilton
Ryan Day or Liang Wenbo v Matthew Stevens or Alfie Burden
Barry Hawkins v Alan McManus
Joe Perry v Mark Selby or S Davis

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