Sunday, 31 March 2013

Robertson's ready for Crucible push

Neil Robertson will be going to this year's World Championship in winning form.

The Aussie wrapped up the China Open title today with a 10-6 win against Mark Selby – and it was a big victory in every way.

This is Robertson's first major ranking event success of the season and, more notably, the first big trophy he's lifted since the World Open back in October 2010. This is long overdue for a player of his class, but hasn't caused too much concern because he's come close so many times.

Robertson has been playing very well this season, regularly in the shake-up for major honours and showing he can beat anyone on his day.

Victory in Beijing means he has finally secured the title that has been evading him. With the Crucible being the next and final venue on the snooker calendar, his timing could hardly be better either.

But beating Selby will be even extra sweet. The world number one has inflicted two significant defeats on Robertson this season. The first was a dramatic comeback in the quarter-finals of the UK Championship. The second was in the Masters final.

These losses will have troubled Robertson. Selby has found a way in both of these big matches of stifling Robertson, getting on top of him at the crucial moments, sapping his confidence and scoring the killer wins.

Robertson and Selby is fast-becoming one of the most intense rivalries at the top of the sport. But this isn't fun if you aren't getting your fair share of wins.

Robertson has hit back well today in an important final and even staved off threats of another miracle comeback from Selby. This will be a morale-boosting triumph for Robertson against one of his fellow favourites to win the World Championship.

Winning matches breeds great confidence. Selby has done enough this week to show he will be well in the mix in Sheffield as he goes in search of a famous triple crown, but Robertson is really riding high.

He goes to the biggest event of the campaign as the most recent title winner. His belief to win the one that really matters will be at its peak.

Robertson let loose when he got over the line against Selby. This was a big and satisfying win for him. He is a great snooker professional and now goes about his business of trying to become one of a only a very select list of multiple Crucible winners.

The Aussie should enjoy this great win and use it to his advantage ahead of the big one.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Jack the lad

Jack Lisowski has enjoyed an excellent week so far at the China Open – with his wonderful talent coming through for all to see in Beijing.

The 21-year-old has beaten wildcard Zhou Yuelong, close friend Judd Trump and veteran Mark Davis to reach his first major ranking event quarter-final and seems to evolve as a player every time I watch him play.
Picture by Monique Limbos

He was superb against Trump and, in fact, is very similar to his best pal on the circuit. He plays the balls as he sees them, always looks to attack and likes to keep his matches flowing.

Their tie was a great advert for the sport and their rivalry looks like becoming one of the great duels of the future. They are both young, exciting players that have a hunger to win. Together, they could help to attract new people to the game of snooker.

Judd has taken centre stage for the past two years but now Jack is coming to the fore. He has a likeable personality and is clearly inspired by the success Judd has already enjoyed. He has been talked about as a rising star of the baize for some time. Earlier this season he reached the UKPTC1 final in Gloucester, but his run here in China and recent victory against Mark Selby at the PTC Grand Finals in Galway shows his talent is now really coming to fruition.

Beating Judd would have given Jack a great confidence boost. He took that into his second round match against Davis to score arguably an even more impressive victory. This result came against a veteran of the tour who tested the durability of his game.

Again, Lisowski passed the test and proved his many qualities. He has impeccable timing of the cue ball and can score smoothly and heavily, but he's also made of stern stuff.

He's showing that on the table, but his battles off it are living proof of his bravery. Jack has come a long way to where he is today.  At the age of 16 he won his fight against cancer, which I dare say will help to fuel his desire to rise up the snooker ranks.

Right now, he is sitting pretty. He is being talked about with high praise and is enjoying a good run of form which could fast develop into his breakthrough spell.

His timing could hardly be better. His adventure in Beijing is not over yet and next up is the World Championship, which he is not only good enough to qualify for, but to make a lasting impression at as well.

Lisowski is still a young and fearless player. He is a pleasure to watch and will only get better. These feel like big moments in an exciting career ahead for Jack. I am sure he will go on to enjoy great success.

Jack looks like a multiple-ranking event winner and a top-eight ranked player in the making.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The great haul of China

It's time to head to Beijing for the fifth ranking event of the season held in China - and more importantly the last tournament before the big one, the World Championship.

All the attention and all the talk is about the action coming up at the Crucible next month but this is a fine starter before the campaign's showpiece event we can hardly contain our excitement for.

The China Open is the longest-running event in the country. It first ran between 1999 and 2002, before returning in its current format in 2005 when Ding Junhui won the competition as a plucky wildcard entry.

He's struggled to reach the same heights at the event since and has often looked like he's struggling under the pressures of playing in his home nation. If ever he had the chance to get his hands back on some silverware in China though, this week could be it as he arrives as the last rankling event winner following victory at the PTC Grand Finals in Galway a week ago.

Going over to China for another dose of action is becoming commonplace. This season has seen a record five events in snooker's now biggest market.

This means a lot of travelling for the players - but it definitely isn't without reward. The enthusiastic fans in China make the players feel special, like real professional sportsmen. They recognise all the star players plus the lesser known cuemen who have battled through qualifying too.

They scramble for autographs, battle for photographs and see the sport for all its superb positives. While the game has sustained its popularity in the UK it isn't always given the biggest respect by the wider media.

There's a refreshing thirst for snooker in China. The country produces the kind of sponsors and prize funds that ensures the main tour will keep going back for more and more people play snooker in China than the rest of the world combined.

The talk of a boom in snooker in China isn't just fiction. It's here. It's here now.

We've already been to Wuxi, Shanghai, Chengdu and Haikou this season with the winners well split. Ricky Walden, John Higgins, Judd Trump and Mark Allen have taken the honours so far - but who will reign in Beijing?

I've talked about Ding and his chances. But what about Judd? He's not been on his best run of form in 2013 but has great memories at this event. He won the China Open in 2011 and it turned out to be his big breakthrough event as he went on to reach the World Championship final in Sheffield a month later. Two years on and he's right in the fight to be world number one.

If you need to find extra importance for this event, Judd's story in 2011 is fitting. This is the last competitive tournament before the big one. It offers the last real chance to find your form before challenging for the main prize.

This event will also decide the final seedings ahead of the World Championship. Players such as Mark Davis and Ali Carter are still fighting to guarantee their automatic qualification to the Crucible as members of the top 16.

Higher up the rankings, Neil Robertson and Mark Selby come in as contenders for the trophy as always as they join Judd for the final push to be world number one. Robertson is lacking a big title this season but has the game to quickly change all that. Selby had a golden spell around Christmas and the New Year but hasn't been flying as high since splitting with his manager Mukesh Parmer. This tournament is all about their response to what has been and gone so far this season.

Also to watch out for are Higgins and Allen. John knows how to turn it on when it matters and Mark is a lover of the big moments. With the Crucible just around the corner and signs of good form from him, a week of his best would be well timed.

Stephen Maguire was the runner-up here a year ago and could have a spring in his step after winning the Welsh Open last month. The defending champion is Peter Ebdon. He defied the odds to land the title 12 months ago. He's too pride to let his title go without a fight but his win is more a reminder of the whole host of names outside the most fancied who can put together a run to the win an event.

Full draw:

Peter Ebdon v Marcus Campbell
Graeme Dott v Marco Fu
Mark Allen v Anthony McGill or Heydari Nezhad Ehsan
Neil Robertson v Jimmy Robertson or Wang Yuchen
Stephen Maguire v Michael Holt
Ding Junhui v Barry Hawkins
Stuart Bingham v Liang Wenbo or Lu Ning
John Higgins v Robert Milkins
Judd Trump v Jack Lisowski or Zhou Yuelong
Mark Davis v Dechewat Poomjaeng or Zhu Yinghui
Matthew Stevens v Rory McLeod or Hu Hao
Shaun Murphy v Andrew Higginson
Mark Williams v Lu Haotian
Ali Carter v Jamie Cope or Muhammad Asif
Ricky Walden v Ken Doherty
Mark Selby v Mark King

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Mark King EXCLUSIVE interview: "I've never won an event but I haven't given up hope"

Mark King has always had a reputation for being one of the most likeable characters on the circuit.

Picture by Monique Limbos
It's easy to see why after meeting up with him in the relaxed surroundings of his home club in Chelmsford, Essex. Happy to talk openly and honestly, his hardworking attitude is admirable. After 23 years as a professional he still remains as committed as ever to the buzz of competition.

OnCue caught up with the King during a a recent break from the baize to find out how he's been gearing up for the China Open and the World Championship qualifiers...

You've had a couple of events off not being in the World Open or PTC Grand Finals. Do you still watch the snooker when you're not there?

Yeah. You never really want to watch because you've been knocked out but it's something that immediately happens. I love playing and I love watching snooker, but these days I also love being at home with my three kids just as much. I want to spend as much time as I can with them. They're only young so the break from snooker creates a good opportunity to be at home with them and chill out with them.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Ding on a different planet

Ding Junhui has proved he is an absolutely incredible talent - ready to win the World Championship.

The Chinese star put on a 99% pot success masterclass to fightback from 3-0 down to beat Neil Robertson 4-3 to win the PTC Grand Finals title in Galway.

He was on a different planet. He was superb.

Ding has had plenty of doubters but this week he played as good as you can. It was the stuff of dreams. He has showed off his great break-building prowess again and proved he has the bottle to finally deliver the world title.

The level of snooker he has sustained this week has been a level above. He's produced the kind of snooker of a player finding top gear at the perfect time of year for an all-out assault at a Crucible triumph.

He is 25 years old. He has matured. He looks like he's enjoying himself. These are dangerous signs for his rivals.

Ding is right up there as one of the best players to watch in top form. He has been a joy to watch in Ireland. Long may it continue.

Tonight's plaudits well and truly belong to the China wizard. You have to sit back and admire, but he hasn't been alone in impressing this week.

Kurt Maflin has been the real surprise package. He flew through to the semi-finals and played some brilliant snooker along the way.

The Norwegian is a super break-builder. When he's playing well he can make beating anyone look easy. He lacks real quality in the tactical department though. This is the only area of his game stopping him climbing up the ladder. With a more sound safety game he'd rocket up the rankings.

Ben Woollaston has also had an impressive week. Lots of people keep telling me that he is the real deal.

He is a solid all-round player and doesn't appear to have any obvious weaknesses, but in Galway he has shown us another big quality. He looks like he can easily make the step up to the TV stage. He makes the transition seamlessly. This will be important as he looks to further establish himself on the circuit.

Who else starred this week? Joe Swail set himself up well for a return to the big time next season. His win against Stephen Maguire shows he can still compete with the big boys and should give him a timely dose of confidence.This was a big result for a player who technically is still ranked as an amateur.

Jack Lisowski orchestrated the giantkilling of Mark Selby. This was a big win that consolidates his considerable stock in the game.

Young Jack has been threatening to break through in a big way for a long time now. Believe me, it will happen soon. He is a great talent. Results like this will help.

Then there's Xiao Guodong. He's another incredible scorer, but has gone a little quiet this season. His path to the quarter-finals is a timely reminder that he remains one to watch.

It's been a great week in Galway with great moments for so many players, but it hasn't always been hunky dory.

The scheduling of this event has been very poor. Trying to cram six matches into a day's play simply hasn't worked. Mark Allen and Swail began their contest at gone midnight.

This is absolutely absurd. Few fans can realistically stay up to watch a match starting at this hour and spectators could easily be pushed to remain at the venue. It can't help the players either. Although conditions are the same for both, it's an added headache for the players who are giving their absolute all in an important tournament.

It doesn't take a genius to work out these problems were inevitable with an ambitious amount of matches scheduled each day.

But it's easy to take chunks out of World Snooker and plenty do it all too often. I'm not normally one to be critical. The sport's governing body do many things very well. I'm happy to give credit where credit is due but on this occasion they've been caught right out.

World Snooker should have a rethink ahead of next year's event. Learning from the mistake is a must.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Going to Galway

If you win snooker matches you will get your rewards.

This is the philosophy Barry Hearn has desperately been trying to instill into the game since he took charge.

The snooker supremo isn't interested in seeing players protected by their rankings. His idea of a successful sport is about creating opportunities and a level-playing field to perform on.

Nothing sums this up better than the PTC series.

As we head to Galway, the 32 players who have best performed in this season's 12 smaller PTC events now get the chance to fight for a £100,000 top prize in the PTC Grand Finals.

The PTCs aren't everyone's cup of tea. There have been moans and groans about the short format tournaments ever since they were created some three seasons ago, but it's as fair as the system comes.

Players pay their entrance fee, turn up, get drawn, play snooker and try to win matches. It's really that simple.

This is what playing snooker for a living should be all about. Regular competition for the chance to win ranking points and prize money.

Many players who have given the PTCs the cold shoulder will now miss out on the chance to win much larger sums of money in this showpiece event.

This week's tournament isn't all about the so-called big players. Instead, those who have made the most of their playing opportunities this season now have the chance to really make it count.

Among those in with a chance of winning a well-respected ranking title are household names such as Mark Selby, Judd Trump, Mark Allen, Ding Junhui and Neil Robertson.

There are exciting young professionals trying cutting their teeth in the professional ranks. Jack Lisowski, Cao Yupeng , Xiao Guodong and Anthony McGill.

There are the established faces on the tour too who have been around years but still have the hunger. Joe Perry, Mark Davis, Jamie Burnett, Rod Lawler and Alfie Burden.

There are also two amateurs who have made the most of their playing time. Li Hang and Joe Swail.

This tournament pits a whole mixture of players together and should make for some fantastic viewing. The seriousness of this event steps up a notch from the other PTCs this season but the aim of the game is exactly the same.


Martin Gould v Tom Ford
Barry Hawkins v Li Hang
Neil Robertson v Jamie Burnett
Stephen Maguire v Joe Swail
Mark Allen v Mark Davis
Mark Selby v Jack Lisowski
Rod Lawler v Cao Yupeng
Ding Junhui v Andrew Higginson
Graeme Dott v Xiao Guodong
John Higgins v Ali Carter
Judd Trump v Alfie Burden
Ken Doherty v Kurt Maflin
Marco Fu v Mark Joyce
Robert Milkins v Anthony McGill
Mark Williams v Ben Woollaston
Stuart Bingham v Joe Perry

Monday, 4 March 2013

Allen at the World Open double

Mark Allen will be beginning to like playing his snooker on Hainan Island.

Picture by Monique Limbos
He beat Matthew Stevens 10-4 to retain his World Open crown and takes his earnings in just two years in the tournament up to £160,000.

Returning to the scene where he won his first ranking event a year ago, he repeated his heroics to prove yet again that he is one of the real bright talents of our game.

His win wasn't marred or tarnished by events off the table this time, though. There were no Twitter controversies, just great snooker. He showed he has matured, getting his head down, doing what he does best on the table and going quietly about his business.

By Allen's own admission, he started the tournament slowly but grew as the week went on like you need to if you are to become a champion.

His best performance of the week saw him beat John Higgins 6-2 in the semi-final. He was absolutely superb; perhaps flawless. He was confident and in full flow, easily taking apart one the the all-time greats. That is very impressive

I've been watching Allen play for long enough now. He is a great attacking player; a player most people love to watch. He has great qualities and will, in my opinion, go on to regularly win titles.

These days it is impossible to play well throughout the entire season. There are so many events and it's far too long to remain at your peak for the full length. Instead, it's key to come good at the right times.

Victory in Haikou suggest Allen could be boiling up perfectly for the World Championship. The Northern Ireland man loves the biggest events. In fact, he doesn't see the value of a lot of the small events. When he lost to Cao Yupeng in round one in Sheffield last year he said it put a dampener on his entire campaign.

He has the confidence and will be desperate to go all the way this time. He's up to a career-high number five in the world five and has honed his game to be realistically considered one of the true contenders on the biggest stage.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Craziness on Hainan Island

It's been a crazy week so far on Hainan Island.

The World Open has had a whole manner of different, intriguing plots.

Ricky Walden used Stephen Maguire's cue to beat Peter Ebdon in round one, then beat Maguire himself after he'd returned it.

Rain (or rather dripping condensation) has stopped play. Matthew Stevens has used a different cue in every match. Judd Trump opened his cue case to find his tip had turned a weird shape because of the damp.

There have been flashing lights, lots of flies in the arena, trouble from the photographers and suspiciously low crowds for an event in China.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Maybe now we've reached the semi-finals, something resembling normality will be resumed. We have two cracking matches to look forward to...

John Higgins is back playing like the great champion many of us have grown to love. He's had his fair share of struggles for form since winning the Shanghai Masters back in September, but looks right back in the groove after back-to-back 5-0 wins against Stuart Bingham and Ding Junhui. He's hardly given his opponents a sniff.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Mark Allen hasn't been playing quite as well but has done enough to keep his hopes of defending the title alive. This tournament a year ago was the scene for his greatest career triumph to date, but also memorable for his slurs against China on Twitter. More and more, he's proving he's come of age. His assessment of his form is far more pragmatic these days and he has a much more diplomatic way of offering his opinions. He isn't playing his best but is dangerous because he is fearless.

Neil Robertson should have a spring in his step after beating Mark Selby. The Jester has been his achilles' heel of late, knocking him out of both the UK Championship and Masters on the BBC. Robertson is a class act but has struggled to get the better of Selby, who has found a formula to battle past him twice. The Aussie is looking to step up his bid to become world number one and looks in good shape.

Matthew Stevens is strung some good results together in recent months. This week, he's had too much for Shaun Murphy and Judd Trump, showing the quality he needs to sustain his place in the top 16. He's played musical cues but won't care a sniff now he's at the business end of a tournament.