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

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