Sunday, 23 June 2013

Robertson raises the bar

Neil Robertson has set the standard for the season ahead.

The excellent Australian delivered the performance of a true champion to win the first full ranking event of the campaign in Wuxi.

He started the tournament well, got better and better and then produced one of his best ever displays in a final to land the silverware.
Picture by Tai Chengzhe

From 5-2 down, he won eight of the final ten frames to beat John Higgins 10-7 and become the Wuxi Classic champion for 2013.

While other top players are still finding their feet and blowing away the cobwebs from a mini summer break, Robertson has come flying out of the blocks and didn't even allow a steely Higgins to deny him the eighth ranking title of his career.

This win helps him to break further away from Mark Selby at the top of the world rankings and all the signs suggest that he could be getting ready for a bumper season. He has all the hallmarks of a modern day great. He can pot long balls and make big breaks but he is carefully honing other great qualities as well.

He knows how to bed his way into tournaments and gather momentum to produce his best when it matters, instead of hitting top form too early. He has a solid safety game, but looks to be deploying it more astutely instead of stifling his own attacking instincts.

He is the great all-rounder in the game right now and has set the bar for the rest of the field to try to meet this season.    

It's difficult to believe that Robertson once upon a time struggled for form in events in China. He's now won the last two events here in succession and has been in three of the past four finals. Wiping aside a disappointing first round exit at the Crucible in April, Robertson looks to have found his calling. He looks settled and ready for what could potentially become his golden spell.

On this showing, he looks ready to take the tour by storm this season and win many more title.

Victory in Wuxi is also poignant because it is the first tournament to be completed under Barry Hearn's new 128 flat draw structure. The playing field is level and everyone has the same opportunity.

But victory for Robertson - the current world number one - proves that no matter what the system, the best players will always prevail.

Robertson has shown us this week why he sits pretty at the top of the pecking order.

He has laid down his marker. It is up to the rest of the players to find a response.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Wuxi Classic final: Robertson v Higgins

This is the final we all wanted.

When Neil Robertson faces John Higgins in the Wuxi Classic, it will be the second time they've met in a final already this season - and it promises to be a blinder.
Picture by Monique Limbos

These two great champions have been the best players in the tournament by quite a distance.

Higgins has got here losing just six frames all week while Robertson has gathered momentum and now looks back to a level somewhere his very best.

They both ran out comfortable 6-2 winners in the semi-final matches, but now the biggest test is to come.

People were writing Higgins off at the back end of last season, consigning his best performances to history. But the Scot has looked solid all week, comfortably picking off his opponents while they searched for their rhythm. He's proved the theory correct that form is temporary and class is permanent.

He is a snooker legend. It was 15 years ago when he picked up the first of his four world title wins and he's still competing at the very top of the game today. This is a sign of his greatness.

Robertson has everything he needs to become a great. He was absolutely awesome against Robert Milkins and looks like he's improving with every match. This is exactly how you win big titles, by saving your best for last.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The Australian will be competing in his third of the last four major China finals after years of struggling to produce his best here, but now he has found his feet and is the all-round modern player.

He has every attribute required to gone on and win lots of trophies. Victory here would be a statement of intent for the rest of the campaign.

The final is a race to ten frames and should be a fantastic match. It is difficult to pick a winner, but the form guide favours Higgins. He beat Robertson 4-1 in the final of the Bulgarian Open just two weeks ago and has also won all of their past four head-to-head meetings.

It's tough to pick an area where this match may be won or lost, but players are so good at front running matches that I believe the first session of this final could be more pivotal than in most.

Let's get ready for what could be a classic.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Walking tall in Wuxi

The snooker season is still yet young but already we have two top players standing up above the rest.

Former world champions Neil Robertson and John Higgins met just a fortnight ago in the Bulgarian Open final and are odds on to lock horns again in another showpiece here in Wuxi.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The first major ranking event of the season carries an importance of its own and these two really look up for the test, but down to the final four, can either of them be toppled?

The Australian looks in excellent form and is getting better. He's shown the real hallmarks of a champion, stepping up his game every time he's asked a question.

The business end of a tournament is familiar ground for Neil and he definitely proved his experience when he met quarter-final debutant Cao Yupeng. The China star led 4-3 and was on the brink of victory until Robertson delivered two one-visit contributions to seal the match. This is what the best players do.

But next he faces Robert Milkins; and they have history. Neil lost to Milkins in the first round at the World Championship back  in April. The fear factor doesn't exist. Milkins knows he can take him and has been playing well for a while now.

Despite this win, Milkins will be the underdog again. But this a role he has often enjoyed playing.

Higgins is back to his old self and flying through the rounds with authority. He put an end to Joe Perry's terrific run and looks to have rekindled his determination and steely resolve.

The Scot has always had a knack of getting stronger as a tournament wears on and will be feeling good now he's got this far. Bidding for his second trophy inside a month, he probably goes into the semi-finals a shade the favourite to win the title.

But next he faces Matthew Stevens, who is looking to reach his second final in China of the year after the World Open in March.

The Welshman is going quietly about his business and looks to have hit some good form. He faces a big task against Higgins but will take the chances if he gets them and has beat every top player before.

 Bring on the semi-finals.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Home hopes

Wuxi is some 6,000 miles from the UK, the place many professional players call home.

The mix of travelling and adapting to a completely different culture to normal can be daunting and tough, but one young Scot and another from Ireland have taken it all in their stride so far this week.

Scotland's Scott Donaldson and Ireland's David Morris have both progressed to the last 16 of a major ranking event for the first time in this year's Wuxi Classic - and it is music to the ears of fans back home.

Both Scotland and Ireland have a rich snooker history and are renowned for producing great players. But the future hasn't looked all that rosey in the past couple of years - and both nations are crying out for a new player to make a mark.

Are these two players about to plot their path to stardom?

Donaldson is 19 years old and, now his second season on the pro circuit, looks ready to make the step up. He's beaten Gareth Green and Jimmy Robertson so far this week and looks comfortable way beyond his years in Wuxi.

He has a great amateur record as the former Scottish Under 16, 19 and 21 champion. Now he's out there with the big boys, this counts for very little - but he is making an impression at the top level now.

Having already won 15 of his 18 matches this season, he's definitely one to watch.

Morris is a little more familiar with life on the circuit. He's only 24 years old today but first turned professional back in 2006. Adaptation has often come hard for him and he's had plenty of set backs, but he's still here fighting.

Wins against Gary Wilson and Gerard Greene have guided him to the last 16 and returning to tour via Q School this summer looks like it may have given him some momentum. 

Morris has always had bags of ability and still scores heavily. He looks like he might be on the right path now and the change to tournament structure could give him the push he's needed for a while.

There have been plenty of other talking points apart from these two bright runs.

It's a big season coming up for two-time world champion Mark Williams. He played some excellent snooker to knock out Jack Lisowski 5-4 and is showing signs of a return to form. After almost 18 months where he has failed to impress, the Welshman still has plenty of fans behind him and needs to show his class to prevent a slide down the rankings.

Joe Perry is still on his winning streak. He piled yet more home pressure on Ding Junhui with a 5-1 win. The Cambridgeshire man is having a great time over in China and showing what can be gained by getting your head down and focusing on the job in hand.

Then a word for Peter Lines too. He's beaten China's biggest moaner Mark Allen this week and is now through to the last 16 having knocked out Petr Lines. The Leeds man is a dedicated pro and a big snooker lover. His performances so far suggest he's equipped himself well for the coming season.

These early events can often be difficult to judge with every player at a different stage in sharpness. The volume of practice put in over the summer varies from player to player and form is difficult to predict.

But we're down to the final 16 and there are plenty of big names still in the hunt - as well China's own Cao Yupeng and Xiao Guodong.

Who will end the week as the Wizard of Wuxi?

Wuxi Classic last 16 draw:

Robert Milkins v Scott Donaldson
Mark Williams v Anthony Hamilton
Ben Woollaston v Cao Yupeng
Mark King v Neil Robertson
David Gilbert v Joe Perry
John Higgins v Xiao Guodong
Peter Lines v Matthew Stevens
Ali Carter v David Morris

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Perry gets that winning feeling

When I interviewed Joe Perry almost two years ago to very day he spoke about getting back that winning attitude.

This weekend he really did enjoy that feeling of victory as he claimed his first ever ranking event win at the Asian Tour event 1, the Yixing Open.
Picture by Monique Limbos

Snooker fans call Perry 'The Gentleman' because of his likeable attitude, but that definitely shouldn't be mistaken for him being a soft touch. He has always had the determination to be the very best he can be.

I've watched him hit top form, including en route to the semi-finals of the World Championship in 2008. He is a smooth, classy player and as good as most to watch when he finds his rhythm. He doesn't force the balls and has a great touch.

He needed an excellent performance to get the job done here. In the earlier rounds he beat off Robert Milkins, Cao Yupeng and Alan McManus - before seeing off world number two Mark Selby 4-1 in the final.

The Jester looked like he was on the warpath. He dropped just three frames on his journey to the final and enjoyed five whitewash wins.

Beating Perry would have helped reclaim top spot in the world after he lost it to Neil Robertson just a week earlier. But Perry wasn't to be denied.

This will go down as a famous win for the man from Cambridge. It almost guarantees him a place at the PTC Grand Finals later in the season and will be a great confident boost for the tournaments coming up.

Well played Joe.

Click here to read my interview with Joe Perry from two years ago.

Monday, 10 June 2013

To Bulgaria and back

John Higgins looked back to his good old self in Bulgaria over the weekend - and ended it holding the first trophy of the season aloft.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The Wizard of Wishaw - and four-time world champion - struggled to find his form at the end of last season and people can be forgiven for questioning whether his best was actually in the past.

But this was back to business for the Scot as he flew to Sofia for the second ever Bulgarian Open and strode confidently to the winning line.

On the final day, he beat a star-studded list of top players including Shaun Murphy, reigning world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan and Australia's Neil Robertson in the final.

You have to be playing well to beat these boys and Higgins was. He looked chipper than in the last few months and played well in all departments.

This was the first TV event of the season as we look forward to aother campaign where Eurosport will play a big part taking snooker far and wide to the baize-thirsty public.

This was a chance to see the players up close again after an albeit short summer off. We learned again that despite the shorter format of the PTC events that the top players find a way to win. That's what talent counts for.

We all enjoyed the fun and games of the Wuxi Classic qualifiers, in what looks like will be an exciting new format. But while this new draw structure presents a land of opportunity for the game's newest stars, I think the strength of performance the top players showed in Bulgaria could tell us a lot about the season ahead as we continue on Barry Hearn's  brightest venture so far.

The top players are at the right end of the rankings for a reason and will stay there, unless the chasing pack really earn it. The top players no longer have the same level of protection as in years gone by and have been forced to waver any divine rights to play at all the venues.

While we will see shocks along the way, the top guns will really take some beating - and will probably prove while they are the best.

The new system presents a chance for the more inexperienced professionals to make an immediate impact on the tour, but the big boys won't be giving it away easy.

We saw an indication in Bulgaria of who might do particularly well. Higgins looked in the mood and could be back competing for the honours for the remainder of this season.