Sunday, 26 May 2013

Let's do it all again

Welcome back snooker fans!

The new snooker season kicks off on this second May bank holiday weekend with the Wuxi Classic qualifiers in Gloucester.

It feels like a lifetime ago but it's actually only been three weeks since the bank holiday weekend earlier in the month when Ronnie O'Sullivan beat Barry Hawkins at the Crucible to claim a fifth world title.

Time on the beach is a premium these days for the players. For many years the game has had months of hibernation between the World Championships and the first ranking event of the new season - but that's all change now Barry Hearn is at the helm.

In fact, arguably Barry's biggest modofication to the snooker regime kicks off now.

When the first cue ball of the season is struck in the morning, it will be under a brand new system. 128 players will gather at the South West Academy hoping to win one match to make it the main venue in Wuxi.

At all bar three ranking events this season, there will be a flat draw. Everyone is in from round one. This is the level-playing field Hearn has been pining for.

For the new professionals and the lower-ranked players, it is a land of opportunity. If you're good enough, you can prove it straight away. There is the added difficult of having to beat a player up in the top 64. But there's no longer three or even four matches separating you and the venue. Success is now closer to your fingertips.

For the higher-ranked players, there is nowhere to hide. Protection has been wiped away. You have to prove you're still good enough to be competing at the venues, instead of being gifted your place.

If you win matches, you will succeed. There's no fairer system than that.

Click here for the draw and format of the Wuxi Classic qualifiers.

There are some fascinating ties here. World champion O'Sullivan begins his season against Michael Wasley. Six-time Crucible king Steve Davis locks horns with Stephen Hedry's nephew James Cahill. Ding Junhui is tryig to qualify for his true home evet agaist Aditya Mehta. There are plety more.

It will be interesting to see which players are still on vacation and those who are ready and raring to go. Players will arrive with all different levels of practice under their belts. Keep your eyes on these matches. We could be in store for a few shocks.

Monday, 6 May 2013

A master at work

Ronnie O'Sullivan's capture of a fifth world title will surely rank as one of his finest moments in the game.

Having played just one competitive match since he won the World Championship a year ago, the Rocket came back and did it all again when many said he couldn't.

He ripped through the field with relative ease and proved once again that he is the best out there and still the man to beat.
Picture by Monique Limbos

His 18-12 victory against Barry Hawkins in the final was superb. He scored a record six centuries in a World Championship final, became the first player since Stephen Hendry in 1996 to successfully defend the sport's premier title and became the record century maker ever at the Crucible.

These are records deserving to a player of such class.

O'Sullivan plays the game like no one else. At his best, he makes a ridciculously difficult game look effortless and plays to a standard many can only dream of.

This victory will surely rank right up there alongside the best of his achievements on the green baize. Having spent a year away from the challenges of competitive snooker, it was difficult to predict exactly how O'Sullivan would cope.

Many people said he would be too ring rusty to lift the title again but, in the end, he just picked up where he left off and was actually the freshest of them all as he bulldozed his way to triumph.

This was a sensational return even by O'Sullivan's lofty standards. It will go down as one of the best sporting feats in my lifetime. It proves the Rocket really is a master of our sport: a gift to the game and a born genius.

It's difficult to judge whether O'Sullivan played as well as he ever has at the Crucible but the nature of the win probably makes it his most special for the outsiders looking in.

His break building throughout the tournament was exceptional but it was his terrific matchplay that mastered the field. He looked 100 per cent focused, answered every question he was asked and never lost his discipline.

The work Ronnie has done alongside Dr Steve Peters was shining through at every turn. In this kind of form and with this level of application, O'Sullivan is close to unplayable. In fact, I think only Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis or John Higgins in their pomp could make a fist of a fight with O'Sullivan in this mood.

Saying that, Hawkins did a fine job. He was excellent. He gave everything he had in his first Crucible final and played well enough to beat almost anyone else in the game. He just came up against a force of nature over the two days.

Barry has done himself proud and won plenty of hearts. He is living proof of what can be achieved with a little bit of self belief. He showed what a fine player he is and what great fighting attributes he has in his locker.

He has enjoyed an awesome fortnight beating world number one Mark Selby, Chinese number one Ding Junhui and taking the one table format well in his stride. His performance rubbishes any talk of burnout. Barry has played more than 100 games this season but still saved his best for last on the biggest stage there is. It is easy to feel tired and run down playing in so many tournaments, but this shouldn't be used as an excuse.

It is up to the players themselves to manage their playing schedule and ensure they can produce their best at the most important events. But Barry has proved that burnout only comes into play when you're not playing well. When things are going well, you can play, play and play some more.

What is next for O'Sullivan remains unclear but for now, we should enjoy and marvel at his greatness. He has put on a great show here in Sheffield and is well worth his title.

Well played Ronnie. You've done it again.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Final thoughts: O'Sullivan v Hawkins

Ronnie O'Sullivan arrives at the Crucible Theatre this afternoon as the odds on favourite to win a fifth world title.

Barry Hawkins has been all but written off.
Picture by Monique Limbos

The script says the stage has already been cleared for The Rocket to become the first player to defend at the Crucible since Stephen Hendry in 1996, go ahead of John Higgins on world titles won and just behind Steve Davis on six.

O'Sullivan has been here and done it all before. He has all the big match experience and has been the stand-out player of the tournament by a mile. He beat Judd Trump 17-11 in the semi-finals and was a class above in all departments. This has been the story in every round. He has raised the bar.

His focus and quick thinking on the table has been superb. He hasn't trailed at any time throughout the entire World Championship and despite not reaching the levels he did a year ago, he has scarcely been pushed.

This sums up the size of the task facing Hawkins over the next two days and 35 frames.

To snatch the world title from O'Sullivan's grasp would be an achievement of epic proportions. It may even be considered a greater than shock than when Joe Johnson won the World Championship in 1986.

Hawkins has it all to do but can take plenty of heart from his previous meetings with O'Sullivan. Although he trails 5-1 on head to heads, he has run him close more than once and knows he can compete with him. It is whether he can take this level of competitiveness onto the biggest stage of them all, the World Championship.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Barry has had a superb season, while Ronnie has had none. Since winning his first ranking event last summer at the Australian Open he has grown in confidence, climbed back into the top 16 and enjoyed some great wins.

He has saved his best for the Crucible, though. He's knocked out world number one Mark Selby, Chinese sensation Ding Junhui and recovered from 12-8 down to win eight frames in a row en route to beating Ricky Walden in the semi-finals.

No one can question he deserves to be here. He got better and better in his match against Walden to prove he is adapting to his first experience on the one table format here - but he now needs a seismic performance to lift the trophy.

O'Sullivan looks unshakable. He must produce the performance of his life to slay The Rocket.

But the pressure is off. He has already been casted as the runner-up this year.

He has already achieved something way beyond his wildest dreams. He has fought like a warrior for the past fortnight at the Crucible and can afford to enjoy his proudest moment when he walks out into the arena.

This is a dream come true for a player who has given his all throughout his career.

He can afford to enjoy the occasion. O'Sullivan plays with all the expectation. Hawkins is the underdog but should he pull it off, the size of glory that awaits is massive. It would go down as one of the biggest achievements in snooker history.

Enjoy the final.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Mind your manners

What happened to snooker etiquette?

It appeared to go right out of the window last night in an evening of mild controversy during Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd's Trump's semi-final third session at the Crucible.

The crowd were raucous and a minority sounded like they were trying to deliberately put Judd off on his shots. He had to realign a number of times and a few loud-mouthed Ronnie fans did little to add to the decorum of the whole event.
Picture by Monique Limbos

One fan shouted at the start of the second session earlier yesterday morning: "Suck his arse out, Ronnie."

It's this kind of crowd barracking that would come part and parcel with snooker moving more towards a darts atmosphere. This is the reason proper snooker fans are happy to steer well clear.

One of the great appeals of snooker for me when growing up was the great respect the crowd plays both players and the intense atmosphere that can be created by the silence when players are down on their shots playing a game of great skill and accuracy.

A perfect snooker atmosphere has two key ingredients in my opinion. The deadly silence when players are on shots and then the loud noise when fans applaud a great shot or are entering the arena at the start of a match. Shouting obscenities and trying to distract a player has no place in creating good 'atmsophere'.

A night of controversy wouldn't be complete without a contribution from O'Sullivan.

He has looked as focused as ever in this tournament but let his guard slip in frame 23. He was sternly warned by referee Michaela Tabb for making lewd gestures when wiping down his cue.

Well done to Michaela for not letting her friendship with Ronnie get in the way of a good ticking off. She always does a fantastic job out in the arena and takes charge of the big matches well.

These were two big talking points but there was some great snooker played on the table last night as well. Judd showed some moments of brilliance but it was another session where Ronnie was ultimately too strong all round. He won the session 5-3 and leads the match 14-10 going into this afternoon's conclusion.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Crucible picture book

Time to turn it on

Judd Trump has kept himself in his semi-final against Ronnie O'Sullivan, but now it's time to step up on the gas.

Twice it has looked as if The Rocket was going to take the match away from his young Grove scholar and twice the Bristolian has found a way to hold onto the defending champion's coattails.

In the first session, Trump was 4-1 behind and struggling to score as easily as O'Sullivan. It looked even at this early stage of the encounter as though he would hit Trump hard and quickly assume control, but he won the last three frames and levelled overnight.
Picture by Monique Limbos

The second session looked much the same. After sharing the first four frames, O'Sullivan rattled off three in a row and had Trump on the back foot again at 9-6. Trump was not dettered again and won a tense finalframe to end up 9-7 instead of 10-6.

Trump wasn't anywhere near his best and looked to suffer again from a lacklustre morning performance but the worry here is that he may have missed a golden chance to stride towards a place in his second Crucible final.

O'Sullivan admitted after beating Stuart Bingham that it takes at least one, maybe even two sessions, to adapt to the one table format. His theory has been proved true. He has been playing in his lowest gears so far yet Trump has looked nervous and only managed to keep himself in the contest, rather than taking the chance to open a lead.

I'm not writing Trump off. Far from it. I'm sure he will come out and play better in the second half of the match and showed his courage to come back against Shaun Murphy in the last round, but O'Sullivan is going to get better as well.

Trump needs to take the match by the scruff of its neck and put into practice what he vowed to do in his press conference. He threatened to attack O'Sullivan, put him under pressure and scare him on the table. So far, this kind of performance hasn't materialised.

O'Sullivan has shown glimpses of brilliance in this tournament but hasn't found the consistency he did here when he won the title a year ago.

The four-time champion hasn't trailed a match here yet and is closing in on the final without really having been pushed to the fullest.

Trump has everything he needs to rattle Ronnie. At the halfway stage of this match, it's time for him to push on and exploit any of O'Sullivan's vulnerability.

He might not get the chance to face the master again at the World Championship. He needs to seize the moment.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

O'Sullivan: "I'll be glad when it's over"

Looking ahead: Hawkins v Walden

Ricky Walden against Barry Hawkins may be playing second fiddle in this season's battle of the World Championship semi-finals - but walking out with the arena their own will be a proud moment for both.

I don't think you could have a found a single punter to predict these two would have both made it to the last four at the Crucible.
Picture by Monique Limbos

But here they are having battled through a half of the draw which looked loaded at the start of the tournament, including star names Mark Selby, Neil Robertson, Ding Junhui, Mark Allen, Mark Williams and Stephen Maguire.

They may be unlikely heroes but are definitely here on merit and can now look forward to their game of their lives.

Chester's Walden has played some fluent snooker in his first three rounds and has started really well in every session he's played, admitting he finds it easier to concentrate in the early exchanges of long matches.

His performance against Michael White in the quarter-finals was predatory. He made two centuries and another eight breaks over 50 to beat the Welshman 13-6 and showed how attacking he can be when full of confidence.

Walden is one of those players who I always enjoy watching but never see him as much as some of the other names in the top 16. This ability to go quietly about his business and under the radar in comparison to other marquee names in the draw has probably helped him this week.

He says he's only reached 70 per cent of his top game so far at the Crucible and incidentally has often produced the his best form away from the UK shores. He is a two-time ranking event winner. His triumphs have both come in China at the Shanghai Masters and Wuxi Classic.

Now he has the chance to enjoy ultimate success on home soil and in the biggest event in the sport.

Picture by Monique Limbos
But first, he must beat Barry who is playing out of his skin this week.

Hawkins has always had bags of quality but says his new found self belief and ability to hold himself down when under pressure has made the big difference.

The Kent potter has arguably had the most difficult route of them all to reach the last four. He's gunned down Jack Lisowski, world number one Selby and China star Ding to reach the one table.

His success has been built on accurate and consistent safety. A lot of fans have commented that no one has played well against Barry in this tournament so far, but it isn't a coincidence. He has stopped all of his opponents from playing their best, which is an art in itself.

He has stifled his opponents, got on top of them and broken their rhythm, picking off the wins with a series of great pressure breaks. He's massively up for this.

It's a tough match to call and could go right to the wire.

When they walk out this evening for the first session it will be the realisation of a dream they have both worked hard to achieve throughout their careers.

The match presents a great chance for both to make a World Championship final.

Whoever grabs it with most conviction will surely cross the line.

Retirement talk

Ronnie O'Sullivan is hogging the media spotlight once again for what he's been saying off the table instead of his great ability on it.

The Rocket has always lived an unpredictable life in snooker but stunned quite a few when he declared in his press conference after thrashing Stuart Bingham 13-4 last night that he's had enough of the game again and plans to retire.
Picture by Monique Limbos

He said he's only back at the Crucible this year for the money to pay his children's school fees and after three matches into his title defence can confirm that he doesn't miss playing snooker.

This story has a feeling of the boy who cried wolf and does nothing but confuse us more about the sport's troubled star.

In the build-up to this tournament - billed as his great return - he spoke about snooker filling a hole in his life and his ambitions to win a World Championship title in his 40s, some three years down the line.

Well, perhaps not.

He now plans to find something new to do for a living and will only fulfil his current sponsorship deal next season requiring him to play in 10 tournaments, which he claims include the Snooker Legends Tour events.

Some people are taking these threats with a pinch of salt. We've heard it all before. Betfair is already offering odds on prices for him to return to play at the Crucible next year. Others think he is playing mind games ahead of his huge semi-final clash with Judd Trump. Others think he enjoys the attention and revels with the thrill of toying with the media. And, some are so bored that they don't even care what his plans are.

But maybe Ronnie doesn't even how he feels about snooker. He has always worn his heart on his sleeve and rapidly jump through his mix of emotions.

Whatever your opinion, his clash with Trump has all the hallmarks to become one of the greatest Crucible matches and this twist might even give it some extra spark.

What is certain is that Ronnie will be fighting out there. Whether he plays at the World Championship again or not, he is a ferocious competitor and won't want to be beaten by Trump.

He has been playing throughout this tournament as if his life depends on it and looks focused on winning the title.

These media claims make Trump's task no harder nor easier. He is playing one of the all-time greats and will need every ounce of his ability and fight to muster the win.

Click here to listen to O'Sullivan's latest press conference in full.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Looking ahead: Trump v O'Sullivan

Four-time and defending world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan against the master of naughty snooker Judd Trump in the semi-finals at the Crucible: It's a mouthwatering prospect.

That dream tie is now a reality after the world number three Judd came through a classic 13-12 against Shaun Murphy and Ronnie put Stuart Bingham to the sword 13-4.

Unmissable. That's the best word to use to describe it - but excatly what can we look forward to?

Let's start with Judd. He won a quarter-final that had everything. It was box office quality. It was match of the tournament by a country mile.

It highlighted the beauty of the longer format matches at the Crucible. Trump found himself frustratingly 6-2 down after a poor first session. This set his critics out in force but, if there's one thing Judd doesn't lack, it's confidence.

After a two-hour afternoon sleep and a pep talk from his friends, family and management team, he came back fighting. He produced a string of five straight frames to level 8-8  from 8-3 down and set up a final session where the real drama played out.

Trump and Murphy were toe-to-toe throughout taking chunks out of each other with clinical breaks and astute safety. The determination in the eyes of both men was immense. You could sense that victory would create a launchpad to go on to lift the title for both of them.

In the end, it took a 53-minute decider to separate them and Trump's dramatic win proved he is getting better with age and adding new tools to his kit. He showed incredible fighting spirit and courage to turn the match on its head and then tough it out to the winning line.

If he can consistently produce this matchplay fight and couple it with his more natural long potting ability, which is gradually creeping back to its best, and his great touch in the balls then he will regularly beat players of Murphy's even if they're at their best.

Picture by Monqiue Limbos
Now, what about Ronnie? He's a different beast. He's produced some excellent snooker in his return to the Crucible. He's been installed as the heavy favourite for the contest, and indeed the title.

It's been scary to see how he's returned after a long break and immediately set about his task of carving through the field. He looks a level above the rest. He's played the best snooker of this tournament. His scoring has been mesmerising.

He found himself 12-1 up at one stage in his match against Bingham and was in unstoppable mode. This is what Ronnie brings to the table. He seems to be able to take his performance up a gar when it really matters in matches and kill his opponents off quickly. To beat Ronnie, you have to keep with him, but no one has managed it so far.

The way in which Ronnie has come back and torn through the field makes it feel like a fifth world title is almost written in the stars.

But Judd has plans to stop him in his tracks. He isn't scared of Ronnie and says he won't be intimidated by him on the table.

I've always thought that Trump is one of just a small pocket of players at the top of the game with the mentality to beat O'Sullivan. He relishes the big occasion and has complete belief in his own ability.

Of course, he has great respect for the four-time champion. He's been there and done it and has vastly more experience, but he knows he can rattle him.

O'Sullivan has had everything his own way so far in this championship. He has been the front-runner in all of his matches and dictated in every department. With a good start Judd can test the other side of his game. We're likely to see what O'Sullivan is really like this year when he's put under pressure and maybe asked to come from behind.

These two players are the real crowd pleasers in the game and their match promises to be an absolute classic. Make sure you don't miss it.

Hawk talks of Crucible dream

Barry Hawkins is living the Crucible dream.

He's through to the one table format at the World Championship for the first time ever and is having quite a time of it Sheffield.
Picture by Monique

If his 13-7 win against Ding Junhui wasn't brilliant enough, it comes after knocking out world number one Mark Selby in the last 16. This is a fine double against two of the world's very best players - and is indication of just how well he is performing.

In fact, I can't remember ever seeing Hawkins play any better.

His style has been effective and he has stayed loyal to it. He looks calm under the pressure, is holding himself together in the big moments in his match and is putting his top class opponents under the cosh with fine, accurate and consistent safety.

It's quite a simple formula but is working a treat. He's play with such control and is yet to be broken down.

Hawkins seems to be profiting from greater self-belief, which comes as a result of victory at the Australian Open early this season plus working alongside former champion Terry Griffiths.

He's hit the Crucible big time this year and is rightly delighted. Hawkins has spent most of his career wondering whether he would make it to the real top stage. He's lived through all the doubts and now finally all the years of hardwork since turning professional in 1996 are paying off.  

He looks much different in the big moments in matches and admits he feels better under pressure too. He's really settled down this season and is producing the goods.

When he spoke to the press following his quarter-final win against Ding he explained that the joy of reaching the semi-finals hadn't sunk in yet and it's just a dream come true.

He's into the final four and can feel very proud when he walks out into the arena with the entire crowd watching him. It will be a brand new experience for him and one that will definitely test his new found calmness under pressure.

He's had a fantastic couple of weeks on the biggest snooker stage and things could get better still.

Well played Barry.