Tuesday 13 August 2013

Ahead to India

It appears justice has prevailed.

Aditya Mehta and Pankaj Advani will play in Delhi at the Indian Open. They came through matches, quite frankly, they should never have been playing at the Doncaster Dome to qualify.

They have saved World Snooker a blooper and can now, rightly, be the flag bearers for this exciting new event. It is no more than they deserve after the success they enjoyed on the professional tour last season helped to create the market for this event.

There has been much chitter chatter on the subject on Twitter, but for me it's quite straightforward.

My opinion is that Mehta and Advani should been fast-tracked through to the venue in Delhi to help establish this event in its first season. Forget what is the fairest system. Having them both at the venue is what is best for the long-term future of this event.

Now though, they have both got there on true merit. Their participation should help ticket sales and give an extra boost to any appetite for the game out there.

When the last 64 kicks off in Delhi in October it will be a big snooker breakthrough for the nation and hopefully the start of a bright future for the game in these far parts.

But not everyone is happy. The best of seven frame format all the way until the final gives the event a PTC feel. Then when we do make it to the showpiece, we will see the much criticised best of nine format.

Somehow this doesn't feel quite right for a ranking event, but we have to start somewhere and in time this event should grow. We have an event in India and that in itself is good progress.

Talking of where we begin, this tournament started in the Doncaster Dome. From a spectator perspective, it seems good.

Yorkshire is easily accessible for most of the UK fans and the chance to watch so many matches and so many different players in just a day or two still excites even the long-serving venue goers amongst us.

For the top players, these type of venues are from ideal though.

While Barry Hearn's brave new world for snooker promises a level playing field and the same chances available to all, the match conditions shouldn't be compromised on.

The game is nothing without its star players. While I don't believe they should be powdered with luxury, the basics need to be right.

Snooker players today seem refreshingly happy to 'tell it how it is' and the governing body needs to listen.

The comfort of my sofa and my inability to play the game at a decent level means I am not in a position to judge the playing conditions but, if what I read from a large numbers of players is correct, improvements need to be made.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Williams back to winning ways

It was more than two years since Mark Williams won a ranking event until Rotterdam - but now he's back in the game.

The former world number one and two-time world champion Williams is one of the greats, a real favourite with the fans and he's made a welcomed return to the winner's circle.

He beat Mark Selby 4-3 in the Rotterdam Open final yesterday with a touch of class: taking the game to his opponent and really going for his shots. This attacking flair is exactly how he masterminded his years of huge success over the past decade and more.

He didn't let Selby dictate and took home the trophy as a reward. This is his first win since the German Masters back in 2011, where he also beat Selby.

People are quick to cosign the old boys to history after a few defeats or difficult spells, but Williams has bounced back here and has proved he is still very much capable of taking home silverware. Now ranked out side of the top 16, he has some work to do to force his way back into the Masters line-up but a dose of that winning feeling may just spur him on.

Williams is by how own admission not a massive fan of the PTC events, but events like this one here in Europe have the feel of a 'proper' event. This ultimately helps the bigger players who have more experience playing in front of the crowds.

Mark is at the stage of his career where the pressure should be off. He's been there and done it. Maybe by adopting an attitude of just turning up to play and seeing what happens could play to his advantage this season as he looks to get back into the top 16.

This isn't a big win in comparison with the achievements looking back at his career, but it feels poignant.

The thought of seeing Williams getting back to playing anywhere near his very best is exciting. Let's see what the Welshman has up his sleeve for the rest of the campaign.

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.

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.