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Monday, 21 January 2019

The Masters -Thoughts On The Week

Before we get going,I just want to announce that I've decided to change things up a bit with the blog & it will now be a weekly column concentrating on a different issue within the sport each week,so if anyone has anything they want to see discussed,please leave your suggestion in the comment section or contact me on Twitter @thegreenbaize

Anyway on to the matter in hand and a look back at what we learned over the last week at the Ally Pally.

Well there really is only one place to start & that is with our champion Judd Trump.His 10-4 victory over Ronnie O'Sullivan was as commanding a performance as you are likely to see in a big final and was really just a continuation of what he showed all week. In truth he has looked the likely winner of this tournament from frame one.

Like so many in the past I have been very critical of what appeared to be a lack of respect from Trump for both his talent & the game as a whole, I don't agree with the opinions flying around on social media last night that those suggestions have been proved incorrect,if anything, I think, this week has strengthened that argument. Trump himself has talked about a renewed determination to make the most of his career and the changes he has made really seem to be paying off. Just as the criticisms of the past were well warranted,he equally deserves to be lauded now and will be a force to reckoned with wherever he plays for the rest of the season.

There was also plenty of talk in the aftermath of last nights final that we had just witnessed a "changing of the guard" & "end of an era". I think this may also have been a tad premature.This was Ronnie's 13th final appearance at The Masters and and it would be a brave shout to say it will be his last. If anything,for fans of "The Rocket" seeing how the manner of this defeat seemed to really annoy him last night,it may well spark a renewed effort from him going forward ,even moreso than if he'd coasted to the title here. This one hurt and he'll not want it repeated!

Elsewhere the worrying form of Mark Selby in the "Majors" continued here as after a superb performance in his opening match,he looked all at sea in his quarter final against Trump. This has been a continuation of what we've seen from him over the last season and a half and although he has lifted titles in that time,you have to start wondering are his best days behind him?

Selby turns 36 in June and although snooker has increasingly become an older mans game in the last decade I just don't see him any signs that he can still produce the consistency he once did and in many ways the same applies to Neil Robertson,who turns 37 in a few weeks.Of course such predictions may be made look very silly in the coming months!

On another note,after what has been a very poor spell by his standards, it was great to see Ding Junhui again showing a bit of form. Hopefully he can kick on from here as it would be a real shame to see his career just peter out,without lifting a few more titles and maybe giving the Worlds another good rattle.For all the talk we've heard of the young players from China coming through,Ding is still the undisputed no.1 from that part of the world and the more success he continues to have ,the more the sport there will grow.

Finally just a word on the venue which has become the natural home for this tournament in recent years.Sometimes this sort of "fake auditorium" can really have a poor atmosphere,but here they have somehow managed to make a 2000 seat arena also appear quite intimate.  Even watching on tv last week you could cut the tension with a knife at times.Snooker is a sport that really thrives on packed arenas full of people engaged in whats going on.Speaking of which,next stop on the tour is The Tempodrom for The German Masters!

Talk to ye next week.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Nugget & I, A Fans Story fully Updated

Five years have now passed since I first posted this personal tribute to "The Nugget" and it remains to this day the blog for which I've received the most feedback .Of course with the passage of time some of what I've written no longer applies,but for this update I've decided to leave the original article untouched.However I have added at the end the most glorious postscript.

"How many times have I been here before" That was the  thought that went through my head last Thursday as the clock ticked past midnight  and Steve Davis completed his stirring comeback from 3-1 down to beat Jamie Jones 4-3 in the ET3 event in Doncaster. He would go on to the last 16 on Saturday where he was narrowly defeated 4-3 by Marco Fu,but that is not what I'm here to write about,rather this is an account of how in an ever changing world "The Nugget" has remained the one constant in my life for the last 35 yrs.

Thinking about it maybe is was always going to be thus,as September 1978 was not only the month Steve turned professional but also the month of my birth.This happy coincidence has meant my life has run in parallel with the career of the great man and boy what a career it has been.

Obviously at this remove it would be impossible to remember the exact moment I started to watch snooker and follow Steve,but I do have vivid memories of the "85" World final and was sufficiently interested in it to remember been possibly the only Irishman crying for Steve (I was only 7) when Taylor potted that black to lift the title.

My other memory from this time was a trip to Dublin on the eve of my First Holy Communion and walking half the city with my ever so patient parents,as we searched in vain for a blazer with a black waistcoat so I could look like the main man on my big day.To my disgust the nearest we could find was a maroon one which I refused to wear as it was too "Alex Higgins"!

Moving on the next thing to cross off the list was to see him play As i've said before i was lucky enough to live within a few miles of Goffs,the home of the Irish Masters,so to my delight that chance came in 1987 when,with my father,we made the first of what was to become an annual pilgrimage to semi finals Saturday.His opponent on this occasion was Terry Griffiths and after Steve had recorded a 6-2 win I remember queuing for his autograph and only his,as after Steve signed my book I took it and walked away just as Terry was getting ready to scribe his name on it.

The 80's drew to an end with Steve claiming a 6th World title with his most comprehensive win to date,an 18-3 victory over John Parrott.Surely,I thought,as the new decade began that this dominance of the game was set to continue!

Of course we now know it didn't .A combination of the arrival  in the big time of Stephen Hendry (God how the 12 year old me hated him) and an alignment problem meant the man who had been almost unbeatable was now just another one of the pack. Titles were still won,but they were becoming fewer and further between.It should be noted that a despite this,a run of consistent form in 1994 had him just one victory away from regaining his World no.1 ranking but his world championship semi final defeat to Hendry meant that this would never again be the case.

The 90's rolled on and I would be lying to say it was always easy to watch,as it seemed at times that Steve's biggest opponent was not the man sitting in the opposite chair,but instead the ghost of his former self.That said though,as is often the case,this only made the victories,when they did come,all the sweeter.

The most sparkling of these at this time was his epic B&H Masters triumph over Ronnie O'Sullivan in 1997 at the old Wembley Conference Centre. This had looked most unlikely as Ronnie,playing snooker from the Gods raced into an 8-4 lead.Steve was not for lying down and he fought back to win 10-8.By this stage I had long given up watching the match from my armchair and was now kneeling in front of the tv willing every pot in.I think i still have the final stages on video somewhere.

Into a new century we moved and Steve seemed to change his outlook towards the game.Gone now the shackles of trying to compete with the past,but in their place an acceptance that everything must pass and a desire to keep trying to be competitive against a new generation of players.

This new approach has on occasion produced some stunning results,like his fabulous run to the final of the UK Championship in 2005 and his memorable second round victory over defending world champion John Higgins at the 2010 World Championship.(I'm not too proud to admit that this one also brought a tear to my eye) I for one couldn't think of  better way to sign off if indeed this is to be his last hurrah at the Crucible

As for me my one remaining wish  was to get a chance to play a frame against the great man and.thankfully that opportunity came in an exhibition,when I outbid all my rivals in a auction(I wont say how much I paid) to get that chance.The frame itself is something I will never forget as I struggled  to control my shaking hands to play my opening shot.Steve to his credit gave me a generous handicap and plenty of chances which,as I managed to start potting a few,was enough to see me win the frame.The result was only secondary though to the thrill of playing the great man and to be honest I would have been equally happy to have sat there watching Steve knock in a century against me.

Thats it then and here we stand on the 22nd August 2013 the day of Steve's 56th birthday and he is still holding back the tide with the occasional displays of brilliance.

As for myself I have finally accepted that I'm not going to make it on the baize and have instead turned my hand instead to writing about the sport I love.Obviously to that end I have to try and be as impartial as possible when composing articles but I hope having read this you will forgive me,if every so often,that goes out the window when The Nugget is playing.

August 2018
As we all know time or tide wait for no man and a slump in form during the 2013/14 season meant a strong world championship performance was needed to keep Steve on the tour. Unfortunately,despite one more heroic display, that had us once again on the edge of our seats, he went down 10-8 to Craig Steadman and so dropped out of the top 64.He did get a reprieve,when Barry Hearn announced the legends wildcards, but in truth he was probably only going through the motions at this stage & when he lost to Fergal O'Brien in the Worlds qualifiers in April 2016, a month after the sad death of his father & greatest supporter Bill, retirement seemed inevitable.He finally announced it at the Crucible, where he got to parade the famous trophy one more time to the rapturous applause of the crowd & i'm sure I wasn't the only one watching with a tear inn my eye an era drew to a close.

And that should indeed should have been it,but in January of 2018, when Stephen Hendry was forced to withdraw from the Senior Irish Masters,Steve was convinced to dust off his cue one more time and return for a last hurrah to  the scene of so many of his triumphs in the past at Goffs Co.Kildare.

The return to this stage seemed to once again inspire Steve as he swept past Denis Taylor 3-1 in his first match & followed that up with a 3-0 victory over John Parrott  in the semi final. The strange anomaly of all the years I had seen Steve play here was that we had never got tickets for the final,but that wasn't to happen again this time, as 31 years after the first,I made one final pilgrimage to see the "The Nug" .

As I walked in past the beautifully manicured hedges that surround this wonderful sales ring & past the statue of the horse Be My Guest,my thoughts drifted back to all the times I had walked this way in with my own late father.Boy how he would have loved to have been with me that night as Steve once again produced some superb snooker to beat Jonathan Bagley 4-0 to claim the Senior Irish Masters title in what was his last ever competitive snooker match.This really was the stuff of fairytales.

And so, this time, that is that ,What is left for me to say but simply, thanks Steve.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

World Championship The Talking Points

So as Mark Williams puts some clothes back on & the dust settles on another world championship, what exactly did we learn over the last two 17 days?

The Class of '92
In the piece I wrote in the wake of last years final ,I suggested that after seeing the way that Higgins faded on the final day against Selby,we were perhaps now at the stage where the games biggest prize might just be beyond these three great champions. Well how wrong was I, as Higgins & Williams once again proved the old adage of form been temporary ,but class been permanent.The way this year went whose to say this wont be be witnessing something similar next year?

Ronnie O'Sullivan
The main surprise ,after the sensational season he's had, was just how limply Ronnie, exited the tournament in round two.It is ever more likely that his final defeat in 2014 to Selby will be the closest he gets to a sixth world crown. However seeing his two oldest rivals contest the final may just give him the push he needs to really make one more concerted effort to get back to the Crucible summit & it will be interesting to see if his playing schedule next season is built around peaking in late April.

Mark Selby
Its been a strange season for Selby,who on the face of it had a decent campaign by picking up the International Championship & China Open titles, but elsewhere largely having a miserable time of it. In one prediction I did get right,I said in my preview that if he were to be vulnerable it would be in the early rounds and so it proved as Joe Perry dumped him out on the opening day.

It would be foolish to suggest that this heralds the end of Selby as a major force in the game, but you just wonder if we have been spoilt by the standard that O'Sullivan, Higgins & Williams have maintained into their 40's. This has not been the norm and at 35 Selby is older than Davis or Hendry were ,when their game went into terminal decline.Of course the game is different now,with more tournaments putting less emphasise on long periods of heavy practice & not really the talent coming behind that they were faced with, but I'm just saying, though I do see plenty more titles in Selbys future, it would be dangerous to just presume his best form will automatically return.I think this is even more so the case with 36 yr old Neil Robertson.

Beaten semi finalists Wilson & Hawkins
Its a rare thing to have two cracking semi finals at the Crucible ,but that's what we got here as Wilson & Hawkins pushed their opponents all the way.

It has been a difficult season for Hawkins off the table, but he showed his liking for the Crucible to again make a bold bid for the title. The fact he just came up short again in the semi final will be gut wrenching for him & you just wonder how many more times he can go to the well here and recover from the disappointment.

Wilson on the other hand gave the impression here that he will be contesting at the business end of this championship for many years to come.A great break builder, he is calm under pressure and has a self belief that he will win that never comes across as cocky.He will have learnt a lot from his first experience of the single table set up here and I would be shocked if he's not a major contender in all the big events next season as well as back at the Crucible.

Ding & Trump
Another year, another chance slips by for the two most talented players currently at the top of the game yet to claim the world crown.After two great runs at the title in the last two years,it seemed Ding had laid his Crucible ghosts to rest, but they came back to haunt him in abundance here as he bowed out tamely to Hawkins in the quarter finals. The most disappointing thing about him here was to see just haw little fight there was in him when Hawkins started to pull away.He would do well to spend his summer studying how John Higgins handles adversity as with his current attitude it would be hard to see him ever lifting the trophy here.

Judd Trump is another a the stage in his career where the world title, that at one stage seemed his destiny, is something that will forever allude him.Here again this year he was very lucky to escape from the first round against debutant Chris Wakelin ,before finally bowing out to John Higgins in a decider in the last 8.This on the face of it, was a good performance, but it was his comments, once again,  about his opponents "luck" that struck me. This seems to be a trend with Trump in recent times after defeat, he blames everything bar his own shortcomings for his defeat. If this sort if attitude continues to go unchecked he will continue to be the sports top nearly man.One "Triple Crown" title is a poor return on his talent. It may be up to someone in his circle to start pointing out some uncomfortable home truths to him.

So thats it then, as a season dominated by the over 40's ends with Mark J Williams deservedly getting his name on the sports most famous trophy for a third time, we are as always left with a mountain of questions as to what the new season will bring.Lets hope whatever happens it will prove as enjoyable as the one just past.Enjoy your summer.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Mark Williams 2018 World Champion

Mark Williams is the 2018 world champion after finally seeing off John Higgins 18-16 in one of the best finals we've seen here in many years,

The story of the season has been the resurgence of the "class of 92" so it was, in retrospect, not that big a surprise to see two of them in the final, but perhaps what we might not have expected, was just how much both men would have left in the tank after 17 days of intense competition.

Starting out today Williams would have been delighted the way he rallied to claim that 10-7 overnight lead, having been earlier pegged back to 7-7, and things just got better straight out the gate today as he took the first four frames to the interval to lead 14-7.

Williams was now looking a man completely at one with his game as he serenely floated around the table,there was even whispers of it finishing with a session to spare, but  we should know by now, you count out John Higgins at your peril.Back came the Scot after the interval,but although he did take three of the next four, he still had it all to do trailing 15-10 coming into the night session.

What Higgins needed to produce tonight was a perfect session of snooker and it certainly started that way, with a 131 in the opener to close to 15-11.The next two frames followed a similar pattern, as Williams was suddenly struggling to get over the line in frames and two big dishes (67 &82) from Higgins saw him close to with two at  15-13.

Amazingly he also took the next to the go to the interval just the one behind at 15-14 and then followed it up with a 62 break when they resumed to draw level at 15-15.

Just what was going through Williams head at this stage is anyones guess,but having lost 8 of the previous 9 frames, he showed just why he has won so many big tournaments over the years to steady the ship and edge ahead again at 16-15,

A 100 break in the 32nd frame moved him to the brink at 17-15 and the title looked all but his as his break reached 63 in the next, only for him to then miss match ball pink.Higgins being Higgins cleared nervelessly with 65 to make it 17-16.

By now we were wondering what else could happen in this one,but in got Williams again in the next and this time there was no mistake as he sealed the title with a fine break of 69.

So a third world title for Williams, 15 years after his second  and one year after failure to qualify for the championship had him contemplating retirement. Whether this revival is entirely down to his devotion to the "SightRight" techniques or the fact that trying something new just gave the encouragement to practice seriously again its impossible to know, but what it has done is provide one of the games greats with a boost of confidence that has seen him back in the winners circle three times this season, including the biggest one of all.

For Higgins after all he has battled, not just in this match, but at various times over the fortnight, this will be a crushing defeat. He will look back at the slow start he made yesterday as perhaps the key moments in this match and although he can be rightly proud of how he fought his way back into it, you just wonder if now after a second world final defeat in a row ,if a fifth title will just prove beyond him.

We must finish though, by again saluting our champion. It was so nice to see his family living every shot from the balcony,especially when you remember that for his kids, this is their first time seeing him on top of the world. It also serves as a timely reminder for a newer generation of snooker fans, who perhaps don't pay due respect to the past, that when we dine out on talk of the games all times greats, Mark J Williams deserves his place at the table.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

World Final Day One.

Nostalgia was very much the order of the day today,as we started the best of 35 final wondering,would we be seeing John Higgins lift the trophy for a fifth time, 20 years after winning his first or would it be Mark Williams claiming a third title 15 years after his second?

For all though that these two are the oldest pairing to reach a final in Crucible history,,there is no fluke about it, as both have shown all season that they are still forces to be reckoned with in the game and have at various times in the last two weeks produced some of their very best snooker.

The question starting out today,was just how much they both had left in the tank for this one,with focus especially on Williams following his late night finish in the semi final.

Any worries on this score were quickly put to bed though as Williams settled immediately  to lead 4-0 and it was  Higgins who was struggling to find his touch. We knew however it would only be a matter of time before he did and having got off the mark in frame five,he took three of the next four to trail by two at the end of the first session, the score 5-3.

Into tonight's nine frame session and if the afternoon was about settling, tonight was about showing they meant business ,as the standard noticeably went up a notch. Here the four frames to the interval were shared to move the score along to 7-5,but when Higgins then took the next two to level at 7-7 you sensed he might be finally getting on top.

Williams was having none of it though as he responded to Higgins's equalising century with one of his own to regain the lead at 8-7, before also taking the next to extend it to 9-7.

One frame left then and although both had chances it was again Williams who took to just edge the session and extend his overnight lead to three again at 10-7.

So advantage Williams then,but this one is a long way from over and since we're dealing in nostalgia, wouldn't it be nice if we had a final frame decider for the first time in 16 years

Saturday, 5 May 2018

SEmi Hinal

The 2018 world final will be a case of back to the future as John Higgins faces off against his fellow "class of 92" graduate Mark Williams for the games biggest prize.

First up John Higgins reached his seventh Crucible decider after a hard fought victory over Kyren Wilson..I said in my preview of this match that if Wilson were to win this, he probably needed a good start to capitalise on any tiredness Higgins may have been feeling after  his last eight tussle with Trump, but although Higgins was visibly showing signs of fatigue, Wilson couldn't make the most of it and Higgins would have been delighted to emerge with a 5-3 lead from the opening session.

This turned out to be the key moment in this one as,try as he might over the following two days Wilson was continuously playing catch up. If the match against Trump showed Higgins's at his determined best,this match showed  just what a dogged matchplayer he can be,even when not at his best For large parts of this match Higgins scoring just wasn't there,but he kept eking out the frames he needed to maintain his advantage throughout.

Starting today he still lead by two at 13-11 and by the mid session interval that had moved along to 15-13.From here it was fight to the line and as so often in the past This was where Higgins showed his class,knocking in breaks of 100 & 98 to seal a 17-13 win.

So for Higgins a chance to right the wrongs of last years final defeat to Selby, for Wilson some time to reflect on a season that saw him reach a Masters final & experience the one table set up at the Crucible for the first time.He can take a lot of positives from what he did here & it would be a shock if we don't see at the business end here for many years to come.

The other semi final seemed to following a similar pattern as Hawkins opened up an early two frame lead at 5-3,that turned into 9-7 & 13-11 over the next two sessions.

The standard had been pretty high in this in this one over the first 24 frames,but with a place in the final at stake, that was not to continue into the final session.

Twitching was the name of the game as the last session turned into a bit of a slog with both players struggling to find some rhythm. It was Williams though who was putting the frames on the board and he levelled things up at the interval at 14-14.

Best of 33 had now become best of 5,but by now nothing was coming easy to either of these two great competitors.Hawkins did edge ahead again at 15-14,but William again drew level ,before taking the lead for the first time in the match at 16-15.

The next frame was a long tense affair,but eventually Williams potted a marvellous long pink and then rolled in the black to  reach the world final for the first time in 15 years.

So will it be a 5th title for Higgins or a 3rd for Williams?
Well after 15 gruelling days of competition, the world final always to some degree comes down to who has the most left in the tank and this time that might be even more relevant than ever .These two great champions have been pushed to the limit at various times over the fortnight and it could very easily boil down to who has something left for one last push to the top of the hill.

It is for this reason I just favour Higgins, he has the most recent experience of these back to back four session matches and although he did fade on the final day against Selby last yr,I still think he will have enough in reserve for another world crown this time score prediction 18-13

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Quarter Final Round up plus Semi Final Preview

And then there were four, after a day that delivered three one sided victories,but one dramatic finish that had the Crucible rocking.

On paper the match up between John Higgins & Judd Trump looked to be the tie of the round and boy was that to be proven to be correct,in what was a match for the ages.

Higgins had reached this stage with some superb snooker in his opening two matches , whereas Trump had largely struggled to reach this stage.

For all that though, it was Trump who got off to the better start to lead after the first session 5-3. When he extended that lead to 7-3 this morning  he looked to be taking control, but we should know better at this stage than to write off Higgins & back he came to not only draw level ,but to maybe consider himself unfortunate not to lead 9-7.

That last frame of the session did go to Trump though to leave it 8-8 and present  us with a mouth watering best of nine for a place in the last four.

Into the night then and it was once again Trump who stamped his authority early to lead 11-9. Higgins though did yet again what great champions do when their back id to the wall, he knuckled down and fought back , taking the next three to lead 12-11.

Higgins was in first in the next,but this time it was Trump who showed the type of  character that he has so often in the past lacked to clear to the blue and force the decider.

Higgins would not be denied though and he made the most of his second scoring chance to secure a hard fought 13-12 win.

In the semi final he will face the youngest man left in the tournament, in Kyren Wilson.

Wilson reached the single table set up for the first time with a sparkling 13-6 victory over Mark Allen. 

Many , myself included , thought this would be a closely fought encounter,but a superb second session saw Wilson establish an 11-5 overnight lead and the from here the result was never in doubt.

Talking of one sided matches, Barry Hawkins once again showed his liking for this place with a 13-5 demolition job on Ding Junhui.

Following Ronnies  exit  in the last round many were predicting that this would be the year that Ding finally delivered the games biggest prize,but having looked in fine touch in the earlier rounds ,he was once again found lacking when the pressure came on and really bowed out here quite tamely.If this is something he wants to rectify,he would do well to watch a recording of John Higgins tonight

Hawkins will face Mark Williams,whose revival has been one of the stories of the season and the Welshman will be quietly  fancying his chances of a third world title here after another strong finish to see off Ali Carter.

A close finish had looked on the cards here also, but starting the night leading 9-7 Williams floated his way to a 11-7 lead that left the result in little doubt.Carter dug deep to close to 11-8,but that was to be his last frame of the match, Williams running out a comfortable 13-8 winner in the end.

So what of the semi finals. Well the old sentimentalist in me would love to see a Higgins v Williams final,but really such is the degree of respect in the snooker world  for all four of these competitors, no matter who wins it will be a great story.

As far as predictions go I think the key question in the Wilson v Higgins match will be just how much that last eight match took out of the veteran Scot.

Of course it is a four session match over three days,but we have seen time and time again just how important those early exchanges can be. I think if Higgins can at least stay close in the first session tomorrow he may just have a bit too much experience at this level for his young opponent.
Prediction 17-12 Higgins

If that one is hard to call then the match between Hawkins & Williams is nearly impossible.

Hawkins has of course been a regular at the business here in recent years,but perhaps the main difference this year is the fact that he has reached this stage without much drama and as a result will have plenty more left in the tank.

For Williams,I think, in recent years he has felt that these days were behind him and now finding himself here again he wont want to give it away easily.

For that reason I just favour the Welshman to edge this and give us that dream final ,but it will be close Prediction 17-15 to Williams