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Saturday, 30 November 2013

UK Championship Day 5 First round finally comes to an end!

Five days into the 2013 UK Championship and although over 70 matches have now been played,the talk so far has had very little to do with the action on the table,with the new structure dominating the headlines.

The decision to change the games second biggest tournament to the flat 128 system was always going to be controversial and if the powers that be were hoping that once it started those fears would disappear,they were very much mistaken as a succession of big names lined up to complain about everything from the new format to cramped playing conditions.

The most vocal of these were were probably Judd Trump who called it a circus,Ali Carter who was disappointed with the way the tables were squeezed in and Stephen Maguire who reckoned the tournament had now been ruined,but these were by no means the only ones.

It was not only among the players though that this debate was raging but also among the twitter community on social media where opinion ranged from those dead against the changes,to those fully behind them and every other emotion in between.

Personally I  think its too early to tell if this is the right thing or not.Certainly teething problems with such a radical change are to be expected,but I hope & expect,with our sports current management,that all sides and opinions from the players will be listened to with a view to improving things for everyone.

So what of the snooker itself? Well yes we had a few minor upsets during the week but nothing exceptional apart from the exit of Marco Fu at the hand of amateur Mitchell Travis.The rest of the big stars all made it through round 1 but defending champion Mark Selby was made to work very hard by promising young prospect Shane Castle,with the 15 year old leading at one stage 3-1 before Selby eventually went through 6-4.Surely a player we will be hearing about for many years to come.

On the plus side the crowds at The Barbican seemed to good today so hopefully as the field thins out over the next few days the headlines will be purely about the what is happening on the 12x6 tables.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

UK Championship preview

For all the competitive action we are spoiled with these days there are certain events still that will always hold a special place in the hearts and minds of snooker fans and the UK Championship which began on York today is one of them.

The big change this year of course is that the flat 128 draw which means everyone entering the tournament at the first round stage.This is a system that is already in use in all PTC events and now in most ranking events,but it remains to be seen how it will work here in a tournament that is only second to the World Championship in terms of prestige.I do understand the logic of everyone starting on an equal footing,but I have to say,I personally am yet to be convinced it is the right thing for this tournament.

Anyway it is the way it is this year and for all the fact we will start today with 128 players in the draw it will be something of a minor shock if the winner doesn't come from the four men at the top of the betting market.

These are of course Ronnie O'Sullivan,Ding Junhui,Neil Robertson & Mark Selby

Lets start with Ronnie then.Last May,after a year out,he swept aside everyone to claim his fifth world title and just last weekend he won the Champion of Champions event playing at probably 75% of his powers.Ok this might be a slight over simplification of things but the fact is, if the Ronnie of the last two Crucibles turns up,he will be very much the man they all have to beat.

If for whatever reason Ronnie isn't at his best the player who may well take advantage is  Ding Junhui,who has been enjoying the season of his life so far,having collected the tours last three ranking titles.Ding also has two UK Championship titles to his name but he is arguably playing a higher standard now then when he won those titles.Certainly I feel he is better equipped  to deal mentally with the pressures involved  in digging out results if needs be and he will be a handful here for whoever he plays.

There was a story told by Neil Robertson last year where in a late night discussion with Stephen Hendry the legendary Scot had described Robertsons break building was amateurish.Well this certainly seems to have been the wake up call the Aussie needed as his break building this season has been phenomenal.He has already amassed a staggering 50 century breaks this season and is well on course to smash the current record of 61.This together with what was already a sound all round tactical game has seen him stretch his lead at the top of the world rankings.There is a lot of water to flow under the bridge first but a potential semi final clash with Ronnie is a mouth watering prospect.

No preview of the favourites for this event would be complete without mentioning our defending champion Mark Selby.This time last year Selby was just entering a period brief domination that would see him lift this crown and follow it up with  PTC success and then the Masters title in January,since then though he has  slightly gone off the boil and seemed to be really struggling in the early part of this season. A solid run in the International Championship last month gave a indication that he was beginning to find his form again and victory over Ronnie in the final of the Ruhr Open confirmed it. Also in his favour here are the slightly longer matches.He is one of those player who the longer he stays in an event the harder he is to beat.

As I have said,these are the men in form but it would be dangerous to dismiss out of the hand the chances of former winners John Higgins,Shaun Murphy,Judd Trump and Stephen Maguire as well as recent double PTC winner Mark Allen.

All in all we are in for an interesting 13 days of action with coverage commencing on the BBC & Eurosport on Saturday

Monday, 25 November 2013

Ronnie O'Sullivan is the Champion of Champions

Given his dominance of the last two world championships,perhaps it is appropriate that Ronnie O'Sullivan is the first winner of this new Champion of Champions event,but boy was he made to work for it by Stuart Bingham in a tense days action at the Ricoh Arena.

Following his late night deciding frame victories over Ding & Robertson the previous two evenings Ronnie came into the final as a heavy favourite to lift the crown,but it was Bingham who made the perfect start taking the opening frame with a century.Ronnie then toook the next two and looked set to make it three in a row before Bingham nicked the last before the interval to make it 2-2.

There were real signs now that Ronnies exertions in the previous rounds had taken a toll on him and Bingham was doing what he had to do in taking full advantage to move into a 5-3 lead with his second century of the day.The last frame of the session was now vitally important and it was to go to  Ronnie with a classy 130 break to set up an exciting evening session.

On the afternoons evidence it looked unlikely that either player would pull away with this match and so it proved  in a tense evening session where the lead changed hands again and again.

Firstly Ronnie took the opening two frames to lead 6-5 before Bingham responded to go 7-6.Ronnie again took the next two to lead 8-7.Bingham did manage to level things again at 8-8 before Ronnie dug deep once more,to take the two frames he needed and seal the 10-8 victory

This win typified everything we have come to expect from Ronnie in recent seasons.There were definite stages in this one where the Ronnie of old would have thrown his head in the air and buckled,but we just don't see that these days.Instead he put his head down and ground out a win under difficult circumstances.

As for Stuart,once the disappointment of defeat subsides he can look back at another fine weeks work where he not only claimed the scalps of Judd Trump & Mark Seby but also pushed the world champ as much as anyone could in a final.There was a time when Bingham reaching the business end of tournaments was considered a shock,but such has his stock risen in recent years that that is certainly no longer the case.He is now one of a band of players capable of challenging for any tournament he enters.

So what of the tournament itself. Well a new tournament,especially an invitational one,in an already full calendar  was always a risky move,but \I think this one has been met with universal approval.The venue looked to be made for snooker,the crowds were great all week,The players seemed to like the format and responded with some high quality play and ITV4's coverage,especially the commentary team lead by Clive Everton(what were the BBC thinking) and supported by Neal Foulds &Alan McManus,was beyond superb.All in all a fabulous tournament that,on this evidence will quickly establish itself as one of the highlights of the season.

Finally lets once again salute our champion.I think few would argue that this was Ronnie at his supreme best but he battled hard and thoroughly deserved his win. The fact that this wasn't him at the peak of his powers and yet he still managed to beat the seasons two best players so far (Ding & Robertson) on his way to the title will surely leave everyone else shaking there heads and wondering how they can stop this man.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Champion of Champions semi finals preview

If a tournaments future is decided purely on what we see on the table then the future of this Champion of Champions event is certainly assured after a week of high drama and superb snooker at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry that has left us with two fascinating semi final clashes today.

First up we have Mark Selby v Stuart Bingham.

With all that has gone on since it seems an age since Mark Selby became the first player to reach the semi finals last Tuesday,but we shouldn't forget just how well the Leicester man is starting to pay now after,what for him had been a quiet start to the season.He arrived here hot on the heels of a thrilling victory in the Antwerp Open,where he beat Ronnie in the final and looked sharp again here in firstly beating Shaun Murphy 4-2 and then defeating Stephen Maguire 6-3.

Stuart Bingham has of course in recent seasons been enjoying a level of form rarely seen in his career previously and he showed again signs of that form in easily dismissing Ricky Walden 4-0 before then comfortably beating a clearly low on confidence Judd Trump 6-2.

So who is going to win it? Well in this one I just have a feeling that Selby is beginning to find his best form again and that he will be too strong for Bingham here score prediction 6-2

The other semi final is between two of the games real giants as Neil Robertson faces Ronnie O'Sullivan.

This one is a clash of two reprieved both were on the verge of elimination in the previous rounds.Robertson firstly took his time to wake up against Matrin Gould,trailing in this 3-1 before finding some form to win it 4-3 and then later,in as high a quality match as you are likely to see.he edged past Ali Carter 6-5.

Ronnie on the other hand swept through his first game against Mark Davis 4-0.before facing the man of the season so far Ding Junhui.This was another real cracker with Ding showing why he has won so much lately,taking advantage of some mistakes by Ronnie to lead 3-0.Ronnie did start to play a bit better then but still looked bang up against it when he trailed 5-3.Here he showed though just how much he has that will to battle these days and produced two quick fire frames to level at 5-5 and force the decider.

Into the decider then and it was ding who drew first blood with a 50 before Ronnie looked set to produce one of his classic match winning clearances  only to inexplicably miss match ball blue,Both players had a couple of goes at it then,but it was Ronnie who prevailed to get through 6-5.

This is a sei final to call as both players are capable of such a high standard.Roberson has a victory over Ronnie in a recent PTC event,but that will count for little here over the longer distance.I just have a feeling in this one Ronnie might edge but it will be close.We could even be looking at another 6-5.

So there we have it,a super semi final line for what has been a superb week of snooker action

Monday, 18 November 2013

A Round up of recent events

Deep into November we move then and with the the UK Championship looming large on the horizon,some of the games big stars are beginning to find some form.

First up Mark Allen made it back to back PTC event victories,when he followed up his triumph in last months Ruhr Open with another fine performance,this time beating Judd Trump to win the Kay Suzanne Memorial Cup.

Allen with a trophy is something many of expected to see a lot of when he burst on the scene a number of years back but for various reasons this hasn't happened.This of course is something that can be said about a lot of players who are just on the margins of the very top of the game but with Allen the problem,especially in the last twelve months,has seemed more then anything else to be the fact that players seem to play their absolute best against him,One thing we do know is that success breeds success,so hopefully now he can take the step up to challenge for the games top titles.I have always felt he that he certainly has a Masters title in him.

As well as seeing Allen triumph here,it was also nice to see Trump back playing well again.The reasons for his lack of form this season has been the subject of much speculation in social media circles,but really in this modern era no player is going to be able to sustain top form all the time and it was only a matter of time before he found his game again,

Just how sharp his game is getting was again evident in Antwerp at the weekend where,although he lost to Mark Selby in a decider he did record his first professional 147 during the match

Talking of Selby he was also someone who had fallen off the radar a little of late,but he did enjoy.a good run at the recent International Championship and with his defence of his UK Championship title just around the corner he warmed up nicely this weekend by beating Ronnie O'Sullivan to win the Antwerp Open.

Many look on these PTC events in europe as testing ground for full ranking events in the future and if this weekend is anything to go by the Belgian public can look forward to seeing a lot more snooker action, as they once again turned out in their droves to see the games stars in person.

As a reward for their support the local crowds got a really great weekend of action that ended with a superb final that went all the way to the deciding frame.This had looked unlikely when Ronnie took the fourth frame to lead 3-1 but Selby as we know never gives up and he fought back to 3-3 to set up the grandstand finish.In that decider it looked as though Selbys efforts were going to be in vain as Ronnie got in,but a surprising missed black gave Mark the chance and he duly cleared up to win the title.

Into this week we go then and the action continues to come thick and fast as ITV4 gives terrestrial coverage to the first staging of the Champion of Champions tournament.This,as the name suggests brings together all the tournament winners for the past twelve months to compete for the £100,000 top prize.This also brings an interesting new format to the table with essentially each quarter been completed on each of four days with semi finals on Saturday and a two session final on Sunday.

Some have raised concerns about how close this tournament is to the UK Championship which begins on the 26th of the month,but surely there is no better quality practice these players could have then playing other top stars under match conditions.

Here's hoping we see good crowds,good snooker and every reason for ITV to try and extend their renewed interest in the sport.

Finally if all this snooker action isn;t enough,why not have a look at Steve Davis in the Jungle as he competes on I'm a Celebrity get Me Out of Here......God help us!! 

Monday, 4 November 2013

Internation Championship final round up + Thoughts

Ding Junhui yesterday added the 2013 International Championship title to his recent victories in Shanghai & India to make it three ranking titles on the bounce,but boy was he made to work for it,as Marco Fu pushed him all the way in what was a final of the highest quality.

As has been quoted many time over the last few days,this was the first time somebody has claimed three ranking events in a row since the great Stephen Hendry won five in a row in 1990.This was of course at a time when Hendry  dominated the game.much as Davis had done in the decade before. It is unlikely we will ever see this sort of domination over a long period of time again,but maybe now with so many tournaments, short bursts of invincibility,like we have seen from Ding over the last month, will become the modern version of dominance.

This has truly been a glorious period for Ding.He has always been a joy to watch in the balls(every bit as beautiful to witness building a break as O'Sullivan & Higgins) but he now seems to have the all round game that perhaps hasn't been there in the past.His temperament under pressure had,with in fairness some justification, been questioned but I think those doubts can now be put to bed after coming through the sternest of tests here in the final.

On to the match then and what a match it was. Fu started the brighter of the two,winning the opening two frames.Ding eventually got off the mark in the third before Fu won the next to go to midsession interval 3-1.We have often seen how a interval can change things as Ding emerged to play what can only be described as flawless snooker as breaks of 92,138,127 & 126 moved him into the lead at 5-3.Fu to his credit managed to win the next to finish the session  just 5-4 down.

Into the evening then and Ding was quick out the blocks with another century,his fifth of the match,to move 6-4,but Fu ha also grown in confidence since his Australian Open win and fought back to level at 6-6.

In a match that was now quickly becoming a classic Fu edged ahead again at 7-6 before Ding responded to make it 7-7.This pattern continued into the next two frames with the score becoming 8-8 before a dramatic hour long 17th frame went to Fu leaving him just one from the title at 9-8.As we've said earlier though this is a very different Ding these days and the Chinese superstar held his nerve to win the next making it 9-9 and forcing a decider.From here he was not to be denied as,to the delight of the crowd,he wrapped up the title with a run of 91.

A great final then to cap a great week of snooker action.When this tournament first staged last year,with the longer match format it was presumed it was done so with the hope of it eventually becoming a major to rank along side the UK Championship.Of course the advantage to "UK" has is long a history,but things have to start somewhere and if it continues to serve up finals of the quality we have seen these last two years then it wont be long before it has a a rich history of its own to look at.

As for the finalist, although ultimately falling short Fu can be rightly proud of his performance.he has always been a player with great ability but has lacked the consistency needed to win the titles his talents deserve.There have been signs this season though that he has rectified these problems and if he has he will be a dangerous opponent for anyone he meets.

Ding however continues to ride the crest of a wave.His play over the last month has been phenomenal,not just his break building but also in his approach to the game.He has been the standard bearer for Chinese snooker for so long now you tend to forget he is only 26.His emergence all those years ago sparked the Chinese love affair with the game which has seen so many more players come through albeit none of them quite at Dings level.If continues to improve now,(something which is entirely possible as he is now theoretically only coming into his prime) he may well be the man to beat come the Crucible next April.We can only imagine what the first Chinese World Champion would do for the game!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

International Championship Semi Finals round up.

The final of the International Championship will be an all Asian affair as Ding Junhui battles it out with Marco Fu over the best of 19 frames to see who will be crowned the 2013 champion.

Ding made it three ranking event finals in a row with a fine 9-7 win over Greame Dott in what was a high quality match.There wasn't much in this one early on as they went to the interval at 2-2 before Ding managed to edge the next mini session to move ahead 5-3 at the end of the session.

That lead became 7-3 as Ding threatened to pull right away but Dott has always been a fighter and started to find some form,knocking in three consecutive breaks of 70 plus to close within one again at 7-6.In the past Ding might have crumbled at this stage,but he is a very different character these days and produced a lovely 121 break to move to within one of victory at 8-6.

Dott wasn't finished though and won the next to make it 8-7 before looking set to force the decider when he built a big lead in the next only for Ding to produce as wonderful a 63 clearance as you will ever see under pressure to win the frame on the black and secure the win.

This of course not only puts Ding into his third consecutive ranking final but it also puts him on the verge of winning his third ranking title in a row.Just what an achievement that would be can be measured by the fact that it is 23 years since someone last did this and that someone was Stephen Hendry at the height of his powers.

The man who stands in Dings way of course is Maco Fu after he came through a real battle with Joe Perry that went all the way to the decider.The standard in this was perhaps not of the high level we had in todays semi final but what it lacked in quality it certainly made up for in drama.

It was  Perry here had the early advantage in this one,leading 5-3 after the opening session but Fu started the brighter in the evening and he quickly reeled off three in a row to lead 6-5.Perry.Perry struck back in the next to level at 6-6 and from here on it turned into a bit of an old fashioned the next four were shared to make it 8-8 and force a decider,After all that had gone before,this was never going to be a clean kill and so it proved as both players had their chances before Fu finally came out on top of a battle on the colours.

So a fascinating final we have in store then,with Ding a strong favourite but in Fu someone who is capable of beating anyone when on song.After last years epic between Trump & Robertson we could well be in store for something the same again.