Thursday 13 April 2023

World Championship preview plus best bets

 Well after all the weeks of waiting & two weeks of cut throat qualifier action, 32 men head to Sheffield with the dream of holding aloft the famous trophy on May1st.

We reach this point after quite a strange season that has seen some shock results, established stars failing to shine as before, some reclaiming their spots among the elite & unfortunately a fair amount of scandal. All this has had many hailing this as the most open world championship in years, but I just take a different view. I think when it boils down to it, we will once again see the cream rise to the top.

The obvious place to start is with our defending champion Ronnie O'Sullivan. Throughout the whole of the season last year there was just the feeling that Ronnie was building towards a real crack at that record equaling 7th title & so it came to pass as he claimed the title in a bit of a canter.  This year couldn't be more of a contrast. Yes he claimed two invitational event early in the campaign ,but his record in ranking events, apart from a handful of performances here and there, has been awful. As a result of this we have hardly seen him in the last couple of months as those whose consistency was rewarded fought out those lucrative end of season events , added to this he has had a niggling elbow injury which has flared up again in recent weeks.  For anyone else this lack of form & injury would be enough to rule them out as a contender, but the usual rules don't apply to Ronnie (Could we forget his victory in 2013 after a year off?) & I just have a feeling that the last couple of weeks have seen him warm to the prospect of an 8th title. If he is to do he's going to have to be on his game from the off ,with a potential Rd2 clash with Ding & then a quarter final with Williams on the cards, but I actually think that may help focus him & if he comes here in the same frame of mind he did last year , make no mistake ,he'll take some stopping.

Next up & many peoples fancy for the title again this year is Mark Selby. Has there ever been a player more suited to a format & venue as Selby is the Crucible? Over the long matches time & time again he has shown an ability to take complete control of a match & have it played solely on his terms. After some indifferent form at times this season he has seemed in recent times to be just coming to the boil nicely & he will be coming here quietly confident that he can add a 5th title to his cv. Much like Ronnie last year , in Selby's most recent victory here in 2021, he just seemed destined to win the title from a long way out & looking at the draw here, I just can't see him not at least reaching the semi finals. What happens there will very much depend on what happens in the other quarter of the draw.

In any other tournament looking at the draw you would anticipating a Mark Allen v Nail Robertson Q/F, but such has been these two stars records at The Crucible, you would be hard pressed to think they will both get there. Allen was the revelation in the early season after making some major lifestyle changes over the summer. He joined the very exclusive club to have claimed three ranking titles in the one season, but his results have tapered off a bit recently & you wonder if those early exertions have taken their toll. 

Tiredness shouldn't be an excuse for Robertson who,  having made the decision to be more selective with his events this season, was left playing catch up for the rest of & never really got there. His awful record here is well touted, but surely that has to change some time & a not unfavorable draw could see him reach the coveted single table set up for the first time since he won the title in 2010. A potential last 4  clash with Selby over three days  would be something to savour.

If recent form is any indication of your chances, then Shaun Murphy has to on anyone's list. Two really impressive tournament wins over the last couple of months will see the 2005 champ come here full of confidence. & no player feeds off momentum quite the way Murphy does.

The toughest section of the draw pitches Trump v McGill & Lisowski v Saengkham. One thing for sure here is none of these guys will need reminding where they are. That said I'd still expect Trump to come through here. The 2019 champ has had a poor season by his standards & even his win in The Masters was far from vintage. He did come here last season in similar form & did beat McGill in rd2 on his way to the final. If he gets through this "group of death" he could be rewarded with a Last 8 clash with Murphy.

Others worth a mention are of course former multiple winners John Higgins & Mark Williams , but I think another title is probably beyond them. Likewise Kyren Wilson will be on  many peoples shortlist , but I just don't see him figuring in the final count.

So who do I think will win? Well in spite of everything, I just think Ronnie has an 8th title in him. That long awaited documentary may well need a sequel! 

Best bets

Ronnie to win the title 4/1

Neil Robertson 7/1 e/w 1/2 1-2

Round 1 Lucky 15 : David Gilbert 11/10, Hossein Vafaei 6/4, Anthony McGill 21/10, Robert Milkins 8/11


Monday 16 January 2023

The Masters - Where Are We Now ?

 On January 6th 2013 David Bowie shocked the world by releasing a new song that he had recorded in complete secrecy. A new album would follow shortly afterwards & it would be lauded by critics & fans alike as a marvelous return to form for the ever illusive artist. It was that first song though that kept coming to mind as I watched The Masters unfold last week.

"Where Are We Now?"

Well firstly lets start with the positives. Judd Trump last night won a second Masters title with a 10-8 victory over Mark Williams. In a  wonderful final, that at various times swung one way then the other, it was Trump who held his nerve at the business end to claim his 4th Triple Crown. In doing so Trump again showed the all round aspects of his game that he has developed over the last number of years. The Trump of even 5 years ago would not have won that final. He will now be hoping this victory proves to be a much a springboard to his career as his victory here in 2019 was.

Unfortunately though, great and all an occasion as yesterday was, there is a cloud hanging over the sport at the moment which could have major repercussions for the sport for years to come.

I refer of course to the the match fixing/betting scandal that has engulfed the sport with 10 tour professionals currently suspended pending the conclusion of the investigations ,this number includes top stars Yan Bingtao & Zhou Xintong. World snooker chairman Jason Ferguson has stated that these lengthy & thorough investigations are nearing their conclusion & not all players will face the same charges, but even at that, we are still a long way from reaching an end to this saga.

Exactly what all this will mean going forward is impossible to tell. The global pandemic has already left us with no tournaments in China for the last 3 years & although things are opening up there again, we can't be sure, should the investigation conclude that these 10 Chinese players are guilty, just how that would be received by the authorities over there. This coupled with Dings recent comments, which were before this all broke, you get the feeling the snooker boom in China could be coming to an end & a return to what we had pre Covid is far certain.

The other thing highlighted by potential long term absence of these players, is again the real lack of young talent breaking through in the game. In The Masters, with a field that comprised of the top 16 players over the past two seasons, the youngest opponent that Judd faced this week was 42yr old Ryan Day, Indeed it would have been hard to avoid a 40 something in a draw that included 9 of them. The youngest player was Luca Brecel at 27. 

By contrast I had a look at The Masters that took place at the time that Bowie song was released. That tournament in January 2013 was won by a 29 yr old Mark Selby & the oldest participant was Mark Davis aged 40. Also there, was a 23 year old Judd Trump, who already had one world final appearance & a UK Championship title to his name. 10 years on we are yet to see another talent emerge who even threatens to reach the levels Judd has.

The fact is we have relied on the "class of '92" for a long time now, but with them all now heading towards their late 40's we can't continue to expect them to carry the sport on their shoulders. Behind them the likes of Robertson, Selby & Murphy are also now entering the autumn of their careers & the next generation of Trump ,Allen & Ding are all now older than greats like Davis & Hendry were when their best days were behind them. After that I fail to see where the next champions are going to come from.

All in all we are facing in to uncertain times & the prospect of a very hard decade to come. Hopefully some real stars emerge soon & I suppose one thing that the last few seasons have shown its that, if you do establish yourself, you can have a lot longer a sporting career than the vast majority of  professionals in other sports.


Monday 21 November 2022

UK Championship Allen's win & other things.

 Mark Allen last night added a second Triple Crown title to his cv ,producing a stunning comeback to beat Ding Junhui 10-7 and claim the 2022 UK Championship.

At one stage in the afternoon it had looked like we might be in for an early evening as Ding, playing some beautiful snooker, stormed in to a 6-1,but the hallmark of Allen this week has been a tenacity & determination  to dig out a result when things looked bleak & that's what we saw again here. 

Coming out in the evening Allen would have been looking at winning the first mini session to give himself a chance, but he did even better than that and went to the mid session interval having leveled up at 6-6. From here & despite a century from Ding, there looked only one winner. So it proved as Allen won a lengthy 17th frame to claim a famous win.

This was Allen's second title from three ranking finals this season & the way he is competing at the moment, it'd be a brave man to say its going to be his last. |For Ding, although the week ultimately ended in failure, he can look back at great run here that hopefully propels him back up the rankings again. A fully confident Ding is a joy to watch on the table and a potential winner wherever he cues up.

This match  of course came at the end of fortnight that saw the UK Championship reclaim its identity as one of the sports premier tournaments. The years of the flat 128 draw had done nothing for the event except make it feel rushed and hard to follow. Now restored to a "World Championship model" it has the feel of a proper event again. The qualifying rounds were made freely available & like we see in Sheffield in April, they felt like a tournament in and of themselves. The "judgement day" multi table coverage is always a great treat.

Personally I'd love to see them go one step further & make Quarters & Semi finals best of 17's again. This would only require two morning sessions for the Last 32.Some would argue that having the two semi finals being played simultaneously would be a bad thing. but I think it's a sacrifice worth making to bring us more multi session matches. If you don't do it in the second biggest tournament then where?

When I'm at it I want to buck the common social media trend & say how much once again I enjoyed the BBC coverage.  I know we a spoiled with the amount of snooker we see for free on tv, but I still think noone does it better than the Beeb. Now if only they can be persuaded to keep John Virgo in the commentary box beyond  this season, as he proved yet again this week that he is still the greatest voice in the game.

Finally once again to salute our champion. Mark Allen embarked on some major lifestyle changes during the summer, not just for his snooker, but for his general wellbeing. Its is wonderful to see him getting his just rewards. For him that's 2/3rds of the Triple Crown now completed. Can he add the final 1/3rd on the first Monday of May next year? You couldn't bet against it.

Monday 7 November 2022

Champion of Champions A few take aways

 Ronnie O'Sullivan last night claimed the Champion of Champions title for a forth time with a 10-6 victory over Judd Trump.

Ronnie started the stronger & looked to be heading towards an easy win when he extended hid lead to five frames at 6-1.A 147 in the next sparked Judd into life & when in the evening he got back within one at 7-6, it looked like we were in for a dramatic finish. Ronnie however had other ideas & he stretched away again after the mid session interval to seal his second title of the season.

So what did we learn from the tournament as a whole? Well starting with the runner up, after a relatively quiet couple of seasons by his standards, Judd looked to be getting back to his very best here. Strange as it sounds, I think he played a lot better this week  than he did last season when he won the title. His victories over Allen & Selby should serve notice that when it comes to deciding the big ones, he's going to be right there in the mix.

Predicting success in sport of course is a dangerous game, but I would be shocked if we don't see Mark Selby back in the winners enclosure sooner rather than later. His personal battles over the last year have been well documented, but he continues to show signs of his game recovering & I just get the feeling that one week with a decent tailwind will see him hold a trophy aloft again.

The enigma that is Fan Zhengyi was the story early in the week. Since he came from nowhere to win the European Masters at the start of the year, he quickly disappeared back there as he struggled to get  wins on the board. Coming here he'd only managed two victories all season, but doubled that tally in one day here with two deciding frame wins over  Neil Robertson (4-3) & Ryan Day (6-5) He couldn't quite reproduce these heroics in the semi final against Ronnie, but it showed once again that there are some very talented young players on the tour who on their day are a match for anyone, they just need to make it their day on a more consistent basis.

Off the table it was Judd Trump (33) again making the headlines as the self appointed voice of the younger generation. I jest here of course, but to be fair to Judd, it is good to see him with a genuine interest in trying to improve the game. A lot of his ideas over the years I would disagree with, but making a day out at a snooker tournament more of an event off the table, with things taking place in the venue is certainly something that should be looked at. Once you discover what a wonderful game this is you are hooked, the key for me in achieving this is to grow the feel good factor of attending snooker tournaments.

This brings me on to the tournament itself. This is a Matchroom promoted event & as such they can do what they like, but I just feel the presentation here was not fitting for a tournament with the grand title of "Champion of Champions". The Polo shirts (albeit better than last years) still make it look more like a pool tournament, the high sided sponsor screen around the perimeter & the colour scheme made the whole thing on screen seem a bit tacky. The poor attendance until the second half of the week only added to the sense of a tournament taking place in an empty warehouse. As I said above, the secret to our sport growing is properly showing off the one we have, that must not be done by cheapening it.

Anyway on we go to the UK Championship, which is on earlier this year to avoid a clash with the World Cup. Ronnie will go there in search of an eighth UK title & one thing that was shown here again last week was the undeniable fact that, when Ronnie is on it ,there is still no-one who can touch him. 

Tuesday 3 May 2022

World Championship. King Ronnie

Well he did it, Ronnie O’Sullivan last night removed the final  obstacle to him being hailed the greatest of all time, by equaling Stephen Hendry’s 7 world title haul.

Watching the championship last year as we entered the last wk there was a sense of inevitability about Selby winning the title. This time around that feeling was there for Ronnie from round1 ball 1 ,He had looked focused, determined & confident for much of the season, but here he just looked on a different level & if we’re honest, apart from an anxious afternoon session  yesterday, his progress to the title was as serene as he could wish for.

More about our champion later though. Here are a few other things I took away from the championship.

Our runner up Judd Trump can also feel rightly proud of his efforts here. It has been a difficult  season for Judd who, despite lifting two trophies, never reached the heights of recent seasons. Here we saw what a tough all round competitor he has become.A Summer with the cue put away for a while will do him a world of good & I expect him to come roaring back next season.By the way what a gracious interview after the final as well! 

Our defending champ Mark Selby fell in Rd2, but after his recent troubles he can be rightly proud of his defense. Hopefully he’s back to his best next season. The rest of the old “class of ‘92” did themselves proud as well reaching the semi finals with Higgins showing his usual battling qualities & Mark Williams playing superbly throughout the tournament before falling to Trump in a decider. As for the pre tournament favourite Neil Robertson, I think we just have to accept he’s not going to be the multiple world champion his talents deserve. Of our younger stars , Zhao Xintong showed he still has a bit to learn over the longer distance, but Yan Bingtao looks like a champion in waiting, with a style that just seems to be tailor made forThe Crucible. He’s going to be a handful here for many years to come. 
After all the stories during the season the topic of the world championship continuing here past the end of its current  contract in 2027 was always going to be a subject of debate.The BBC did a piece which included a few desenting voices, but I think on the whole after the last 17 days the feeling is that we should never leave here. Even Judd changed his mind on it!! 
I found the coverage overall to be excellent.Hazel again cemented her place at the top of tree when it comes to sports broadcasting & the BBC team as a whole were really good , with Jack & Joe continuing to get better all the time.”JV” was also at the top of his game in the commentary box. He really will be irreplaceable when his time ends.

I didn’t see as much of Eurosport’s coverage, but Jimmy & Alan are always worth listening to & Radzi is settling into his position better all the time. Rachel was also as great as ever when tasked with the unenviable job of interviewing the losers.

Finally though let’s return to our champion.The one thing every sport fan realizes as they go through life is that every record can be broken & feats that seemed at their time like they’d last forever are often bettered far quicker than we expected. That said though I think with  Ronnie we have an exception to all those rules. Not only is he the winning most player the games ever had, he has achieved this status while simultaneously being the face of his sport & its most beloved character.On top of all this he has done it all with a style & natural flare that the rest of us can only dream of. He is an absolute one off & I think the greatest genius sport in general  has ever seen. Long may he reign.

Tuesday 12 April 2022

World Championship Preview

Those of us who remember Question Of Sport back in the David Coleman days will recall the viewers , "answers on a postcard please", Mystery Guest competition.These were basically a series of sports stars with their faces hidden doing ordinary everyday tasks & you had to guess who they were.These clips were always accompanied by an old Johnny Nash song that included the lyrics "There are more question than answers & the more I find out the less I know". As I started trying to write this preview piece & the more I drilled down into the likely contenders, the more this song started to play around in my head.

The obvious favourite on from this season is Neil Robertson, but you just can't ignore his record here since his victory in 2010. I can think of at least five championships since then  where he has looked the likely winner in week one, only to bow out when things start to heat up. When thinking of Neil , I often think of the great horse Desert Orchid. In his day "Dessie" as he was affectionately known by the racing public, was  an equine superstar who transcended to sport.Grey horses always look more spectacular anyway, but he had the brilliance to go with it. The only problem was he also had a tendency to jump slightly right at his fences, so on a left handed track, this cost him ground every time. Now for non racing people The Cheltenham festival is "The Crucible" of horse racing, but unfortunately for Dessie it was also a left handed track. Every year he would win multiple races, arrive at Cheltenham as a favourite & and on all but one glorious occasion leave empty handed.It could just be the case that Neil is not suited by the venue and is destined to always come up short.

While on the "horses for courses" theme, there is noone who seems more suited to the Crucible marathon than the defending champion Mark Selby. Last year he looked the winner from a long way out & just seemed to be have that ability to control his matches.. This year however has been a very difficult year for him. After defeat at The Masters, he revealed he has been battling with his mental health. After that he tried his best to plough on, but still struggling on the table, he withdrew from a couple of events to focus on his recovery. The fact is we just don't know what Mark Selby  is going to show up on Saturday morning. All we can hope is that he is now in a good place mentally & that he gives his usual top notch performance.

If you had only seen two snooker matches this season & they were the Champion of Champions & Turkish Masters final, you would be going in strong on Judd Trump here ,but the fact is, those performances aside, he has looked a shadow of the player who has hoovered up titles the last few seasons. He talked after his defeat in the recent Tour Championship about been fed up with the game,so its hard to see how he can turn it around here

The old "Class of '92" have continued to defy father time & have all got titles to their name this season. In that Tour Championship Ronnie looked totally up for it, becoming the only player to record 5 centuries in back to back matches ,before being pipped by Robertson in the match of the year. He looks good,but  as ever with him here, the question is how he handles the bad sessions.. Higgins went on to reach that final ,his 6th final of the season, but as was the case earlier in the year, he got within one of the title only to falter..This was the most gut wrenching of them all as he lost 10-9 from  leading 9-4.Even for all the mental fortitude he has displayed in the past, its hard to see how he can recover from that to challenge for a 5th world title here. The other member of the trio Mark Williams continues to do it his way & you just never know what he could do ,but he'll have to be on it like he was in '18.

Elsewhere on peoples shortlist will be UK champion Zhao Xintong, who showed how good he is in York last December & then demolished Yan Bingtao in the German Masters final. The main question mark over him is lack of experience over the longer matches.This was evident in his loss to Higgins in the Tour Championship, but such is the rate of knots that he is learning at, you couldn't rule him out.Likewise his fellow countryman Yan Bingtao is maybe lacking in the experience over the longer matches, but seems to have the style of game that might just be suited by it.

Bearing in mind all of the above there are  others to consider, but they will need a strong tail wind to be holding the trophy come May 2nd & like those named previously, they all have their own issues to overcome, Kyren Wilson has had a mediocre season really, but has shown a liking for the the venue previously,.Barry Hawkins, has had some superb performances here in the past ,but can he really be considered a contender now? Shaun Murphy got within three frames of the title last year ,but has been dogged by injury this season & Mark Allen has been a bit hit & miss since he won the Northern Ireland Open. 

So there you go.As I said at the outset, there are so many question marks coming in here & at time of writing we don't even know the survivors from the qualifiers yet.I mean the one world final that Ding reached was after coming through the qualifiers. If her were to do it again could you really rule him out??
However though if I was to stick my neck out , I just have a feeling that we might have a record equalling 7th world title for Ronnie , but don't hold me to that!!!!


Wednesday 16 February 2022

World Champion 2022? A look at the contenders two months out.

 Two months from today, on April 16th, all eyes will turn to The Crucible theatre in Sheffield, as the curtain is raised on 17 days of  snooker drama, that in the end will crown the 2022 world champion.

So with this much of the season played, what have we learnt so far? ,who are the real contenders? & who are the potential dark horses?

Well at this stage, the man undoubtedly at the top of most peoples list is our most recent title winner , Neil Robertson. That win was Neil's third success of what has been a disrupted season for him, but it'd be a brave man to say that'll be his last. He just looks at the moment like someone completely at ease with his game, but in assessing his chances this year, can we really discount his Crucible campaigns of the last decade? Time & time again over that time, Neil has got to the Crucible as one of the favourites, but after flattering to deceive in the first week, he has fallen apart in week two. The reasons for this seem to be as much a mystery to him as the rest of us, but if I was to give him my cents on the problem, I'm of the opinion that he tends to slip into overthinking mode & the further he gets into the tournament, the more in his mind it becomes about trying not to lose, rather than pushing on to win. I actually think this was the same the year he won it, but the difference that time was we ended up with a last four who were all of that mindset & he managed to be last man standing. Unless he can address this issue ,I fear we'll see him get bogged down again & be left scratching his head as to how history has repeated itself.

The favourite still in many bookies lists is Judd Trump, but this can only be based on his efforts over the last few seasons, not on anything we've seen this year & certainly not on his Crucible record. Despite winning the Champion of Champions earlier in the season, I'm struggling to think of the last time we saw Judd play at his absolute best. A few times this season he's looked like he may be ready to catch fire ,but it just hasn't happened yet. It could well be, that despite his protestations that he see's every tournament the same, he has geared his season this time around peaking for Sheffield & we'll see a new Judd over the next few tournaments, but we're going to have to, if he's add to his world title tally.

If the above two mentioned have questionable Crucible records to overcome,  that certainly couldn't be said of our defending champion Mark Selby, who seems to have a game & temperament tailor made for the Crucible.He simply dominated the tournament last year & looked the likely winner from a day one.This season has of course been very different for him & his brave decision to go public with his mental health struggles has helped shine a light on a problem that frankly needs more public understanding. We all hope the help he is now receiving will see him get back to good place mentally. This year for him that'll be the priority, but needless to say if that  were to happen by the Crucible, he would again be a hard man to beat.

Elsewhere the "Class of '92" continue to defy father time & all three have again lifted titles this season. At times they have all produced fabulous snooker, but have each on occasion struggled to back up a good performance again in the next match. Now there are two schools of thought as to how this would play out in a multi session match.The first is, no matter how long the match, one bad session can end you. I'm of the second school of thought, that see's this an advantage, but only if you have the ringcraft to limit the damage. If you can make your bad session a 5-3 or 4-4 instead of a 6-1 or 7-1,then you can certainly turn any game around. These great champions certainly fall in to that category.

At the other end of the scale we have the young pretenders.. Zhou Xintong , Yan Bingtao, Hossein Vafaei & Luca Brecel, have all been flying the flag for the twentysomethings  & have all now established themselves as top players. The question is are any of them yet ready for the "marathon of the mind" that is the Crucible. At this stage you would have to say that Yan is potentially the best suited, with a steady temperament & willingness to get down & dirty in matches, but such is the exuberance of the other three, you could certainly see them make waves even if in the end they were to ultimately fall short this time.Their day is not far away though.

Elsewhere there a few I'd put into the "needing every light to be green" category. These would be players like Barry Hawkins, who has played superbly in reaching two finals in the last month, only to run into Robertson on each occasion & that in a nutshell has always been Barry's problem at the Crucible.He has beaten the biggest names in the sport there, but still fallen short in the final shake up. Mark Allen is another who is capable of anything & with his legal problems seemingly behind I fancy him to challenge for another trophy before the seasons end, but I just don't see it being the world crown. Also here I'd put Shaun Murphy, after all, he fell only a few frames short of the title last year, but has been blighted by injury this term. If the coming months see him find some form,he could make another bold bid to add to his 2005 success. Another often touted for Crucible success is Kyren Wilson, but he has produced little this season to suggest that this will be his year either.

Two months is a long time in snooker terms & a lot could change between now & the Crucible, but at this stage if i was to be pushed of a prediction, I just have a feeling we could be toasting a member of the "class of '92"again. Now which one,,,,,,,,,,,,,