Wednesday, September 26, 2012

John Higgins - Like a BOSS

There's lots of places you can find the draw for the 2012 Shanghai Masters, but this isn't one of them. To make sense of what I'm yammering about in this article, please consult Wikipedia here2012 Shanghai Masters

John Higgins: The CEO of bottle.
Photo by Monique Limbos
After John Higgins won the 2011 World Championship, defeating Judd Trump 18-15 from 7-10 down after the first day's play, Steve Davis pronounced him the greatest of all time--a statement that seemed rife with the heat of the moment, swayed by the tension of a close final and drew a bit of criticism for perhaps putting the cart before the horse. Although there are few true snooker fans that wouldn't put Higgins into the conversation for greatest of all time, most end up conceding that subjective title of ultimate prestige to Stephen Hendry for his tremendous record, or to Ronnie O'Sullivan, for his tremendous talent.

However, as one commentator (Phil Yates, I think--possibly Neal Foulds) pointed out, Hendry was a master of attacking snooker and, if faced with the prospect of a slower, more tactical frame, he would often become bogged down with the leaden pace of a more defensive contest, clearly less comfortable and less likely to win if the style of snooker wasn't to his liking. O'Sullivan is not dissimilar, but his patience for tactical frames seems to be more closely related to his psychological state than his disdain for any particular sort of snooker. We know that when Ronnie is on song, his safety is as good as anyone's and he can generally pot his way out of trouble and outscore his opponents before a tactical frame gets too drawn out. But John Higgins is armed with unmatched versatility in the game and it is that versatility that likely prompted Steve Davis's comments a little over a year ago.

Fluency in scoring is what paved the way for what appeared to be a smooth road to Judd Trump's third ranking title at the Shanghai Masters on the weekend and the sweet taste of revenge following his Crucible defeat to Higgins. When Trump led 5-0, he had out-scored John Higgins 510-78, with 50 of Higgins' points only coming in the fifth after Judd had knocked in 59 at the first available opportunity. The first sign of life from John came in the sixth frame with the sixth maximum break of his career. Surely there is no better way to pull a frame back in a match that seems to be getting away from you than to hit a 147. That said, it appeared to be a flash in the pan, as Judd took the next to lead 6-1 and finished the day with a healthy 7-2 lead, complete with commentators stressing how important it was for John to win that ninth frame, forever promulgating the significant difference between a five-frame gap and a gap of only three.

I don't know how it happened, but John Higgins came out for the second session ready to boss the table around and didn't seem to have much of an idea about the scoreline. He calmly and coolly made a more-than-enough 89 break in one visit to close the gap to 7-3. Then, with a visit in which he racked up 74 points in frame 11, it was 7-4. Then a break of 48 and a 30 in the twelfth made it 7-5. It was only then that Judd Trump began to sweat in his chair, having squandered the five-frame lead. Though still ahead, Higgins did not leave him a shot, which is no mean feat against the likes of Trump. A 76 break won John Higgins the thirteenth frame and a 71 brought the match all the way back from a one-sided best-of-19 affair, to a tense race to 3 frames for the title.

Judd Trump sweating bullets and missing table time.
Photo by Monique Limbos
At 7-7, when a scrappy fifteenth frame ended on the black, which Higgins ultimately doubled into the corner pocket with unwavering confidence, the writing was on the wall. Give Judd credit for a stunning century break to draw level at 8-8, but when he next came back to the table, he was 64-0 down with 67 on. He had two chances to clear up and win it, the second culminating in a missed black off the spot that left him needing two snookers and, more significantly, he returned to his chair dejected and red-faced with self-deprecation. At 9-8, it became a war of attrition--an endurance test of emotion. In these tense environments, you bet against John Higgins at your own peril. The start of frame 18 was loaded with trepidation and apprehension in the performance's of both players and it was clearly no one would win it in a single visit. Each safety that left John Higgins a long red resulted in Judd shaking his head and fearing the worst.

2012 Shanghai Master Champion
Photo by Monique Limbos
He led the frame by seven points with one red remaining and maturely refused a pot in favour of playing a snooker in behind the yellow. Higgins played a heavy swerve shot to escape and the red rebounded off the black into the pocket for another body blow. A three-cushion cocked-hat double on the yellow several shots later looked like the end for Trump. As luck would have it (as it so often does in these circumstances), Trump was able to pull a very challenging frame out of the fire after Higgins went in-off on the pink, needing only it and the black to win the title. However, a decider was on the cards and by then, Judd was a bag of nerves, still able to knock in a long red by itself, but when it came to stringing together a frame-winning break, he was running slightly out of position throughout the visit and it came to an end at 36. His safety left John Higgins a long red and, with absolute aplomb, he cued it into the centre of the top left corner and made 61 for the match. Unbelievable.

It is these performances and the fact that he has demonstrated this sort of comeback before that makes him among the greatest. In 2010, Higgins also trailed 2-7, and then 5-9, to Mark Williams and won the last five frames of the UK Championship to defeat him 10-9.  More than a string of historical comebacks and a trophy case of accolades, John Higgins is also just a great player to watch. He doesn't have the flare and box office appeal of other players and for that reason, he may not be as entertaining on the basis of any one frame. However, to appreciate John Higgins, you have to see him in a match situation.

Watch this lengthy sequence of safety shots as Mark Allen is left needing snookers to draw their Premier League match. As they play one excellent safety after another, the tension in the arena builds and this is a great example of what professional snooker is all about and why I love it so. It's also another fine example of the unshakable composure of John Higgins and his relentless grip on the match which he absolutely refuses to let go of.

When he finally pots the green, that seals it and we know the match is over. However, John Higgins also knows the rules and just to assert his dominance, he drains the long brown right into the heart of the pocket and does the same to blue and pink as if there was no chance of ever missing them. What's that, Mark? You want to play on needing three snookers on the brown? Too bad. Pop-pop-pop! Like a BOSS. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Last 16 in Shanghai - From deciding frames to decisive victories

There's lots of places you can find the draw for the 2012 Shanghai Masters, but this isn't one of them. To make sense of what I'm yammering about in this article, please consult Wikipedia here2012 Shanghai Masters

In the first couple of days in Shanghai, the results have been good for the bookmaker's with a couple of big upsets and a surprising number of ninth-frame thrillers. We saw Stuart Bingham buckle down with a 5-4 win over Tom Ford after leading 4-2 and Dominic Dale put in a solid performance coming back from the same scoreline only to ultimately lose the decider to Shaun Murphy. Three of the wildcard matches went to deciding frames, most notably the match involving Marco Fu who was ousted from the competition by recent IBSF Under-21 world champion Lu Haotian, who is only 14 years old and potted 9 reds and blacks in the final frame. Jin Long, a former professional who was relegated from the tour, ruined Jimmy Robertson's chance to get into the main draw after battling his way through qualifiers, again 5-4. Robert Milkins just scraped through his wildcard bout against Zhou Yuelong, plus Ryan Day was pushed to the final frame before securing a victory against Martin Gould having led 3-0.

But that's not all! How about Steve Davis, trailing 4-1 to Ricky Walden but then winning three on the spin to prove he can still mix it up with some of the best at the tender age of 209. As mentioned in my previous article, Ding Junhui couldn't close out the match despite leading 3-0 and 4-3 and lost a deciding frame to Mark King. Finally, Robert Milkins would go on to lose yet another deciding frame to Ali Carter, meaning that he came to Shanghai, played 18 frames and still lost in the first round.

But after a series of close contests just to decide the last 16, the second round has proven to be a bit of a different story, with not only a handful of severe beatings to report, but several severe beatings that have gone in favour of the underdog--similar to Jamie Cope's first round slaparound that took out Mark Selby.

Cope would lose decisively to Stuart Bingham, 5-1, which is not as much of a surprise as his appearance in the second round to begin with. John Higgins, who has been repeatedly written off and appears to be "out of form" in every match he plays these days, duly whitewashed Ryan Day 5-0. He will meet Ali Carter, who somehow managed to sweep Stephen Maguire clean off the table by the same 5-0 score. This has to be demoralizing for Maguire who was quoted as saying that he underestimated his opponent after losing the Crucible semi-final to Carter back in spring. Surely he hasn't underestimated him again?

Ali Carter: Regularly underestimated.
Photo by Monique Limbos
Mark Williams had little trouble dispatching Ricky Walden 5-2 and he will meet, in the most shocking result of the tournament so far, Joe Perry, who trounced Neil Robertson 5-0! Since winning the Masters and then being outclassed by Ronnie at the Crucible, Neil Robertson hasn't quite looked the same but I expect he'll come around and win something this year. To be shut out entirely by Joe Perry is a complete surprise to me, though--it's raining locusts in Shanghai, boils are popping up all over the faces of the officiating staff, the end is nigh.

Of course, the best news of the day came when I woke up this morning to discover Graeme Dott leading Stephen Lee 2-0. A poor record of 2 wins and 9 losses against Lee for Graeme was a dark omen, but then the lead became 3-0...then 4-0 at the interval. Dott is not the type of player I would ever expect to collapse from 4-0 up in a best-of-9 and would eventually come through a 5-1 winner in yet another decisive victory. Graeme meets the winner of Mark Allen and Judd Trump, who are now throwing figurative hands in the seventh frame with Allen trailing 4-2. Either match will be a tough quarterfinal for Dott, but there aren't exactly a lot of easy matches in the last 8 of a ranking event these days and you often do have to get through Trump to win big.

Nine matches went to deciding frames in the first round, including the wildcards, while in the second round, we've seen three 5-0 victories, and two matches finish at 5-1. Judd Trump has now finished off Mark Allen 5-2 and so, the result of Shaun Murphy and Mark King is all that's left to be decided for the quarterfinalists. John Higgins will meet Ali Carter, Joe Perry plays Mark Williams, Dott is stuck with Judd and Murphy or King will play Stuart Bingham.

This weekend, the 2012 Alberta Snooker Championship, the provincial championship held in Canada gets underway and I'll be busy running the show, so that's all I've got to say on the subject of this year's Shanghai Masters.

Unless Graeme wins it of course, in which case I'll likely mention it a couple of times throughout the season.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Defeat - A meal fit for a Ding

There's lots of places you can find the draw for the 2012 Shanghai Masters, but this isn't one of them. To make sense of what I'm yammering about in this article, please consult Wikipedia here2012 Shanghai Masters

There was a time when I believed that Ding Junhui would be the first world champion of Asian descent, but it seems to me that his rise to stardom in the throes of the bombastic promotion of Chinese snooker in his homeland has only hurt his chances of rising all the way to the top. As more and more events are being staged in China, more and more deciding frame defeats and embarrassing losses to lesser players seem to be floating Ding's way. When I watch him play against top players, it's often difficult to pick a winner--but I can't remember the last time I watched Ding Junhui play a first-round match against an unseeded player, confident that he would come through with a win.

Ding Junhui: What the f----
Photo by Monique Limbos
As I type this up, Ding has squandered a 3-0 lead on Mark King and now trails by 12 points in the final frame, the match now level at 4-4. Whether he wins or not, Ding's performance has been extremely dodgy and, though I mean no disrespect to Mark King, there's no excuse for someone with Ding's pedigree to be playing with such an apparent lack of confidence and an unmistakable air of frustration. He's just attempted a reckless shot on the thinnest of possible reds that has almost certainly cost him the match and only barely resembles the player that struck fear into the hearts of the whole British Empire only a few years ago.

Mark King has never beaten Ding Junhui before today and more recently, he has also been beaten in the opening round by Mark Davis 5-2 in Wuxi, was crushed at the first hurdle by compatriot wildcard Jin Long 5-1 back at the World Open, lost to Peter Ebdon in both the China Open and in Australia, and was even eliminated from the German Masters by Yu Delu 5-3 in possibly the worst performance of his career--again, in the first round. As of late, commentators have spoken of his poor record in China, but while his talent can't be disputed, his record against lower-ranked opposition in general hasn't exactly been glowing with the same sort of luster of, say, the top 5--which he was recently a part of.

Couple that with the air of frustration I mentioned and you start to see a player on the decline. He received a light slap on the wrist for saying "fuck" at the press conference for his deciding frame loss to Ryan Day at the World Championship, which was little more than a dejected-looking Ding who seemed keen to blame his loss on the Sheffield crowd despite sparse evidence that the audience was at all partisan or uncharacteristically and unreasonably unruly for the excitement of a Crucible decider. Since then, he always seems to be pointing fingers at the crowd and finding excuses to lose matches he should be winning. It's almost as though he just can't handle the pressure.

It's weird to see a top snooker player get so far up in the game and then suffer from the sort of behaviour that typically prevents players from ever reaching the top, but I really think we might just be seeing Ding Junhui on a premature decline. At this rate, any number of players from China's growing snooker conglomerate might don the Crucible crown before Ding does.

Haphazard Semi-finalist Predictions:
(NOTE: Predicted results are made with my head, not with my heart--but generally speaking, it doesn't make them any more accurate)

  • Stuart Bingham
  • Stephen Maguire
  • Mark Williams 
  • Graeme Dott
HOPE LEFT THAT GRAEME DOTT WILL WIN THIS EVENT: It's really all contingent on Mark Allen beating Judd Trump.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

PTC3 - Gloucester's second-to-last hurrah

There's lots of places you can find the draw for the 2012 PTC3 Event, but this isn't one of them. To make sense of what I'm yammering about in this article, please consult Wikipedia herePlayers Tour Championships - Event 3

The highlight of the penultimate PTC event to be held at Gloucester's South West Snooker Academy for the forseeable future is, in the minds of most snooker fans, the return of Ronnie O'Sullivan. As per usual,  he successfully stole most of the headlines in major newspapers this season without even picking up a cue by refusing to sign the players' contract and probably threatening to retire a few times--or was that last year? The year before? I don't know, I've lost count.

Yu Delu: Not Ronnie O'Sullivan.
Photo by Monique Limbos
Because I follow the game a little more closely than the Daily Mail sports columnists, the exploits of the ever-mysterious O'Sullivan are a little drab for me and frustratingly repetitive when all I really want to see him do is play snooker. I liken them to the discussions in Canada surrounding the collective bargaining agreement amongst professional ice hockey players and team owners in the NHL. Locally, with the threat of hockey players being locked out at the start of the season looming, these kinds of stories dominate the sports coverage of most news outlets, despite having very little to do with sports. So, whether Ronnie plays or not is of no consequence to me--though I'd prefer it if he did, just as I would prefer to see the hockey season start on time. What the suits behind closed-doors do that lead up to these predilections isn't why I watch sports.

In any case, it's irrelevant--Ronnie is in the draw and presumably will show up (though nothing is promised) and power his way to the quarter-finals at least. He doesn't ever seem to suffer from a lack of match practice as Ding Junhui and John Higgins seem to have done this year. His draw is quite favourable compared to some other top-16 players and many might expect him to meet Neil Robertson in the Last 16--however, Robertson hasn't been particularly impressive in this season's PTC events as of yet.

Looking at the rest of the draw, I'm hoping to see Marco Fu make some noise if he can topple the current Order of Merit leader Stephen Maguire in a rough opening-round draw, but he's got some tough opponents in that quarter afterwards as well including Luca Brecel, Mark Williams, Matthew Stevens, Ryan Day, Ricky Walden and Xiao Guodong--phew!

Graeme Dott: Will win 2 or 3 matches this time, goddammit.
Photo by Monique Limbos
Graeme Dott has finally been awarded an easier start to this campaign than the downright ugly draws he was facing in earlier PTCs as he takes on Ian Burns for the right to face the winner of Andrew Higginson and Q School newbie Chen Zhe. Also in the second section, Jimmy White is going to have to stop Aditya Mehta's solid run of form to make any headway and Sam Baird, who it seems still hasn't recovered from nearly beating Mark Selby at the Welsh Open, may well be on a slide down the rankings as he faces Michael White. The third section features the likes of Barry Hawkins, who I'm sure will defeat Tony Drago and I actually expect him to beat Shaun Murphy as well. If so, I would expect him to meet Jamie Burnett, who has also had a solid start this season, in the Last 16. This would probably set up a quarterfinal with Judd Trump, whom Barry has beaten in deciding frames in their last two meetings. That would bode well for Dott--but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Trump is likely to stroll through his section--who he will face in the Last 16 is a matter of speculation, but I'd be betting on Mark Davis to continue playing the best snooker of his life. Alfie Burden, who made a surprise run to the semi-finals at the last event in Gloucester, will square off against last year's Snookerbacker Classic winner Martin O'Donnell for the right to face (likely) John Higgins. Down in the seventh quarter, Mark Allen, who I haven't seen much of this year, looks to be probably facing Ken Doherty in the Last 64. With Ken fresh off his first maximum in Germany, I do hope he can bring home a victory for the Irish Republic.

Then, down at the bottom end, it looks like another straightforward handful of ranking points for Mark Selby, who doesn't really have any serious threats in the draw as he will look to continue piling on to the stranglehold lead he has at the world number one spot. Over seven frames, Dominic Dale might be able to topple Selby...but probably not.

Haphazard Quarterfinalist Predictions:
(NOTE: Predicted results are made with my head, not with my heart--but generally speaking, it doesn't make them any more accurate)
  • Mark Williams
  • Graeme Dott
  • Barry Hawkins
  • Judd Trump
  • Stephen Lee
  • Ronnie O'Sullivan
  • Michael Holt
  • Mark Selby 
HOPE LEFT THAT GRAEME DOTT WILL WIN THIS EVENT: Trace amounts of hope--tough quarterfinals if it all goes the way I see it.