Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Other Other Big One - To Chengdu!

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

For as long as I have known, the World Championship at the Crucible has been the flagship event in professional snooker, while the UK Championship in December is often hailed as the second-biggest tournament of the year. Definitely a fair argument, as the whole of the tournament (including qualifiers) was played over a best-of-17 frames, with the final contested over 19. It is the sort of match that I love to become engrossed in and the scarcity of these longer formats in the modern game makes it all the more exciting when the holiday season rolls around.

However, in what I view as Barry Hearn's most unsavoury adjustment to the sport at large, the UK Championship rounds have been reduced to a mere best-of-11 frames, leaving it barely distinguishable from the myriad best-of-9 ranking events that occupy a second tier of significance and prestige on the snooker calendar. Many of the players agree that this was not the right move, but the end result is that the new International Championship in China starting next week, which carries precisely the same best-of-11 format, is being billed as the next biggest major of the season with a similarly husky prize purse of £600,000 on offer. I don't want to get too deep into it here, but I do think the length of the matches ought to reflect the prizes on offer a little more closely than they do under the new system.

Barry Hearn: Time is money, friend.
A best-of-11 is not a terribly short match, but it's short enough that it doesn't take something extraordinary for the better player to lose and it seems to me that when a lot of money is up for grabs, the best player should win. Particularly with Hearn's plan to eliminate ranking points altogether and seed players based on how much money they win over the course of a season come 2014. I'll probably write a separate post ranting about that later on, but the crux of my objection is that a money-based ranking system means that you would have to win FOUR Welsh Opens to earn the "ranking dollars" equal to winning ONE International Championship--and the format of the tournaments are not exactly all that different.

Nevertheless, with all of the good Barry Hearn has brought to the game, it's difficult to admonish his forthcoming misgivings too loudly and it seems clear that the direction he is going is unlikely to change. So, with that, I will begrudgingly treat the new International Championship as a big deal and I will begrudgingly pretend that the UK Championship carries all the esteemed prominence it has in the past, whilst muttering curse words under my breath as I watch the criminal injustice of Graeme Dott running out of frames in the midst of staging a late comeback during one of these so-called "majors". *deep breath*

The Draw
In the top quarter of the draw, we see a familiar name in the form of world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, entering a major ranking event for the first time since signing the players' contract and deciding that there was enough cash on offer to justify boarding a plane to China. The only other sign of Ronnie all season was a 4-3 defeat to Simon Bedford at PTC3 which he clearly didn't take too seriously if you watched his recklessly aggressive shot selections unfold. Ronnie will play the winner of a wildcard round between the Welsh underachiever Michael White and the recent conqueror of Marco Fu at the Shanghai Masters, 14 year-old Lu Haotian. I suspect he'll steamroll either of them, despite the assertions of some pundits that Ronnie might be a little rusty--poppycock, I say! Balderdash!

Unfortunately for Graeme Dott, he will likely face O'Sullivan if he is able to come through his first-round tie with Dominic Dale and although Dott is certainly capable of winning, it's tough to back him when Ronnie is expected to come back to the baize hungrier than usual. The good news for Dott (or at least Dott fans such as myself) is that he'll almost certainly be on a televised table--or he could lose to the Spaceman, I guess...

Also in this Welsh-heavy section of the draw is Matthew Stevens, who I haven't seen play all that well in quite some time and may be in tough against Ken Doherty, wildcard permitted. Ryan Day faces Neil Robertson in another match fit for television. I would bet on Neil Robertson to win by a couple of frames at least and likely move on to eventually meet Ronnie in the quarters--but hey, it doesn't take a genius to come up with that prediction.

Marco Fu: Reppin' for Deroo Cues in Chengdu.
Photo by Monique Limbos
India's Pankaj Advani, who had to fight through four rounds of qualifying to make it to the International Championship, disappointingly decided to withdraw after the fact in order to compete in the World Billiards Championship in Leeds. The result is that the second quarter of the draw will feature a Chinese wildcard squaring off against Ding Junhui in the opening round. I don't know much about Zhou Yuelong, but if Ding can't win this match, he may never be favoured to win again in China. I wholly expect him to lose to Shaun Murphy in the last 16. Marco Fu and Martin Gould will be engaged in what I imagine will be an entertaining match for the chance to face either Mark Davis or Mark Williams, the winner of which will have a chance to "mar" the record of Murphy in the quarters if I'm right.

The bottom half has some interesting permutations, including five of the eight wildcards, of which I don't think any have much of a chance of progressing. I don't think anyone's picking Fergal O'Brien to dump Trump, Barry Pinches is going to have a hard time with Ricky Walden, Jamie Burnett's good run of form isn't enough to convince me he can beat Stephen Maguire over 11 frames and who can back Cao Yupeng against John Higgins? India's other representative, Aditya Mehta, faces Stuart Bingham if he can get through the wildcard round, and I sure hope he does given that he had the sense to at least board the plane and play in this tournament rather than spend his week stringing together 800 nursery cannons to an audience of two dozen sleeping bystanders.

Mark Allen, fresh off his win in Antwerp, faces Robert Milkins in his first-round fixture, the winner likely to progress to face John Higgins. You have to favour Allen, but I still feel Milkins is waiting in the wings to produce something big and this might be his best opportunity. Meanwhile, Mark Selby faces Ali Carter and assuming that Stephen Lee's sudden suspension from the tour despite a lack of hard evidence holds up, Peter Ebdon will get a walkover to face Stephen Maguire. They last met at the China Open final, which Ebdon won in characteristic fashion by pulling the pot off the boil and letting the match coagulate into a murky, nine-hour advertisement for how not to sell a sport to the masses. Although a deciding frame is never a surprise in a match featuring Peter Ebdon, I don't think he's going to get away with this one.

Stuart Bingham: India's worst nightmare.
Photo by Monique Limbos
So where are the upsets at this inaugural International Championship? No tournament is complete without a few, so I'll take a crack at who isn't going to win when they are probably expected to. Firstly, I don't think this will be Judd Trump's tournament and I expect him to either lose to Stuart Bingham early, or possibly to either Mark Allen or John Higgins in the quarters. I also don't think Mark Williams is going to make very much headway as he is lined up for a variety of tough matches no matter what happens in elsewhere in the draw. Even Mark Davis has the game to beat Williams on his day. Ding's record in China has begun to speak for itself, so it's hard to even call it an upset when he loses early in his own country. Stephen Maguire almost always plays well, but I'm not sure he'll get through Mark Selby in his quarter either.

The semi-finals are played over a best-of-17 frames, so at least enthusiastic viewers who appreciate a real match get a handful of these multi-session spectacles and this is where it's hard not to pick Ronnie to breeze into another final. There aren't many contenders in his section of the draw that are likely to beat him over 17 frames. The bottom half is somewhat less certain with Trump, Higgins, Mark Allen, Stephen Maguire and Mark Selby all possible contenders. It seems like it's been awhile since we've seen a good Selby-O'Sullivan final and that's what I'm counting on--there's plenty of room for upsets early in the tournament, but I'm backing the top two seeds to make the final.

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)
  • Ronnie O'Sullivan
  • Neil Robertson
  • Shaun Murphy
  • Marco Fu
  • Stuart Bingham
  • John Higgins
  • Stephen Maguire
  • Mark Selby 
HOPE LEFT THAT GRAEME DOTT WILL WIN THIS EVENT: An unfortunately small amount. If he can somehow make the semi-finals, then maybe I'll start getting excited.

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