Friday, November 30, 2012

Trump's Tumultuous Title Defence in York

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

Judd Trump's capture of the UK Championship this time last year was empirically impressive and after a rocky first-round encounter with a Dominic Dale and a deciding-frame triumph over Ronnie O'Sullivan in the last 16, he never really looked like losing. In the final, Mark Allen trailed Trump 8-3 before reeling off three centuries in four frames, plus a break of 95 to win the seventeenth and make it 9-8. On that occasion, it wasn't enough to beat Trump who mopped up the next to win 10-8, but you got the feeling that over a longer format, Allen's fightback was strong enough to come back and defeat most anyone in the game.

Judd Trump: Bulgarian punani aficionado.
Photo by Monique Limbos
This year, last year's finalist's are once again seeded in opposite halves of the draw, leaving the unlikely (though not unrealistic) chance of a repeat final. As ever though, the road to the final is paved with broken glass, land mines, carnivorous predators, pools of quicksand and a smattering of other dangerous obstacles capable of tripping up any player who thinks they can coast their way to one of snooker's finest pieces of silverware.

You would be forgiven for backing Trump to win a second successive UK Championship at this year's event given his form of late--his ability to win on big occasions has been put through the wringer already this year and he is no longer just a front-runner who is difficult to catch up to, but a player who has already felt the sting of defeat from a winning position and been able to bounce back. He started the season imperiously, bringing his best when the major ranking events came along. A run to the final at the Shanghai Masters saw him surely set to win one after leading 7-2 at the end of the first session, but John Higgins staged a comeback for the ages, propelled on by a 147 whilst trailing and ultimately won 10-9. A bitter defeat for Trump no doubt and in the subsequent interviews at other events, when Higgins' name came up, you could see that Judd has immense respect for the Scot and perhaps even a little bit of fear. He would go on to defeat Neil Robertson 10-8 and win the inaugural International Championship in Chengdu, a victory for which he openly offered some attribution to the fact that Higgins fell at the first hurdle, losing 6-3 to Cao Yupeng.

Full of confidence heading into the final PTC event at Gloucester's South West Snooker Academy, Judd once again met John Higgins in the final and was dismayed to lose 4-2, leading many to share in the opinion that Higgins may be the one nut too tough to crack for the Bristolian ball-basher. Determined to put the reputation to rest, Trump would meet him again in their third final of the season at the European Tour event in Bulgaria just days later and he duly trounced John Higgins 4-0. Though billed as the win he needed to put those demons to rest, the nature of the meetings between these two players has produced a unique rivalry that hardly had a shred of substance to it before Higgins won the 2011 World Championship and stopped Trump's seemingly unstoppable race to glory in its tracks with a cool 18-15 decision. The significance of the matches in which he has lost to Higgins still far outweighs his winning 4 frames in a row on one lone day in Bulgaria--surely, Trump is capable of winning four frames in a row against any player in the world at any time. I've underestimated Trump before, but I still don't think he has this matchup figured out and I also think a number of other players are more than capable of making life difficult on his title defence. Let's take a look, shall we?

Top Half

Judd's road to victory sees him squaring off against Mark Joyce in the opening round, who has made it to the venue stage of the UK Championship for the second time in three attempts having defeated Jamie Cope in the final qualifying round. Incidentally, Joyce defeated Trump 9-7 in the second round as a qualifier in 2010 after Trump qualified and then beat the seeded Jamie Cope in his first-round match. However, the Judd of 2010 may as well have been a completely different player and few are picking Mark Joyce to cause another upset this time around.

Steve Davis: Old.
The veteran that never ceases to amaze with his tendency to still find himself under the TV lights in the world of pro snooker, Steve Davis has qualified for his 648th UK Championship and faces Ali Carter, whose potential meeting with Trump in the last 16 is most certainly a likely stumbling block in his title defense*. It's almost always a well-contested match between these two characters and I expect the trend to continue.

Jack Lisowski makes his BBC event debut having just recently moved out from sharing flats with Trump and his reward is needing to defeat Stuart Bingham, newly-crowned Premier League champion. Form suggests that Bingham could meet Trump in the quarters, provided he can get through either Stephen Maguire or Fergal O'Brien.

Dott: Armed with the will to win and a case of Irn-Bru.
Photo by Monique Limbos
The other quarter in this half of the draw is where good ol' Graeme Dott makes an appearance and he's got a tough but winnable encounter with Martin Gould. When they last met in this competition, Dott came through a 9-5 victor and also defeated him 5-0 in the 6-Red World Championships in July. The winner of their bout faces either Shaun Murphy or Robert Milkins, the latter of whom has seen a very strong start to his season recording wins against Ryan Day, Andrew Higginson and a couple of wins over Judd Trump in both the third PTC event and the last 16 of the Wuxi Classic.

Luca Brecel has also qualified for York by way of winning four matches against Scott Donaldson in a decider, Peter Lines, Liu Chuang and finishing it off with an impressive 6-1 drubbing of Peter Ebdon. Not unlike his qualifying run to the Crucible at the end of last season, Luca will be hoping to do one better at least and come out on top in his first-round clash with Wuxi Classic champion, Ricky Walden. Meanwhile, Mark Williams faces Mark King, where King interestingly leads the head-to-head record between them 7-6, his most recent triumph coming in the shape of a 5-1 win in the opening round of the World Open last season.

Bottom Half

If Mark Allen hopes to make a repeat appearance in the final, he will first have to get through Hong Kong's Marco Fu and the media has done a good job of highlighting the fact that Fu was one of several Chinese players specifically named by Allen in his controversial accusations of cheating following his Crucible loss to Cao Yupeng. Marco was reportedly quite taken aback by those accusations but will almost certainly refrain from letting it affect his game--Fu always approaches the table in the same calm, collected manner and so long as that is the case, his chances of beating any player in the game are never to be written off.

One of those players will face the winner of the all-Welsh affair between Dominic Dale and Matthew Stevens. You would expect Matthew Stevens to come out on top here, but if the Spaceman can keep it close, all the pressure will be on Stevens to close out the match and I've seen him crumble from winning positions before.

John Higgins will steamroll Michael Holt as he always does in ranking events and should therefore move on to face either Mark Davis or Cao Yupeng, an enticing opening round match as Davis takes advantage of being seeded 16th in the absence of Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stephen Lee. Yupeng is no stranger to causing upsets and I suspect the odds on this match come out about even anyway. If Cao is able to advance and topple Higgins in the second round, it sets up a potential meeting with Mark Allen in the quarters, just as they did at the Crucible and, more recently, in Chengdu where Allen determinedly recorded a 6-2 win.

Liang Wenbo: Obviously drinks espresso between sessions.
Photo by Monique Limbos
Tom Ford, fresh off a maximum break in Bulgaria, will be feeling pretty confident until Neil Robertson smacks him around a little bit and walks out a comfortable winner. I can't take anything away from Tom's skill, but he seems to have a tough time taking defeat on the abnormally-large chin. Neil should advance to face either Barry Hawkins (another beneficiary of the...err..."revised" Top 16) or Liang Wenbo, who showed a great deal of mettle in whitewashing Andrew Higginson 6-0 in the final qualifying round.

Ding Junhui and Ryan Day also have a re-match on schedule after Ding's soul-crushing 10-9 defeat at the Crucible that left him a broken mess in the follow-up press conference, spitting hot fire at the unruly audience as though he dragon? Anyway, he'll have to tune out the partisan crowd on this occasion and play at his best to survive this one while the winner will come through to face either Michael White or the "not-world-number-one-anymore-so-no-one-seems-to-be-paying-attention" Mark Selby. I'm surprised every time that Michael White wins a match, so I'm surprised to see him in York at all after beating Ken Doherty 6-3 in the qualifiers. Perhaps he'll finally show me something worth believing in, but so far, all I seem to hear is how awesomely talented he is and what great prospects he has for the future of the game--but then he'll go and lose to Chinese wildcards, or get whitewashed by guys like Alan McManus and Scott Donaldson (who?). Most recently, he was defeated 5-2 at the first time of asking in the German Masters qualifiers by Fraser Patrick (who?). Keep on truckin', Michael--perhaps you can take Selby to a decider, lose missing a sitter and join the punters' blacklist for the new year like Sam Baird.


I haven't a clue who will win this, but I'll tell you that Michael Holt and Tom Ford most certainly will not. Also, with a burst of evidence-free clairvoyance, I hereby declare that Ricky Walden will reach the quarterfinals for the second year running and Marco Fu will make a break of 141 at some point. What do these predictions mean for you!?? Nothing.

Behold! The 32-thread spool of sporting drama begins to unravel this weekend!

P.S. I'm still pissed about these best-of-11 frame sprints for a title of such prestige...

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)
  • Judd Trump
  • Stuart Bingham
  • Ricky Walden
  • Shaun Murphy
  • John Higgins
  • Matthew Stevens
  • Barry Hawkins
  • Mark Selby
HOPE LEFT THAT GRAEME DOTT WILL WIN THIS EVENT: Moderately low. Meeting Trump in the semis makes it improbable.

*Pedantic UK readers may notice that I freely alternate between spellings when it comes to "defence" and the American "defense" as though struggling to admit that one is more correct than the other. This is one of the many didactic consequences of being from Canada where the Commonwealth still dictates the majority of our language rules, but a shared border with the United States creates an obscure magnetic field that brainwashes us into the unshakable belief that certain American spellings are unequivocally correct. Resistance has proven futile--we understand that "colour" has a U in it, but we won't be caught dead spelling "recognize" with an S instead of a Z. Barring experimental brain surgery, you're just going to have to deal with that... 

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