Well would you Adam and Eve it? It’s only that time of year when we head to ole Laandan Taan and feast our mince pies on the delights of ‘Ally Pally’ for The Masters snooker. Hopefully they will have had enough time to clean up all the piss stains and vomit residue left behind by those common ‘working/under class’ rabble that frequent the ‘darts’, making way for the altogether more gentlemanly and ladylike and slightly obsessive attendees who visit our far superior sport in their droves and their anoraks. The pints and nuts are replaced by Bovril and fruit bonbons and the raucous roars by polite applause at deft safeties, dump shots and well judged positional cannons, we are just so much more civilised than that other shower and long may that gulf between the two sports live.
Last year saw Ronnie O’Sullivan at his brilliant best romping to the title with an absolute walloping of the hapless Barry Hawkins who didn’t show up for the final, but one year on it’s now become a worryingly long time for the avid and sometimes rabid fans of The Rocket since he’s had a trophy in his hands. Perhaps this is the week he can rediscover the winning formula and stop this increasing talk of his playing career in gradual demise? Mostly, I admit, from this corner of the blogesphere in the hope it might not be true and I’m wrong like I was about Higgins.
As ever there are plenty there to try and stop him getting his mits on the Paul Hunter Trophy, in fact, I think I’m right in saying that for the first time in Masters history every player involved this year has won at least one ranking title. Of course, this is largely due to the amount of snooker there is these days but it’s still quite a stat nonetheless and just highlights what a quality field we have lining up, starting on Sunday afternoon with the said Rocket Ronald taking on Liang Wenbo, who is making his second appearance at The Masters following his breakthrough into the top 16 for the first time last season. He has since of course captured his maiden ranking title at the English Open in Manchester.
There are a few ‘regulars’ that are missing out this year after an undignified topple down the rankings, we have no Ricky Walden or Stephen Maguire, two players who we are used to lining up with the game’s elite. Indeed in Maguire’s case you need to go back to 2003 for the last time he didn’t compete at The Masters, he made his debut in 2004 and has been an ever present since then until now; his current ranking of 25 not helping his cause. In Ricky’s case, his run of four consecutive years in the top 16 has come to an end although at 17 he was pipped to the final place by that peskie newbie Kyren Wilson.
Kyren is the only debutant in London this year, his win at the Shanghai Masters in 2015 saw him zoom up the rankings, he’s managed to hang on to his top 16 place for this being around £30k ahead of Walden and he also plays on day one against Ding Junhui, so Sunday sees a big day for the Chinese snooker fans as well as for Kyren on his first visit to the sacred palace of potters.
This is one week in the snooker year that I always look forward to, we get to see every match and every ball potted in the company of the usual crew at the BBC, or if you prefer, Eurosport. Of course the BBC can be trusted to deliver the goods along with the V-Neck sweaters, slapstick/crap mid-sesh features, tales about ill or dead/soon to be dead golf buddies and Cliff Thorburn in the afternoons, with the Red Button on hand for the evening. I’ll probably stick with JV, Dennis, giggling Ken, JP’s eyebrows, Hendry’s acerbic put downs, Hazel’s filofax of facts, my mate Steve and the rest of the gang in the afternoons before tuning in to Eurosport for the evening with all the grown ups, as long as Phil Studd isn’t commentating with Mike Hallett on those (hint hint if you are listening – please split them up my ears can’t handle it).
I’ve taken a look at each match individually below and if you click on the match it will magically take you to the head to head record and a journey through anorak paradise courtesy of Cue Tracker, the only thing you can’t analyse on there is respective shoes sizes, you have everything else at hand to form your punting or non-punting opinion. It goes without saying that when you get the cream of the crop together in a competition the betting gets very tough indeed, but here goes some misguided opinions anyway. Now sit back and enjoy a feast of snooker at one of the best venues on the tour, it all starts on Sunday so get the snacks in for some proper winter snooker.
Ronnie O’Sullivan v Liang Wenbo – Sunday January 15, 1pm
In common with most players on the circuit Liang Wenbo’s head to head statistic against Ronnie doesn’t bode well for his chances here. Their matches of late have tended to be close though which tells me it’s usually getting over the line rather than ‘rabbit in the headlights’ syndrome that’s mostly to blame for Liang. His newly found winning formula can in part be attributed to his opponent here who seems somewhat intrigued by the bendy faced Chinese player, so much so that Ronnie decided to take him under his wing and give him a few tips. Watch this match closely in terms of body language, I’ve never seen Ronnie smile at anyone the way he smiles at Wenbo during play, it’s very unusual for him to show any emotion during a match these days in particular a smile. My guess is that Ronnie enjoys his match ups with this quirky ‘marmite’ type character, which is probably why he usually beats him and probably will again here.
Match Prediction: O’Sullivan 6-4
Neil Robertson v Ali Carter – Tuesday January 17, 7pm
It’s 4 years and 8 meet ups since Ali managed to turn over Robbo, he’s lost most of his matches against him on the big stage including a 6-1 drubbing here two years ago. To be fair they were pretty level pegging until Ali’s much documented health problems but lining up against someone who has beaten you on the last seven occasions you have met might just niggle slightly. Robbo himself though isn’t at his best yet this season, we are used to seeing him in the later stages routinely but for whatever reason it isn’t clicking for him as yet and his ranking is as low as I can remember it for quite a while. Ali has a ranking event win under his belt already this season from capturing the World Open, this of course got him here, but his results since then have been a bit patchy and you get the feeling that both these players need the timely confidence boost that a win here will bring. I think this one could go close but I’m just going to take Robertson to edge it, either way, if O’Sullivan is waiting, book your seat on the sofa for Round 2.
Match Prediction: Robertson 6-4
Judd Trump v Marco Fu – Tuesday January 17, 1pm
Marco was is great form in Scotland when capturing the Home Nations event over there, his comeback in the final against John Higgins must have really given him a boost as he has lost his way in the past in big finals and it may be a real sign that he’s ready to win a real biggy. He can also take heart that he’s beaten Judd at this stage here before three years ago in a decider, he’s in form and he’s got that to his credit. Judd has been pretty consistent this season so far and of course won over in Romania but his form just before the Xmas break losing 5-1 to Tom Ford and his poor showing in the UK Championship means he’s got a bit to prove here. At the start of the season a few of his peers were saying that this could be Judd’s year, if it is to be so, he’ll want to bag another title before going to Sheffield and until then this is the biggest, but I have to say, I think Marco with the wind in his sails could upset the applecart here. Perhaps a quiet ‘under the radar’ few months might help Judd focus on the ultimate goal in April, it worked for Selby last year after all.
Match Prediction: Fu 6-3
John Higgins v Mark Allen – Monday January 16, 1pm
Plenty of people became superlatived out in that run just before Xmas that Higgins put together. His confidence grew in direct correlation with his bank balance (I’ve seen the graphs) as he once again turned back the clock to show us all what a fantastic winner and competitor he is. His last two matches against Mark Allen he has won with a bit in hand though Allen did turn him over here at this stage two years ago. Higgins doesn’t have a ‘great’ Masters record, although it’s still better than almost every player who ever picked up a cue, much like Steve Davis who despite winning everything else under the sun didn’t always perform at his best in this. But Higgins hasn’t come into it playing as well as he is now for some time. Allen’s season can at best, by his standards, be described as OK, he’s got to a couple of quarter finals, one semi in the Champion of Champions but he’s not reaching the heights of previous early seasons just yet. You have to stick with Higgins here and he’d be my pick for the winner of the top half of the draw.
Match Prediction: Higgins 6-2
Stuart Bingham v Joe Perry – Monday January 16, 7pm
Joe Perry holds the bald head to bald head advantage between these two familiar faces, Bingham of course has now leaped above Joe in snooker’s hall of fame but the two of them through the years have been pretty evenly matched and probably been labelled in the same bracket of player for the vast majority of their careers. It’s funny when one player of two who have met a lot suddenly makes that giant step up like Stuart did, does Joe think it could or should have been him? Does he think any differently when playing Stuart since he became a world champion? Does Stuart now consider himself a rung above on the ladder looking down? Oh, the complex mind of a snooker player….Anyway, I digress. Stuart was very consistent in the early part of the season with semi-final and final appearances but he’s yet to lift a trophy since his Crucible triumph which must niggle a little, Joe has had some disappointing results since reaching the final of the World Open and will be hoping 2017 marks a new start for him. I find this one quite difficult to call but just on current form and consistency I’ll stick with Stuart.
Match Prediction: Bingham 6-4
Ding Junhui v Kyren Wilson – Sunday January 15, 7pm
Debut boy Kyren hasn’t played Ding since the Quarter Finals of his Shanghai Masters triumph and Ding seemed to be in a bit of a sulk following his crushing loss to Mark Selby in the final of the International Championship in front of his home crowd, a 10-1 loss that seemed to deeply affect him emotionally and since then he’s not really been his normal self. You’d hope that the former Masters champion has had some time to reflect on that over the break and realise that after all it’s just a snooker match and lots of people would find it very difficult to cope with Selby when he’s on a mission, it will be interesting to see what happens next time the two meet given that The Jester also ended Ding’s world champion dream last May aswell, he’s probably sick of the sight of him. Anyway, I’ll trust to luck that Ding’s head is back on straight and if it is I’d expect him to win here with a little bit to spare.
Match Prediction: Ding 6-3
Shaun Murphy v Barry Hawkins – Wednesday January 18, 7pm
Of the 11 meetings between the pair, Murphy has won 9 of them. OK, it is skewed a little by the smaller events but if you look at what I’d term meaningful head to heads Murphy still leads 5-1. I wonder why that should be given that Barry is a well established top 16 player? Maybe it’s one of those hoodoo’s that certain players have over others or maybe the style of play Barry adopts which is usually fairly attacking just suits Shaun? Who the devil really knows? Murphy can probably count himself a little unlucky this season so far to have lost in a couple of great matches to almost flawless performances, most notably for me Bingham in the China Championship earlier in the season, but there are those who continue to mumble about him just being too attacking and needing to tighten up a bit and dare I say it, be more like Selby and less like, well, Murphy. This match closes the first round and I just get the feeling that it might be one of the best of the eight, I can see it going to a decider and if it does I’ll count on the hoodoo to see Murphy throothroo.
Match Prediction: Murphy 6-5
Mark Selby v Mark Williams – Wednesday January 18, 1pm
The Master of Brinkmanship meets the laid back Welshman for the 26th time in their careers with the head to head extremely close both in terms of matches and frames played, Williams slightly ahead on both. Quite amazingly for people like Dennis, when I’d say it was more ironic really, MJW was the last player to have held all the ‘big three’ titles at the same time; the World Championship, the UK and this. But Selby is now in a position to also do just that and join an extremely elite group of players to have done so, with MJW being handed the chance to retain the status quo by beating him here. To give you an idea of how elite a group this is, Ronnie’s name ain’t down so he’s not comin’ in. Will this add to the pressure for Selby? Well MJW had better hope not as that is when The Jester thrives, to me he is the closest we have had to a dominating player since Hendry. His consistency is now as strong as ever, he is light years ahead on the money/ranking list and unlikely to be toppled for at least two years from his perch and he has to be the fancy in the bottom half to get to the final. It would be nice to see him join the club in arguably a more competitive era of snooker than that of Hendry and Davis, though perhaps not Williams. Even so, maybe then, deservedly, he will finally be accepted as one of the sport’s ‘greats’, just not by Ronnie’s fans.
Match Prediction: Selby 6-3
Outright Bets: Mark Selby at 4/1 and John Higgins at 9/1.
Recommended First Round Acca: Ding, Higgins, Selby and Fu pays 15/2 at Marathon Bet.
I will be tweeting daily handicap/century doubles throughout the first round.