China Open 2009: Tournament Preview

At this stage of the season much of the attention is on the upcoming World Championship (I will be previewing each first round match in detail at a later date), but before then we have ranking event number seven, the China Open which begins this Monday…

It is a shame in many ways that this tournament comes so close to the World Championship because it is inevitable that it is going to be overshadowed somewhat by the big one. With just eight rankings events on the calendar however and important ranking issues to be decided, the China Open is still an important tournament in its own right.

Last-chance saloon

While you might expect this article to start off looking at the leading contenders for the crown, instead I am going to look at those who will be playing their last event of the season, having not qualified for the World Championship.

The most obvious example is Dave Harold who following his excellent early-season form is provisionally ranked inside the top 16, but following defeat in his World Championship qualifier is in desperate need of a good run in China if he is to stay there. Drawn against defending champion Stephen Maguire he will have it all to do, but he has already ended Maguire’s defence of the Northern Ireland Trophy this season so he is more than capable of causing another upset.

Further down the list, another two in need of a good tournament are Anthony Hamilton and Fergal O’Brien, both of whom could do with a win to retain their top 32 places for next season. Unfortunately for them though, they have drawn two of the strongest players out there, Fergal opening against world number one Ronnie O’Sullivan, while Anthony meets John Higgins who he has failed to beat since the 1998 B&H Masters.

For Fergal a defeat would not be the end of the world as realistically it would take wins from Hamilton, Gerard Greene and Graeme Dott between now and the end of the season to deny him. Down in 48th on the one-year list however, victory over O’Sullivan (who is not always at his best in the overseas events), would help him for next season.

Anthony though is 32nd on the latest provisional list and well within Graeme Dott’s reach should he win matches during the remaining two events. He has at least gone on record as saying that the prospect of dropping out of the 32 and having an extra match to play would not bother him too much, citing the example of Michael Holt who has used the extra matches to build up his confidence this season.

Further down the list it is also a crucial week for David Gray who is in grave danger of losing his main tour place for next season. This week he must not only defeat wildcard Tian Pengfei, but he must also find a way past the 2007 Grand Prix champion, Marco Fu. It would be a real shame if David were to lose his professional place but the results don’t lie and he has simply not performed well enough over the last two seasons. I would not rule him out next week by any means but it will take a really special effort to find a way past Fu I think.

The other players taking part in their final event of the season are Judd Trump, Robert Milkins (whose qualifying match with Liang Wenbo has been held over), Rod Lawler, and Stuart Pettman. Realistically however none are likely to make a significant jump in the rankings and hopefully they can just enjoy the tournament and get some more points on the board. John Parrott of course also qualified, but as explained here, he will not be taking part in the event.

An important tournament for…

Down to 13th in the latest rankings (just 2,100 points clear of 17th), and paired with a resurgent Mark Williams in the opening round of the World Championship, it is fair to say that Stephen Hendry desperately could do with what would be just his third round one victory of the season out in China. It remains to be seen who he will play but if as is likely, it is either Liang Wenbo or Joe Swail, he will not have an easy ride.

It is sad to see snooker’s greatest player (for me anyway), struggling as he is but he just looks to be so short of confidence right now. I have noticed that his matches this season have often gone the same way, his fighting qualities keeping him in touch until late in the match (4-4 against Stevens in Bahrain and Robertson at Wembley, 7-7 with Lee in Telford and so on), but when that extra bit of quality is needed to push on and secure the win, Stephen has not been able to deliver. Hopefully this week will be different.

Similarly, Ding Junhui is also in a perilous position going into his home event, drawn against countryman Liang Wenbo in what will be a tough match at the Crucible, while just about holding onto a top 16 place in the provisional rankings. Awaiting the winner of Michael Holt and Xiao Guodong, he has a tough match in store in Beijing but he did manage to overcome Holt earlier this season in the Grand Prix and should have happy memories here from his victory in the event in 2005.

Also in and around the top 16 and needing as many wins as possible are Jamie Cope, Ricky Walden and Joe Swail, all of whom have shown strong form this season and will be out to put pressure on the likes of Hendry and Ding. Peter Ebdon is also in the mix but his form has been nothing short of terrible this season and he will need to improve significantly just to get past Judd Trump and reach the last 16.

Tips for the title?

So after all that, who looks good for the title? When the draw was first published back in January I felt that the top half was slightly weaker than the bottom, but looking again now it is not quite as clear cut as it was then. Welsh Open champion Ali Carter is the form player at the moment and finds himself with a relatively kind draw early on, though he could well meet the 2008 Welsh Open winner Mark Selby in what would be a mouthwatering quarter-final. If this does prove to be the case then I would not be at all surprised to see the winner of the tie go on to lift the trophy.

At the very top of the draw the strongest name is clearly the defending champion and top seed Stephen Maguire, though coming off the back off his success in the Championship League this week, Judd Trump could be a real dark horse for at least a semi-final. Joe Perry is also playing well at the moment and could spring a surprise while Stephen Hendry is in desperate need of a run if he can find some form.

Turning to the bottom half of the draw there is class everywhere you look, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Shaun Murphy, John Higgins, Marco Fu and Neil Robertson to name just a few. Could it be the turn of a qualifier to cause a surprise though, perhaps a certain Mark J Williams who has a record in the Asian events that is second to none? Having already made sure of a return to the top 16 next season, the pressure will now be off Mark and though his draw is far from easy, maybe this is his opportunity to push for silverware?

I would not like to pick a winner from the bottom quarter with O’Sullivan, Higgins, Fu and Ding Junhui all there, but I would not be surprised to see Marco come through and reach the semi-finals. O’Sullivan and Higgins are obviously class but their motivation and form in the smaller events like this is not always at the level required and they may have one eye on the World Championship.

Whatever happens it is going to be another fascinating week of snooker and you can find the draw here.