Welsh Wizards – Part One

Having considered the prospects of Scotland’s professional players last week, this time the spotlight falls on the Welsh players who are once again headed by double world champion Mark Williams…

Having struggled during the years following his unprecedented BBC ‘Grand Slam’, Mark Williams showed signs of recapturing something like his old form during 2008/9. Last season however he was better still, consistently winning matches and this culminated in his excellent form over in Beijing to win the China Open for a third time.

So what can he do during 2010/11? It is early days but so far the omens are good for the Welsh Potting Machine as he took that form into the first event of the Players Tour Championship this season at the Academy, emerging victorious following a succession of tight matches.

An important factor in his favour is that having risen back into the top eight for the first time since 2006/7 at the end of last season, he is now sure of avoiding the other top players until at least the quarter-final stages of the major ranking events. With relatively few points to defend from the 2008/9 season compared to those around him in the rankings, I would anticipate Mark staying there for at least a further year and consequently not drawing the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan at the last 16 stage of events as he did at the Crucible this April.

Focusing back on Mark himself though, while I do not think that he was quite back to his absolute best last season, he was not far away from that level and has the experience to win tournaments should the opportunity present itself. At his best he was also very consistent during the early rounds of events, winning his opening match in a record 48 straight ranking events at one point and so I expect another strong campaign which could see him finish back inside the top four once again…

The situation is not so rosy for Welsh number two Ryan Day however as the Pontycymer potter enters 2010/11 on the back of a terrible season which saw him drop six places to number 12 in the rankings.

Having reached ranking event finals in each of the previous two seasons as he rose up the rankings, he could not repeat that form during 2009/10 which by its end left him looking as demoralised as I have ever seen him against Mark Davis at the season-ending World Championship as he fell at the first fence against his unseeded opponent. His start to the new season has hardly been much better, losing his opening match in each of the two PTC events staged so far while offering little resistance to Tian Pengfei in the final of the BTV Cup over in China.

A further problem for Ryan is that his excellent start to 2008/9 which saw him reach the final of the Grand Prix also means that he will lose more points than any player not called John Higgins or Ronnie O’Sullivan to come off at this season’s first revision, a fact that means his top 16 status is currently very much in jeopardy should his results not improve.

On the positive side however Ryan remains among the strongest break-builders in the game at the moment and if he can rediscover the confidence that he had a couple of seasons ago is more than talented enough to remain inside the top 16. He also displayed improved form to reach the final of the BTV Cup this month, defeating friend Stephen Maguire in the semi-finals before that final to forget against rising star Tian.

At 30 years of age however, Ryan is currently in what should be his peak years as a professional and needs to crack that psychological barrier of a tournament victory sooner rather than later…

Another player that knows all about the psychological barrier of a tournament victory is compatriot Matthew Stevens who has often struggled to get over the line in finals, that sole UK Championship crown apart.

Of bigger concern to Matthew at the moment however will be moving back up into the top 16 again after several years away now and heading into this season’s first revision he arguably has his best opportunity to do so since his relegation. His stay may potentially be short-lived as at the second-revision he is set to lose his points from reaching the final of the Bahrain Championship in 2008 but he would at least be assured of a seeding for the UK Championship and a spot at the Masters should he perform well over the coming months.

Can he do so? Coming up to 33 years of age he is no longer the rising star that he once was and does appear to have struggled for motivation at times during recent seasons, understandably given the lack of events on the calendar. With the new PTC events however he will have no such excuse and it will be interesting to see whether the chance to play more matches will suit him.

Like Ryan I feel that the next couple of months will be crucial to how his season as a whole will unfold and I will be following him with interest…