UK Championship 2011: Tournament Preview

This weekend sees the start of the UK Championship as snooker’s second biggest ranking event returns to York, albeit with a shortened format. Click below for my look at the draw…

  • Click here to view the tournament drawsheet

The Top Quarter

As is the norm, the top quarter is headed by the defending champion and this year that will be John Higgins who begins his bid to win a fourth UK Championship crown with a clash against Rory McLeod.

Of course these two have met before, back at the Crucible in April when John emerged a 13-7 winner on his way to a fourth world title. Will it be the same result this time? Higgins will be favourite but it will not have escaped the attention of snooker fans that since his triumph in Sheffield earlier this year the Scot has struggled to recapture his best form, failing to win a title since.

That said, with appearances on one final, one semi-final and two quarter-finals from the past five PTC events staged, there are definite signs that Higgins is beginning to hit his stride ahead of the second half of the season.

Can Rory provide an upset? During their World Championship match it was McLeod who actually made the stronger start to lead early in the match before the eventual winner surged ahead in the second session, but in a shorter match perhaps this will be something of a leveller. As Rory told me following his qualification win, he knows what he has to do.

One thing that is certain is that the winner will face a Scot in the next round as Stephen Maguire takes on Stephen Hendry in the next match in this section. For Maguire the start of the season has been a mixed one, indeed he has struggled for results since his appearance in the final of the Welsh Open last season, which also coincides with the birth of his third child ahead of the PTC Grand Finals. He remains a class player however and of course won his last match against Hendry 4-2 in Newport at the Welsh Open.

For Stephen Hendry meanwhile it has been a mixed bag recently, a disappointing 5-1 defeat to James Wattana at the German Masters qualifiers sandwiched between positive tournaments at the qualifiers for this tournament and the PTC10 tournament earlier in the week. As far as his game is concerned, at the moment it is hard to say anything that hasn’t already been said. Clearly Hendry at his best is still capable of competing with most players however in recent years he has struggled to maintain such a high standard, not just for full tournaments but for the length of an entire match.

Elsewhere in the quarter, Judd Trump takes on Dominic Dale, both players in good form at the moment with Judd having won the PTC9 event staged in Antwerp while Dominic qualified with a good win against Nigel Bond before defeating the likes of Shaun Murphy and Stephen Lee to reach the final of PTC10.

Recent meetings between these two are few and far between so it will be interesting to see how the fearless, attacking game of Judd matches up against the man who recently described him as a player ‘who just knocks you flat.’ Trump will rightly be the favourite, but Dale would appear to be in form at the moment and when he is on-song, he is a danger.

Whoever wins will come up against either Ronnie O’Sullivan or Steve Davis who meet for the first time since (I think), the 2009 Welsh Open when O’Sullivan ran out a 5-2 winner. As far as Ronnie is concerned, the three-time world champion has made a strong start to the season with victories in two of the ten PTC events staged to date, though due to the points due to be removed from his run to the semi-finals of this tournament back in 2009 he is currently ranked outside of the world’s top 16 provisionally ahead of the next cut-off.

Davis on the other hand has enjoyed a good run as of late, as he told me in Gloucester following his victory against Andrew Higginson to qualify for this tournament and will be determined to enjoy every minute of what is his first appearance in a BBC tournament since his famous run to the quarter-finals of the World Championship in 2010.

Can Davis pull off a shock win? The odds are against him, but then I wouldn’t put it past him! One less obvious factor to bear in mind is the fact that judging by some of his recent tweets, Ronnie appears to be feeling somewhat tired at the moment due to the travelling recently (Antwerp, Manchester, Potters, Sheffield and so on). Whether this will ultimately have an effect remains to be seen.

The Second Quarter

The big names keep on coming in the top half as Ding Junhui, a winner of the tournament back in 2005 and 2009, enters the fray with a clash against qualifier Mark Davis who will be looking to reach the last 16 of this tournament for the first time in six years.

It is difficult to assess Ding’s season so far as with his ranking comfortably inside the top 16, he has opted to skip a number of the recent PTC events, with the exception of PTC10 in which he lost an opening round match to countryman Cao Yupeng. In this time however Ding was able to progress to the final of the recent Premier League and remains one of the toughest players in the game for any qualifier to come up against.

Mark on the other hand comes into the tournament following a couple of excellent recent wins against Welshman Michael Whie in qualifying, but also under pressure to earn as many ranking points as he can to finally crack the top 16 at the next cut-off at the expense of Ronnie O’Sullivan. Ding will be favourite, but again Mark is not to be underestimated.

The winner will meet either Matthew Stevens or Marcus Campbell who most famously met in the final qualifying round of the World Championship back in 2010 when Marcus won a marathon encounter 10-9 to qualify for the Crucible. Since then however Matthew has of course returned to the top 16 after a number of years away and was able to defeat Marcus 4-0 during the PTC Grand Finals in Dublin earlier this year.

A former winner of this event, Stevens will be the favourite to progress given four of his last five matches during the PTC events but that said, the Scot has won both of his recent qualifying matches for both this tournament and the German Masters which will give him a boost coming into this match.

Next up, a man who reached the semi-finals of this event the last time it was staged in York comes up against a man steadily rising the rankings as Graeme Dott meets Matt Selt in the opening round. Based on his experience and quality Graeme will enter the match as the favourite with the bookies but having broken his TV duck in Australia with victories against John Higgins and Stephen Hendry, Selt will fancy his chances of claiming another Scottish scalp.

The final match in this section sees a mouth-watering match between Neil Robertson and Tom Ford, two of the tour’s form players at the moment. Neil comes into the match having won two PTC events already this season, as well as having reached the semi-finals of a ranking event in China for the first time in his career at the Shanghai Masters. Having perhaps struggled to carry the mantle of defending world champion throughout last season, the Australian now looks to be getting back to his best and is being tipped by some as a potential winner of this event in 2011.

Tom on the other hand may not have grabbed the headlines, but with a 6-0 win against the excellent Xiao Guodong to qualify for this tournament as well as a 5-0 win against Anthony Hamilton to qualify for the German Masters, is clearly a man in form. The question over Tom however is can he reproduce that form in front of the cameras, indeed he was on a similar run during the qualifiers back in 2009 when he again came up against Robertson at the last 32 stage of this tournament only to lose 9-3.

The Third Quarter

Heading up the third section of the draw is last season’s runner-up Mark Williams who has experienced an interesting start to the season to say the least. Having performed so well during the PTC events during last season, this campaign has seen something of a reversal as the Welshman has won just four matches from the events that he has competed in so far. In the full-ranking events staged however Mark did of course make it to the finals of both the Australian Open and the Shanghai Masters tournaments, losing both in difficult circumstances to Stuart Bingham and Mark Selby respectively.

His first-round opponent in York will be Joe Jogia after the man from Leicester came through qualification with wins against Anthony McGill and Jamie Cope in Gloucester. On paper Williams will be a warm favourite given his experience and rightly so, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts given the manner of his final defeats so far this season. Perhaps though we will only truly see that when he is back in a major final again.

The winner of that clash will then come up against either Stephen Lee or Ricky Walden, Lee coming into the event on the back of a semi-final appearance at PTC10 while Ricky made his first career 147 break during the same event in Sheffield. The most recent meeting between the two came at the PTC4 event when Stephen ran out a 4-0 winner, while he also edged out Walden 7-6 in a terrific final of the General Cup International back in July.

Elsewhere in the section, Power Snooker champion Martin Gould begins his first full-ranking event as a member of the top 16 with a meeting with Peter Lines, the Leeds professional having shocked Ken Doherty in the final qualifying round. It will be interesting to see how Martin handles the additional pressure of being the hunted rather than the hunter as he has been during his career to date. Some having performed well to make it into the elite bracket have then struggled to handle that, such as Barry Hawkins a few years back, while others have flourished and gone on to establish themselves as players who belong in that bracket.

Whoever wins will then meet the winner of what could be an intriguing match between 2008 champion Shaun Murphy and qualifier Li Yan, the latter unknown to a wider audience but on the evidence of what I saw in the qualifiers, certainly one to watch during the coming years. His one-visit break to win his decider against Andy Hicks was an excellent performance in the circumstances despite him rarely being in perfect position, before brilliant wins against Jack Lisowski and Fergal O’Brien saw him through to the venue.

Whether he has enough in his locker to see off Shaun Murphy in front of the television cameras at this stage of a major tournament is another matter, indeed he would not be the first player to freeze when playing at this stage of an event for the first time. Either way, I look forward to seeing him try.

Shaun meanwhile has endured a tough start to the season during the PTC events held to date, but has shown what he is capable of during events such as the Premier League and the Brazilian Masters, as well as having reached the semi-finals in Australia. Having won the tournament back in 2008 having entered the event on the back of a far worse run than he has experienced recently, there is no reason why Murphy cannot go far again this year.

The Bottom Quarter

The bottom quarter sees Ali Carter enter the fray against Robert Milkins, the Gloucester man having qualified with excellent wins against David Gilbert and Peter Ebdon last month.

On account of his higher ranking Ali will come into the match as the favourite but it should be noted that he has lost to Milkins before in front of the television cameras and he comes into the event on the back of what has been an indifferent start to the season, aside from a couple of last 16 appearances in PTC events.

Whoever emerges as the victor will then meet either Mark Allen or Adrian Gunnell, the former looking to go better than his semi-final appearance last season while Adrian comes into the match on the back of his best run of form in a number of years having qualified for both this tournament and the German Masters.

It will though be a big ask for Adrian to overcome a player of Mark’s class in front of the television cameras, but given the runs of Peter Lines and Mark Joyce in this tournament during recent seasons, perhaps Adrian will be the one to spring a surprise or two in 2011?

Also in this section are Stuart Bingham and Marco Fu who meet in a repeat of their last 16 encounter at this tournament a year ago and Marco will certainly be hoping for a different outcome this time around having lost 9-2 to the Basildon pro on that occasion.

Last but not least meanwhile comes world number one Mark Selby who begins with an eye-catching clash against Welshman Ryan Day, surely a stronger player than his ranking would suggest at the moment. That said, having won a PTC as well as the Shanghai Masters to climb to the summit of the world rankings for the first time in his career already this season, Mark is knocking on the door of another major title at the moment and will be hoping that it comes this year in York.



Higgins def Robertson, Selby def Williams


Selby def Higgins