BGC Masters 2012: Tournament Preview

With the qualifiers for the Haikou World Open drawing to a conclusion this evening, tomorrow sees the action on the baize with the start of the season’s second major, the BGC Masters in London. Click below for my tournament preview…

For me it is almost a reflex action to describe this tournament as the ‘Wembley Masters’ however it is all change in 2012 as the tournament moves to a new venue, that of the Alexandra Palace in North London.

Following five years at the cavernous Wembley Arena, Barry Hearn has decided to give the tournament a new start at a venue which for the past few years has successfully hosted the PDC World Darts Championship and the early indications are that the 1,500 seater arena is a far more intimate setting than its predecessor.

Still, new venue or not, the prize remains the same at snooker’s greatest invitational tournament so lets take a look at how the draw looks…

  • Click here to view the draw in full
  • Click here to view my Masters Memories article from 2011

The Top Quarter

What better way to kick off the tournament than a repeat of the 2007 final between defending champion Ding Junhui and four-time Masters champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, who meet tomorrow at 1:30pm live on the BBC.

Looking firstly at Ding, China’s number one player was the class of the field a year ago as he came through a tournament littered with first-round upsets to take his first Masters title with victory against Marco Fu. His status as one of the most formidable players in the game was reinforced further with his semi-final appearance at the Crucible last May, while he also moved up to a career-high ranking of number 4 at the end of last season.

This season however it has been hard to gauge Ding’s form as having lost early in the Australian Goldfields Open and Shanghai Masters tournaments, as well as having skipped a number of PTC tournaments, it almost seems as though for Ding the season has not yet started. That said, with two 147 breaks in the space of three days last month as well as a quarter-final run at the UK Championship in York, perhaps Ding is now coming into form at the right time.

For Ronnie meanwhile it has also been a strange season, markedly improved performances during the PTC events including two event victories and a further final helping to keep him ranked inside the top 16, but second round exits in Shanghai and York ensuring that he remains very much on the brink of relegation from that bracket at one of the cut-offs.

So how will it go? Some say that the 2007 final will have a major bearing on the match but in truth I do not see it, that match was five years ago and Ding is a more well-rounded character these days than he was back then as a young 19-year-old. That said, Ronnie’s record in this event is formidable, not only the four titles but also five further finals and with no pressure of ranking points upon his shoulders, it would be no surprise to see him do well in the Masters once again.

Whoever does come through will face a quarter-final against either Judd Trump or Stuart Bingham, two players who have both competed in the event previously as winners of the now-defunct qualifying event, but have now earned their places as of right in 2012.

Having won the UK Championship as recently as last month, Judd undoubtedly comes into this match as favourite and given his recent form it is easy to see why. That said, as a point of interest it has been nine years since the UK-Masters double was achieved by Welshman Mark Williams and despite Judd’s form, in a field this strong there are no guarantees.

Stuart Bingham meanwhile started the season in fine form with his victory in the Australian Goldfields Open, while he also defeated Judd 5-1 at the following Shanghai Masters tournament. In recent weeks however the tables have turned as Stuart won just two matches during the last four PTC tournaments, whilst also losing his last 32 match against Marco Fu at the UK Championship.

The Second Quarter

After Ding v O’Sullivan, arguably the tie of the round is that between left-handed duo Neil Robertson and Mark Allen, who meet in a re-match of their 2011 quarter-final at this tournament. On that occasion it was Mark who shaded a close encounter 6-4, and there is every reason to think that it might be just as close this time around, particularly given the fact that it took brilliant performances from Judd Trump to stop both players in York before Christmas.

For Neil, he is enjoying a far more successful 2011/12 when compared to last season, indeed he is the number one ranked player on the informative one-year list and now looks very much like the player who won the World Championship just 18 months ago. The Masters has never been a particularly happy hunting ground for him, but having broken new ground in China and at the UK Championship already this season, he will be hoping that he can also run deep in this tournament for the first time.

It is also a similar situation for Mark meanwhile as having narrowly avoided losing his top 16 status at the end of last season, strong results at the World and UK Championship in 2011 can only have helped boost his confidence coming into the new year.

Interestingly, the two have already met twice this season, both during PTC events and on each occasion it has been Robertson who has come through the winner, though during a slightly shorter format. While I do not expect this to be a decisive factor, if pushed I would lean towards the Australian but would not be surprised if Allen were to come through either.

The winner will face either Mark Williams or Stephen Maguire, two who meet tomorrow evening having both enjoyed mixed starts to the season so far.

For Mark 2011/12 began relatively well with runs to the finals of both the Australian Goldfields Open and Shanghai Masters, but his results during the PTCs have been poor and he failed to hit form in York as he lost at the last 16 stage to Ricky Walden. Stephen meanwhile began the season slowly, but his improved form of late culminated in victory at last week’s PTC12 tournament in Munich.

Again the pair have a curious recent head to head record, Mark having recorded wins during the Championship League and PTCs, while Stephen has defeated Williams at the Welsh Open during each of the past two seasons. Too close to call I feel.

Third Quarter

The third quarter kicks off with a repeat of the 2008 final as two-time Masters champion Mark Selby begins his campaign with a clash against Stephen Lee, who strangely enough makes his first appearance in the tournament since that final.

Coming into the tournament for the first time as the world’s number one ranked player, as well as a three-time finalist, the pressure will be on Mark to perform again at the event and it will be interesting to see whether he acclimatises to the new venue as well as he did at the Wembley Arena which at times felt like a second home to him.

For Lee meanwhile it is good to see him back in the event as he is a player who during his career has proven that he possesses the quality to belong in the event. Whether he can overcome the formidable all-round game of Selby, a player who in the past has enjoyed a number of successes against him, remains to be seen, particularly as judging by his comments on Twitter he appears to be practising with a new cue at the moment.

The winner will face either Shaun Murphy or Martin Gould, who meet in a repeat of their epic match at the recent UK Championship in which Shaun led 5-0 before eventually getting over the line a 6-4 winner following a terrific fightback from his opponent who will be making his Masters début this week.

On paper Shaun will be the favourite to come through again at the Ally Pally, but it must be said that the Masters has never been the best of tournaments for him and with the fun attitude that Gould brings to the tables he will fancy his chances of turning the tables against his higher-ranked opponent.

Bottom Quarter

The penultimate match is a repeat of a last 16 clash at the Crucible last season as Graeme Dott takes on Ali Carter for a place in the quarter-finals.

For Graeme the season has been relatively quiet thus far, a series of solid performances during the PTCs helping to off-set his early exit in Shanghai, as well as his injury-enforced withdrawal from the Australian Goldfields Open. Ali though has found the going tougher still, with the result that he is likely to face a fight to retain his top 16 status at the end of the season, if indeed he chooses to continue playing next season having recently spoken about the possibility of retirement after the World Championship.

As a result of that, and the manner that Graeme edged their Crucible classic by taking almost all of the close frames in the match, I would fancy the Scot to progress but you can never write off a player of Ali’s class.

The final tie of the round sees reigning world champion John Higgins take on Matthew Stevens in a classic contest, the two having met most recently in a ranking event at last season’s Welsh Open when John came through a 5-3 winner en route to the successful defence of his title.

Still, times appear to be changing and having suffered an early exit at the UK Championship recently, whilst also having struggled to make an impact at the Masters in recent seasons, the pressure will be on John to produce a performance against a fellow former winner of the event.

For Stevens, his season has been solid, consistent runs during the PTCs as well as a quarter-final in Shanghai helping to re-establish him among the top 16. If he is to really show that he is back as a force however, these are the matches that he will be looking to win more of during the coming months.

We shall see. My predictions for what they are worth:

Semi-finals: Neil Robertson def Judd Trump, Mark Selby def Matthew Stevens

Final: Neil Robertson def Mark Selby