UK Championship 2012: Tournament Preview

This Saturday sees the start of the year’s final major, as Judd Trump begins the defence of the UK Championship title that he won so brilliantly at the Barbican Centre, York a year ago.

Click below for my customary look through the draw…

  • Click here to view the latest drawsheet
  • Click here to view the latest projected seedings list

For the second successive year, the snooker circus returns to York this weekend for the staging of the most important tournament of the season so far, the UK Championship. While recent weeks have seen a string of qualifying and PTC events take place, this is without doubt a bona fide ‘major’ and despite the shortened format introduced last year, still a special event on the calendar.

The Top Quarter

Last year, the event was won by current world number one Judd Trump, who will open his title defence against qualifier Mark Joyce on Sunday afternoon. When he won the tournament in 2011, Judd played probably the best snooker of his career to do so up until that point, defeating the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Stephen Maguire and Mark Allen en route to victory.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the months that followed Judd struggled to recapture this form, culminating in a disappointing last 16 defeat to Ali Carter at the World Championship back in April.

Since then however, I have been impressed with how he has reacted, not just by winning tournaments such as the International Championship and reaching the final of the Shanghai Masters, but by the way that he has done so and the overall improvement shown in his all-round game. Whilst he retains the attacking flair and peerless potting which has characterised his surge to the top of the rankings, more and more he is displaying an improved ability to fight when the balls are not so perfectly placed and to turn down certain shots when the circumstances require it.

All in all, it makes fairly ominous reading for opponent Mark Joyce, though it should be pointed out that when they last met in this competition back in 2010, Mark was able to record a surprise 9-7 victory to reach his maiden ranking event quarter-final. Allied to a solid recent run of form, Mark will be hoping that this will help inspire him to a repeat victory this time around, though he will face a very different opponent to that of two years ago and it would be a major shock to see the world number one fall at the first fence.

Elsewhere in the quarter, Ali Carter takes on six-time former champion Steve Davis for a place in the last 16 and while Ali will be the favourite, it is worth remembering that their last encounter at a full-ranking event was won by Steve, 4-3 at the Welsh Open earlier this year.

Furthermore, along with the World Championship, this always seems to be an event that Steve takes extra-seriously, and if he can reproduce the form that he displayed in patches to qualify, then he could cause an upset. He will not be able to get away with the type of slow start that he made against Pankaj Advani in qualifying however, and has often made during the latter part of his career.

Premier League champion Stuart Bingham meanwhile will begin his quest for a first BBC title with a tie against Jack Lisowski, the youngster making his début in front of the BBC television cameras (Welsh Open aside), this week. Following a tough start to 2012, Jack looks to be back on track at the moment, perhaps aided by having moved out from living with former flat-mate Judd Trump and having to ‘fly the nest’ so to speak. I would not put it past Jack to make an immediate impact here, though if Stuart can play anything like he did in the Premier League last week to defeat both Trump and John Higgins, he should be backed to progress.

Completing this section are Stephen Maguire and Fergal O’Brien, who will meet in what I suspect could be a close match, although it would be a surprise to me to see a player normally as reliable as Maguire in the early rounds, lose out to the Irish veteran.

The Second Quarter

Moving down to the second quarter, the two biggest names to be found are former champions Mark Williams and Shaun Murphy, as well as former world champion Graeme Dott. For Williams, he opens with a clash with the experienced Mark King and it is interesting to note the recent head to head between the pair, with their last two clashes both being won by King over in China. That said, back on UK soil and at one of the established majors, I would expect the Welshman to come good this time around.

For Murphy meanwhile is a clash with On Q’s Robert Milkins, whose consistent form over the past couple of seasons has seen him rise to 24th on my latest projected seedings list. It should not be a straight-forward match for Shaun then, but at the same time I have been impressed with Murphy when I have seen him in action recently and I would again have to side with the seeded player if forced to choose.

Far harder to call however is the match between Graeme Dott and Martin Gould, with both having shown improvement this season after below par campaigns in 2011/12. For Graeme his best results this season have been a couple of quarter-finals over at the Wuxi Classic and Shanghai Masters, while Martin of course captured the UKPTC2 title at the South West Snooker Academy earlier in the year. For what it’s worth their last meeting at a major tournament came at this stage of this very event back in 2010, when Graeme ran out a 9-5 winner, although expect it to be somewhat closer this time around.

Round off the section are Ricky Walden and Luca Brecel, who meet in what promises to be an intriguing first-round clash in York. It is one of those matches that comes up every now and again where the logical option is to favour the seed, who as a multiple ranking event winner and semi-finalist here a year ago, is the clear favourite for the match. But at the same time, the promise shown by Brecel is undeniable and one knows that at some point he will make a breakthrough in a big way, the only question being when will it be. Could it be at this tournament? Stranger things have happened…

The Third Quarter

Turning to the third quarter, we find no shortage of danger men with 2011 runner-up Mark Allen here, as well as 2010 winner John Higgins and another former champion in Matthew Stevens.

Considering Higgins first of all, the Scot looks to be getting back to somewhere near his best at the moment, having won the Shanghai Masters and reached the finals of the last two PTC events, winning one. For me still the best player in the world when fully motivated and on his game, he will open his tournament against Michael Holt, who qualified with a convincing victory against Thailand’s Thepchaiya Un-Nooh. Looking at their recent history, it is perhaps notable that Higgins has won their two Crucible encounters in 2007 and 2009, going on to win the title each time. That said, Holt has since defeated the Scot twice in PTC events, each time going on to win those events himself.

Awaiting the winner in the second round will be either Mark Davis, or the ever-impressive Cao Yupeng who from the second qualifying round, has now qualified for his third venue of the season. Having crept into the top 16 seeds following the well-documented absentees above him, Mark will be hoping to capitalise upon that with a run in York to claim a top 16 place as of right at the imminent seedings revision. There are no previous meetings between the two and Davis will start as favourite, but I wonder whether the added pressure that comes with being the seeded player of the two might affect Mark’s performance. We shall see.

Elsewhere in the section, there is an all-Welsh match-up between Matthew Stevens and Dominic Dale, while the winner could meet Mark Allen, if he can win against Marco Fu in what is being built up in some quarters as a ‘grudge match’ following Allen’s comments at the Crucible Theatre earlier this year. One of the most dangerous, if unpredictable qualifiers in the draw, 2008 finalist Fu is more than of pulling off an upset here, having recently reached the quarter-finals of the International Championship and the last four of the Australian Goldfields Open.

The Bottom Quarter

Perhaps the most interesting quarter of the draw though is the bottom one, with world number two Mark Selby, former world champion Neil Robertson and two-time former champion Ding Junhui all present and looking like title contenders.

For Selby comes an eye-catching tie against Welsh youngster Michael White, who will be hoping to make a name for himself in front of the BBC cameras by pulling off what would be a major shock, to those outside of the ‘snooker bubble’ at least. Of course those who follow snooker in any depth will know just how highly-regarded Michael has always been and this year he has really started to deliver on that promise, moving up into the world’s top 40 for the first time.

That said, I suspect that Mark Selby might just find a bit of form now that he has been deposed as world number one by Judd Trump, and White has suffered a couple of surprising defeats in recent days, though how much of a factor they will be remains to be seen.

Whoever can win will then meet either Ding Junhui or Ryan Day, who will meet in a re-match of their World Championship encounter earlier this year, which Ryan came back to win brilliantly against all expectations. Since then, neither has particularly lit up the baize with their results, but both are capable of finding form and going a long way in the event. Ding in particular is a player who can just as easily win an event, as go out in the first round so I await seeing how the Chinese number one performs.

One man who can generally be relied upon to impress though is Neil Robertson, and the Australian begins his quest for a first UK crown against a familiar opponent in Tom Ford. Indeed having defeated the Leicester man 9-3 and 6-1 at this very tournament previously, Neil has every reason to be confident of another win in 2012, though will be wary of the way that Tom played in Bulgaria recently, where of course he made a terrific maximum break against Matthew Stevens in front of the television cameras.

Finally, Barry Hawkins takes on one of the form qualifiers at the moment in Liang Wenbo, who I fancy to go well this week…

All in all then it promises to be another marvellous tournament, with no down plenty of twists and turns to come. Who is your winner?

Semi-finals: Trump def Murphy, Higgins def Robertson

Final: Higgins def Trump