Roewe Shanghai Masters 2009: Tournament Preview

With the qualifiers now complete and the clock ticking until the beginning of the new season for the top 16 players, here is my view of how I see the draw unfolding out at the 2009 Roewe Shanghai Masters. Note that at the time of writing the identity of the Chinese wildcards remains unknown so things may change slightly once they are revealed…

The Top Quarter

Heading the draw for the first time will be world number 20 Ricky Walden and he begins his title defence against the man who he forced to qualify for the venue, Mark King. Having enjoyed such a strong breakthrough season in 2008/9, Ricky is now in a great position to move up into the top 16 at the end of this year and despite his lower ranking I expect will head into this match as favourite. In addition he does seem to enjoy himself out in Asia, winning the Sangsom 6-Red event in 2008, this tournament shortly after and then more recently the General Cup International out in Hong Kong.

It will however be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of the much higher levels of expectation that will surely be on him this season, and more immediately the pressure of being the top seed for the tournament. Mark King too is no mug and having finished the second half of last season with four consecutive last 16 appearances, will be keen to make it five in a row and give his own top 16 chances a boost.

Awaiting the winner will be either Stephen Hendry, Marcus Campbell or one of the local players who Marcus will have to face on the opening day. If Campbell can come through this then it will be a fascinating encounter between the seven-times world champion and the man who beat him 9-0 over a decade ago now in that infamous match at the UK Championship. Will it be on Hendry’s mind? Who knows, but in any case he could certainly do with getting his season off to a better start than last year when he won just one match in the first three events. He should come through here but at the same time Marcus will fancy his chances of causing an upset I suspect.

Also in the section are the likes of Ali Carter who of course is up to a career high ranking of number five following that long overdue first ranking event title last season, as well as former world champion Peter Ebdon and local favourite Liang Wenbo, should he overcome Tamworth’s David Gilbert in their held-over match.

Though Peter was able to brilliantly win the China Open last season, he has struggled for form generally during the last couple of seasons and I would be surprised to see him overcome Wenbo, who of course defeated him 5-0 in a controversial match at the opening event of last season, while Gilbert will be no pushover either.

One player who should be strong is Ali Carter as he comes into the season on the back of his most successful campaign to date. He does however have a relatively average record out in China, indeed he is yet to reach even a quarter-final in either this tournament or the China Open in several attempts. He is certainly good enough to go much further but as he said himself last season, he does tend to focus on the BBC events such as the UK and World Championship. As a result it would not surprise me greatly to see him lose out early here, perhaps even to Andrew Higginson in the first round should he also overcome one of the wildcards.

The Second Quarter

With Ricky Walden in as the top seed, one quarter of the draw was always going to be overloaded with the top ranked players and with the world numbers two and three in it, you need look no further than this section of the draw for it. Yes both Stephen Maguire and Shaun Murphy, deadly rivals on and off the table of course, are here though with the likes of Neil Robertson, Jamie Cope and Ken Doherty also around, there is no guarantee that either of them will make it as far as the quarter-final stage.

For Murphy he has a potentially tricky opening round tie against Michael Holt who despite being known to lose his head on occasion, last season won each of his first round matches to get back inside the top 32 and at last looks like he can go deep into a tournament. Murphy though is free of the personal problems that hindered his start to last season and with victories in the UK Championship and a couple of World Series events, as well as a run to the World Championship final still fresh in the memory, will be expected to progress.

For the winner will be a clash with either Jamie Cope or Joe Perry who meet again after their last 32 encounter at the Crucible earlier this year. After a strong year in 2008 which at one stage saw him in with a shot of moving up into the top eight, Joe’s season tailed off dramatically as he failed to win a match in the last three events and he now needs to get back on the winning trail if he is to remain a top 16 player. One of those looking to take is place is Jamie Cope and having seen how well he played to defeat Joe at the Crucible, it is hard not to see him as the favourite going into the match.

The next match in the section could be just as interesting as one of this season’s World Championship finalists in the form of Neil Robertson, will take on former world champion and world number two Ken Doherty should he overcome the local wildcard player. Given how Ken played last season you could be forgiven for thinking that this will be a walk in the park for Neil, but after a long struggle there are now real signs that Ken could be starting to rediscover his confidence.

During the Pro Challenge event in Leeds recently he was genuinely impressive on his way to the semi-finals before winning his first two matches at Pontin’s to qualify for this tournament. With respect to the players that he played en route, none were of the class of Robertson but if he can continue to improve then this could be a really close match. On balance however I would still have to favour Neil as after a barren spell of his own, he definitely turned a corner last season and began to look more like the Neil Robertson of 2006/7.

Finally Stephen Maguire takes on Barry Hawkins in what could be another decent match. I would however expect Stephen, fresh from his victory in the Pro Challenge Series as well as his laser eye surgery during the summer, to come through and continue his quest for his first ranking event since the 2008 China Open. I have a feeling that he is going to be a real force again this season and as good a player as Barry is, I would be surprised if he were to cause an upset here…

The Third Quarter

While typing the previous section I was tempted to say how it was the strongest in the draw, but then I looked down and saw Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mark Selby, Ding Junhui, Marco Fu and Graeme Dott here and had to reconsider!

I seem to remember saying similar for the China Open earlier this year but if world number one Ronnie O’Sullivan can come through to win this tournament given the potential draw that he faces then for me it would rank amongst his most impressive triumphs to date. Why do I say this? Because in theory his path to the final could see him face Graeme Dott, Marco Fu, Mark Selby and John Higgins – arguably the four players best equipped to deal with Ronnie these days in my opinion. Add to this the fact that he does not particularly enjoy travelling to China (although he did reach the final here last season of course), and the challenge facing him becomes clear.

If anyone is capable of upsetting the odds however then it is O’Sullivan and though at the outset a victory for him would surprise me, I would never rule it out. Furthermore it could well be the case that some of these players lose out before they even get to Ronnie, indeed with the likes of Mark Allen, Ding Junhui and Ryan Day in the same half, this is far from impossible!

For Graeme Dott it will be an interesting experience whatever the outcome as he looks to gain both ranking points and more match practice with his new cue. To an extent he must just be glad to be there as following his 4-0 defeat to Gerard Greene at the Pro Challenge event in Leeds he faced a race against time to get used to his third cue in as many months. At 4-1 down against Jimmy Robertson in his qualifier things did not look too good but to his credit, he turned things around and with an extra month to practice, should be in better shape to take the fight to O’Sullivan.

What of Mark Selby and Ding Junhui, at their best two of the strongest players in the game at the moment, but both now coming into the season with a point to prove following a disappointing run recently. For Mark I definitely expect better from him this season as despite not adding to his one ranking event title last season, he did produce some fine snooker and but for John Higgins I would have fancied him to go all the way at the Crucible.

For Ding though the future is far harder to predict as his struggles date back all the way to the 2006/7 season and that Masters defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan. Personally I do think that he is too good a player not to get back to winning ways at some point and despite his last 16 exit to Ding Junhui at the World Championship this year, I was impressed by both his attitude and his performance against both Liang Wenbo and Stephen Hendry. With his top 16 status now in real jeopardy however, he will have to translate this improved attitude into results, starting with a win against Stephen Lee in Shanghai.

The Fourth Quarter

Last but not least comes the bottom quarter of the draw which as well as reigning world champion John Higgins, contains the likes of Ryan Day, Mark Allen and the injury hit Mark Williams.

As the second seed you would expect Higgins to have a slightly kinder draw than some of the other players and particularly with the injury situation of Mark Williams at the moment, I would be surprised not to see him reach at least the quarter-final stage out in Shanghai. His first opponent will be either Matt Selt (in the last 32 of an event for the first time), or one of the seven local wildcards involved. Should he win this then he will face either Mark Williams (though I have my doubts as to whether he will play), or Joe Swail who he last met during the UK Championship in Telford this year.

Also in the quarter are Mark Allen and Ryan Day, who of course met in the quarter-finals of the World Championship at the end of last season in what was a real topsy turvy match which could have gone either way. Although on that occasion it was Allen who eventually came out on top, Day does have a formidable record in China, reaching the semi-finals in Beijing in each of the last two years, as well as the final of this competition back in 2007. If they can both come through tough opening matches against Matthew Stevens and Gerard Greene (or a wildcard) respectively, then we would have a great match in prospect.

Whatever happens, I will do my best to provide updates here at PSB and I am sure that we will all enjoy top level snooker being back on our screens once again!