Grand Prix 2009: Qualifying Reflections

Following the conclusion of the Grand Prix qualifiers last week and the subsequent draw, here are my thoughts on those matches and how certain players will do in the last 32…

A good week for…

As was the case in Shanghai, just one player of the 16 competing during round 1 was able to win all four of his qualifying matches and again it was the rapidly improving Matt Selt. While his Shanghai breakthrough was impressive enough in itself, particularly his win over Steve Davis, his latest run is even more so when considering that he was 4-0 down against and Jordan Brown in his first match and struggling with tonsilitis.

Having turned things around he then got the better of Jimmy White in his highly anticipated second match before then edging out Preston’s Stuart Pettman having trailed 2-1 early on. The best was still to come however as his fourth match put him up against veteran Irishman Fergal O’Brien in what proved to be arguably the match of the season so far. In all but one of the eight frames played there was an 80+ break including a century from Fergal and even the other still contained a creditable 54.

Now into the last 32 and a match with Stephen Hendry on his home turf, it will be fascinating to see how he handles the occasion and whether he can produce a similar standard of scoring against the seven-times world champion. I did not see his match against John Higgins in Shanghai but from the scores at least all but one of the frames played looks to have been a competitive one and with the confidence he must have at the moment he should provide a stern test for Stephen.

Following his great run to the final of the Masters qualifying event last December, eyes were on Mark Joyce to see if he could carry this form into the remaining ranking events of the season. Strangely enough however it seemed to have the opposite effect as he won just one more match during 2008/9 and then began this season with an early loss to Joe Jogia during qualifying for Shanghai.

Last week though it was revealed that he has recently been seeking help from a sports psychologist and it appears to have made an immediate difference as he defeated Andrew Norman, Michael Judge and most impressively Barry Hawkins to qualify for Glasgow. Not only will this be his first appearance in the last 32 since turning professional in 2006, but it will be against defending champion and home favourite John Higgins and so sure to be in front of the TV cameras.  Few will expect him to come out of the match a winner but having already secured a significant amount of ranking points to help him as he looks to retain his tour place, in many ways he has nothing to lose and can really give it a go.

Like Mark, another player in desperate need of points to boost his provisional ranking this week was Norwich’s Barry Pinches and he also delivered by defeating young Welshman Daniel Wells, the experienced Jimmy Michie and most impressively Nottingham’s Michael Holt who had won his previous nine opening round matches.

In drawing world number three Shaun Murphy in the last 32 he has hardly got an easy draw from here but he pushed him hard before going down 5-3 in the Welsh Open earlier this year and with all his experience is capable of causing an upset. In any case he has at least got himself back into the top 64 provisionally, a position he will be striving to maintain during the rest of the season.

And it is a similar story for Robert Milkins who recorded victories over Matt Couch, Andrew Higginson and twice Grand Prix champion Stephen Lee to reach the last 32. After a lean period, Robert did show improved form last season and has now started 2009/10 with some good results to get himself moving back in the right direction again.

Now awaiting Ali Carter in the last 32 it will be interesting to see how close a contest it will be as Ali has not really set the world alight since his Welsh Open success back in February and could be vulnerable. The Captain however seems to come excel on the bigger tournaments such as this and I would expect him to come through, but not without a challenge.

Also a word on Ian McCulloch who having struggled with various problems such as appendicitis and a shoulder operation managed to defeat John Parrott from 4-1 down and then follow it up with another deciding frame victory against Joe Swail to reach the last 32. Hopefully this will be the confidence boost that Ian needs because it is not that long ago that he was seriously knocking on the door of the top 16 again.

Finally, other players to continue strong starts to the season are Ken Doherty, Marcus Campbell (who seems to have a hold over Judd Trump at the moment), Liang Wenbo, Matthew Stevens, Jamie Cope, Stuart Bingham and Ricky Walden who all managed to reach the last 32 for the second time this season. Of them I would fancy Campbell to at least come close to causing an upset against Joe Perry in his home event while Walden will be favourite to defeat Mark King for the second straight event and Stuart Bingham could well give Mark Williams a headache.

A bad week for…

Having come from behind to defeat Jimmy Robertson during his Shanghai qualifier, Graeme Dott showed that he can win matches with his new cue but since then he has suffered whitewashes at the hands of Ronnie O’Sullivan and now more surprisingly Jamie Burnett last week. This means that for the second straight year Graeme will not be able to take play in Glasgow at his home tournament and he is obviously upset as he told the Daily Record:

“I’m just really disappointed, I would have loved to have played in Glasgow because you always get plenty of support.

“Fair play to Jamie, he did well but I gave him too many opportunities. I had chances but didn’t take them.”

Whether his latest results are merely blips as he adapts to the new cue or anything more remains to be seen but the loss to Burnett in particular is a blow to his chances of reclaiming a top 16 place even at this early stage. Likely to meet either Barry Pinches or the in-form Marcus Campbell in the UK Championship qualifiers, Graeme will need to up his game if he is to avoid another damaging early exit.

Even more concerned by his start to the season however will be young Judd Trump who after a much-improved 2008/9 which saw him win the Championship League, move up into the top 32 for the first time and reach his first semi-final of the season for good measure, now has lost his first two ranking event matches of the season. An excellent potter and a strong break-builder, Judd’s tactical game is not quite so refined and one man well-equipped to expose this is Scotland’s Marcus Campbell who has duly done so with two victories over him this season already.

Thankfully for Judd he has managed to avoid Marcus in the draw for the UK qualifiers but with Li Hang, Tony Drago, David Gilbert and Mark Davis as possible opponents, he will be under pressure to perform regardless of who comes through. It is only early days this season but having done all of the hard work last season to move up inside the top 32 and give himself a chance at cracking the top 16, he will not want to let that go to waste.

One player currently at a very different stage in his career is six-times world champion Steve Davis but having lost his opening two matches of the season, his latest 5-0 at the hands of his namesake Mark, he will be under pressure to perform during the UK qualifiers later this year. While he has not played too well for some time now, I do wonder whether his absence from the Premier League this year is compounding things as it was undoubtedly a good source of match practice for him.

It is much too early to say that this is perhaps the beginning of the end for Steve but if he loses out to Michael Judge or Joe Delaney in the UK qualifiers, two other players who have struggled for form recently, my concerns for him would be further heightened.

Having all enjoyed much-improved seasons during 2008/9, Dave Harold, Andy Hicks, Rory McLeod and Jin Long have all started this campaign with two defeats from two.  It is unfortunate but rather predictable for Dave who having just missed out on returning to the top 16 at the age of 42 last season, now finds himself struggling and in danger of being drawn into a fight to hang on to his top 32 place.

It is a similar story for Andy Hicks who just missed out on a return to the top 48 last season and having started the season so high up the provisional list, now finds himself back down in 49th. With four events still to go he has plenty of time to turn things around but he will not want his winless run to go on too much longer.