World Championship 2010: A View from Slovenia (Part One)

Although many of you will have read my look ahead to this year’s World Championship (click my WCS 2010 banner to the right for the links), today we have a special guest preview to the tournament from The Snooker Forum user odrl.

My thanks go to odrl for taking the time to write such an extensive and interesting preview, click below to read part one…

As soon as the draw for the World Championship is made, some of us like to take a quick look at who might come through each section, and which potentially interesting matches are likely to happen. These are some of the thoughts I have on this year’s draw:

Quarter 1:

John Higgins v. Barry Hawkins
Mark King v. Steve Davis
Neil Robertson v. Fergal O’Brien
Marco Fu v. Martin Gould

We start off with a very interesting quarter that includes two of the big title favourites, as well as a number of solid players who are tough to beat on their day.

Barry Hawkins is not one of the qualifiers that were considered the most dangerous before the draw was made, but he is actually ranked 17th in the world. Ironically, that means that the 1st seed was drawn against the highest ranked qualifier. While this not the perfect draw for John Higgins, it is even worse for Hawkins. It takes something special for Higgins to be caught out early in the tournament these days, but his run of consecutive 1st round wins in ranking events is particularly impressive. It goes back to the 2007 UK Championship, where he lost 9-3 to Jamie Cope. What could be even more worrying for Hawkins, or indeed for the winner of the King-Davis encounter, is the type of player Higgins has usually been vulnerable against in this period. More often than not, he seems to go out against attacking players who are capable of going on a scoring spree, rather than against solid match players. There are exceptions though, most notably his loss against Dave Harold in the 2008 Northern Ireland Trophy.

Mark King and Steve Davis are two real battlers who rarely lose by a big margin. Their match promises to be very interesting and possibly quite close, but can the winner go any further in the tournament? Higgins is traditionally not King’s favourite opponent, but King did have one notable success against him in the quarter-finals of the 2006 Grand Prix. He will know that Higgins is not unbeatable, but also that he would need to play out of his skin to get past him in a best-of-25 match. It is also worth noting that King has never won a match of that length, having lost all six of his 2nd round matches at the Crucible. On the other hand, Davis has won many, but only three in the last thirteen years. His position in the rankings is remarkable for a player of his age, but he achieved it mainly thanks to his vast experience and tactical knowledge. While that is an advantage against most of his opponents, especially the younger ones, it will not be against Higgins. He could very well match Higgins tactically, but it is hard to see him matching Higgins in scoring, especially over three sessions. He would need to reproduce some of his form from the 2005 UK Championship, which is something he has not been particularly close to doing in the last couple of years.

If Higgins has a reasonably easy way to the quarter-finals, Neil Robertson’s is more tricky. Robertson is a player who usually needs a couple of rounds to fully warm up, but he has been pretty consistent in getting through 1st rounds this season, only losing in a close match against Ken Doherty in Shanghai. The biggest problem for him is usually the 2nd round, which is where he meets a player of similar class. Could he go out early? On one hand, Fergal O’Brien is a tough opponent to beat when he is at his best, but this is a two-session match, so Robertson should have enough time to get going and stamp his authority on the match.

Marco Fu has had a pretty poor season as far as the Main Tour events are concerned, but the encouraging thing for him is the quarter-final appearance in the China Open, which was his best result for a over a year. He is such an inconsistent player that it does not take anything special to knock him out of a tournament on one of his bad days. Martin Gould might have been an easy draw last year, but he no longer has the disadvantages of being a debutant. Fu is by no means certain to beat him, but I do have a feeling he will play well enough to book a potentially very interesting encounter against Robertson in the 2nd round. Robertson may be the favourite on this year’s form, but we have to remember that Fu is actually the higher seed.

These are two players that rarely follow a good tournament with another one, but when they do play well, they are very hard to stop. It is hard to say which one of the two has the better game to counter the other one’s. Robertson is no longer a one-dimensional player. He has developed a satisfactory safety game, although his main strengths are still getting in with long pots, and one-visit scoring. Fu is less likely to get in with extraordinary long pots, but he can be very patient in waiting for an opportunity. He plays at a pace that some players are not very comfortable with, and once he is in, he very rarely makes a mistake at short range. These two players are capable of producing sustained exchanges of heavy scoring, so it could prove to be one of the most exciting matches of the 2nd round, should they both be on form. But at this point in time, I would say Robertson is a stronger player. The last time they met in a ranking event was the 2009 Welsh Open, where they had to start their match very late at night. Fu was out of sorts that day and lost 5-2. Robertson is famously very strong in the evening, but luckily for Fu, they would finish their match here in the afternoon, with only the 2nd session being an evening one.

That only leaves us with the quarter-final match itself, and it looks likely that it is going to be Higgins against either Fu or Robertson. I think it is safe to say that they are not the opponents he would likely have chosen himself. Fu has a very solid record against Higgins, especially for a player that has never been his equal in terms of ranking or success. Judging by his record against O’Sullivan as well, Fu seems to enjoy playing the top players, and maybe finds it easier to raise his game. When he actually does play well, he is the complete player, so there really is no weakness for Higgins to exploit. But over three sessions, you would still expect an in-form Higgins to win a couple of frames more than Fu.

Higgins against Robertson is the one most people are expecting, a match that could have happened in the final in different circumstances. They have played twice this season, with Robertson winning in the semi-final of the Grand Prix in a tremendous match, and Higgins getting revenge in the 2nd round of the UK Championship. Both matches went to a deciding frame. Robertson has had a number of meetings against the likes of Higgins and O’Sullivan in recent years, and I think he has shown he is not afraid of either of them. His performance in the Grand Prix was probably the best he has ever played. His improvement in the tactical part of the game had been noticeable for some time, but he also found it easier to score in that event, even though the tables seemed very tight. His ability to pot his way out of trouble is one of his great strengths, but he will be happy to need it less than he used to.

Another weakness of his that is becoming less evident in recent times is being a slow starter, a luxury that he cannot afford himself against the likes of Higgins. On the other hand, Higgins is really good at playing each session as if the score was even, trying to get as many frames out of it as he possibly can. Sometimes he catches his opponent sleeping and basically wins the match in one session, but he very rarely plays a bad one himself, at least not before he is well in front. His one big advantage over Robertson should still be his safety play, which is what set him apart from Murphy in last year’s final. He played his best in that Championship, and he might need it here again, especially if Robertson timed his form well. I have a feeling both of them will play a good tournament, and if they do meet here, I expect neither of them to crack. Hopefully they can reproduce some of the magic from last year’s quarter-final match between Higgins and Selby.

Quarter 2:

Allister Carter v. Jamie Cope
Joe Perry v. Michael Holt
Ding Junhui v. Stuart Pettman
Shaun Murphy v. Gerard Greene

The second quarter is just as interesting, again with three big names, and a number of potentially very interesting matches.

Allister Carter against Jamie Cope is one of the matches that stand out in the 1st round. This is Cope’s third appearance at the Crucible, and it took two deciding frames to knock him out of the previous two tournaments. He displayed a bit of inexperience and some questionable shot selection in his loss to Peter Ebdon two years ago, but his performance against Higgins last year does suggest that he could go far in the tournament. He had one foot in the quarter-finals at 12-10, before Higgins played three good frames to clinch the match. If you can hold your own against an in-form Higgins over three sessions, you can probably beat anyone in the game. This season has not really seen him reproduce that kind of performance, and his inability to perform against O’Sullivan at the Welsh Open has probably taken away some of that confidence.

But O’Sullivan is nowhere this quarter, which is something Carter might be pleased about as well. Carter had a slow start to the season, perhaps affected by becoming a father, but he seemed to be back to somewhere near his best in the last two ranking events. Just like Cope, he likes to play an open attacking game, so I think we will not see that many twists and turns in this one. It should be obvious from the start if one player is playing slightly better than the other one, and changing the way the match is going is neither player’s forte, especially not Cope’s. Another thing that could come into play here is the table conditions. The tables were quite generous last year, which I think suited players like Cope who like to take a risk or two. If the tables are a bit tighter this year, as they have been all season, I expect Carter could have a slight edge.

The other two players in this part of the draw are Joe Perry and Michael Holt, but neither player has given any indication that they are capable of going far in this tournament. Holt has never had any major success, especially in tournament of this length, but he may have a chance here if Perry does not improve on some of his performances from earlier this season. Holt is pretty good at most elements of the game, but he does let things get to him too easily. One match that may play on his mind is the match against Perry in the 2006 China Open, where he cracked under the pressure and conceded early in the decider, after losing a couple of frames on the bounce. Perry is a very different character, not so prone to emotional reactions under pressure, and it is not surprising that some of his best results have come in either the UK or the World Championship. He has done very little this season, but these last few years have been the best of his career, even though he is not the youngest of players anymore. I would not put it past him to play a strong tournament and possibly reach the quarter-finals. The two players potentially standing in his way in the 2nd round, Carter and Cope, are also the two players to beat him in the last two Championships, so he has a score to settle with both of them.

The other big match everyone is expecting in this quarter is the possible 2nd round match between Shaun Murphy and Ding Junhui. Gerard Greene and Stuart Pettman are well capable of causing an upset, but it looks very likely that one of the two big names will come through here. Ding is probably the player of the season so far, with the UK Championship title to his name, and two other ranking finals as well. He had two off tournaments at the start of the new year, but came back strongly at the China Open, where he was never really in trouble until the second session of the final against Mark Williams. When players play well in the China Open, there is always a concern whether they might have peaked too early. Well, Ding’s scoring was probably at its best in that tournament, but that is an element of his game that seems very natural and is always there to some extent. It takes a bit more to be successful at the World Championship though, and that was very evident in Ding’s three previous appearances. His safety game has improved dramatically in the last couple of months, but it is still something that comes and goes with form. He is now very capable of competing in the scrappy frames as well, and also seems more relaxed in a tense atmosphere.

One weakness that still remains however, is his apparent loss of heart when he goes behind in a match. On the other hand, Murphy’s season has been quite poor by his standards. He started off with a semi-final at the Shanghai Masters, but his only success after that was ending O’Sullivan’s run of wins in the Premier League. His poor performances in ranking events have actually put him in danger of starting next season provisionally outside the top16. It is quite remarkable how he has gone from consistently getting to the business end of tournaments two seasons ago, to going out in the 1st round of most tournaments.

Having said all this, he is well capable of having a big tournament here, and his record at the Crucible in the last five years is excellent. He showed very little form at the China Open, but he has had some time to sharpen up his game, and he will need to be somewhere near his best for the 2nd round. At his best, Ding probably has more firepower than Murphy, but Murphy is a master of limiting his losses and maximizing his gains, which is very important over three sessions. He is a very determined character, and not easily overwhelmed by anything, so it is not easy to get a big lead against him. I think if he stayed with Ding early in the match, he could come good towards the end and possibly come through. Murphy used to have the edge in their meetings, but after Ding’s convincing win at the UK Championship which left Murphy somewhat bitter, the psychological advantage must now be with Ding. So this could be a bit of a grudge match as well, which is always exciting.

This quarter leaves a number of possible quarter-final match-ups, but it looks most likely to be Carter against either Murphy or Ding. Carter and Ding have very similar playing styles. They both like to get the balls open as soon as possible and then rarely make a mistake at short range. They are also great potters from distance, with a pretty good safety game. I cannot find a tactical edge for either of them, so if they do meet, I think it will come down to form. If they are both on it, I could see the match following the same pattern as their UK Championship quarter-final this season, with the players exchanging frames and Ding maybe winning by a frame or two in the end. If Carter had a choice, I think he would prefer to Murphy though. He convincingly won their last two meetings, the 13-4 thrashing in the 2008 Championship was particularly impressive. He would therefore have the psychological edge, although he must realize that Murphy would probably be better prepared this time. Murphy has such a strong temperament that he would probably erase that match from his mind, and try to find some way to put Carter under pressure. Carter is very good when he gets into a rhythm, but in a pressure situation, I would fancy Murphy to be stronger.

Click here for Part Two…