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

As promised, click below to read the second part of odlr’s guest preview of the upcoming 2010 World Championship. All comments and debate are welcome as the tournament edges ever closer…

Click here to view Part One.

Quarter 3:

Stephen Maguire v. Stephen Lee
Peter Ebdon v. Graeme Dott
Mark Allen v. Tom Ford
Ryan Day v. Mark Davis

The third quarter is the only one without any of this season’s tournament winners, and also without any obvious title contenders. But there is a number of interesting players with a chance to go far in the tournament.

The two outsiders would be Tom Ford and Mark Davis. It is hard to see either of them going far in the tournament, but 1st round wins are not out of the question. Ford is up against an opponent who plays a similar game as himself, but Allen is a lot more at ease in the big occasions, and also should be pretty accustomed to the Crucible by now, especially after last year’s semi-final appearance. Davis is having one of the best periods of his career, but it is hard to see him holding his own against the scoring power of Day in a best-of-19 match.

Another player that I would somewhat rule out is Stephen Lee. He is very capable of beating Maguire, or any player for that matter, but it is hard to see him stringing a number of good matches together. His obvious disadvantage is his poor physical fitness, and sometimes he is quite visibly struggling in matches. I think that might be the reason for his fairly early decline. But he still has the occasional good performance, so I would not rule out a win against Maguire to possibly book a 2nd round match against his old rival Peter Ebdon.

Graeme Dott also has a tough job if he is to reach the later stages of the tournament. Incidentally, his match against Peter Ebdon is the only match of the round to feature two former World champions. There is a lot of pressure on both players as the loser of this match will definitely not be in the top16 next season. History is on the side of Ebdon, although Dott did win their biggest match, which was the 2006 World final. After his sudden drop down the rankings, Dott has now managed to establish himself as one of the toughest players outside the top16, but he has not played anywhere near to the standard that saw him win the World title and get to number two in the rankings. At 33 years of age, he is still young enough to compete at the highest level, but I suspect that an in-form Ebdon might be too strong for him at this point in time. And should he win against Ebdon, it hardly gets any easier with Maguire possibly waiting in the next round.

That leaves four players with a better chance of getting through this quarter, Ryan Day being the least likely to do so in my opinion. He should have too much for Davis, but a possible 2nd round match against Mark Allen could be a tricky one for him. It would be a repeat of last year’s quarter-final match that Allen won 13-11. I think Day is pretty much the same player as he was last year, whereas Allen now knows what it takes to be successful at the Crucible. There is not much between them on the table in terms of style or quality. They are both heavy scorers capable of one-visit snooker. They are great potters, especially Allen, but they are probably the two weakest safety players in the top16 at the moment. What I think this match could possibly come down to in the end, is how each player handles the pressure of the big occasion. That is something Day has never been particularly good at, although there were some matches where he held himself together pretty well recently. On the other hand, Allen has already proven that he is a big-occasion player, not least by reaching the semi-finals last year, and defeating O’Sullivan in the process. But then again, Day is the higher seed here…

Peter Ebdon is another player with a good chance here. First of all, he needs to beat Dott to secure his top16 place for another season, and then he can start looking at possibly getting past Maguire. He is a player that can look quite mediocre when he is slightly off his game, but he is also one of the toughest players to beat when he is in form. Last season he played his best snooker at the China Open and had nothing left for the World Championship, but I suspect he timed his form better this year. He was pretty solid in China once again, but not quite enough to beat an in-form Ding Junhui. That may have actually worked in his advantage, because he had a chance to work on some of the finer details of his game in these last few weeks. He is a tremendous pressure player and a great battler, with an occasional outrageous shot and some mind games thrown in for good measure. Those are great supporting elements of one’s game, but one thing you cannot do without is heavy scoring, and that is something that Ebdon does not always have at his disposal. But when he is really up for a tournament, his break-building and potting are tremendous, and you can usually see it right from the start. He is not the youngest of players anymore, but I have a feeling he still has some great snooker left in him.

And that only leaves Stephen Maguire. He is not many people’s tip to win the title this year, even though he is the world number two. His season has not been that bad really, the semi-finals of two ranking events and the Masters, which is still better than most of the top16. But of course, that only tells half the story. In truth, the draw opened up a bit for Maguire in those events, so he came through without playing his best stuff. He was never really considered as someone who could take the title in those tournaments. But he should not be written off here. He has had patches of poor form before and come back strongly. At his best, he is capable of tremendous one-visit snooker combined with a solid tactical game, a complete player without an obvious weakness, which is what got him his ranking in the first place. His main problem is his inability to battle through the matches where he is not at his best. He lets things get to him too easily, and it can only give his opponents confidence when they see him in his “angry” state. But there are occasions when he is in a really determined and concentrated mood, like in the match against Williams at the Welsh Open, which was arguably his best performance of the season. If you think about it, he is the opposite of Ebdon in this respect, because it is actually his mental state that changes the most from tournament to tournament, rather than his game on the table. In any case, a possible Ebdon-Maguire match would be an interesting clash of styles, one that I would look forward to.

This quarter is too unpredictable to talk about potential quarter-final match-ups, but I think it will be one of the Ebdon-Maguire-Allen trio that comes through in the end. If we assume that all players play at their best, I would give Maguire the best chance, followed by Ebdon and Allen. But how likely it is for each player to actually play their best is a different matter. I think I would probably put them in the opposite order in that respect.

Quarter 4:

Mark Selby v. Ken Doherty
Stephen Hendry v. Zhang Anda
Mark Williams v. Marcus Campbell
Ronnie O’Sullivan v. Liang Wenbo

And finally the fourth quarter… The concentration of quality players here is quite incredible. It has three of this season’s tournament winners, who are of course also three of the main title contenders here. We knew this quarter would be the strongest even before the qualifiers were drawn, but even more so now, with Doherty and Liang being two of the four or five strongest qualifiers.

On paper, Stephen Hendry and Mark Williams should have the easiest job in the 1st round. Hendry is up against an opponent who is still a teenager, and has virtually no experience on the big stage. Zhang is also the lowest ranked qualifier, being a debutant on the Main Tour of course. Recent history does suggest that Hendry can be vulnerable in the 1st round, but it would be a major shock if he were to lose here. Marcus Campbell on the other hand is a very experienced veteran, most famous for his whitewash of Hendry in the 2008 UK Championship, but he has not really had a major success at any point in his career. It is hard to see him staying with an in-form Mark Williams over two sessions.

Mark Selby should have a much tougher job against Ken Doherty. After a horrible previous season, Doherty started strongly this season with his first quarter-final appearance in a long time at the Shanghai Masters. He continued well by knocking Mark Selby out of the Grand Prix, although to be fair, Selby was not playing well that time. After that, Doherty seemed to disappear again for a while, but he is back here, and he presents a tricky opener for Selby. Doherty has no real weakness for Selby to exploit, other than some inconsistency that seems common to every player of Doherty’s age. I think what might ultimately win Selby this match is the fact that he is more used to playing big matches these days, while Doherty might be a bit rusty.

Ronnie O’Sullivan could also be in trouble early on against Liang Wenbo. This is a repeat of the Shanghai Masters final from earlier in the season, a match that O’Sullivan won comfortably. It is also a repeat of their quarter-final match from the 2008 World Championship, which was another fairly convincing win for O’Sullivan. So we do have some history between these two over long matches. Can Liang get past O’Sullivan this time? Well, he has been the best player outside of the top16 this season without doubt, and there is a good chance he will get into the top16 for the first time now, even if he loses to O’Sullivan. He has improved a lot in shot selection over the past year or so, but he still takes on too many risky shots, which is something you cannot afford to do against O’Sullivan. One thing that could cause a problem for O’Sullivan is the pace at which Liang plays snooker. He sometimes takes his time between shots to think about the situation or to wipe his cue with a towel, so it would be wrong to assume he is a fast player just because he is very attacking. O’Sullivan often finds it hard to be away from the table for long periods of time, so Liang could have a chance if he scores well. But realistically, I fancy O’Sullivan to come through this one. 1st round draws have not been too kind on him in the recent past, but he has responded well more often than not.

The potential 2nd round match between O’Sullivan and Williams is the one people are looking forward to the most, and so am I. It would be a match between the reigning Shanghai Masters and the reigning China Open champion. There are several signs that imply O’Sullivan should win. First of all, Williams is the winner of the previous event, so it is questionable whether he can hold his form for long enough to be competitive here. The China Open champion usually goes out of the World Championship early, although it tends to be either the 1st round or the quarter-finals. Then there is O’Sullivan’s controversy in China, where he may or may not have lost his match deliberately. O’Sullivan usually plays a good tournament after any sort of controversy, like winning the Masters after his UK Championship walkout against Hendry, or winning the World Championship after his press conference debacle in China two years ago for example. Their head-to-head record is also heavily in O’Sullivan’s favour, especially in the last five years. Since his drop down the rankings in 2005, Williams had quite a few good tournaments where it looked like he was getting back to his best, only to be stopped by O’Sullivan, including two best-of-25 matches at the World Championship. Most of their meetings followed a similar pattern, where both players tried to open the balls up as much as they could and win the frames in one visit. In my opinion, that is the wrong approach for Williams against O’Sullivan, because O’Sullivan is still the best in the world in that type of snooker. Their match in this year’s Masters was probably the closest Williams has got to beating O’Sullivan in a long time, but it was once again a match where Williams refused to push any of O’Sullivan’s buttons, and rather concentrated on his own game. If he could reproduce that sort of performance though, he would have every chance over three sessions. But my favourite for this one is O’Sullivan.

The other 2nd round match that could potentially be a great one in this quarter is Selby against Hendry. Their most recent match was in the UK Championship this season, where Selby was always in control. Neither player was at their best in that tournament though, so it might not be a great example of what we could be in for with this match. Selby is a great tactician, a great pressure player who plays his best in a tense atmosphere, and a good enough potter to be able to pot his way out of trouble. The supporting elements of his game are therefore very strong, and combined with his slowed down pace at crucial points of the match, he is very tough to play against. But Hendry is not a player who is easily unsettled with any mind games. The best way to put him under pressure is to score heavily against him. Selby’s scoring is quite inconsistent from tournament to tournament, but when the centuries are flying in, like in the 2007 and 2009 Championships, he might have too much for Hendry at this point in time. But then again, Hendry reached the quarter-finals of the previous two Championships, both times with quite a difficult draw. He has a habit of playing well against players he recently lost to, like Ricky Walden last year, Ding Junhui the year before, or recently Ryan Day. Well, Selby beat him in the 2008 Masters and Welsh Open, as well as the UK Championship this season. Hendry can be very dangerous when he is out to prove a point…

So, what possibilities does all this leave for the quarter-final match? Quite a few actually, but there are four that stand out. It could be a repeat of the 2008 semi-final between Hendry and O’Sullivan. If that is the case, I would make O’Sullivan a big favourite. He defeated Hendry with a session to spare in 2004 and 2008, both times with brilliant snooker and not much resistance from Hendry. Hendry actually established an early lead against O’Sullivan in 2008, but quickly lost all confidence at the first sign of an O’Sullivan comeback. I think what turned that match in O’Sullivan’s favour was his superb safety play. In the previous two semi-finals with Hendry, in 1999 and 2002, there was very little safety played. Both players went for a lot of long pots and scored very heavily, but Hendry proved slightly stronger of the two both times when the pressure was really on. So O’Sullivan changed the plan a bit, to some extent in 2004, but especially in 2008. He took almost no risks, and maximized his opportunities with some very good tactical play. Hendry was frozen out for a while, and by the time he started getting chances again, he was under such pressure that he struggled to take them. This match could potentially take a similar turn, but Hendry would give himself a chance if he kept a high long-potting percentage and made very few mistakes in the scoring opportunities. O’Sullivan is vulnerable as soon as he realizes there is a chance he might not win the match, as that infamous 2006 UK Championship incident proves. But if O’Sullivan does get through to the semi-finals by beating Liang, Williams and Hendry, he will have beaten three of the opponents he also beat on the way to his third World title in 2008.

If Hendry had a choice, I am sure he would prefer to play Mark Williams. They are great friends and rivals who have had many great matches over the years. There should be no psychological advantage for either of them. Williams did win their last match, in this season’s Grand Prix, but that was a match they would both probably like to forget. They also played in the 1st round of the World Championship last year, a match in which Williams was dominating before he started having problems with his tip, but Hendry also raised his game towards the end and got through. On this season’s form, Williams should be the stronger player, but he will know that this is Hendry’s best event, and that Hendry would probably find it easy to motivate himself. Hendry is also a player who likes to punish opponents’ mistakes heavily when he is in form, and just like O’Sullivan, he should not suit players who like to take a lot of risks.

An opponent who could suit Williams just fine in my opinion, is Mark Selby. Selby’s great strength is his awareness of how to approach a match in terms of tactics. Well, how do you play against Mark Williams? Playing an open, attacking game is one way, but you would expect O’Sullivan rather than Selby to have an edge over Williams in that type of snooker. He could keep it tight and try to win the scrappy frames, but Williams is a master at those as well. Selby is also capable of playing all kinds of mind games, like slowing the match down, or talking to the audience to try and transfer pressure from himself to the opponent, but Williams is so laid-back that he is unlikely to be affected. So whatever approach Selby chooses, probably a bit of everything, he will have no obvious edge over Williams. The only thing he can do is try to outplay him and get to thirteen frames first. That would be easier said than done though, because Williams will have presumably already beaten O’Sullivan in a three-session match. Their last long match was at the 2008 UK Championship when Selby was one of the big favourites, while Williams was only a qualifier. Selby threw everything at Williams in that match, from winning a frame when he needed two snookers to coming back at him with three successive centuries at one point, but Williams still prevailed. They also played a best-of-25 match at the World Championship back in 2006, a match that Williams also won comfortably, but Selby was not quite the player he is today at that time. So, should this match happen, it could go either way, but I have a feeling it could go in Williams’ favour.

And finally, there is also the very exciting prospect of another O’Sullivan-Selby showdown. They have played a number of two-session matches since Selby’s World final appearance in 2007, and although O’Sullivan has had more success in absolute terms, Selby is probably more pleased of the two. He won two finals in deciders after it seemed like O’Sullivan had those matches won. The 2008 Welsh Open final was a match where O’Sullivan played great snooker up to 8-5, but then struggled to put anything together went the last four frames went scrappy. He later criticized Selby’s tactics in that match. Selby’s other great victory over O’Sullivan came at this year’s Masters. He was 6-9 down again, but dug deep to win the last four frames. I think it was O’Sullivan’s ridiculous attempt in the 15th frame that turned that match around. He went for frame and match, probably thinking he was untouchable at that point, and I think he was not really mentally prepared to fight for the victory after that.

What are some of the things in Selby’s favour? First of all, he is probably the only player of his generation other than Robertson to not be intimidated by O’Sullivan. He knows he can beat him, especially in a pressure situation. Selby’s greatest strength is probably not any single element of his game, but rather his ability to effortlessly switch between them during a match. He can play a couple of scrappy frames and then quickly get into scoring mode when the opportunity arises. Or the other way around of course, he has no problem playing a scrappy frame after a period of one-visit stuff. And that is just the type of snooker that does not suit O’Sullivan. He is a player who is at his best when he can get into a relentless scoring rhythm. Selby is very unlikely to let that happen, not if he can help it. Another factor that could come into play here is the crowd. O’Sullivan usually has the crowd behind him, but Selby is very good at establishing a relationship with the audience, especially in tense situations. I think O’Sullivan can lose a bit of heart if he feels the crowd behind the other player, which is what I think happened in his match against Higgins at the Grand Prix. He also has a habit of getting frustrated midway through the tournament, and losing the Championship in one bad session, which is something that playing Selby could easily inspire. But then again, he also has the habit of playing extremely well whenever I consider him the underdog in a match. He could show his other side, the one that won him the 2009 Masters final against Selby. When he is up for it, he can be very determined and concentrated, and quite difficult to unsettle. But you never know with him…

I have assumed that Doherty and Liang will go out early for the purpose of this analysis, but if one of those two got through, it would open up a number of other exciting possibilities. Not least the possible match between the two of them, which would be a repeat of the 1st round match from the 2008 World Championship, a match that Liang won comfortably.

A quick summary:

It would be a very big surprise if anyone other than Higgins, Robertson or Fu reached the quarter-finals in the first quarter of the draw. One thing that could potentially turn this quarter on its head would be Higgins being out of sorts, but I do expect him to play well and meet Robertson in the quarter-final. There is very little between those two, but my gut feeling says it could be Robertson this year. In any case, it will be a good sign for the winner of this quarter, because Higgins has lost to the eventual winner in every ranking event of the past twelve months. Other than the ones he won himself of course.

The second quarter is a bit more balanced. I think the four seeded players and Cope all probably have a chance of going through. I suspect Murphy will be well prepared for the 2nd round match against Ding and possibly beat him. If he could get through that one, he could possibly challenge for the title. I suspect his quarter-final opponent will be Carter, where I can see Murphy prevailing in a high-quality match.

The third quarter is by far the most unpredictable in my opinion. There are six players that could possibly come through, depending on what kind of form they are in. I can definitely see Mark Allen reaching the quarter-final, but his opponent is a harder one to call. I think Maguire and Ebdon could both possibly play good snooker, but my feeling is that Ebdon will come through here.

The last quarter is by far the strongest and most interesting. There are six players with a chance of going through, but the four seeds are the ones that stand out. I have already over-analyzed all the possibilities, but in truth, I would be fine with any of them. Whatever happens in this quarter, a couple of great players will go out, and one great player will be through to the semi-finals. My gut feeling says that O’Sullivan will come through Liang and Williams to play Selby in the quarter-final, where Selby will get him again.

So, if everything goes according to my plan, the quarter final lineup could look something like this:

John Higgins v. Neil Robertson
Allister Carter v. Shaun Murphy
Peter Ebdon v. Mark Allen
Mark Selby v. Ronnie O’Sullivan

In any case, the quarter-final lineup promises to be great no matter who is left standing at that point. I wish everyone a good Championship, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I know I am going to. 🙂