Welsh Open 2011: Tournament Preview

Tournament Draw

Ok enough talk about rankings, tomorrow sees the start of the 2011 Welsh Open from Newport as John Higgins returns to defend his title have a look at the draw…

The Top Quarter:

Dubbed by some as the quarter of death, the top section of the draw contains John Higgins, Shaun Murphy, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Ricky Walden, a formidable foursome in anybody’s book. That said, they will not have it all their own way as the likes of Ryan Day, Matthew Stevens, Anthony Hamilton and Jimmy White also lurk in the section and will be hoping to spoil the party.

For John Higgins his first match will see him line up against the fast rising youngster Jack Lisowski in the last 32 in his first competitive outing since the death of his father little over a week ago. Under normal circumstances John would be a heavy favourite for this one but will his personal circumstances get in the way? For Dennis Taylor the death of his mother in 1984 came not long before his emphatic triumph at that year’s Grand Prix tournament while John himself has performed well already this season following his return to the sport following the news that his father’s illness was terminal. While I do not expect him to win the tournament, I think that he should have too much know-how for Lisowski.

Either way the winner will face Ricky Walden or Dave Harold in a match that will probably be closer than their respective rankings would suggest, but one that I would expect Walden to win.

Ronnie meanwhile will face the winner of the clash between Ryan Day and Jimmy White while Shaun Murphy takes on either Matthew Stevens or Anthony Hamilton, both of whom have enjoyed strong seasons and could conceivably take down an out of sorts Murphy.

Semi-finalist: I am usually the one to talk down O’Sullivan’s chances when I feel that he is being given too much attention from the mainstream press but despite the difficulty of the draw I could see him coming through this week. Probably depends on how Higgins bears up though…

The Second Quarter:

Meanwhile, the second section is headlined by Masters champion Ding Junhui and 2009 Welsh Open winner Ali Carter, with Mark Allen and Peter Ebdon completing the quota of seeded players.

Having not set the world alight recently, Ali faces a tough test from the off against Barry Hawkins who qualified for the tournament with ease with a 4-0 win against Andy Hicks and is always a dangerous player to face. I would not be too surprised to see an upset here (remember Barry’s win against Mark Selby at the World Open anyone?), and neither would I be in the next match in this section between Peter Ebdon and Dominic Dale, the Welshman looking to confirm his place inside the top 32 heading into the China Open.

What of Mark Allen against Rod Lawler? Mark is prone to the odd shocker and Rod can cause problems by slowing the pace down as he did against Judd Trump in the final qualifying round, but I think that the Pistol should have too much for the Liverpool veteran this time. Similarly, I think that Ding should come through against Marcus Campbell, despite the impressive form of the Scot this season which has seen him move up inside the top 32 for the first time.

Semi-finalist: A winner from the section? My head says Ding, my heart says Mark Allen to reach yet another semi-final. Head wins though.

The Third Quarter

Onto the third quarter which for me is probably the weakest of the draw, although with recent German Masters winner and world number two Mark Williams present as well as seven-times world champion Stephen Hendry, former UK champion Stephen Maguire and this season’s Masters finalist Marco Fu also there, perhaps that would be doing it a disservice!

The first match sees Williams take on Fu in a repeat of their Berlin semi-final and if Mark can reproduce the level of snooker that he played in Germany, it is hard to see him losing. On home soil however, Williams has not shone during recent seasons and with Marco desperately chasing a result in order to secure a place at the Crucible, there is certainly value in backing a Fu victory.

The winner will face either Jamie Cope or Rory McLeod in the last 16, a tricky match to call with Jamie having the advantage in the scoring department, but perhaps vulnerable to the more methodical, tactical style employed by Rory. Over the shorter format though I would tend to back the heavier scorer, so will tip Jamie there.

What of Stephen Hendry and Joe Perry whose last meeting came at the EPTC staged at the Southwest Snooker Academy in Gloucester when Perry came through 4-3? It has been well-documented recently that Stephen has not been playing well at all, but there were signs of improvement against Judd Trump and Mark Selby in Berlin and you can never rule out the Scot. Joe meanwhile is also on the up after a difficult spell, now adapting to a new cue and working well with coach Steve Feeney.

Finally Stephen Maguire takes on Gerard Greene at the bottom of the quarter in a match that I would expect Maguire to win, although how far he will go in the tournament is harder to predict. Could this be the tournament where he returns to winning ways after a three-year drought? Maybe, at his best he can be hard to stop but against the top players he has often been found wanting recently. Could that win against Mark Selby in Telford be just what he needed?

Semi-finalist: While predicting anything in snooker these days is fraught with danger, I would expect the winner of Fu v Williams to come out on top against Maguire in the quarters here. I’ll go Fu this time.

The Bottom Quarter

On to the bottom quarter in which your eyes are immediately drawn to Mark Selby, Neil Robertson and Graeme Dott, three of last season’s four World Championship semi-finalists!

After his shock round one exit at Wembley, Mark Selby bounced back well in Berlin by making the final courtesy of some superb tactical performances, notably against Ding Junhui. At the tournament where he won his only ranking event title to date back in 2008, could he repeat that triumph in 2011? If he is to do so he will have to start with a win against Stuart Bingham, the man who needs at least a quarter-final run in order to keep himself in with a chance of moving up into the top 16 at the week’s end. Will this inspire Stuart to perform or will the extra pressure prove too much?

Next up, Mark King against Michael Holt in what on paper looks to be a close match. That said, for all his critics, Mark has been in good form recently and does not lose too many matches to qualifiers, so I would make him favourite here.

The third match in this section is the all-Scottish affair between Graeme Dott and Jamie Burnett who last met at the EPTC4 event in Gloucester when Graeme came out a 4-2 winner. Again I can see it being a close match and I would not be too surprised to see a similar scoreline in favour of the former world champion.

And finally we have the reigning world champion Neil Robertson who takes on the Shootout champion Nigel Bond in the first round at the bottom of the draw. With an excellent win from 2-0 down against Ken Doherty to qualify, Nigel does look to be in good form at the moment but assuming that he arrives on time, I would expect Neil to have too much for him in this match.

Semi-finalist: Although he has lost to both Selby and Robertson this season, I am going to go for Graeme Dott this time, he has the game to run deep and secure a place in the top eight for Sheffield.

Last Four:

Ding def O’Sullivan, Dott def Fu

Ding def Dott.