China Open 2011: Qualifying Preview I

Just days after John Higgins won his third Welsh Open title, the qualifiers will be staged at the Academy in Sheffield for this season’s penultimate ranking event tournament, the China Open. Click here to view the draw or carry on reading for part one of my preview…

Top Quarter

The first path will determine who faces the defending champion Mark Williams out in Beijing and while Stephen Lee will rightly start as the favourite, there are certainly players here who are capable of causing an upset.

The first match sees Patrick Wallace take on Zhang Anda in a match that is in my opinion a must-win for the Northern Irishman if he is to keep his bid to survive on the main tour alive heading into the World Championship qualifiers next month. For that reason, as well as the fact that Zhang has shown little in the way of form this season, I think that he will.

Whoever wins will come up against Alfie Burden in the next round who without having pushed for a spot at a venue in a while, has continued to win his opening matches and maintain a top 64 place. Similarly, third round opponent Matt Selt without having made a venue recently is now up inside the top 48 for the first time. Sometimes a player ranked further down the rankings can have a good year only to slip back down the following year but since his breakthrough in 2009, Matt has continued to win consistently and progress up the rankings.

Lying in wait though for whoever manages to come through will be Stephen Lee, one of the form qualifiers of this season who during his UK Championship match against John Higgins looked to be back to his brilliant best. That said, he did lose to Rory McLeod during the recent Welsh Open qualifiers but I am prepared to put that down to a one-off and back Stephen to come through.

Path two begins with an all-Asian clash between China’s Liu Song and Thai youngster Noppon Saengkham. While Noppon has had a couple of good wins this season, Liu is by far the more experienced of the two and I would be surprised to see him falter here.

If Liu could come through he would face a clash with Adrian Gunnell who having reached a couple of venues back in 2008 and won most of his openers last season, is now struggling to arrest a poor run which has seen him drop out of the top 48. While he will be on the tour next season and remains a capable player, he would arguably go into a match with Liu Song as a slight underdog.

Rounds three and four in this section however are where the quality goes up a notch as Tom Ford and Ryan Day enter the fray. Like a few players, since his PTC breakthrough win last summer Tom has struggled to maintain that momentum and as a result has just slipped outside of the top 32 heading into the last two tournaments.

He does though remain a dangerous player and one that could push a resurgent Ryan Day hard in the final round. That said, Day was excellent in Newport recently, against both Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan and can consider himself unfortunate to have come off second best against Matthew Stevens at the last 16 stage. Ryan does have an excellent record in China and I expect him to make it back there once again for another showdown with Ronnie.

Pushing hard for a top 64 place at the end of the season, Xiao Guodong will be looking to get his China Open campaign up and running with a win against Dermot McGlinchey who has not set the tour alight since his promotion last summer.

Joe Jogia in the next round however will a tougher test for Xiao if he makes it, particularly having defeated the likes of Steve Davis en route to the final qualifying round in Newport. With both players on the borderline of the top 64, while it should not be decisive with the World Championship coming up, it would be a handy one to win for either player.

As above though, the third and fourth paths see the calibre of player rise sharply as Anthony Hamilton and Matthew Stevens await. Although he lost a few opening round matches during the bigger events early in the season, Anthony bounced back to form during the mid to late events of the PTC and most notably defeated Neil Robertson in Berlin with three century breaks recently to underline that.

Matthew too though has enjoyed an excellent campaign and will hoping to finish in better style than he did last season to secure a season-end top 16 place. If it were to be a clash between Anthony and Matt in the final round then I expect it will just come down to who plays better on the day as a good case can be made for either to win that.

Kicking off route four is a match between Simon Bedford and Kurt Maflin, two players who look like facing the ordeal of the Q School if they are to survive on the tour next season. For Kurt the season began well with the first of this season’s many maximum breaks coming in the first PTC event, but since then there have been few highs, while Simon is paying the price for earning just 920 points from the PTC.

Whoever wins will face the new boy wonder Jack Lisowski in the second round as the 19-year-old looks to continue his rise up the rankings and get into the top 48 at the first time of asking. At first glance I would say that Jack would prefer to avoid Simon who I have noticed does have a tendency to find himself involved in some of the longer qualifying matches, but his recent demolition of Fergal O’Brien proved that he can be adaptable when the occasion calls for it.

Third up is Dave Harold who a year ago I would have probably said was here for the taking but this season has shown what a good player he still is and is deservedly back into the top 48 having briefly slipped out following the UK Championship. Twice Dave has lost to the eventual winner of the tournament at the TV stages so can consider himself to be especially unfortunate. If it is to be Jack that he faces, it will be very interesting to see how the youngster copes with him, let’s not forget he could have found himself 2-0 down against Fergal had things been different.

Finally, the winner will have to get past Mark King to make it to the venue and while King will be outside of his comfort zone having to qualify for the event, he will no doubt prove a difficult obstacle to overcome.

Opening this section of the draw are Joe Delaney and Andrew Pagett, two players occupying similar positions in the rankings although Andrew already looks good to remain on the tour by virtue of his performances in the PTC earlier in the campaign. I would tend to lean towards him for this reason, but since the conclusion of the PTC, their form has been fairly similar and Joe can sometimes just find some form from nowhere, as he did to qualify for Shanghai at the start of the season.

Whoever wins will face Jimmy Robertson in the second round who despite not catching the eye of the wider public by qualifying for the TV stages of an event has nevertheless done well to maintain a top 64 seeding throughout.

UK Championship quarter-finalist Mark Joyce will await the next round as he looks to build on that success following early exits recently at the hands of Alan McManus and Rod Lawler. As Mark himself said following his UK run, he is keen not to suffer a similar end to the season to that of Peter Lines who followed up his run to Telford in 2009 by losing all of his remaining matches during that campaign.

If he is to make another venue though he will have to see off Stuart Bingham in the last 16, another UK Championship quarter-finalist who will be hoping to boost his bid to move up into the top 16 by the end of this campaign.

Lining up in the first round of section six will be talented youngster Liam Highfield (unfortunate to draw Jack Lisowski again in qualifying for the World Championship), and Jamie O’Neill. Prize money aside, this is a more important match for Liam than for Jamie as he looks to earn a top 64 place at the end of the season and given their respective results of late, I would have to back Liam to come through this one. Jamie though did record an impressive win against Kyren Wilson recently in the Welsh Open qualifiers so cannot be taken too lightly.

If he can win, Liam will feel that he has a real opportunity to progress further in this event as having struggled for victories during recent months, opponent Barry Pinches cannot be feeling too confident at the moment. That said, with all of his experience Barry is more than capable of turning it around against someone still on their debut season.

One man who will not make anything easy for anyone is third round opponent Rory McLeod, a real hard grinder and a recent 4-1 winner against Stephen Lee in qualifying for the Welsh Open before eventually falling short against Jamie Cope at the venue. If Liam can make it to this stage it would be a rest test of his character to take on Rory, as it was when his contemporary Jack Lisowski recently met Fergal O’Brien.

Finally the winner will face Marcus Campbell, the Scot a regular fixture at venues these days and currently sitting inside the top 32 following a much improved couple of years. Given his form I would probably make Marcus favourite against any potential opponent from this section but I could see him being pushed all the way but the likes of Rory and Barry if they can take their chances and keep things tight.

Two players who have both slipped outside of the top 64 this season meet at the bottom of this section as the two Davids face off, Morris and Gilbert. Both having shown signs of a return to form of sorts during recent months, this one is tough to call though if pushed I would probably lean towards Gilbert.

Whoever wins will have to come through against Ian McCulloch however, a player generally on the slide at the moment but who every few tournaments manages to keep himself afloat with a couple of good wins. Could this be another one of those tournaments?

Robert Milkins in the next round meanwhile will again be pushing for a top 32 place, though for whatever reason his form this season hasn’t quite been as consistent as last year. He did though reach the final of the Sky Shootout tournament recently which while not counting for anything on the ranking circuit, will have left him feeling good. And richer.

Finally, whoever comes through will have to overcome Andrew Higginson if they are to book their ticket to China, a task easier said than done given Andrew’s form during this campaign. As demonstrated during the recent Welsh Open qualifiers by Michael Holt however, it is possible…

The final section of this top half has a youthful look to it early on as 20-year-old Liu Chuang takes on 17-year-old Jak Jones in the opening round. While both are talented young players, I would expect Liu’s greater experience at this level to tell and for him to come through.

In the next round he would play Jimmy White, the ever-popular former world finalist who will be looking to make it to TV stages of this tournament for the first time since 2007. An interesting one this, while Jimmy is playing better than he has done for a few years at the moment, he can be susceptible to a shock early defeat and I have a feeling that this could be one of them.

Whoever does come through will meet Leeds’ Peter Lines, a player who has suffered damaging defeats to Joe Delaney and Paul Davison recently. Could be suffer a second straight winless conclusion to a season after a strong start?

Finally, Welshman Dominic Dale awaits in the final round, up into the top 32 for the first time in a couple of seasons. Since his PTC win earlier this season Dominic has managed to maintain his excellent run and has not missed a venue since Shanghai, a level of consistency at first glance unmatched by any other qualifier. A warm favourite to progress I think.

Bottom half tomorrow…