China Open 2011: Tournament Preview

This coming Monday sees the start of the season’s penultimate ranking event, the 2011 China Open. Click below to read my tournament preview…

The Top Quarter

With three world champions in this section, there is certainly no shortage of class here but with all of those those greats being handed a particularly dangerous opener, there is every chance that we will see some upsets here.

Heading the draw is of course defending champion and provisional world number one Mark Williams who will be hoping to accumulate enough points to head over to the Crucible already assured of top spot in the rankings at the end of the season.

Standing in his way however will be Stephen Lee, the four-time ranking event winner who will be hoping to continue his thus far excellent season by going on a run here and boosting his chances of a year-end top 16 spot. Currently sitting in 17th provisionally, Lee is in my view playing better than his ranking would suggest at the moment and but for some horror draws recently (John Higgins in the last 32 of the UK and World Championship springs to mind), would probably be pushing for a top 10 place. As a result then, Mark will have to be on his game from the start if he is to avoid an early upset.

That said, Mark has an excellent record in Asia and has himself been in fine form, winning the German Masters back in February and will despite Stephen’s improved form, begin as favourite.

Whoever wins will face either Ronnie O’Sullivan or Ryan Day in the last 16, those two meeting in successive tournaments following their Welsh Open encounter in Newport. On that occasion it was Ryan who came out on top, two quick-fire centuries putting him in front before he eventually came through a 4-2 winner.

The big question this time however will inevitably be as to whether or not O’Sullivan will show up, the former world champion having skipped the Shanghai Masters and German Masters tournaments earlier in the season as well as the EPTC events. I have no information either way but my gut feeling is that he will make the trip this time around, though given some of his performances in Beijing during recent years, I am not expecting him to progress deep into the tournament. Given Ryan’s recent form together with his excellent record in China, he must feel that he can record another win here.

Another Welshman who will fancy his chances of causing an upset in this section is last week’s Championship League winner Matthew Stevens who comes up against the struggling Stephen Hendry. It has been a hectic couple of weeks for Stevens having qualified for the World Championship on the black, reached the semi-finals of the PTC Grand Finals and defeated Shaun Murphy to take that Championship League title. He will however come into this event full of confidence against an opponent who he has already defeated twice this season during the PTC season.

For Hendry though this is a hugely significant match and in all likelihood a must-win if he is to stand any chance of maintaining his long unbroken spell inside the top 16 after this season. Since his calamitous defeat to Mark Williams at the UK Championship in December, Stephen has shown improved form with wins against Judd Trump and Joe Perry in ranking events before that magical 147 against Stephen Maguire in the first frame of their Welsh Open meeting. Following that break however Stephen’s form deserted him almost immediately and he again struggled to win another frame.

On paper therefore Stevens looks a reasonable bet to cause an upset here which has been reflected in the betting which makes him a warm favourite. You can never write off Hendry though, whenever his top 16 status has been threatened in the past he has always responded and done enough to stay in. Stevens too must be feeling tired after his recent exertions and perhaps this is something that the Scot can take advantage of.

Whoever wins will come up against either Ding Junhui, Kurt Maflin or Cao Yupeng in the next round, the latter two who meet in a wildcard match on Monday. Unlike the three previous matches discussed in this section, local favourite Ding will start as a heavy favourite whoever comes through, particularly given his recent Masters victory and run to the final here in Beijing a year ago.

Can Kurt Maflin (assuming that he wins his wildcard match), cause an upset? If he can play as well as he did to qualify for this event as well as during his World Championship defeat against Xiao Guodong a fortnight ago, he has every chance but to do so at a venue in front of the television cameras is another matter entirely. While he has nothing to lose now he looks certain to be relegated from the tour, I expect Ding to come through regardless.

Semi-finalist: Mark Williams – Tough section to call this but I’ll tip the Welshman to edge out Ding in the quarters

The Second Quarter

While there are no world champions involved in the second section, it is not without quality and begins with a clash between Shanghai Masters winner Ali Carter and the in-form Stuart Bingham who looks set for a place in the top 16 for the first time at the end of the season.

Currently sitting in seventh place both officially and provisionally, it has been a quiet season for Ali until his recent run to the Welsh Open semi-finals. Having also reached the semi-finals of the Championship League winners group last week, the Captain seems to be coming into form at the right time this season.

Stuart meanwhile is a player not to be underestimated as having won five of his seven opening round matches at the major ranking events, as well as having defeated Ronnie O’Sullivan en route to the last eight of the UK Championship, he currently enjoying one of his most consistent seasons on the main tour since turning professional in 1995.

Can Stuart cause an upset here? Possibly, although he did lose against Ali earlier on this season in Shanghai and also lost their most recent previous meeting here in Beijing back in 2008.

Next up come Mark Allen and either Marcus Campbell or Chinese wildcard Mei Xiwen. Having reached the semi-finals of both the UK Championship and Wembley Masters earlier this season, Mark appeared to be knocking on the door of a maiden title but has otherwise struggled for results this season. Generally speaking Mark’s record in China has been relatively unimpressive so I would not be all that shocked to see him lose out here, although he did of course reach the semi-finals in Beijing a year ago.

Potential opponent Marcus Campbell meanwhile is currently enjoying a consistent season and is certain now to remain comfortably inside the top 32 at the end of the campaign. My only reservation with Marcus is that he rarely seems to translate his consistent qualifying results into good performances in front of the TV cameras and former professional Mei Xiwen is arguably one of the tougher wildcard draws that he could have been handed.

Next up are Jamie Cope and the winner of the wildcard match between Robert Milkins and Rouzi Maimaiti. I must confess I know little of Maimaiti, other than that he lost to Andrew Higginson 5-2 at this stage of the Shanghai Masters qualifiers earlier in the season.

Of the players currently ranked amongst the top 16, Jamie Cope is on paper one of the kinder draws for a qualifier but given his track record in China perhaps this is somewhat unfair. Notable highlights include his recent run to the final of the Hainan Classic as well as his final appearance in Beijing back in 2007, his semi-final appearance in Shanghai earlier this season and a memorable 147 there in 2008.

Robert Milkins meanwhile has enjoyed a pretty good season, but notably did lose his wildcard match in the Shanghai Masters earlier this season against Jin Long and will be keen not to make the same mistake here.

Finally, Mark Selby begins his quest for a second ranking event title with an opener against either Jimmy White or Tian Pengfei.

On paper, that match between Jimmy and Tian looks to be by far the closest of the wildcard matches, Tian of course having defeated Mark Davis and Ronnie O’Sullivan last season en route to the last 16 of this event. With a further victory against Andrew Higginson last season as well as longer-format wins against Liang Wenbo and Ryan Day on his way to the Beijing International Challenge last summer, Tian will not be short of confidence coming into this match.

Having recently lost out to Chinese opposition in the form of Liu Chuang in qualifying for the World Championship, Jimmy could be forgiven for looking forward to the end of the season now but he remains capable of good performances on his day. I must admit though, I do fancy Tian to come through this one and cause an upset.

EDIT: Jimmy White has since withdrawn from the tournament due to visa issues.

But could he upset Mark Selby? With a better record in Shanghai than in Beijing, quite possibly, although with his recent runs in Berlin and Newport behind him, he too looks to be in reasonable form at the moment. All that seems to be missing is his scoring that was so prolific earlier this season during the PTC events and if he can bring that to the party, he could be a good shout to come through this section.

Semi-finalist: Mark Selby – True to the rankings I would expect either Mark or Ali to come through here, possibly Jamie Cope if he is on his game…but Selby has to be favourite

The Third Quarter

Kicking off this section of the draw is world number one John Higgins who will be looking to maintain his incredible run of form since returning to professional competition at the EPTC5 event earlier this season. His opening match should be against Nigel Bond, although wildcard opponent Jin Long is no slouch having been on the main tour as recently as last season and Nigel does come into the event on the back of a disappointing World Championship qualifying defeat against Andrew Pagett.

Whoever he does face though, John will be a heavy favourite to progress as he looks to go one better than in 2009 when he lost out here in the final to Peter Ebdon before going on to lift the world crown a year later.

Next up is an intriguing tie between Ricky Walden and Martin Gould, one that is on paper at least near enough a 50/50 call. Looking at Ricky’s season, he has not particularly pulled up any trees but he has won the majority of his opening round matches and seen his ranking rise up into the top 16 for the first time in his career. A former winner in Shanghai too, he has the knowledge that he can perform in China and in front of the cameras.

Of the two though, Martin has for me been the more impressive so far this campaign, reaching the final of both the PTC6 event as well as the Grand Finals event last week in Dublin with wins against Mark Selby, Michael Holt, Judd Trump and Jamie Jones. Martin also qualified for the World Championship for a third straight year with an impressive win against Robert Milkins recently and looks to be playing as confidently as any of the qualifiers at the moment. I think he could just win this one.

A possible clash of two world champions awaits in the next round as Graeme Dott and Ken Doherty could meet assuming that Ken can come through against Chinese youngster Li Hang in his wildcard match. That said, a win against Issara Kachaiwong aside, Ken has struggled for form recently and looked all at sea during the latter stages of his World Championship defeat against Jimmy Robertson in Sheffield this month. Li Hang meanwhile is a talented young player who was on the tour between 2008-10 and took three frames from Martin Gould at this stage of the Shanghai Masters tournament earlier this season.

As has been the case with a few of my other predictions however, I would expect Graeme to come through his opener either way, particularly given his strong recent record against Doherty which saw him win three ranking event matches against the Irishman back in 2010.

Finally, recent PTC champion Shaun Murphy begins his campaign in this section with a tricky, but winnable match against Joe Perry, assuming that the former world semi-finalist comes through against Li Yan in his wildcard match.

While he still loses the odd match that I would not expect him to lose, this season has so far been a good one for Shaun who in addition to that PTC title also reached the final of both the Premier League and Championship League competitions, as well as the semi-finals of the UK Championship. With an appearance in the final of this competition to his name back in 2008, Shaun can play out in Beijing and will be hoping to consolidate his top eight position with a result here.

Semi-finalist: John Higgins – Though I am sorely tempted to back Shaun Murphy, it is hard to bet against the world number one at the moment.

The Bottom Quarter

Nearly there! The bottom section begins with a tie involving the man who defeated Muphy back in 2008 Stephen Maguire who takes on Mark Davis for a place in the last 16.

Despite his recent appearance in the Welsh Open final, Scotland’s Maguire has flown under the radar for much of the this season but has quietly amassed a sizeable haul of ranking points which has seen him consolidate his position in the top eight of the rankings. Particularly consistent in the early rounds, he will fancy his chances against an opponent who comes into the event on the back of a crushing defeat at the hands of Rory McLeod at the recent World Championship qualifiers.

The second match here meanwhile has the look of a closer battle as Marco Fu takes on Judd Trump as they both look to gain more important ranking points ahead of the World Championship.

For Marco it has been a much-improved campaign following a difficult 2009/10 that would eventually lead to him falling out of the top 16 during the early part of this season. The highlight was of course his run to the final of the Wembley Masters, while he also made it through to the semi-finals of the German Masters before losing out to eventual winner Mark Williams.

Judd meanwhile has also has a better season this time around that in 2009/10, winning one PTC event and importantly, all but one of his opening round matches during the seven major ranking events. Saying that though, he has struggled to progress further beyond the last 32 stage of many events and for this reason I would have to make Marco a narrow favourite to progress.

The penultimate match of the draw sees 2009 winner Peter Ebdon take on Gerard Greene in a match between two of the most experienced players on the circuit. For Peter it has generally been a positive season, certainly when looking at the ranking points that he has accumulated which has resulted in him making an immediate return to the top 16 following his relegation at the end of last season. That said though some of his performances have been erratic to say the least and against some qualifiers I would have fancied him to suffer an early exit.

Gerard though has not enjoyed the best of seasons himself, winning just two matches away from the PTC and particularly having lost out to Dave Harold during the recent World Championship qualifiers I feel that Peter will find a way to win here.

Finally we see world champion Neil Robertson take on Barry Hawkins at the foot of the draw in a match that I feel could be closer than perhaps some might expect.

Having followed up his world title success with a fine victory in the World Open, Neil has not featured in the latter stages of the major tournaments for a while now and will no doubt have his eye on his imminent April 16th date at the Crucible against Judd Trump. Furthermore, China has rarely been a happy hunting ground for the Australian, indeed I cannot recall him ever reaching even a quarter-final out in either Shanghai or Beijing.

Barry Hawkins on the other hand is a former semi-finalist out in Beijing and while he has not had the career that Neil has, remains a dangerous player for any top 16 player to face and could push him all the way.

Semi-finalist: Marco Fu – Bit of an upset here but I just don’t fancy Neil this week. Let’s see if he can prove me wrong…


Williams def Selby

Higgins def Fu


Higgins def Williams