China Open 2011: Lee Edges Thriller, Seeds Tumble

What a day of snooker in Beijing as the tournament exploded into life today with a classic involving Mark Williams and Stephen Lee, while Stephen Maguire, Graeme Dott and Mark Allen were all upset…

Tuesday 29th March 2011 Results:

Wildcard Round

Gerard Greene 5-2 Yu Delu
Robert Milkins 5-1 Rouzi Maimaiti

Last 32

Stephen Lee 5-4 Mark Williams
Mark Davis 5-3 Stephen Maguire
Marcus Campbell 5-4 Mark Allen
Shaun Murphy 5-3 Joe Perry
Li Hang 5-4 Graeme Dott
Ding Junhui 5-4 Kurt Maflin

Defending champion Mark Williams crashed out of the China Open this morning following an incredible match with Stephen Lee, despite making a century break in each of the four frames that he did win!

As was the case during Stephen’s last 32 contest with John Higgins at the UK Championship earlier this season, the four-time ranking event winner could do little early on as his opponent raced out of the traps with two century breaks in little over 20 minutes. During these frames Williams was simply unplayable and it is to Lee’s credit that as against Higgins, he did not let his head drop and responded by taking the next two with a top run of 86 to bring himself level at the interval.

In frame five it was Williams who set about restoring his lead but following an early 42, he let Lee back to the table and the four-time ranking event winner made 52 of his own to lead for the first time at 3-2.

Williams though was still playing well and was not to be denied during the next two frames, hitting back with another couple of century breaks, this time 137 and 104 to need just one more for the title.

Having seen Stephen force a decider, Mark looked to be almost safe as he opened up a 59 point lead to leave his opponent with a mountain to climb. There was however to be a final twist in the tale as with enough points on the table, Stephen completed an excellent clearance of 61 to win the match on the black and move into the last 16.

Described by some as one of the all-time greatest best of nine matches, it is further evidence not only of how well Mark Williams is playing at the moment, but particularly of how Stephen Lee is now looking to be very much back to his brilliant best. Coming into what was on paper a horrible match against an opponent who had beaten him in 12 of their previous 15 meetings, Stephen could easily have wilted given how Mark started but he maintained his concentration and eventually prevailed. While he might not quite make it back into the top 16 at the end of this season, to me it is only a matter of time before he is back among the elite if he can take this form into next season.

For Mark meanwhile it is never a good result to lose in the first round and what it does is breathe fresh life into the race for the world number one spot at the end of the season if John Higgins, Ding Junhui, Mark Selby and Neil Robertson can run deep this week. While he remains favourite to finish there as it stands, he has given himself a little more work to do in order to make sure. That said, it also goes without saying that he could not really have done much more to win today and this is very much reflected in his post-match quotes over at World Snooker.

Elsewhere there was also an upset for Welsh Open finalist Stephen Maguire during the morning session as he was ousted 5-3 by Mark Davis, the qualifier finishing off with a total clearance of 137. While he has a lot of work still to do if he is to finish the season inside the top 16 for the first time, particularly given the fact that he is already out of the World Championship, he has at least given himself a chance. Stephen Maguire though will be disappointed to lose but does at least have a little extra time now in order to gear himself up for another tilt at the Sheffield title.

Another Scot to crash out was Graeme Dott who was the victim of a superb win by wildcard Li Hang, the man from China coming though in a deciding frame having at once stage led 4-2.

As those of you who have read this blog since the start back in 2008 will know, Li is a player that I have raved about on many occasions and is for me one to watch over the next few years, but even I did not expect him to come through this one. With two century breaks as well as further runs of 81 and 71 however, he did more than enough to merit his win and will now meet Shaun Murphy in the next round. It also demonstrates just how strong some of these wildcard players can be now, as well as what a danger Li will be during the upcoming Q School events as he looks to regain his place on the main tour.

One Scot not to lose however was Marcus Campbell who produced in front of the TV cameras against Mark Allen to send the man from Antrim out early. While a fantastic result for the Campbell, the defeat now brings Mark very much into the thick of the battle for a place in the year-end top 16 and in my view, probably leaves him needing a win against the in-form Matthew Stevens at the Crucible if he is to stay there. Time will tell on that.

Avoiding an upset was Ding Junhui who recovered from 4-1 down to win through against Norwegian qualifier Kurt Maflin and avoid early embarrassment in front of his home crowd, while Shaun Murphy similarly took the last four in his match against Joe Perry to progress.