Shanghai Masters 2011: Qualifying Preview

After an increasingly rare, though I have to say welcome week off after a busy July, tournament snooker is back this week as the qualifiers for the second full ranking event of 2011/12 get underway in Sheffield. Yep, it’s the Shanghai Masters and below is my qualifying preview…

The Top Quarter

The top section of the qualifying draw for Shanghai is something of an all-Asian affair, early on at least as Tian Pengfei opens up his campaign with a tie against Thai player Dechawat Poomjaeng. Having played in the competition last year as a wildcard and made it through to the final qualifying round of the Australian Open qualifiers last month, Tian will be the favourite to come through though Dechawat has already defeated John Higgins during his fledgling professional career so should not be underestimated.

The more experienced Liu Song awaits in the second qualifying round while Tony Drago is a player in need of a win in order to boost his chances of remaining inside the world’s top 48 players at the next seedings cut-off. While he did lose a couple of narrow frames on the black during the recent World Cup tournament, at times Tony looked to be in fine form and will be hoping to end a recent mini-slump in the ranking event competitions.

Favourite to progress to the venue and a clash with defending champion Ali Carter however will be Mark King, a player who has spent much of his time recently up inside the top 16 and despite losing that status has played some strong snooker over the past 18 months. That said, since returning to the qualifiers Mark has lost two of his three last 48 matches including a 5-0 defeat to the in-form David Gilbert at the Australian Open qualifiers.

Section two begins with a clash between Simon Bedford and talented Welsh youngster Michael White, both of whom will be looking to bounce back from opening round defeats in the Australian Open to kickstart their 2011/12 campaigns. Of the two Michael is likely to be the heavier scorer but with wins against Ryan Day and Robert Milkins already this season Simon is also capable.

The winner goes on to meet Alfie Burden who having made a strong return to the tour in the first half of last season has found the going tougher in recent months, losing his last three opening round matches in ranking event competition. Fergal O’Brien awaits in the next round, a player who despite his patchy performances at the recent World Cup has otherwise been in reasonable form and risen to 34 in my projected seedings list as a result.

For whoever comes through this section a match with former Shanghai champion Ricky Walden will stand in the way of them and a seat on the plane to the venue stage. Ricky however is not in such a rich vein of form at the moment having lost his opening two matches of this campaign as well as his top 16 place at the end of 2010/11 following his disappointing defeat to Rory McLeod at the Crucible. As a result this could well be one of the more open sections in the draw and I suspect that Fergal in particular will fancy his chances of another place at a venue.

Kicking off the third path will be James Wattana and Matt Couch who meet in a re-match of their opening round match at the Australian Open which was eventually won by Matt following a deciding frame. If that match is anything to go by then it could well be another tight match this week. Elsewhere the section continues to be housed with veteran players, namely Andy Hicks, Dave Harold and Joe Perry who will be hoping to set up a clash with Ronnie O’Sullivan at the venue.

After an excellent campaign in 2008/9 Andy has struggled during subsequent seasons and if he is to meet Wattana in particular will have bad memories having lost to the Thai player 10-2 at last season’s World Championship qualifiers. Dave Harold meanwhile is also short on wins in recent months, though was unfortunate to be paired with in-form David Gilbert recently in Australia who he took to a ninth and deciding frame.

Joe Perry though has to be the form player here having reached the final of the PTC1 event as well as having qualified for the Australian Open before just coming up short against Mark Selby. He could take some stopping here.

Finally in this quarter comes another section housing a wealth of experience with Bjorn Haneveer, Alan McManus, Anthony Hamilton and Australian Open semi-finalist Ken Doherty lurking. Bjorn will begin his campaign with a match against either Lucky Vatnani and David Hogan who (assuming that Lucky has managed to secure a visa), meet in one of Sunday’s two preliminary matches.

Whoever comes through from the three will meet Scot Alan McManus whose gradual slide down the rankings over the past five or six years has continued with his exit from the top 48 at the end of last season. Perhaps though this could be his chance to get some important points on the board as having opted out of Australia citing neck problems which presumably must have affected him during his PTC1 loss to Luca Brecel, Anthony Hamilton will do well to bring his A-game to this particular tournament.

And what of Ken Doherty, a semi-finalist in Australia last week but a player who by his own admission is not as consistent as he once was and has otherwise struggled for results during 2011? All things being equal I think he is the big favourite to come through this section but if someone like Anthony or Alan can bring a bit of form to Sheffield then you know that they have the experience to be able to come through.

The Second Quarter

Next up, Paul Davison opens up against China’s Li Yan, the latter having made a respectable start to his professional career with wins against Kacper Filipiak and Alan McManus in qualifying for Australia as well as Mark Williams at PTC1. Paul too has been in good form of late, winning matches in four of his last five ranking tournaments.

The winner will meet China’s Liu Chuang, an improving player who will be hoping to get back to winning ways following an opening round loss to Andrew Norman at the last tournament. A player who is highly rated by his peers, I fancy Liu to make a push for the top 48 at some stage this season and it will be interesting see how he gets on here.

Elsewhere here lurk Jamie Burnett and Dominic Dale, two experienced players who both have every chance of making it through to the venue, notwithstanding Dominic’s excellent run in Australia. Dominic will be the favourite on account of his ranking and his form but again this is another section that I think is wide open.

Opening section six are Grimsby’s tour newcomer Stuart Carrington and India’s Aditya Mehta in what is a tough match to call, Aditya’s greater experience at this level perhaps making him slight favourite. Rod Lawler awaits the winner as he looks to gain some crucial ranking points with his top 64 place very much in jeopardy at the next cut-off, while new On-Q Promotions signing Jamie Jones will be looking to reproduce some of his excellent PTC form at one of the full ranking events in the next round.

The seeded player here is another Welshman as Ryan Day looks to win his seventh consecutive qualifying match since losing out to Andrew Higginson in qualifying for this tournament a year ago. I don’t think that he is quite back to where he was a couple of seasons ago but he is certainly going in the right direction and I think that he will be a strong favourite to progress here once again.

Another Welshman involved this week is Dan Wells and he begins his tournament against Leeds amateur David Grace who you may have seen featured over at World Snooker as their Player of the Month recently. Whoever can come through this will meet another talented youngster Jack Lisowski who will be looking to build on an impressive first season with a run to a first venue of 2011/12 in Shanghai. Jack has been under the weather with a cold recently but will hopefully be firing on all cylinders by the time this match comes around.

The same can be said for potential opponent Mike Dunn who has revealed on Twitter that he too is currently struggling for fitness having been laid low with a virus during the past week. Hoping to take advantage of the walking wounded will be Marco Fu who like Ryan Day is a strong player at the qualifiers and looked to be in good form in helping Hong Kong progress to the World Cup semi-finals despite having opted out of the season-opening Australian Open.

Very much present during the Australian Open qualifiers however was Scotland’s Scott MacKenzie who won three matches to make it through to the final qualifying round before coming unstuck against Ken Doherty. Best remembered for his 9-0 win against Michael Holt at the UK Championship a few years back, Scott opens up here against Adam Wicheard who will be hoping to kickstart his season having lost his Australian opener to Andrew Pagett.

From there however the section is another with years of experience as former world finalists Jimmy White and Nigel Bond lie ahead while Marcus Campbell will be hoping to make yet another venue having not missed out on one now since the German Open at the start of the year. Having won his first professional title last season during the PTC season Marcus has certainly grasped the opportunity presented to him with both hands and must be riding on a wave of confidence at the Academy.

The Third Quarter

Onto the third quarter of the draw and we begin with a match between Finland’s Robin Hull and World Championship qualifier Andrew Pagett, both players having won their openers in qualifying for Australia before coming unstuck in the second round.

Whoever can do so again will meet Leeds’ veteran Peter Lines before potentially coming up against Norwich’s Barry Pinches in the last 64 if they can make it past him. The seeded player here meanwhile is Andrew Higginson who having made it to Australia with a 5-4 win against Jamie Burnett having at one stage led 4-0, will be hoping for a more comfortable passage through this time around.

Next up is a pathway containing three players managed by On Q Promotions as well as another who practises at their impressive South West Snooker Academy in Gloucester. Opening up are Andrew Norman and Polish talent Kacper Filipiak who impressed so many during the recent World Cup. With ranking points at stake however then it will be interesting to see how Kacper gets on here, though still aged just 15 it is natural that it will be a big learning curve for the youngster.

Awaiting the winner is Joe Swail, a player who aside from an improved run in Berlin last season has struggled for form during recent times, at one stage losing four consecutive matches last season with the result that at one stage his tour status was left in jeopardy. While he was able to secure that with his run in Germany, I have him down in 59th on my projected seedings list at present which leaves him precariously placed at this stage of the season.

Elsewhere in this section are Robert Milkins and Gerard Greene, two evenly matched players each capable of making it to the venue if their game is in the right place at the moment and who I would find it hard to separate.

One of the most interesting sections for me meanwhile is the next which begins on Sunday with a preliminary round between Luca Brecel and Adam Duffy, a repeat of their clash at the PTC3 event last season which was won 4-2 by Adam. A tie with Passakorn Suwannawat beckons for the winner before a meeting with the improving Jimmy Robertson who of course made it through to the Crucible back in April.

From there however come Steve Davis, a man in desperate need of results if he is to boost his chances of remaining in the top 48 after the first mid-season seedings revision, while the man who so comprehensively defeated him during this season’s World Championship Stephen Lee awaits in the final qualifying round.

Possibly the standout section for me however is the next which begins with a clash between Sam Baird and Yu Delu with a match against the out of form Ian McCulloch in prospect for the winner. That said, while he lost out to Ben Woollaston in qualifying for Australia, breaks of 101 and 141 as he looked to stage a comeback demonstrate that the ability is still there, if perhaps not the confidence at the moment.

From there however it really gets interesting as Australian Open quarter-finalist Matt Selt enters the fray ahead of the rapidly improving Martin Gould in what could be a mouthwatering last 48 match if it does come to pass. Sam, Yu and Ian will be hoping that it does not.

The Bottom Quarter

While the previous section could lead to the most eye-catching match of the last 48 stage, the next could see the best opening round tie as Kurt Maflin meets young Sam Craigie in what will be a real test for the younger of the Craigie brothers. It remains to be seen whether he is yet capable of hanging on to a player capable as scoring as heavily and as consistently as Kurt has demonstrated at times during the past six months but victories against David Grace and Liu Song at the last tournament will have given his confidence a boost.

For the victor awaits a clash with Joe Jogia, now back into the second qualifying round following his temporary elevation to the next seeding bracket in Australia, while Mark Joyce and Liang Wenbo make up the remainder of this section. Having struggled badly for any sort of form last season Liang has shown signs of improvement recently, winning the revived World Cup alongside Ding Junhui as well as reaching the last 16 out in Bendigo. Will he continue his resurgence here?

Next up come Cao Yupeng and Joe Meara, arguably the two players on the tour who I know least about which makes it hard for me to call a winner. Awaiting the winner will be the talented and heavy scoring Chinese player Xiao Guodong who began the season with an impressive run through to the quarter-finals of the PTC1 event before losing a tight match to Liam Highfield in qualifying for Australia.

If Xiao can make it through his opener then he will meet Michael Holt in the last 64 ahead of a match with On Q’s Barry Hawkins, generally a strong qualifier despite his dramatic late-night defeat to Nigel Bond at the last event.

The penultimate section of the draw meanwhile sees the man mentioned so many times already as one of the in-form players, David Gilbert, as he looks to continue his rise back up the rankings and into the top 64 where I imagine many will believe that he belongs. The unfortunate man to have drawn him first up is Ben Woollaston, the recently-married Leicester pro who performed impressively during the Australian Open qualifiers to reach the final qualifying round.

The winner will meet young Scot Anthony McGill in the next round, Anthony on something of a losing streak at the moment after a strong start to his professional career last season. That said there was little that he could have done at the last tournament having seen opponent Tian Pengfei fire in three century breaks before the interval while his draw here is again tough. Tough draws or not however, pressure will be building as he looks to consolidate his position inside the top 64.

From there the draw does not get any easier as the excellent Tom Ford awaits the winner while the man who brought Tom’s Australian Open campaign to an abrupt end with a 5-0 win enters the fray at the final qualifying round. Yes Stuart Bingham comes into the fray at the last 48 in what I suspect might be his last qualification match for the forseeable future assuming that he can build upon his breakthrough in Bendigo and establish himself as a top 16 player.

Last but not least we have the 16th and final pathway which begins with an intriguing match-up between Liam Highfield and Ireland’s David Morris, while veterans Adrian Gunnell, Rory McLeod and Mark Davis lie ahead. If Rory can make it through to face Mark again then Davis will be hoping for better than he was able to produce during their World Championship qualifier back in March which was won 10-5 by Rory.