The Masters So Far…

Two days down at the 2014 Masters and already we have been treated to comebacks, deciders, a re-spotted black and an upset, as the world’s best battle it out to win snooker’s biggest invitational tournament.

Click below for a few thoughts on the action so far, including the question of Mark Selby was last at his best, a moan about earpieces and more…

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As defending champion Mark Selby opened the tournament yesterday afternoon, with a last 16 match against Mark Davis, few were tipping an upset, particularly after Selby led 4-0 and 5-2 early in the match.

It was not to be that straightforward for the Leicester man however, as Mark Davis began to capitalise on some surprising misses, compiling a total clearance of 136 as he levelled the scores at 5-5, to force a decider.

Selby though was not to be denied, gaining the upper hand in what proved to be a cagey, 54 minute final frame, to avoid a repeat of his early exit to Mark King back in 2011.

Following his recent reverse at the UK Championship against Neil Robertson, having held a commanding advantage early in the match, there were fans on Twitter anxious of a repeat and whether that was in the back of Selby’s mind or not, he will have been relieved to have escaped with his place in the tournament safe for another round at least.

Davis meanwhile should be proud of his fight-back, particularly against a player as resilient as Selby, who even when not at his best, is capable of mixing it with the best. Which in itself reminds me of a point made by John Parrott in the studio yesterday, namely that Selby has not been at his ‘best’ for quite a while now.

It begs the question as to when Selby last did play to his best, for a sustained period of time, indeed when I interviewed him back in November 2012, he spoke of struggling at that time and though he subsequently went on to capture the UK and Masters titles last season, the general consensus was that he was not at his free-flowing best at either tournament.

While that might sound like it is a criticism, it is quite the opposite and a tribute to his ‘b-game’ and granite-like qualities that he has been able to capture two of snooker’s biggest tournaments and remain the world’s second highest ranked player, without arguably being at his best.

But to emulate Neil Robertson in completing snooker’s ‘triple crown’ this year, will Selby need to raise his game at the Crucible come April? One would surely think so, but I wouldn’t bet against him doing that.

Elsewhere during their match, there was also an incident involving faulty earpieces purchased by some spectators in the crowd, which necessitated a delay after the first couple of frames as replacements were handed out.

As someone who is easily irritated by overly loud earpieces and joke induced laughter on key balls at the best of times, I found the need to delays the frames to be somewhat unfortunate, but on reflection if they were causing further noise to be heard in the arena as reported here, then perhaps there was little alternative but to take immediate action, rather than wait until the mid-session interval after four frames.

The other cause for irritation during the match of course came at the start of the decider, as the BBC decided to move to Ski Sunday, a decision which drew the ire of some, yet left others unaffected, as they pointed to the widespread availability of the red button.

The problem with the red button however is that this is not in HD, unlike Eurosport, and while that may seem like a petty quibble, it is perhaps the fact that the BBC has in the recent past stayed with other sports such as the tennis and even the BDO darts last week, yet would not with snooker, which grates.

While snooker certainly could not do without the BBC and it does far more good things for the sport than bad, it was still a disappointing choice and indicative of how snooker is seen by the tournament’s host broadcaster.

But enough moaning…

While Selby avoided a deciding frame exit, the same could not be said for former world number one Judd Trump, who was edged out by Marco Fu in an eleventh frame shoot out.

Having struggled for results in 2013, few could be forgiven for thinking that it was a poor performance from Judd, but judging by what I have read (sadly I was at work for this one), that was not the case, with two centuries not enough to see off his in-form opponent.

Every credit to Marco however, a tournament high break of 138, together with a composed break of 78 in the decider following a miss on a tricky black from Judd, helping him to defy what was a surprisingly one-sided head to head record to move into the quarter-finals.

In the other two matches played so far, there were victories for the Scots, as John Higgins and Stephen Maguire both progressed, at the expense of Stuart Bingham and Joe Perry respectively.

For me, the match between Higgins and Bingham was an interesting one to call beforehand, as in terms of reputation and achievement, John clearly holds the upper hand, but looking at form, not just during the past few months, but arguably years, I found it almost disrespectful to Stuart’s achievements not to make him favourite.

It was though to be the former who would come through, visibly gaining in confidence as the match progressed, while Stuart did not look comfortable throughout. While some are quick to write off the Scot’s chances, I feel that Higgins at his best remains the most complete player in the game, but it is just whether he still has the desire to produce when it really matters.

While one match does not prove anything either way, I find it hard to believe that he is done winning major tournaments just yet…

As for his compatriot Maguire, he produced perhaps the performance of the tournament so far to see off Joe Perry this evening, an opening frame century break, setting the tone for an excellent performance, notwithstanding a late rally from his opponent.

Though he could not kill it off perhaps as early as he would have liked, Stephen would no doubt have been relieved to have avoided a decider and on that evidence, will give either Neil Robertson or Mark Allen a close match in the next round.

Of particular note from his performance were a number of plant shots, an eye-catching six-ball plant perhaps one of the most spectacular that I have seen. For me Stephen Hendry was always one of the best at those sort of shots, but on that evidence perhaps it is Maguire who has taken over that particular mantle.

All in all then, it has been an entertaining start to the event and one that promises more drama tomorrow, as ding Junhui takes on 2012 finalist Shaun Murphy, while Ronnie O’Sullivan gets his campaign underway with a match against debutant Robert Milkins, before what should be a capacity crowd at the Alexandra Palace…