This is the 39th staging of the Masters and the tournament has aged well judging by the first day’s play yesterday.
I’d better start by saying something nice about Neil Robertson as he reads the blog and took exception to me calling him a grinder in a match in which he was grinding earlier in the season.
Robertson trailed Ding Junhui 5-3 and would surely have lost 6-4 had Ding got on a red from a split in frame ten. He didn’t and Robertson launched a gutsy comeback, eventually winning the decider in a single visit from Ding’s break-off in the decider.
This was snooker of the very highest quality, an exciting match played in front of a near capacity Ally Pally crown.
What struck me was how broad an audience it was, encompassing all ages and backgrounds. In a way, this is snooker’s problem. Its audience is so broad that sponsors find it hard to target any particular social group, unlike in sports regarded as more middle class like golf and tennis.
This is why Judd Trump and others are wrong to say the snooker audience should become more like those at darts. If snooker is to attract the prize money levels Trump wants then going downmarket is entirely the wrong strategy. Blue chip companies want to appeal to crowds they feel have money to spend, namely on their products. Football began to attract these companies when it started catering to the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ as Roy Keane famously once put it.
Also, it’s a fallacy to suggest that because the crowd is silent that they aren’t involved in the match. Quite the opposite is true: they are silent precisely because they are involved in it.
I was watching the wrapt faces yesterday as they hung on every ball of the Robertson-Ding match. Their silence helped add to the tension and drama, not detract from it. There were a number of kids in the audience plus plenty of people in their 20s, the very people we are told time and again that don’t like snooker.
The sport suffers from great prejudice and misrepresentation but anyone at the Masters yesterday can see it is in very good health.
So to today...
JOHN HIGGINS v ALI CARTER
Higgins and Carter were the respective winners of the two groups of Championship League snooker last week and they both played very nicely indeed.
But the Ally Pally is of course a different setting to Crondon Park and it’s a case of reproducing that form on a much bigger stage.
Higgins has a poor record in a tournament he has nevertheless won twice. In 18 previous Masters appearances he has lost ten times in the first round.
Why is this? Some players don’t settle in a particular venue. This though is a relatively new home for the Masters and Higgins reached the semi-finals a year ago.
Carter has only beaten him twice and though he is playing well, Higgins on form is so tough to beat.
PREDICTION: Higgins to win 6-3
STEPHEN MAGUIRE v GRAEME DOTT
Everyone is waiting for Maguire to win another big title. Most would agree that he’s too good for it not to happen soon.
He knows Dott well and he also knows that the former world champion returned to some sort of form by reaching the last European Tour final in Germany.
But Dott’s general form has not been good for the last year and he was deeply disappointed by how things were going when he exited the UK Championship last month.
There won’t be any quarter given here between these two competitive Scots, hardened match players both. But Maguire has to start favourite.
PREDICTION: Maguire to win 6-2