Stephen Hendry beat Neil Robertson at the Welsh Open, his best result against a top 16 player for some time, but Hendry then fell cheaply to a 4-0 defeat to Mark Allen.

Such inconsistency has plagued him of late but I have been impressed by his attitude at the qualifiers.

Since dropping out of the top 16 last year Hendry has only once failed to qualify for a tournament (the German Masters).

The ultimate seen-it-all, done-it-all player, he could be forgiven for feeling thoroughly fed up in having to pitch up at the soulless qualifying environment after years in the big arenas.

In fact, Hendry has just got on with it and has got the results he has been looking for even if the performances haven't been vintage.

In this leap year it has been a leap into the unknown for Hendry but he has kept the faith. He still believes. This is half the battle in this game.

Robertson has lost early in his two events since winning the Masters and had a very poor record in China until he reached the Shanghai Masters semi-finals earlier this season. Frankly, though, he didn't do much wrong against an inspired Hendry in Newport.

The big shock yesterday was Ding Junhui's 5-1 defeat to Jin Long.

I wonder if Ding feels under more pressure when playing a fellow Chinese, as if he feels he is top dog and has to try harder to prove it.

Who knows? Snooker players are bedevilled by doubts and neuroses. This makes them no different to anyone else, the only difference being the rest of us don't have them so publically exposed.

Ding is the standard bearer of the Chinese snooker revolution but one day there will be a coup and he will be replaced.

Perhaps it will be by Lu Ning, the 18 year-old who beat Nigel Bond in the wildcard round and who now plays Mark Selby today.

What many people don't realise is the extent of the demands on Ding when he returns to China.

He is earning a good living as a snooker player and personal appearances, media interviews and dates for sponsors are all part of that...but his time is rarely his own in a way UK players don't have to deal with.

Finally some good news. Following my rant about scheduling on Sunday the China Open format reveals there will indeed be two first round matches played on the opening day in Beijing, the day traditionally set aside for wildcards.

I'm not saying I had anything to do with this but it is good news for the tournament: launching with top players and providing broadcasters with matches of interest.



Marco Fu. Now there’s a player who is hard to read.

When he plays well he gets into such a nice rhythm that he is unstoppable. He’s won a ranking title, been UK Championship and Masters runner-up and a semi-finalist at the World Championship.

But when he struggles he really struggles. Fu has a good record against several top players – including John Higgins, his opponent in the Haikou World Open today – but he has also lost matches where he appeared nailed on.

Marco is one of snooker’s true gents, a player without any malice or self importance. He of course made a 147 in qualifying for the World Open but form doesn’t seem to matter with him. He could conceivably beat Higgins comfortably or slump to a disappointing defeat.

Higgins himself has not enjoyed the best of seasons. Victory over Ding Junhui at the Welsh Open could have turned his campaign around but he missed a tough pink en route to winning 4-2 and was beaten 4-3 by the eventual champion.

Ding today plays Jin Long after his fellow Chinese beat Sam Baird in the increasingly controversial wildcard round yesterday.

Baird was one of two qualifiers to lose, the other being Nigel Bond, with a couple of other matches being a little too close for comfort.

The big guns finally start firing today and Judd Trump will doubtless draw a large crowd. It was in China last year that he broke through as a major force and since winning the UK Championship he has appeared in a semi-final, two quarter-finals and got himself up to a career best third in the world rankings.

I hope the creaking floor at the venue isn’t as annoying for the players as it is for TV viewers. The noise made the vuvuzelas at the 2010 World Cup look like a lot of fuss about nothing.

But all this is a mere sideshow as we descend into an orgy of self-congratulation with the news that this blog has come fourth in a list of the UK’s top ten general (non-football) sports blogs by Cision, a media research body. The placings are decided according to the “influence” each blog carries.

Ah, fourth. Who wants a place on the medal podium anyway? If I were a Premier League team I’d be heading for Europe now despite finishing 17 points behind the champions.

Well, like Meryl Streep at the Academy Awards, I shall attempt humility, not least because I have seen very few signs of this apparent ‘influence’ even though I’m sure that, right now, Barry Hearn is pouring over every word.

If he is, please have someone look at that floor, Barry. It sounds like it might give way at any moment.



In the space of just a few weeks Sam Baird has experienced the highs and lows of the rollercoaster ride that is life as a professional snooker player.

Baird won four matches to qualify for the final stages of the Haikou World Open and plays Jin Long in the wildcard round tomorrow.

He then qualified for the Welsh Open where he needed blue and pink to defy a gap of more than 80 places in the world rankings and beat world no.1 Mark Selby 4-2 in Newport.

But he missed the blue, lost the frame and lost the match 4-3. Worse still, Selby came within three frames of winning the title.

This was one that got away but every snooker player has a similar tale to tell and Baird is just getting going.

I hope he has taken the positives with him on the long journey to Hainan. Maybe there was still residual disappointment in his mind when he played in the China Open qualifiers last week and lost in the opening round, 5-0 to Tian Pengfei.

It is a learning process. In sport you can feel on top of the world, super confident, one day and down in the pits of despair the next.

In most jobs, you know when you’ve had a good day or not but in the extremes of sport it’s either public acclaim or humiliation heading your way.

All players have setbacks early in their careers.

Stephen Hendry’s first match in the UK Championship ended in a 9-2 defeat to O. B Agrawal.

Terry Griffiths lost 9-8 from 8-2 up to Rex Williams in his first professional match.

More recently, Ding Junhui and Judd Trump experienced several frustrating reverses in the qualifiers before breaking through in style.

Baird is enjoying his first jaunt to foreign climes with the pro snooker circuit. I commentated on his final qualifying round win over Mark Davis, in which he recovered from 3-0 down to win 5-4.

At no point when he went behind and Davis dominated did Baird’s head drop, which was a good sign.

If he beats Jin Long tomorrow he will play Ding on home soil, which is sure to be a memorable occasion. Hopefully one of many to come for Sam Baird.



It takes a long time to get from the UK to Hainan for the Haikou World Open and, for that matter, a long time to get back again but this doesn't matter so much if you come home with the £75,000 first prize.

This tournament seems to be being treated as a brand new event. I vaguely recall it was actually staged last season and won by Neil Robertson, who is nevertheless not being regarded as defending champion.

Of course, the format was different in 2010/11: best of fives up until the final, which was best of nine.

Given the trek to get there, this would surely have been too short a length of match and so the World Open has now fallen into the accepted format for ranking tournaments in China: best of nines up until the best of 11 semis with a best of 19 final.

I have no problem with any of that, unlike the wildcard round which seems to go against everything Barry Hearn believes.

He has stated - correctly - that sport should be a meritocracy. Those who have qualified for the World Open have done so on merit, so to have to play unknown and likely very dangerous local invites is a slap in the face.

The one caveat to this is that Hainan is a new area for snooker (outside the invitation event won last year by John Higgins) and support has to be built up.

However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of wildcards it is a spectacularly bad decision to play them all on the same day, as is happening on Monday.

Shortly after Hearn's ascension to the reins of power, and recognising his genuine efforts to build bridges with the media, myself and a colleague met with a World Snooker representative to discuss a few ideas for improvements in how tournaments are run, with particular regard to formats.

One thing we impressed on them was the need to hit the ground running: to start events with star names.

Not all TV viewers follow the intricacies of the circuit. If you tune into a tournament on day one and don't recognise any of the players you could be forgiven for believing it isn't a major event at all and therefore not watch a single further minute all week.

Television is the sport's shop window. The top players are its star attractions.

At least two last 32 matches should be played on Monday to provide pulling power for broadcasters. This could easily be done, indeed was at last season's China Open following our suggestion, but was forgotten at the Shanghai Masters and has been forgotten again this week.

The knock-on effect is that the last 32 is concertinaed into two days and well known faces are thus forced to play on outside tables.

Sorry, but this isn't good enough. I will support any new event, evangelise the sport in the face of any doubter and fully support Hearn in his attempts to globalise the game, but more thought needs to go into scheduling.

Put simply: why should a top player, who has climbed the rankings through the force of their own hard work and hard won results, schlep all the way to Hainan Island and play a match in a cubicle which nobody back home will see while an invited player enjoys full TV exposure in a match which, pride aside, means nothing to them?

There is TV and streaming coverage on Monday but the World Open starts properly on Tuesday with the last 32: a seven day tournament which lasts six days.

There is, of course, not actually a full field. Ali Carter and Ronnie O'Sullivan have withdrawn, affording byes to Marcus Campbell and Tom Ford respectively.

Otherwise it's the usual faces and the winner will most probably come from the group of ten or so players who are the main candidates for any big title.



Next season’s Premier League will feature ten players split into two groups of five.

The players have been chosen based on this season’s major events.

So far the field features:
Ronnie O’Sullivan (defending champion)
Judd Trump (UK champion)
Neil Robertson (Masters champion)
Stuart Bingham (Australian Open champion)
Mark Selby (Shanghai Masters champion)

They will be joined by the winners of the World Championship, World Open, PTC finals, China Open and the Championship League, the Premier League’s qualifying event.

If any of these are won by players already qualified then the field will be filled up by invited players (presumably Ding Juhhui, the Welsh Open champion, is leading this list).

All this is good news for Bingham, who will make his Premier League debut later this year, a rightful reward for winning a ranking title.

Selby, who missed out this season despite being world no.1, also returns to the competition.

The league reverts to a six frame format after this season’s experiment with semi-finals and finals each evening which was not, in fact, a league at all.

The top two players in each group will advance to the semi-finals, which will be played on November 24 and 25.



When Ali Carter tweeted that he was considering retirement after losing in this season’s UK Championship his words were treated with widespread scepticism, the kneejerk response of a player disappointed by defeat and frustrated with the vagaries of form.

However, Carter has withdrawn from next week’s World Open and ongoing issues with Crohn’s disease raise a question mark over his professional future.

Ali has fought this condition largely in private, never using it as an excuse for poor results. He has played in tournaments even when not feeling fit.

He told The Times recently of how Crohn’s disease affects him: “When things are really bad you can be curled up on your bed, in excruciating pain, with stomach cramps and spasms.

“I have felt like that out in the arena and all you can do is suffer it. Your stomach bloats and it has been so bad that it was hard to bend down over the table. You take painkillers but then you feel washed out.”

Carter has been one of snooker’s more industrious players, not relying solely on his playing career for income and future security.

He owns a snooker club, has invested in property and is a qualified pilot.

Results have dried up of late and he has a big chunk of points to come off after the World Championship having reached the semi-finals at the Crucible two years ago, which means his top 16 place is under threat.

It would be very disappointing to lose a talent such as Carter from the game but he has to decide what is best for him and his family.

His plight is a reminder that players are not commodities but human beings with human frailties which can and do intrude on their professional lives.



We now have the top 16 seedings in place for the Betfred.com World Championship, which means the draw is taking shape.

If the top 16 all come through the first round then the last 16 will look like this:

John Higgins v Stuart Bingham
Stephen Maguire v Graeme Dott
Shaun Murphy v Stephen Lee
Judd Trump v Ali Carter
Mark Williams v Ronnie O’Sullivan
Neil Robertson v Martin Gould
Ding Junhui v Mark Allen
Mark Selby v Matthew Stevens

What do you make of that lot, then?

Of course there is no way of knowing who will play who in the first round but some early predictions can be made about how the Crucible marathon will pan out.

The last player to defend the world title was Stephen Hendry in 1996 but Higgins could have had a worse draw.

Trump could meet him in the semi-finals, although former champions Dott and Murphy could be dangermen in the top half.

Williams won’t be best pleased with a likely second round meeting with O’Sullivan bearing in mind it’s ten years and counting since he beat him in a ranking event.

Robertson v Gould would of course be a rematch of their second round tie from two years ago when the Aussie recovered from 11-5 down to win 13-12.

The bottom quarter looks particularly tough. Ding v Allen would be a cracker and Selby could face the Chinese no.1 in the quarter-finals for a second successive year.

It’s early days yet but the qualifying draw is being made today and the final stages begin two months tomorrow.

The greatest snooker show on earth isn’t that far away.


The first snooker table Ding Junhui played on was out in the street where he grew up. His father and his friends would have games on it and young Ding one day had a go himself.

Some sort of talent was spotted and he spent his youth travelling round China getting the best coaching.

Clearly promising, at 14 he was invited to play in the China Open as a wildcard. He was beaten 5-2 by Mark Selby, who remarked afterwards that we would most likely be seeing him again.

Well, the boy prodigy is now a man and has become a great player, as he proved again in beating Selby 9-6 to win the Welsh Open title in Newport tonight.

Ding led 5-3 and from 6-5 made back-to-back centuries. Selby countered with a 145 total clearance, the highest break of the tournament, but Ding held on in a nervy final frame to secure his fifth world ranking title.

He has done it the hard way. His opponents in his five successful ranking finals have been Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and now Selby.

Ding is one of the best break-builders around. He has an almost innate knowledge of how to manoeuvre the cue ball, where to leave it, how to dominate frames.

He is still only 24. Last season he came very close to reaching the world final and will be a major threat at the Crucible again this year.

Ding is also a young man a long way from home. The demands of the season dictate that he must spend large portions of time in the UK, but he naturally likes to get back to China as often as he can.

He seems settled now, though. He has a girlfriend, Apple, and as he proved in his post match interview can speak better English than is widely believed.

This season had not been that special for him until tonight but there is plenty more snooker to come and Ding has proved again that he belongs in that elite group of players who will threaten for any title he contests.



Today’s 888 Welsh Open final features two players who could easily have been beaten before now.

But for John Higgins missing a pink with the rest and Stephen Lee failing to pot a green after being disturbed by a mobile phone, Ding Junhui could have departed Newport earlier in the week.

And it seems like a long time since Sam Baird had blue and pink to beat Mark Selby 4-2 in the first round.

Ding played well against Shaun Murphy, who struggled to reproduce the form that had got him to the semi-finals.

It is Ding’s first full ranking final since the 2010 China Open. After a relatively unproductive 2011/12 campaign this is more like it from the Chinese no.1.

Selby’s win over Ronnie O’Sullivan last night was hard earned in a match low in quality though high in commitment.

Mark Williams summed it up best on Twitter when he said that, for whatever reason, Selby seems to get under O’Sullivan’s skin.

This was not the confident, flowing Ronnie we saw against Judd Trump. He was clearly edgy from the first frame onwards and never really found his best game.

However, he was disciplined throughout. He played the right way but just couldn’t get going.

According to reports in today's newspapers, O’Sullivan had placed an edge of pressure on himself before the match by making a few derogatory comments about Selby, to the effect that he didn’t want to play him because he is so slow, which Selby answered in kind with a few comments of his own.

But he didn’t lose because Selby slowed it down. O’Sullivan failed to pot a ball in the opening frame and barely improved. It was just one of those nights for him.

Selby certainly enjoyed the better running but also potted a greater percentage of pressure balls. Ultimately winning is the objective for any player.

The final seems likely to be close. Ding beat Selby in their last major meeting at the Crucible last season and his safety game was excellent in that match, as it will have to be today.

Selby started the season well but tailed off. Ding has done little of note. They have both come good this week and let’s hope they give us a final to remember.



Ronnie O’Sullivan v Mark Selby is a snooker rivalry to stand with the best of them because it features contrasting styles and personalities.

O’Sullivan is fast, Selby more methodical. O’Sullivan wears his heart on his sleeve, Selby usually keeps his emotions inside.

But they are both great talents and their Welsh Open semi-final tonight is one to relish. It was here at Newport four years ago that Selby won the last four frames to beat O’Sullivan 9-8 and win the title.

O’Sullivan was very impressive in beating Judd Trump 5-3. He has now moved exactly 100 centuries behind Stephen Hendry on the all time list.

Anyone who still doesn’t understand why Selby is world no.1 should rewatch the last two frames of his match against Stephen Maguire.

It was a lesson in attitude, guts and brinkmanship. Selby should have gone out in the first round but he is still here, just as O’Sullivan survived to the last ball in Germany after his great last 32 escape with Andrew Higginson.

First up is Shaun Murphy v Ding Junhui. Ding’s 5-4 quarter-final victory over Stephen Lee last night ended in horrible fashion when a mobile phone went off just as Lee was down on the green with a chance to win.

There’s no evidence that this was deliberate but it was appalling for Lee who was understandably livid.

Spectators are told to turn their phones off by the MC before the match but I remember saying on commentary at the World Championship two years ago that the audience should be reminded by the referee after the interval as well because, quite obviously, they will switch their phones back on during this 15 minute break.

Murphy won the last two frames to beat Mark Allen 5-4. Allen gamely played on for three snookers in the decider and got two of them.

The skill on show here, coupled with the sporting atmosphere in which it was played, made this one of the best frames of the tournament.



Quarter-finals day at the 888 Welsh Open and the field is, as usual, full of familiar faces and brimming with quality.

The stand-out match pits Judd Trump against Ronnie O’Sullivan once again.

After victories over O’Sullivan in the UK Championship and Masters, Trump has every reason to be confident but Ronnie is back in form and seems relaxed and composed.

Trump has gained much of O’Sullivan’s popularity but it will take him a long time to emulate all of his achievements.

These two are audaciously talented snooker players. Let’s hope they serve up another entertaining match – although it’s a shame that people who work during the day always have to miss out because they are scheduled for the BBC’s main afternoon programme.

Shaun Murphy, who plays Mark Allen, has appeared in the quarter-finals at least of all of this season’s five major ranking events plus the Masters.

This is an admirable record of consistency in the business end of the game’s biggest tournaments but has yet to yield a trophy (though he did win the inaugural Brazilian Masters).

Allen is yet to lose a frame, indeed the Northern Irishman has already seen off two former world champions.

Stephen Hendry seemed to be contorted in pain for most of yesterday’s match, certainly after he lost the second frame to Allen’s snooker, free ball and steely clearance.

Allen spends most of his time between matches watching the American drama series 24. Providing his highest break is a lot more than this today then he has every chance of maintaining his impressive recent run of results.

Tonight, Stephen Lee tackles Ding Junhui. Lee started superbly against Tom Ford yesterday, making 129 in the opener, missing the pink with a chance for the highest break, but the match got bogged down thereafter.

Speaking of which, Mark Selby meets Stephen Maguire again in Newport a year after their drawn out semi-final in 2011.

Maguire looks really confident right now. After he lost the 2004 British Open final he immediately won the UK Championship, playing as if he wanted to make amends.

The Scot has of course just lost in the German Masters final.



Another day of drama at Newport brought deciding frame victories for Matthew Stevens and, in the second round, Ding Junhui.

Stevens’s match against Barry Hawkins was of a superb quality. Indeed, Hawkins did very little wrong but his defeat was illustrative of the standard at the top level.

Ding’s victory over John Higgins was more dramatic. Ding led 2-0 but trailed 3-2 and missed a black off its spot in the next when well poised for 3-3.

Higgins set about completing a trademark clearance but was left with an awkward pink to a blind pocket using the rest.

He missed, left the pink and Ding made a good break to win the decider in a single visit.

It was thrilling stuff and today’s action is sure to provide more, with the opening attraction Ronnie O’Sullivan v Mark Williams: a clash of two authentic snooker legends.

I thought O’Sullivan looked relaxed – but not too relaxed – against Marco Fu who, one good clearance apart, did not put him under much pressure.

Williams struggled to put away Andy Hicks on Monday and has not beaten O’Sullivan in a ranking event for ten years.

Logic dictates this run has to end at some point but it doesn’t necessarily have to be today.

On the other table, Stephen Hendry will be looking to avoid an exit as disappointing as that of Steve Davis last night, who failed to reproduce the form of his win over Ali Carter in losing 4-0 to Shaun Murphy.

Hendry is up against Mark Allen, whose finger infection did not adversely affect his performance against Ken Doherty.

Allen was once left in tears by a defeat to Hendry at the Crucible but is playing with great confidence at the moment. Hendry will need to play as well as he did against Neil Robertson and, as Hawkins proved, even that might not be enough.

Can Mark Selby turn it on again after a few disappointing months? Selby played well to win three early season titles, including the Shanghai Masters, but has since entered something of a rut.

It’s hardly terminal. Selby is still world no.1 by some distance but it would be nice to see him playing positively against Martin Gould, who himself will surely play his usual attacking game.

Judd Trump is back in action against Stuart Bingham, who he beat in last month’s Masters.

This best of seven format is cut-throat and punishes slow starters but with 13 of the world’s top 16 making the last 16, it is once again proof that the TV environment will favour the game’s best players.

The only problem is that when the field is this good you want the matches to be longer to savour all the quality and drama available.



Not for the first time where Steve Davis led, Stephen Hendry followed.

And just as Davis turned it on to see off Ali Carter, Hendry produced an excellent performance to beat Neil Robertson 4-1 in Newport yesterday.

Hendry's concentration and focus never wavered. He produced a display reminiscent of his glory years.

He's not the sort to get carried away. This was only a first round match.

But it must have been very satisfying to once again beat a top player on television and it will give him bags of confidence ahead of the second round.

Sam Baird gave a good account of himself last night in his first appearance in the last 32 of a world ranking event but ultimately came up short against Mark Selby.

Baird, whose safety play was superb all night, needed only blue and pink to win 4-2 but missed the blue and eventually lost 4-3.

Selby was honest enough to admit he should have lost. He doesn't seem the same player since he became world no.1.

Attaining pole position is a great feat but from there the only way is down.

So to today's action at the Welsh Open. Ronnie O'Sullivan returns to action against Marco Fu just over a week after he won the German Masters.

That was a great effort for O'Sullivan so my only concern for him today would be that he does not need to be as motivated because his top 16 seeding for the World Championship is already secured.

That said, off the back of a good win he is likely to be relaxed and can go out and enjoy the match.

Fu has a good record against him but his form varies dramatically. When he's good he's golden and when he's not he really struggles.

People say O'Sullivan is hard to predict but the same applies to his opponent today.

Mark Allen has an infected finger on his cueing hand and this is obviously going to be on his mind when he plays Ken Doherty.

However, I remember Hendry breaking a bone in his arm at the 1994 World Championship and he still won it.

Much will depend on Doherty's performance. The twice Welsh Open winner hasn't done much on TV of late but perhaps the exploits of Davis and Hendry will inspire him.

What a day it is for Adam Wicheard, who appears in the last 32 of a ranking tournament for the first time in his career.

It was a day that must have seemed a long way away five years ago when he was laid up in bed, unable to walk because of treatment for a tumour on his spine.

If anyone in the tournament can attest to the fact that snooker is only a game it is Adam. Good luck to him against Stephen Maguire.

Away from the action there was sad news yesterday. Joe Zammit, who promoted snooker in Malta for many years with Richard Balani and Wilfred Sultana, died at the age of 66.

Joe and his colleagues could not have been more welcoming all the times we went to Malta. There was always a relaxed feel to their tournaments and they did great work to promote the events.

My condolences go to Joe's family and friends.



Steve Davis’s 4-3 victory over Ali Carter at Newport yesterday was not just a great win but also a great performance.

Davis finished off with a century in the decider, his second of the match. This was vintage fare from the legend, who is defying time and even logic as his career continues unabated.

From one of snooker’s best known names to a relative unknown, Sam Baird secured his last 32 place with a 4-2 defeat of Dominic Dale.

Baird looked comfortable early on and brought up 3-1 with a 136 total clearance before he inevitably began to feel a little pressure. However, Dale also made mistakes and Baird scrambled over the line in the sixth to set up a clash with Mark Selby.

So to today and another Devonian, Andy Hicks, who has slightly fallen off the radar, certainly in terms of TV appearances, takes on Mark Williams, the only Welshman to win the Welsh Open.

Andy never quite fulfilled the promise he showed by reaching the World Championship semi-finals on his Crucible debut in 1995, although he would go on to reach the same stage of the UK Championship and the Masters.

But the good thing about snooker is that you can enjoy longevity past the stage of most other sports – as Davis is proving.

Stephen Hendry can cling to this as he prepares to face Neil Robertson, one of the players of the season thus far.

Hendry is looking for a good performance on TV against a top player. He has been looking for this for some time.

Perhaps the difference between him and Davis is that Davis isn’t looking for it, but will take it if it comes.

Hendry is in a curious position right now. He is good enough to be in the world’s top 20 but not quite good enough to be in the top 16.

Four places doesn’t seem much but it is a gap that can only be breached by victories over top players.

The top 16 has now been settled in terms of personnel if not placings so the likes of Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stuart Bingham, who plays Mark King today, can relax a little.

Mark Allen has injured a finger and received treatment for it. Quite how this will affect his performance tomorrow against Ken Doherty remains to be seen but it’s hardly ideal.

I have thought for a long time that Allen will win a ranking title. He came very close at the UK Championship. Maybe someone said he ‘just needs to pull his finger out’ and there was a misunderstanding.



Mark Joyce has not done much since reaching a career first ranking tournament quarter-final at the 2010 UK Championship.

However, he has a good excuse, and it is linked directly to that run to the last eight in Telford.

Joyce celebrated with a night out with friends in Birmingham but was attacked and sustained injuries which seriously affected his form.

He is remarkably sanguine about all this, preferring not to complain but just get his head down and try to rebuild his game and confidence.

Qualifying for the Welsh Open in Newport will help this to happen but Joyce has a tough opening round tie against Shaun Murphy, who has shown good form of late by reaching the Masters final and appearing in the semi-finals of the German Masters.

When Ding Junhui played Mark Davis in this season’s UK Championship the Chinese outrageously fluked the final pink for victory in the decider.

They meet again today. Davis has enjoyed a productive campaign while Ding is still to get going. He was well below his best in Berlin but may be building up to the right time of year to be playing well: April.

There are two final qualifying round matches held over to Newport because they feature Welsh players.

Ryan Day, whose recent form has been erratic, plays Michael Holt, who seems full of confidence since winning PTC10 in November.

Dominic Dale, doubling up as a pundit for BBC Wales, faces Sam Baird, who has also qualified for the World Open.

Indeed, Baird came close to reaching the Crucible last season even though nobody could quite work out why, as an amateur, he was in the World Championship at all.

His TV experience is limited but Dale knows well that, Mark Williams aside, the Welsh have a poor record on home soil.

Judd Trump’s first match as a professional was against Fergal O’Brien, whose renowned obduracy may frustrate the UK champion.

However, Trump will know exactly what is coming, just as O’Brien knows that his young opponent will try to pot him into submission.

Sport is always interesting when there is a clash of styles. Such matches are a test: of stamina, patience and tactics. And so they should be.

John Higgins is defending champion and plays the enigmatic Liang Wenbo, a player who just two years ago was in the top 16 but who is now out of the top 32.

Higgins will be highly fancied to come through providing he himself is fully focused rather than flat, which is how has appeared at times this season.

Steve Davis will doubtless receive much support against Ali Carter, a player whose love of the game seems to have gone walkabout this season.

Carter, though, will surely relish the chance to play one of the sport’s undisputed legends.



Another week, another tournament, and the Welsh Open, sponsored by the Chinese branch of 888, is upon us.

This tournament has something going for it that most of the others we’ve already seen this season do not: a long history.

First held in 1992, it is 20 years old and has played host to some excellent snooker over these two decades, first in Newport, then in Cardiff and latterly back in Newport.

Wales has a snooker heritage which has produced several legends – Reardon, Griffiths and more recently Williams – and many other professionals and amateurs of distinction.

The Welsh Open has never attracted as much TV and sponsorship money as some of the other events but it's the same game with the same players and presents the same set of challenges.

Those who like to spend their time complaining about stuff will doubtless target the best of sevens.

Have fun with that but I won’t be joining in. It is hidebound thinking to believe best of nines should be the format for every tournament, the same thinking that got the game into a mess in the first place.

More significant than the length of matches is the environment in which they are played.

The best of sevens allow the whole tournament to be played on two televised tables. I’d rather this than have a table nobody outside Newport can watch.

The playing field is level and, whatever the format, this will favour the top players. Doing it when the pressure is on, when the attention is on, is what separates the best from the rest.

As if to prove this point, here are the eight quarter-finalists from last year after the best of seven stage was completed: John Higgins, Matthew Stevens, Ali Carter, Ding Junhui, Stephen Maguire, Mark Williams, Mark Selby and Graeme Dott.

Picking a winner is, as usual, a thankless task. There are so many players performing to a high standard and, just when one seems to have the momentum, another grabs it from them.

I was very impressed by Mark Allen’s general attitude at last week’s Championship League.

To an outsider who has never been to Crondon Park it may look like a bit of a knockabout but it’s actually very intensive snooker and Allen dug really deep to win group 6 as he regards playing in the Premier League as something to aim for.

I had a chat to him afterwards and he said his 3-2 defeat to Marco Fu in the winners’ group final two years ago is one of his biggest snooker disappointments.

So maybe Allen will be one to watch this week if he employs this same mindset.

A few legends made it through the qualifiers yesterday as Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and Ken Doherty beat younger opponents.

These three between them won the first four Welsh Opens. Consider this too: when they played in the first in 1992, which Hendry won, not a single member of the current top 16 had turned professional.

What about Davis? You really can’t keep a good man down it would seem. To beat Ricky Walden, who has had a good season, is another result for the grand old man of snooker to celebrate.

Judd Trump plays naughty snooker but Davis’s brand of the game is clever snooker. With his vast knowledge he is still capable of competing and thus of getting results.

Like Davis, Hendry and Doherty enhance any tournament in which they play. What will be interesting for Hendry is whether he can start getting wins over players ranked higher than him, which he hasn’t done regularly for a while.

Neil Robertson of course represents a formidable first round opponent for the three times champion.

And what of Ronnie O’Sullivan? All sorts of obituaries about his career were being written before the German Masters but he responded in the most emphatic manner possible by winning the title.

His top 16 seeding for the Crucible is pretty much secure now barring something from out of leftfield but O’Sullivan has a tough first round encounter with Fu, a player who has beaten him eight times, not a feat most can boast.

Higgins is the defending champion. The Welsh title was one of many he swept up on a wave of intensity and emotion last season, which he has been unable to maintain this.

Selby is the world no.1, a proud place to be but also a position from where the only way is down.

Selby is looking for a good run in a tournament to build up some confidence having gone a little flat in the latter part of the season.

The same can be said of Ding, who was poor by his high standards in losing to Yu Delu in Berlin.

The qualifiers include the experienced – Peter Ebdon, Mark King, Andy Hicks, Fergal O’Brien – and a couple of faces new to audiences, such as Adam Wicheard and, in a match held over to the venue, Sam Baird.

So a week in Wales, with all the fascinations that ranking event snooker provides.

Hope everyone enjoys it.



Barry Hearn has been a magnet for ideas since becoming World Snooker chairman. The world, his wife and their step-children has written to him with formats and innovations to ‘take the game forward.’

Most of these are answers to questions nobody has asked, usually involving combining snooker with another sport, adding balls, taking balls away, changing the rules or generally ruining the very thing that attracted anyone to snooker in the first place.

Globally, the game of snooker is more popular than it’s ever been – last week in Berlin was proof of that.

But not every idea is a bad one. Mark Williams came up with an interesting notion for a new tournament: a doubles event with a twist.

Mark’s idea is to have the top 64 in a hat with the pairs drawn out at random. Therefore, players would have to partner whoever came out, even if they were their sworn enemy.

I’m sure you could think of a few tasty pairings which could result under this method.

The event could be played in three days with short matches and would be fun. Many people have called for the return of the World Doubles Championship.

But there was a good reason why it was originally discontinued in 1988. The truth is, doubles was never particularly popular with the viewing public.

ITV showed the tournament but found that their ratings were lower than for their other events. They turned to Hearn for something different and he came up with the World Matchplay: exclusive to the top 12 in the one-year rankings with a best of 35 final (this was before the current mania for shortening everything).

Steve Davis and Tony Meo were the kings of doubles, winning the world title four times. They were eventually superseded by Stephen Hendry and Mike Hallett, who also won the doubles crown at Hearn’s 1991 World Masters.

Much of the fascination lay in who partnered who but doubles snooker was always a little stop-start. In this season’s World Cup a scotch (alternate shot) doubles format was used, but this was even more dragged out.

Maybe Williams’s idea has legs, although the not inconsiderable matter of a broadcaster and sponsor would still need to be sorted out.

It would certainly make for some interesting conversations when the names were pulled out of the hat...



Ronnie O’Sullivan’s dramatic capture of the German Masters title last night proved that when he is fully motivated he is still a major force in the game.

O’Sullivan defeated Stephen Maguire 9-7 in a high quality final. He had of course trailed Andrew Higginson 4-0 in the opening round.

This was a familiar tale of the reprieved man syndrome. Time and again a player who could and probably should have lost early in a tournament goes on to win it.

The most pleasing factor about the final, regardless of the eventual outcome, was how hard O’Sullivan fought. He had to. Maguire himself played tough match snooker and couldn’t have tried any more.

There were some telltale signs of how much it meant to O’Sullivan, a few fist pumps here and there which is not really his thing.

Don’t ever be fooled that it doesn’t matter to him. Of course it does. You don’t win as much as he has without being a competitive animal.

He said afterwards that he was coming towards the end of his career. As he is 36 this is in part true but it is equally true that he isn’t finished just yet.

Ronnie will always attract attention for what he says: sometimes entertaining, sometimes maddening.

But ultimately snooker players should be judged not by their words but by their actions, by the way they play and what they contribute to the sport on table. It was clear from the reception he received after the final that O’Sullivan remains a huge box office attraction.

Despite winning the title, O’Sullivan’s top 16 seeding for the World Championship is not yet guaranteed, with the forthcoming Welsh Open still to play a part.

However, when O’Sullivan is remembered it won’t be for fluctuations in his world ranking but for his incredible store of achievements.

Last night’s clearly satisfied him greatly, as it should. He worked for it, he fought for it and he finally got his reward.



If ever the rhyming nickname ‘on fire’ Stephen Maguire was apt it was last night as the Scot, burning with determination, extinguished Shaun Murphy’s hopes of lifting the German Masters title.

Maguire was superb throughout. This was the sort of snooker he was producing during the golden spell in which he finished runner-up in the 2004 British Open and won the UK Championship.

In both events he beat Ronnie O’Sullivan, who he plays again in the Berlin final today.

With a 13-3 head-to-head advantage, O’Sullivan has the stats in his favour but he said yesterday he was exhausted through glandular fever, and a two session final against an in form opponent is demanding enough without such ailments.

O’Sullivan seemed almost embarrassed by the manner of his 6-4 victory over Stephen Lee yesterday.

It did become a struggle, although it isn’t apparent why he tried to clear the colours left-handed in the tenth frame, which he very nearly lost.

O’Sullivan has always wanted to win playing snooker that is almost perfect, but this is impossible. Nobody, even if they possess his talent, can play perfectly all of the time. Snooker remains a very difficult game.

I hope if he does win today it will make him happy. It will certainly please his fans and he has many of them.



A truly great finish by Stephen Maguire saw off Judd Trump 5-4 on the black last night to complete an intriguing semi-final line-up at the German Masters in Berlin.

Maguire showed tremendous grit and determination to recover a 4-2 deficit and fight his way over the winning line. He reward is a meeting with Shaun Murphy, himself in good form of late, who beat Mark Selby 5-3.

I thought it rather unfair on Selby that he should have to play two matches yesterday and Murphy only one. Mark himself wouldn’t use this as an excuse but it surely could have been avoided.

Mark Williams was in the same boat and he was beaten 5-3 by Stephen Lee, who had had the afternoon off.

It’s Lee’s first ranking event semi-final since the 2006 Northern Ireland Trophy, surely far too long for a player of his class.

His record is not great against Ronnie O’Sullivan, who has been magnificent since trailing Andrew Higginson 4-0.

Whatever O’Sullivan says about the top 16, it is hard to believe it hasn’t been a motivating factor this week. As I said in my preview, he has always responded well with his back to the wall, when he feels he has a point to prove.

He is proving it rather well thus far in Berlin.



Ronnie O’Sullivan’s comeback win against Andrew Higginson yesterday was a quintessential game of two halves.

In the first half, Higginson was superb and O’Sullivan looked rusty. When he lost the dramatic fourth frame to head into the interval trailing 4-0 his first whitewash in a full ranking event since the 2006 China Open looked possible.

They key moment, though, came in frame six. Higginson was 62-0 ahead and potted a good black with a red close to the green pocket. All he had to do was land on it and that would surely have been that, but it was obscured by the green.

He later potted another good red but failed to land on a colour, in fact finished touching the brown. His big mistake in playing a tap away was in leaving on a long red. O’Sullivan knocked this in and completed a magnificent clearance t bring up 4-2.

After this, O’Sullivan’s confidence returned and Higginson began to feel the pressure.

It was great entertainment of the sort snooker manages to serve up again and again, and eases some of O’Sullivan’s ranking pressures, even though he is still up against it in his fight to stay in the top 16.

His friend, rival and contemporary John Higgins suffered an ignominious 5-0 defeat to Stephen Maguire last night. Remarkably this was Higgins’s first whitewash in a full ranking event since Karl Burrows beat him 5-0 in the 1996 Asian Classic.

If you are as good as Higgins you don’t suddenly forget how to play, but snooker is a largely psychological game.

Last season he put in more effort than ever and got his rewards. It took a lot out of him emotionally and he has been unable to maintain that intensity. He feels flatter and is not playing the sort of snooker that he brought him major titles.

The German Masters is coming nicely to the boil now. Judd Trump will play Maguire in the quarter-finals while Shaun Murphy and Stephen Lee are also through to the last eight, which will be played tonight.

This afternoon’s last 16 matches see O’Sullivan take on Joe Perry, Mark Williams play Stuart Bingham in a repeat of this season’s Australian Open final, Masters champ Neil Robertson up against Matthew Stevens and world no.1 Mark Selby versus Graeme Dott.

It’s an embarrassment of riches: top quality players and proven title winners. Of those left in only Perry is yet to win a ranking tournament.



Ronnie O'Sullivan enters the German Masters fray in something of a hole: 18th in the provisional rankings and thus not guaranteed a top 16 seeding for the World Championship.

He needs points in Berlin and at the Welsh Open to stave off this relegation but it will also of course depend on the fortunes of those players around him in the rankings.

There was good and bad news for Ronnie yesterday. Mark Davis (17th) lost but Stuart Bingham (15th) and Ricky Walden (16th) both won.

O'Sullivan's plight has been largely put down to missing tournaments. This certainly hasn't helped but neither has been a disappointing run of results.

Since reaching the World Open final in September 2010 he has appeared in just one ranking event quarter-final.

But throughout his career he has responded well when his back has been firmly to the wall. He has often won tournaments after moments of controversy. Expect him to come out fighting against Andrew Higginson today.

Having to qualify for the World Championship would be an annoyance for O'Sullivan, maybe even an embarrassment, but how many players ranked 33 down would you back to beat him over 19 frames in a match of great importance?

I think we'll see him at the Crucible.

It's an embarrassment of riches in the morning session with Ding Junhui, Neil Robertson, Judd Trump, Mark Allen and Graeme Dott all in action.

It would be nice to think that at some point a webcam could be put on some of these outside tables because TV viewers don't get to pick the matches they watch: they get what they're given, and as everyone has their favourites it obviously follows that some will be disappointed by the choices (in this case Ding v Yu Delu).

Craig Steadman was the only wildcard winner yesterday when he beat Mike Dunn, highlighting the essential unfairness of the wildcard system.

Steadman is a very good player, not some kid gaining experience. Dunn qualified fair and square so could count himself unlucky to be playing someone clearly much better than the other wildcards.

Such is the pace of this event that the second round starts tonight. There's an all Scottish clash featuring John Higgins and Stephen Maguire while Walden faces Shaun Murphy, who was close to elimination yesterday before producing a classy finish to see off Barry Hawkins.



I’m not really sure why there are wildcards in a ranking event that lasts only five days in a country where snooker is already wildly popular, but this is how the German Masters begins today.

Patrick Einsle, who has been a main tour player, albeit without much success, will play Ken Doherty in the first TV match.

Doherty is at that stage of his career where non-playing interests are vying for his time. He has established himself as part of the BBC snooker team and presents a weekly football show on Irish radio.

He won’t be short of offers for work of this sort. Ken has always been a great pro and ambassador and his genial manner is no image, it’s just how he is.

He has just slipped out of the top 32 on the seedings list by one place and will obviously want to rejoin the top 32 before the next cut-off so that he plays only one qualifier for the World Championship.

Assuming he beats Einsle he will play Mark Williams. If you have read Doherty’s autobiography ‘Life in the Frame’ you will know that the pair are not bosom pals, although it would take a little imagination to describe this as a grudge match.

Williams of course won the title last year after a dramatic battle with Mark Selby. He has not won a title since but has enjoyed a good year, with two major finals and the Crucible semis under his belt.

He also beat Doherty in the semi-finals of the Australian Open last July and I imagine will be fully motivated to do the same at the Tempodrom.

Barry Hawkins is back in action just three days after earning a career highest payday when he pocketed £32,000 for winning the Shootout in Blackpool.

It’s back to normal now, though: ranking event snooker against one of the game’s very best, Shaun Murphy.

Ryan Day seems to blow hot and cold at the moment. He has qualified for Berlin, just as he did for the UK Championship, but in York he was whitewashed by Selby and recently at the World Open qualifiers he was whitewashed by Robert Milkins.

This afternoon he’s up against Stephen Maguire, who enjoyed success in Germany just last month when he won PTC12.

Mark Davis is having a good run and will be full of confidence ahead of his clash with John Higgins tonight.

Davis, the world no.17, earned the best part of £10,000 at the Championship League last week and is match sharp.

Higgins has not yet won a title this season. It’s natural to assume it’s only a matter of time, but sport doesn’t work like that.

One of the best matches of the day could well be Martin Gould v Ricky Walden. Gould continues to impress – witness his 135 total clearance under Shootout conditions the other day – and Walden seems to be coming back to form.

If you have a ticket for the Tempodrom then you are sure to have a great day, with so many matches taking place.

I’m a fan of making tournaments shorter (without reducing length of matches) and playing more sessions to get them done. There’s no reason a ranking event should last nine days (actually, the only reason the BBC ones have done is to provide live sport on two weekends).

Perhaps five days is a little short (six or seven days is probably right) but with the number of tournaments on the increase then this is the way forward.