Well it just gets better and better for Stephen Lee, who today contests his fourth world ranking event semi-final from the last five tournaments.

That silky smooth cue action everyone raves about was again in evidence yesterday as he made two successive centuries to hit back from 2-0 down to Judd Trump and level at 2-2.

Tension came into the match thereafter and mistakes were made, but Lee eventually finished off his 5-3 win with a 96.

His turnaround in fortunes is remarkable and he has been the best player of 2012 thus far. Lee didn't forget how to play snooker. All he needed were more opportunities and confidence, both of which he now has in great abundance.

Stephen Maguire pulled off the narrowest possible victory over Ronnie O'Sullivan, 5-4 on a re-spotted black, which he fluked by missing the double and landing the treble.

O'Sullivan took it better than most but must have been disappointed to have missed his own golden chance to win the match, when he lost ideal position from blue to last red and failed to pot it.

Ding Junhui, to the delight of course of his home fans, reached the semi-finals with a 5-2 win over Ali Carter.

Ding turns 25 tomorrow. A second China Open title would be an ideal way to celebrate but he first has to contend with the brutally methodical Peter Ebdon, whose powers of focus and determination were in full display during his 5-3 win over Neil Robertson.

This was not a pretty match to watch. Robertson failed to make the most of his chances and Ebdon gradually wore him down.

The game's hard men deserve special recognition. Top level sport is supposed to be about driving yourself on, pushing your barriers, bettering yourself and achieving excellence. It's about refusing to give up.

So even though Ebdon's playing style may not be to everyone's taste he should at least receive credit for the immense effort he puts in.

Consider his last three victims: Matthew Stevens, John Higgins and Neil Robertson.

Not a bad hat-trick of wins.



It's ten years since Peter Ebdon won the world title but his determination has not waned and yesterday he pulled off one of his best results for some time.

Ebdon's 5-4 defeat of world champion John Higgins must have been satisfying after a poor campaign in which his top 32 place has been placed under threat.

He is a player who has always worked hard on preparation. Physical and mental fitness have been almost an obsession.

Now, Ebdon has become a vegan after watching a film, Forks Over Knives, which apparently blames eating meat for, well, pretty much everything.

Good luck to him if he believes it makes a difference. He will probably have to produce an even better performance today if he is to devour Neil Robertson, whose flowing coiffure somewhat overcompensates for Ebdon's more sparsely populated pate.

First up is a battle of two of the form players this season: Judd Trump v Stephen Lee.

A few years ago, Lee played superbly to beat Trump in the world qualifiers and afterwards said he hoped the defeat would stay with his young opponent for some time.

I think it's fair to say it's a distant memory for Trump after the year he has had, but Lee is playing some of the best snooker of his career right now and will surely be a serious threat to the defending champion.

Ronnie O'Sullivan beat Stephen Maguire in a thrilling German Masters final a few weeks back and was the model of professionalism in again defeating Mark Williams 5-1 yesterday.

Maguire is another player whom O'Sullivan respects and he has only lost to him three times in 17 meetings.

The fourth quarter-final pits Ding Junhui against Ali Carter after Ding's walkover against Mark Selby.

Wisely, the world no.1 does not want to make his neck problem worse ahead of the World Championship.

The neck and shoulders is an area in which snooker players do seem to suffer, some very seriously. Hopefully Selby's injury is only a minor problem.



The manner of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s victory over Marcus Campbell in the first round of the China Open yesterday was a kind of microcosm of his career.

He shifted from being maddeningly frustrating to sublimely brilliant as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

He should have lost. Campbell had a great chance to lead 4-0 but missed a pink and O’Sullivan seemed to rediscover his enthusiasm for winning. He doesn't look well but can win tournaments even when not at full fitness.

Ronnie splits opinion in a way I find pretty curious as I neither hate him nor think he’s a living deity. But nobody can deny his box office appeal. In every match there is something to keep audiences glued to the screen and this is why he remains the biggest draw in the sport.

Today he plays Mark Williams, who hasn’t beaten him in a world ranking event for ten years.

I suppose this has to end at some time but whenever these two play the match oozes with mutual respect and perhaps there is too much on Williams’s part.

He believes O’Sullivan is still the best player in the game and maybe this affects his own mental preparation.

Williams was so convinced that O’Sullivan wouldn’t travel to Beijing that he stated on Twitter he would bare his backside in Burton’s shop window if he did.

The good news for those wishing to be spared exposure to the Welshman’s posterior is that Burton’s themselves may not be so willing to comply with this wager.

Away from all this, Ali Carter completed what must be a morale boosting 5-4 win over Dominic Dale.

Despite not playing competitively for a while due to illness, Carter started with a century. His top 16 place is under threat and his enthusiasm for snooker low. But winning tends to remind a player of why they chose to play the game in the first place.

Carter now faces Lu Ning, the 18 year-old wildcard who produced a sensational display yesterday to beat Shaun Murphy 5-2.

Forget the rights and wrongs of wildcards, which have been endlessly debated, not least by me: this was a world class performance to stand with any other in this tournament.

From 2-2, Lu made two successive centuries and finished off the clinching frame in a single visit of 68. He demonstrated poise, guts and panache. Murphy sportingly led the applause at the end.

China has been waiting for a bona fide challenger to Ding Junhui. Without getting too carried away, it may have found one.

Today promises to be a thrill ride full of big names and potentially brilliant snooker.

It starts with O’Sullivan v Williams and Judd Trump against Stuart Bingham. Later, Neil Robertson plays Stephen Hendry and Mark Selby takes on Ding Junhui. World champion John Higgins doesn’t even get a TV table for his match with Peter Ebdon.

This is shaping up to be one of the best tournaments of the season.

EDIT: Mark Selby has withdrawn because of a neck injury. It is understood Selby doesn't want to exacerbate the injury ahead of the World Championship.



Ding Junhui, roared on by a sizeable, partisan crowd, completed a great comeback from 4-0 down to beat Ben Woollaston 5-4 in the first round of the China Open in Beijing yesterday.

Woollaston played well to get to four frames but four isn’t five in a best of nine. He could have done without the interval, which forced him to spend 15 minutes dwelling on the prospect of clinching the best TV win of his career.

Intervals were introduced into snooker for one reason and one reason only: so that the venues could sell drinks. They were never intended to help the players and in Woollaston’s case did the exact opposite, but we’ll never know if he would have won had there not been one.

Woollaston claimed after his defeat that the rowdy atmosphere “would never happen in the UK.” Maybe Ding could tell him about the 2007 Masters final at Wembley Conference Centre, where he was barracked by hostile sections of the crowd.

Personally I’m glad to see a crowd. People have sneered for long enough about the ‘myth’ of the Chinese snooker boom (people who have never been to China) but I would have thought yesterday’s pictures were proof of the acclaim in which Ding is held.

Today we have the best three players of the last 15 years in action: John Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams.

Between them they have won 65 world ranking titles, including nine world titles. I suppose this holy snooker trinity are approaching veteran status but they are all still formidable on their respective days.

Higgins is yet to win a title this season. Rory McLeod is a stubborn, methodical opponent who the Scot only just scraped past at the UK Championship last December. It’s a day for patience and digging in but Higgins’s confidence can hardly be high after his performance against Jamie Jones at the PTC Grand Finals.

O’Sullivan has travelled to Beijing after missing Haikou and Galway. He also plays a tough-as-old-boots opponent in the shape of Marcus Campbell, a player who has quietly established himself as a member of the world’s top 32.

If O’Sullivan gets in and scores he could well win easily. If Campbell manages to frustrate him he may not.

Williams seems to have gone off the boil somewhat since losing 10-9 to Mark Selby in the Shanghai Masters final last September. He would doubtless argue that that defeat is not the reason for his form tailing off, and it might not be, but he doesn’t seem as sharp at the moment as he was at this point last year. Nobody seems to be tipping him for victory at the Crucible.

Williams, who has won six world ranking titles in Asia, including three in China, faces Jin Long, easily the best of the Chinese wildcards, who outlasted Fergal O’Brien yesterday.

These three legends of snooker can’t go on forever but neither are they going to disappear overnight. Perhaps they are all in slight decline but when you are as good as John, Ronnie and Mark have been then you have much further to fall than most.



Jimmy White didn't play great in beating Syrian Omar Alkojah in the wildcard round of the China Open yesterday but he got the result, which is all you can ask for in this tricky, palpably unfair extra match the eight lowest ranked qualifiers have to play for no additional financial reward.

Michael Holt and Jamie Jones did not fair so well, each beaten by Chinese opponents.

White now faces Judd Trump, the latest in the lineage of flair players to which the Whirlwind himself belongs.

He followed in the footsteps of Alex Higgins, his great friend, and is taking inspiration from the Hurricane in the year which marks to 40th anniversary of his first world title triumph and the 30th of his second.

White has cufflinks inscribed with an image of Higgins which he hopes will spur him on to qualify for the Crucible.

Trump represents a significant test. It was in Beijing 12 months ago that he broke through and is a big favourite to win again today.

White will surely have to produce one of his best performances on TV for some time to cause an upset.

His old foe, Stephen Hendry, won an entertaining first round match yesterday against Martin Gould, who will be thinking about the red he missed in the decider, effectively for match, all the way back to blighty.

Had it not been at such a vital time he probably wouldn't have missed it, but herein lies the fascination with sport: who will hold their nerve when it really matters?

Hendry still has an aura, particularly for a player like Gould who grew up watching him. Beating him live on TV in front of a large crowd is still a big deal. This obviously added to the pressure he was feeling.

I was amused to see Stephen say afterwards that his last remaining ambition was to win a major title in China. He did do when he won the 1990 Asian Open but I guess when you've won as much as he has you forget these things.

The chief talking point though was Neil Robertson's curly hair, his natural look when he's not got his hair straightening gear.

The last time I saw a mane so lustrous was on the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz. The difference, however, is that Neil has bags of courage.



James Warren White will be 50 in a few weeks time. There is only one player older than him on the professional circuit, a certain Steve Davis.

To have lasted as long as he has is testament to Jimmy's love of snooker. You have to love it as much as he does to keep on going despite a myriad of setbacks.

It would be a shame if historians of the future came to define White's career purely by the six world finals he failed to win because the fact is that despite these disappointments he has still won far more than most could ever wish for.

He would admit he didn't always dedicate himself to snooker as much as he needed to in the years when the game came easy but he is working hard now to prolong his career, and is, all things considered, doing pretty well.

He remains a member of the top 48 in the seedings. He will have to win two matches to qualify for the Crucible, the same number as he won to reach Beijing.

Today in the wildcard round of the China Open he plays Omar Alkojah of Syria, a country which is currently going through unimaginable horrors.

White is a big favourite and would play Judd Trump, the latest in the lineage of flair players of which the Whirlwind is part, in the first round.

White keeps himself busy on the exhibition circuit, where he remains a big draw. If you see him play in this environment you'd wonder why he isn't still in the top 16 but of course in matches there is intense pressure because it is here where it really counts.

White's old adversary, Stephen Hendry, is also in action today in one of two last 32 matches.

It's 20 years since Hendry came from 14-8 down to beat White 18-14 in the 1992 world final, a gripping contest which would be taught in schools were snooker on the curriculum.

That was 20 years ago, though. Hendry is now, like White, fighting to stay in contention.

Martin Gould is the sort of player he won't mind playing because he knows it will be an open, attacking game.

Neil Robertson beat Jamie Cope to win his first world ranking title, the 2006 Grand Prix.

It's no great shock Robertson has won several more since but is perhaps surprising that Cope is still waiting to join the game's winners' circle.

An hereditary condition which causes him to shake in his head and right arm has obviously affected not just his form but also his confidence. A win over Robertson, one of the players of the season, would provide a huge injection of self belief.

Today's other TV match pits Peter Ebdon against Lu Haotian, a 14 year-old who the Chinese obviously have high hopes for.

He doubtless plays many hours of snooker each week but Ebdon, with his all round knowledge, represents an entirely different form of snooker education.

Eurosport will be showing all four TV matches live on its two channels at 7.30am and 12.30pm BST.



And so it's back to China for the longest running of the current Asian ranking events, the China Open in Beijing.

This was first staged (as the China International) in 1999 and ran until 2002. It disappeared due to lack of funds but returned in 2005 as a one-year deal.

Ding Junhui, as a wildcard, won the title and lit the blue touch paper for the snooker boom that has resulted in five Chinese ranking events next season.

The tournament has long since outlived the need for wildcards but a World Snooker bod explained to me in Galway - rather trenchantly, although we'd both had a drink - that without a guaranteed amount of Chinese players the sponsors will not cough up the dough to underwrite these tournaments.

I hope Jimmy White beats Omar Alkoraj (who is Syrian, not Chinese) because he will then play Judd Trump: one generation of left-handed flair player against another.

When Trump flew to Beijing this time last year he was barely known outside snooker circles.

Even within them there were those saying he couldn't possibly be all that because, by the age of 21, he had had the effrontery not to be a world beater.

But all that changed as he allied his sensational potting game with mature safety to go all the way to the title.

A few weeks later he was in the World Championship final. He is now UK champion and world no.3.

He has over 80,000 followers on Twitter and has enjoyed an increased media profile. He is great news for our sport.

I'm glad that the China Open now comes before the World Championship qualifiers because in previous years it has found itself overshadowed.

The Crucible draw is usually out by now and players who failed to qualify have been down in the dumps and have produced performances to match. All that can wait: the China Open is a major tournament in its own right and deserves to be treated as such.

Thankfully World Snooker has listened to common sense and scheduled two first round matches for day one so as to start the tournament with some big names.

One of them is Neil Robertson, who plays Jamie Cope. Robertson seemed to me to be dog-tired at Crondon Park last week after a very busy and successful season. He is also in the middle of moving house, with the incumbent stress that that involves.

He always gives it everything but may welcome the break after China to prepare for the Crucible (in fairness, he was also playing with a new tip, which didn't help).

Similarly, Stephen Lee is on a roll but flew straight from Galway to Hong Kong for a series of exhibitions and there is a danger that he could hit a wall (and I don't mean the Great Wall).

The other first round match on Monday features Martin Gould against Stephen Hendry.

Gould's form has been poor of late and it seems to me he has suffered from a curious syndrome that affects many players when they join the top 16.

These guys spend years chasing down a place in the elite group and it seems that when they get there they find it hard to mentally adjust.

It's all too easy to start looking over your shoulder, the hunter becoming the hunted and all that.

Hendry played well to beat Gould at this season's Australian Open, but you never know when Hendry will play well these days.

He won the first ranking event staged in China in 1990 and still has an aura about him, but this counts for little if he can't produce the goods.

There's no word yet on whether Ronnie O'Sullivan and Ali Carter will play due to their respective illnesses.

One thing I do know is this: any player who tweets about how boring Beijing is needs to take a long look at themselves.

I've been there a few times and it's a fascinating city, full of history and with plenty to see. Go there with an open mind and you might be pleasantly surprised by how much you enjoy it.



The decision to stage all four UK PTC events at the South West Snooker Academy in Gloucester next season makes sense for several reasons.

Firstly, the SWSA is a first class facility run by snooker-loving people who have literally built it from scratch.

Second, the SWSA will pay a fee to World Snooker to stage the events, thus swelling the association’s coffers.

Third, they have more tables than the World Snooker venue in Sheffield, so there will not be the horrible logjam where matches are going on at midnight.

Fourth, there are facilities for paying spectators, including a first class arena.

These events will therefore feel more like proper tournaments for players and snooker fans alike.



Bert Demarco, a former professional and hugely important figure in Scottish snooker, has died. He was 87.

Demarco won the Scottish amateur title five times and turned professional in 1980.

He promoted the original Scottish Professional Championship and was Stephen Hendry’s first round victim in this tournament in 1985, the first pro title Hendry won.

Demarco retired from the circuit in 1993 but it was off the table where his influence was most significant.

He opened Marcos in Edinburgh in the 1970s. It was Scotland’s first commercial snooker club and as the game gained national currency through TV coverage, he was in a position to expand his empire with further clubs and properties.

Over the years, many Scottish players were to benefit from his facilities and wisdom.

Four years ago, Demarco recalled his own humble beginnings, saying: “I first played on a full-size table in Brechin when I was 11 years old and my auntie gave me a box to stand on so I could practice.

“I think they just wanted me out of the way, but from there I caught the bug.”

When Marcos closed in 2008, Demarco gave away all ten full-sized tables to local schools and youth groups to encourage fresh talent.

It was a typical gesture by a man who loved snooker and wanted to nurture young players. He wasn’t a household name in snooker like the best known players are but, in Scotland, he was a legend whose legacy lives on.



Stephen Lee’s capture of the Betfair PTC Grand Finals in Galway last night was the final proof that he has fully returned to form in the last year.

His 4-0 defeat of Neil Robertson in the final was hard fought and clearly very satisfying. It was Lee’s fifth world ranking title, six years after he won his fourth.

Lee came through to the professional ranks in 1992 during a golden Blackpool summer which also saw Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams start out on the road to the big time.

His career has not been as successful as those of these three world champions but it has been more successful than most.

Everyone raves about his silky smooth cue action but it has taken a lot of effort to make the game appear this effortless.

He credits his turnaround in fortunes to getting back in the top 16, which he believes happened because of the dramatic increase in playing opportunities since Barry Hearn took over the reins of World Snooker.

“I couldn’t be doing with six tournaments a year,” Lee said. “If you lost in the first you were counting down the other five.”

Since the turn of 2012 Lee has reached the semi-finals of the German Masters, quarters of the Welsh Open, final of the World Open and now won the Players Tour Championship.

And there’s no rest for the wicked. He is due to fly to China today to undertake a series of exhibitions ahead of the China Open next week.

After a spell in the doldrums he is once again enjoying life as a snooker player, more so now that he’s won another big tournament.

Robertson was meanwhile typically gracious both in the press conference and backstage, despite losing his first TV final from ten played.

The Aussie is a naturally cheerful sort of person. He always manages to look for the positives in any situation and take them with him.

So instead of leaving Ireland upset at a final whitewash he was merely pleased for Lee and happy with his own game a month ahead of the World Championship.

Robertson has flown over his brother, Mark, to help him prepare properly for the Crucible having by his own admission failed to do so last year.

Without elaborating, he described the run in to his world title defence 12 months ago as “typical Neil Robertson.”

He failed to get scoring last night and having lost the 47-minute opening frame was always on the back foot, whereas he had started his previous two matches with centuries in the first frame and got his opponents under early pressure.

So well done to Lee and a big thank you to the people of Galway, who made it such a memorable week for the members of snooker’s travelling circus.

It is such a friendly place and everyone was in agreement that snooker should return, in some form, very soon.



They were supposed to be the warm-up act for the main attraction but Andrew Higginson and Jamie Jones put on a real show for the Galway crowd in the absence of Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Betfair PTC Grand Finals last night.

Higginson won 4-3 with a 95 break in the decider which was all the more creditable considering Jones had stolen the sixth frame by sinking a terrific long black.

O’Sullivan had withdrawn yesterday morning, citing illness. It transpired he had got on the plane, was said to be feeling ill, was told he could not sit by his friend and got off again.

I don’t dispute O’Sullivan’s glandular fever has left him feeling drained. I’m told he was admitted to hospital after the Welsh Open.

But there was widespread anger backstage that he withdrew on the day of his match, giving organisers no time to reschedule and leaving the paying public short-changed.

I myself spoke to two snooker fans who had taken the day off work and come from across Ireland to watch O’Sullivan play. Their specific comments could only be printed after the watershed.

However, World Snooker will no longer be giving players who withdraw because of illness ranking points and prize money, even if they have a doctor’s note. From now on, if you don’t turn up, you get nothing.

This is of course harsh on a player like Ali Carter, whose battles with Crohn’s disease are well documented.

However, there is a mechanism, introduced when Paul Hunter was seriously ill, by which a player can apply to have his world ranking protected if he is unable to compete.

Xiao Guodong meanwhile turned up with a broken bone in his hand, made a century in the first frame against Judd Trump and beat him 4-2.

Perhaps subconsciously Xiao did not expect too much of himself this week because of the injury. He’s now in the quarter-finals.

Jones is on his way home but good luck to him in the future. He tweeted after the match how much he had enjoyed Galway and the people here.

This is the sort of young player the game needs: grateful for his opportunities and humble in victory or defeat.



Jack Lisowski reached the second round of the PTC Grand Finals in Galway today despite being told last month that his place in the tournament was not guaranteed.

Lisowski finished tied 24th with Michael White on the PTC order of merit but believed he had qualified because he had done the better of the two in PTC12, which was to be used to determine the standings in the event of a tie.

“World Snooker phoned my manager and said I’d have to play a play-off,” said Lisowski, after beating Barry Hawkins 4-3.

“I texted Matt from Prosnookerblog because he’s a fountain of knowledge and he texted straight back to say, no, it was clear in the PTC entry pack that I’d qualified.

“They wanted me to play an extra game before the Welsh Open qualifiers. I feel sorry for Michael but I’m delighted to be here.”

World Snooker said that the rule was not as clearly defined as it could have been.

Lisowski described his season as “rubbish.” He added: “I’ve been guarding points. I’ve had the wrong mentality but I’ve sorted that out now.”

The 20 year-old led 2-0 and 3-2 before Shootout champion Hawkins forced the decider.

From his initial chance, Lisowski knocked in a good long red and made 99 to go forward to a meeting with Neil Robertson tomorrow.



Ireland has long been a favourite stopping off point for the snooker circuit.

The old Irish Masters, particularly at Goffs, was one of the highlights of the season, mixing great snooker with great hospitality.

Now Galway becomes the latest Irish city to host a major tournament. The PTC Grand Finals, sponsored by Betfair, are the culmination of the marathon slog of 12 PTCs which packed the calendar earlier in the season.

Only 24 players – less than a quarter of the circuit – will contest the final stages, which means any player who has qualified can feel pretty good about themselves.

There’s a £70,000 first prize on offer but also valuable ranking points that those not in the field cannot accrue.

And the line-up is an intriguing mix of star names, established faces and lesser lights.

The only big names who haven’t qualified are Mark Williams, Mark Allen and Shaun Murphy, who won the title 12 months ago.

There’s reward for players such as Ben Woollaston, Andrew Higginson, Michael Holt and Tom Ford, PTC winners from lower down the rankings.

There is just one table, so everyone has the chance to shine. My only issue is the length of the final, which like every other PTC match is best of seven.

I think it should be best of 11 minimum to distinguish its importance and give it a bit of prestige (Murphy’s 4-0 victory over Martin Gould last year was over very quickly).

Still, here’s to Galway. There will be many other distractions during the week: the Cheltenham festival, St. Patrick’s celebrations and England v Ireland in the Six Nations most prominently.

But ticket sales for the weekend are reportedly good and hopefully the Irish snooker fraternity will once again turn out to support the climax of the PTC campaign.



Barry Hearn, in his great benevolence, gave the pros last week off but, in Sofia, Bulgaria, the European under 21 championship was fiercely fought and won eventually by a Scot, Michael Leslie.

A few years ago the Scottish amateur scene descended into a rancorous swamp of acrimony in which snooker played second fiddle to internecine warfare.

Thankfully this is over now and Leslie’s emergence can only be good news for a country which has produced four world champions, several tournament winners and many other professionals.

Like Christopher Lee in his pomp, snooker depends on a ready supply of flesh blood. New faces are starting to come through but not at the speed of 20 years ago when the game was thrown open.

Perhaps this is a result of the general malaise in the sport which only ended when Hearn energetically took the reins.

Snooker clubs in the UK have been closing down at an alarming rate, and players from elsewhere in the world are at an immediate disadvantage as they basically have to move to Britain if they are to make a serious bid at the professional ranks.

Leslie, 19, will compete on the pro circuit next season. It’s a good time to join the main tour, with PTCs helping new players to learn the ropes.

One player already established on the circuit is Jamie Jones of Wales who has quietly got himself up to a career high 41st in the world rankings.

Jones has just qualified for the China Open and on Thursday plays John Higgins in the opening round of the PTC Grand Finals in Galway.

He has hauled himself up the rankings with an old fashioned method: hard work. Hours and hours of practice at the South West Snooker Academy and elsewhere as well as all the pro events have helped Jones find some momentum.

You only get out of sport what you put in. The same can be said of life. Many players with potential have fallen through the cracks over the years because they preferred one too many nights out, a couple of beers more than was wise and, before they knew it, they were looking back with regret at what might have been.

Jones, though, is only looking forward. He tweeted during the World Open that watching the tournament on TV had inspired him to work even harder.

Good for him. He doesn’t believe the game owes him a living and is instead determined to go and grab himself a slice of the action.

Higgins represents a significant step up in terms of opposition, especially as it’s a televised match, but, win or lose, it’s a reward for all the effort.

Leslie meanwhile beat Shane Castle, just 14, in their final. Castle’s impressive junior record is growing all the time. He’s another boy who puts in hour after hour in his pursuit of the big time.

Like so many young lads, he no doubt dreams of snooker glory. Leslie put it well after he won: “I've dreamed of this a few times, that I'd won the final, and thought please don't be a dream, but then woken up and been gutted.”

Well he can pinch himself all he likes. It’s real; he did it...here’s to life in the pro ranks.



Snooker's emergence from folk sport to frontline television entertainment can be traced chiefly to two component parts: colour television and Alex Higgins.

It was colour TV that gave the game its exposure; it was Higgins who became its first bona fide star.

A hero to many, an anti-hero to many more, he created interest and headlines with his wayward life and intoxicating playing-style. He was the sort of figure every sport needs: a combustible cocktail of talent and temper, brilliance and self-destruction.

40 years ago, Higgins won his first world title at the age of 22. The Crucible this was not. In the age before the professional circuit exploded on TV the World Championship passed by largely under the radar.

When Clive Everton wrote to the sports editor of the Daily Telegraph to see if he wanted any coverage he received the sniffy reply: "only if it's played in London."

Pot Black on BBC2 had begun to make household names of the players but as a sport snooker still had a long way to go to earn acceptance.

The 1972 World Championship was not played in London but Birmingham, at the Selly Park British Legion.

The championship had ground on for the best part of a year before producing its two finalists: Higgins and John Spencer, thedefending champion.

Trotting out the facts of the environment in which this historic match was played makes it look like something out of an episode of Life on Mars, but they are still true and a reminder that the circuit was not always cash rich, that the top players were not always so lucky.

The unexpectedly large crowd were packed in on seats placed on stacked beer crates, or watched hanging from any available vantage point in a scene which would give modern day health and safety jobsworths a heart attack.

With a miners’ strike and power cuts afflicting Britain, the conventional lighting gave out on the second evening, as did the heating. The players agreed to continue under much duller lighting provided by a mobile generator.

The final was played over six days. On the fifth, Spencer got stuck in a lift in his hotel for 25 minutes due to a power cut. The session was delayed for ten minutes until he turned up.

It was this session which turned the final Higgins's way. The players had kept pace until he won all six frames played that evening. He won the match 37-31. The first prize was a mere £480.

By the time Higgins won his second world title a decade later the sport had been transformed. His epic semi-final against Jimmy White and final victory over Ray Reardon were the talk of the nation. His tearful celebration with wife and baby daughter remain iconic sporting images.

It was the final proof that Higgins had unwittingly helped to pull snooker from the back room to the living room. He won £25,000 as sponsors began to throw money at the game.

He of course will not be at the Crucible this year to mark these two anniversaries. Higgins died in pitiful circumstances in 2010, the Hurricane long since a sad shadow of the man who created so much excitement and controversy.

But as long as people talk about snooker they will talk about Alex Higgins.

It's an irony he may have enjoyed that snooker's long road to respectability was given such momentum by a man who sought no such thing.



We’re living in a golden age for snooker, but as with most previous golden ages most people won’t realise until it’s over.

The access to watching snooker tournaments now is greater than it’s ever been. You only have to go back a decade to a time where events outside the UK never made the TV back home and fans had to follow Teletext scores instead of instant live scoring.

Yes, there really was a time before Eurosport’s blanket coverage, before live streaming, before Twitter, where people go to fulminate if they miss so much as a break-off shot, before blogs and forums and the endless chatter that surrounds modern sport.

The more you give people, the more complacent they become. History, though, tells us how lucky we are.

Let me take you back, way back, to a distant place known as 2003. You may have read about it.

The 2002/03 season had begun in acrimony and rancour. So far, this does not distinguish it in any way from any other season.

The players, egged on by their associates, rejected the Altium offer to bankroll the circuit and handed control instead to a couple of chancers on a ten-year contract.

This contract would be torn up after less than a year due to their failure to deliver but it included a guarantee of eight ranking tournaments.

With money tight (it tends to be when you turn it down) and tobacco sponsorship about to exit ashtray-right, putting on new events was going to be difficult.

However, the WPBSA encouraged the organiser of the Irish Masters to turn his event into a ranking tournament and they then struck on the bright idea of staging the European Open not, as was traditional, on the continent but in a hotel in Torquay.

Believe me, any Fawlty Towers references you can think of were trotted out with great regularity back then.

The kicker was that there would be no TV coverage at all. There was to be no web streaming either.

So the tournament unfolded in almost complete anonymity, which was a great shame because it produced one of the sport’s best finals that decade and with it one of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s best performances full stop.

O’Sullivan was in a happy place generally at this point and had just got back into running, which gave him an outlet outside of snooker. He seemed relaxed in Torquay, perhaps because there were no demands from TV, and played some brilliant snooker to reach the final.

And the final was a classic. His opponent was Stephen Hendry, who had just returned to form by winning the Welsh Open in fine style.

A marker was laid down as to the standard in the opening frame, which O’Sullivan won with a 140 total clearance. He made another century, 126, and three half centuries to arrive at the interval leading 5-2. Hendry, for his part, had made a break of 101.

He also made 88 in the first frame of the final session before O’Sullivan delivered another total clearance, a 142 total clearance.

Hendry, always so dangerous in adversity, fought back as he so often had before, a 117 the highlight as he reduced his arrears to 6-5.

But with two more big breaks, O’Sullivan emerged victorious at 9-6.

And he was satisfied, not just to win the title but to do it so well against Hendry, an old foe and the player he most looked up to.

Very few people watched this match. Two of them were Ray Reardon and Tony Knowles, who afterwards made comments to a local newspaper to the effect that there wasn’t enough safety play.

When you can pot everything, safety isn’t quite as necessary. It was indicative of how snooker had changed, for the better most, if not Reardon and Knowles, would argue.

Feeling good and with his game back in shape, O’Sullivan went on to win another excellent final, beating John Higgins 10-9 at the Irish Masters.

What a shame hardly anyone saw what O’Sullivan still regards as one of his finest triumphs.

It would be different today. One of the most significant of all Barry Hearn’s innovations could turn out to be liveworldsnooker.tv. It already shows PTCs and qualifiers exclusively and were there occasions where no broadcaster could be found for a future event, could be the place to watch it.

It doesn’t hurt to remember that it wasn’t always like this.



Mark Allen’s emphatic capture of the Haikou World Open title today is the fulfilment of a snooker talent who arrived on the professional scene already a winner.

Allen won just about everything possible as an amateur: the Northern Ireland title in all age divisions, the European juniors, the European amateur championship and the IBSF world amateur crown.

So he was used to winning before turning pro and this was evident again when he was selected as a wildcard for the 2005 Northern Ireland Trophy.

In his television debut against the great Steve Davis he did not freeze. Far from it, he played superbly and beat the six times world champion. The following day he beat John Higgins.

Very quickly Allen joined the top 16. He started making semi-finals – including at the 2009 Wordl Championship and 2011 Masters – and this season reached his first final at the UK Championship, where he contested a thrilling tussle with Judd Trump.

He was 3-0 down to Trump in the last 16 earlier this week but never stopped believing he could win, the same attributes that saw him come from 5-2 in arrears to beat Mark Selby 6-5 in the semi-finals.

Today he was unstoppable. To beat a resurgent Stephen Lee 10-1 is some achievement.

It’s a case of what a difference a year makes for the Antrim man. Last year, he went to the airport to fly to Hainan Island for an invitation event but was overcome by panic and could not get on the plane.

He subsequently received treatment for depression. Things picked up in his personal life and he is now engaged to his girlfriend, Kyla.

Allen has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t like travelling but in fact this is his second final far from home this season after he partnered Gerard Greene to the runners-up spot for Northern Ireland in the World Cup. His first professional title also came in China, the 2009 Jiangsu Classic.

He’s not endeared himself to everyone in the sport but, like his legendary compatriot Alex Higgins, doesn’t seem to care.

Maybe after the controversy earlier in the week he fired himself up with an ‘I’ll show them’ attitude.

Well, he showed us what we already know: that he’s a brilliant player possessed of steely resolve with the ability to beat anyone in the game.
Now that he has won his first ranking title there is no reason why more shouldn’t follow.


The manner of Mark Allen’s comeback against Mark Selby yesterday was a textbook example of a player who never stopped believing he could win a match he seemed certain to lose.

After Selby won the lengthy seventh frame to lead 5-2 all logic dictated his eventual victory but Allen had other ideas.

The 26 year-old from Antrim is cut from the same snooker cloth as his fellow Northern Irishmen Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor when it comes to determination and will to win.

Like these two former world champions, Allen is blessed with a stubborn streak which means he never stops trying.

He played superbly to close out victory in what was one of the best performances of his professional career.

Allen has of course made the headlines off table this week. The last time he was involved in such controversy was at the UK Championship where he also made the final.

Perhaps he needs this aggro to get him fired up. It’s a me-against-the-world attitude which has served him pretty well thus far.

Ultimately, though, a snooker player is judged by what he does on the table. If Allen wins the World Open title today then every credit to him. He is a fine talent and we have long been waiting for him to land a ranking crown.

Stephen Lee has come back into form after a few years in the wilderness. The Barry Hearn revolution, with its increase in playing opportunities, has allowed Lee to rediscover his touch.

And he is back playing the sort of snooker that made him a mainstay of the business end of tournaments a decade ago.

On the balance of what we’ve seen this week Allen will probably start favourite, but Lee has won four ranking titles and knows what it takes to prevail in these major finals.



Robert Milkins turns 36 next Tuesday. He is due to become a father for the second time on Monday.

And it's shaping up to be a really memorable week for the Gloucester man as he appears in the second ranking event semi-final of his career at the Haikou World Open today.

His first was seven years ago at the Irish Masters. My memory of that was that he was 8-5 up to Matthew Stevens, who potted a ridiculously good green to deny him victory in frame 14 and went on to win 9-8.

Having come so close to a major final, perhaps Rob's confidence got knocked a little but it has clearly returned this week.

He made sure to credit Terry Griffiths, director of coaching at the South West Snooker Academy, for helping him not just with his game but also his mind.

Clarity of thought in snooker is so important: blocking out the doubts and distractions and just playing the balls.

Milkins did this with great aplomb yesterday in defeating John Higgins, who himself played well.

It was one of Milkins's best ever wins and he has every reason to believe he can beat Stephen Lee today and reach the final. 



Stephen Lee is clearly playing very well again. He made three centuries yesterday in beating Neil Robertson, who himself made two.

Back in the top 16, all that is missing now for Lee is another major title. His last came at the Welsh Open six years ago.

Lee turned professional in the golden snooker summer of 1992 alongside his fellow junior prospects Ronnie O'Sullivan, Mark Williams and John Higgins.

His career hasn't quite hit the heights that they have achieved but he has done better than most.

Four world ranking titles is a perfectly respectable tally given the quality of opposition he has faced.

When he won his first, the 1998 Grand Prix, it was clear just how good a cueist he is. Lee made two centuries and eight half century breaks in beating Marco Fu 9-2. This remains one of the best performances I've ever seen in a final.

He may not resemble an athlete but is a great competitor and the proliferation in playing opportunities has clearly helped him rediscover something approaching his best form.

A semi-finalist at the German Masters, he could have reached the same stage of the Welsh Open but for a ghastly mobile phone ring putting him off in the decider against Ding Junhui.

Today he faces Graeme Dott, who swam through glue to beat Marcus Campbell yesterday.

I know I appear to have jinxed a number of players on here this week but Lee has the game and the belief back again, and this makes him very dangerous.



John Higgins beat Jamie Cope in the final of the Hainan Classic last season, which opened the door for the World Open in Haikou.

Higgins was on a roll 11 months ago when he won the title but is yet to regain that focus. We keep saying it could come this week but it's yet to really happen.

Cope has been AWOL for a while, not helped by a condition that means he has tremors when he plays. It would be nice to see him restore some confidence and obviously a win over the world champion would go a long way towards doing that.

Conditions don't seem great at the World Open. Nothing can be done about the humidity but the table on which Neil Robertson played Stephen Hendry did not inspire confidence. It didn't seem level, probably the fault of the creaky floor. This didn't help the standard.

Judd Trump's match with Mark Allen should be entertaining as these two players are both great to watch when they hit their strides - as we saw in their wonderful UK Championship final earlier this season.

Allen is in the headlines again for his crass Twitter comments yesterday about, well, pretty much everything.

Allen - as he is constantly reminding everyone - has the right to hold whatever opinion he likes but his comments always seem to be tinged with an air of nastiness.

I don't think he is really like this but he is clearly frustrated by the life of a professional snooker player. However, it isn't snooker's - or China's - fault if he is unhappy.

It's entirely Allen's right if he wants to spend all his time holed up in his hotel room watching 24 on DVD but he won't discover what China has to offer unless he steps outside.

And the blunt truth is this: nobody is forcing him to play snooker. There would be plenty of others willing to take his place if he packed it in.

One thing I will credit him with: he's one of the few players getting snooker in the newspapers. Jason Ferguson, the WPBSA chairman, was unsurprisingly unimpressed, though, as he told today's Daily Mirror.