Yesterday at Ally Pally was a bit strange.
In the first match of the day, mark Williams looked the stronger player, until he missed a rather easy brown, for 4-1. That shot turned the match upside down, as Neil Robertson suddenly found his form and went on to win the next five, and the match!
Australia’s Robertson dropped briefly out of the top 16 at just the wrong moment a year ago after a run of poor results, missing snooker’s biggest invitation tournament. Since then he has won two ranking events and climbed back into the world’s top ten.
And the former World, UK and Masters champion showed signs of his best form today at Alexandra Palace as he reeled off five frames in a row to send Williams home. Robertson goes through to face Barry Hawkins or Shaun Murphy on Friday evening.
Two-time Masters winner Williams made a top break of 74 as he built a 3-1 interval advantage. And the Welshman led 57-0 in frame five, only for Robertson to snatch it with a superb 59 clearance, which proved the turning point. Runs of 102 and 69 put Robertson 4-3 ahead.
Frame eight came down to a tactical battle on the colours, and after a safety error from Williams on the pink, Robertson slotted in an excellent pot along the top cushion for 5-3. A few minutes later the match was over as his run of 88 secured his place in the last eight.
“In the first few frames I was probably looking at shots for a bit too long, and funnily enough they were the balls I missed,” said 36-year-old Robertson. “I had to pick up the pace, it was as simple as that. I had to force myself to play the way I do in practice in terms of the tempo. That’s what I did and I got going and felt absolutely fantastic.
“I made a huge clearance to get it back to 3-2 and that was the moment in the match that really got me going. I played really well after that.
“It was really frustrating coming here last year (to work for Eurosport) and not being in the tournament. It’s hard to miss out. I would have been devastated to miss out again, especially this year with the new screens which are great for the audience because they can see a different perspective.
“To beat the World Champion today was a huge step in the right direction. I didn’t know what to expect from Mark. I was playing in the Championship League on New Year’s Day and Mark was on a cruise somewhere getting hammered! He said after he won the world title he was going to enjoy it as much as possible and he’s done that so good on him.”
Williams said: “I played poor all the way through really. I had an easy brown to look like going 4-1 up and when I missed that the match turned. He started to play ok, had some good breaks and the momentum shifted around. As soon as I missed that brown I was never in it.
“He had a lot of run when he was nicking frames off me, but after missing that brown the balls never forgave me.
“I was expecting to play like that to be honest because I’ve hardly touched my cue. I’ll have to start practising obviously with the World Championship coming up. It’s the only tournament I’m looking forward to. I’ll have to put a bit of work in for that otherwise I’ll play like I did today and go out in the first round. I’ve got no-one else to blame if I go out in the first round, it’ll be my own fault.”
The evening match was just as bizarre. Shaun Murphy looked unable to pot a ball for his life, and found himself 5-0 down in no time. Barry Hawkins had been solid – his safety in particular was good – but not really spectacular. Then Barry missed a difficult pot, and suddenly started to struggle whilst Shaun finally found something. But there was no come back in this one: 5-0 down proved to be too much to overcome. Shaun won two frames but that was it.
It was a surprising scoreline at Alexandra Palace as the form which took Murphy to last month’s Scottish Open final deserted him. World number seven Hawkins goes through to a quarter-final with Neil Robertson on Friday evening.
Hawkins failed to win a match in his first five appearances in this tournament but since then he has learned to thrive on the big occasion. He reached the final in 2016, losing to Ronnie O’Sullivan, and the semi-finals the following year and will be confident of another deep run this time.
Hawkins took the opening frame tonight with runs of 31 and 38 then came from 54-2 down in the second, snatching it with a 35 clearance. The Londoner stepped up a gear as breaks of 86, 124 and 60 made it 5-0. His century in frame four made him the 20th player to score 300 career tons.
Murphy, who won this title in 2015, pulled one back with a break of 74, raising an arm and bowing to the crowd as he finally registered on the scoreboard. And he raised his hopes of a fight back by adding the seventh with runs of 37 and 38 to close to 5-2.
Frame eight came down to the colours and Hawkins trapped his opponent in a tough snooker on the yellow. Murphy not only failed to escape but sent the cue ball into a centre pocket, handing Hawkins the chance to clinch victory.
“It was a big moment to nick the second frame from 50 behind,” said 39-year-old Hawkins. “I think it hurt him a little bit. When I got chances I had lady luck on my side — I fluked a red into the middle pocket in the third frame and made a good break. In spells I felt pretty decent and confident in myself.
“I was 5-0 up and probably relaxed a little bit and missed a couple of balls, but I wasn’t twitching at that stage. Anything can happen in this game and if he goes 5-3 then all of a sudden I’d start feeling it a little bit more. I was pleased to get over the line at last.
“It’s a nightmare because the crowd want to see it go 5-5. They want to see as much snooker as possible when you just want to get out of there and win the match.”
As for joining the ‘300 club’ Hawkins added: “I didn’t have a clue until afterwards. There are not many players who have made 300 centuries in tournaments so it’s another little milestone.”
Murphy said: “It’s not what I’d envisaged over Christmas and New Year when I was thinking about this great event. I really felt I turned a corner in Glasgow and came here expecting to play very well.
“Those first two frames were two of the worst I think I’ve ever played and that completely bamboozled me. I did try hard, I never gave up, but there was too much to do and it was too little too late.
“My next focus is the German Masters and trying to climb that one-year list to try and get in the Tour Championship. That’s my next big thing.
“We all taste that horrible taste of defeat much more often than we have the excitement of winning. It’s something that you have to deal with as a sportsman and just move on.”
This is what awaits us today, in the last day of the first round
Ahead of the first match, the head to head largely favours Kyren Wilson, even if Judd Trumps career tally is superior. There is a bit of needle between those two…
As for the second match, which form will Mark Selby be in is anyone’s guess.