The 2022 European Masters is developing into a really interesting tournament. The last 32 and last 16 rounds provided a number of upsets, and we got to see some excellent performances from young players, particularly from China.
Notable casualties in the last 32 round were John Higgins, Judd Trump, Luca Brecel, Neil Robertson and Barry Hawkins.
John Higgins had a nightmare traveling to the venue and maybe it caught up with him a bit but his conqueror Tom Ford is a heavy scorer when on top form. Even so, the 5-0 scoreline and Higgins scoring a mere 50 points all match is a bit of a shock.
Neil Robertson lost to Pang Junxu, 22 years of age from China. This defeat prompted Neil to reflect on the current state of the game and a perceived lack of hunger by the young UK players:
Neil Robertson – UK Players Lack The Same Hunger As Chinese Wave Of Talent
Neil Robertson has accused young players in snooker’s traditional power base of the United Kingdom of lacking the raw hunger to compete with the wave of talent flooding through from China.
The Australian, based for many years near Cambridge, received another reminder of the deep reservoir of Chinese potential champions after losing 5-4 to 22-year-old Pang Junxu in the last 32 of the European Masters in Milton Keynes on Thursday.
And it was no fluke, as the in-form world No4 – the man of the season to date, with three titles already under his belt and more big even to come – watched Pang roar back from 4-2 behind with breaks of 73, 101 and 90 to seal victory.
The ‘second wave’ from China after Ding Junhui’s emergence is looking ever stronger, with Yan Bingtao having won last season’s Masters, and Zhao Xintong this season’s UK Championship – and the likes of Zhou Yuelong, Yuan Sijun and others lined up behind them.
But by comparison the cupboard is looking a lot barer in the UK of players with the same potential and big wins already under their belts at the same age. And this from the nation that has produced most of the legends including Ronnie O’Sullivan, Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and Mark Williams.
Robertson, 40, said: “It looks like China have got another really good young one to join Yan Bingtao and Zhao Xintong on the conveyor belt of talent from that country. Wu Yize, who is only 18, also impressed Ronnie O’Sullivan this week, and he got through a couple of rounds at the UK, so that’s another one to impress – and there are more besides.
“It’s good to see, and good that everything that World Snooker did in China to make the most of Ding Junhui’s success is bearing fruit. At one time you were concerned that all the investment into China wasn’t producing champions, but it clearly is looking at the last 18 months.
“And by comparison there aren’t the same number coming through in the traditional power base in the UK – and I think the main reason for that is that there are fewer and fewer places to play that support junior snooker players. There are restrictions at some clubs on hours.
“I don’t know also if the youngsters here are more distracted by things like social media than the Chinese lads, although they certainly have that as well. But I have seen that for many of the Chinese players, they see professional snooker as a way of improving their lives, and in some cases getting out of poverty.
“In the UK I don’t see the kids wanting it enough, and they know their lives will be okay no matter what. I don’t see that absolute hunger in young players in the UK and I hope that changes because this country has produced unbelievable players, the best that have ever played it.
“I hope to see that change and we can see more young and very hungry players emerge. Clearly a lot of them here do work hard – but do they work hard enough? And the answer is definitely no.
“Pang did really well in the win against me – and it was good match, real attacking stuff. I was maybe a little too aggressive going for a brown going into the pack in the decider, but that’s the way I play and you’d much rather lose at least having gone for your shots.
“I could have played a bit better but he played a fantastic match – beautiful positional play and a good long potter, striking the ball really well. He’s got everything you hope to see in young players coming through. He looks the real deal.
“I played him once before in this same event last season and beat him, but said to a couple of players ‘This is another one from China that if he keeps improving could get good results’. A couple laughed at me and weren’t so sure, but he has proved them wrong as he stands up to big names.”
With what he has already won during the current campaign, Robertson could afford to be fairly phlegmatic about a rare defeat – and there were compensations, including the chances to go and watch his beloved Chelsea in the Carabao Cup final, and son Alexander in football action.
He added: “Defeat to Pang at the European Masters is one I can take on the chin, especially the way he finished off the match. In any tournament, to win it, there is at least one match you need to get away with it and I didn’t in this one. And I made him win it.
“What it does mean is that I can go to the Carabao Cup final this weekend, and also go and watch my son Alexander who is playing this weekend. It’s not really me to lose with a smile on my face…but when you have good things to look forward to away from the table and you have already won a couple of titles, you are playing with less pressure.
“I think Ronnie plays with that mindset at the moment, and maybe that’s the key to longevity – keep it as stress-free as possible because eventually you could start to do yourself some damage if winning is everything and your become miserable away from the table.
“So I look forward to playing in the Welsh Open where I am playing Jimmy White, which is always a good occasion.”
Luca Brecel lost to Sunny Akani who is having a miserable year and deserves a lot of praise for the way he fights to stay in the top 64. Indeed covid hit him hard and he still isn’t feeling healthy months after catching the virus:
Long Covid Leaves Sunny Under A Cloud
Sunny Akani contracted Covid-19 in July last year. As restrictions across England come to an end, his story is a reminder that many people are still severely affected by the virus.
By Oliver Slack
Seven months after first testing positive, the 26-year-old Thai, who lives in Darlington, still feels excessively tired just walking up the stairs to his first floor flat. Jogging to keep fit has now become impossible. Most frustratingly of all, one of the hardest practisers in the sport has had to cut down his time on the cloth from eight hours a day to just 30 minutes.
“If I practise too much I feel dizzy, I get mind fog and sometimes loss of memory,” said Akani. “I talk to my wife and I can’t remember what I said. I lost a few matches recently so I tried to practise more, what I used to do, seven or eight hours. But my body felt so tired, sometimes when I line up the shot my vision is not clear.
“There is more pressure, it is making me feel depressed. Some nights when I sleep, it’s not good sleep. Sometimes I wake up and I sleep for only four hours. Sometimes I have bad dreams, I’m dreaming I am going to play in a match. Right now, I’m talking with my dad and a doctor to help. It’s helped me try to think more positive.”
Akani’s run this week at the BetVictor European Masters in Milton Keynes has given him a vital boost. He has beaten Mark Allen, Jackson Page and Luca Brecel to reach the last 16 and faces Ryan Day on Thursday afternoon.
Currently sitting 60th in the provisional end of season rankings, Akani faces a battle to remain inside the top 64 and keep his tour card at the end of the campaign.
Five years ago, Akani looked like one of snooker’s best up-and-coming prospects. At the 2017 UK Championship, he whitewashed Barry Hawkins 6-0 before a narrow 6-5 defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan in the last 16. Since then he has struggled to make a breakthrough on the circuit.
“Right now I’m not setting a target,” said the former Asian Under-21 Champion. “I’m still suffering with long Covid and depression. My health is more important. I’m trying to focus on my body first right now and if my body is getting better, I think I can show I can play better on the table.
“I know what I can do but when I go to play in a match, my health is not allowing me to play well. I’m just trying to feel more relaxed and hope I get better and I can show what I can do.”
I sincerely hope that Akani’s health improves soon. He’s a good player, a hard worker and a lovely man.
Judd Trump was beaten by Kurt Maflin whose form has been iffy in recent years but who is a very good player, and great to watch, when at his best.
The last 16 round brought more surprises, the biggest one being 21 years old Fan Zhengyi win over Yan Bingtao after defeating Kyren Wilson in the previous round. Fan who is fighting to stay on the tour played two extraordinary matches. He’s training at Victoria’s academy and Victoria stressed that those wins are no fluke but a just reward for a player with an exceptional work ethic.
He was full of praize for both of them afterwards. Here he is speaking to Hector Nunns:
“A big shout out to Ashley Hugill. He’s 27, so not very young in snooker terms, but a very good player and still not very experienced in tour terms. He has a lot of good qualities, and I’m not one for giving out compliments unless they are deserved. The same as Wu Yize earlier in the week, he will be a world champion if he develops and gets good advice.
“There is a right way and a wrong way to play a sport, and they both play snooker the right way. You might win, but if you do it in the wrong way you ain’t getting my eyeballs. It’s the way you do it, sometimes. You have good players, great players and exceptional players.
“And even some exceptional players win tournaments but are not great to watch. And you get good players that don’t win so many events but I’d pay to watch them, because they play the game the right way.