It was a snooker-packed Sunday with three events running concurrently yesterday.
Of course most of the attention was on the opening day at the 2023 Masters.
Here are WST accounts on what happened at Ally Pally:
Robertson Falls At First Hurdle
Shaun Murphy believes that success at the highest level is “just around the corner” and his 6-4 victory over Neil Robertson at the Cazoo Masters suggested that the Magician is getting back to his best.
Robertson’s title defence failed to go beyond the opening match at Alexandra Palace, though he was barely able to prepare for the contest having suffered from the effects of a bout of flu over the Christmas break. After falling 5-1 behind he rallied to 5-4, but eventually Murphy crossed the winning line to set up a quarter-final with Kyren Wilson or Stuart Bingham.
Murphy has struggled with neck pain and a loss of form over the past two years and hasn’t reached a final since the 2021 World Championship. Last summer he had gastric sleeve surgery to lose weight, and in recent weeks he has shown more regular glimpses of the game which won him the 2005 World Championship and 2015 Masters. He was a quarter-finalist at the Cazoo UK Championship and came within a few balls of beating Mark Selby in the last 16 of the English Open.
“I haven’t forgotten how to do it, I’m just not as used to doing that as some of the top guys,” said 40-year-old Murphy. “If I can get on a run, as Mark Allen has done this season, I could take some stopping. Something good is coming for me, my game is trending the right way. I have been practising very hard and something is around the corner.”
Robertson started brightly as a 73 clearance gave him the opening frame, but Murphy responded with breaks of 98 and 53 to go ahead, and he also got the better of a scrappy fourth frame to lead 3-1. In the fifth, Murphy missed a straight-forward green when he led 61-42, and Robertson had a chance to clear, but his attempt to roll the final pink into a top corner stayed in the jaws. Murphy potted the pink to snatch it, then compiled a run of 100 in the next to lead 5-1.
The Englishman might have settled the tie in frame seven, but again missed the green to a baulk corner, trailing 39-60. Robertson took advantage to close to 5-2, and that sparked his fight back. A run of 84 gave him frame eight, and in the next he potted 13 reds with blacks before missing a tough long red on 104.
And Robertson had first clear chance in frame ten, but overcut the blue to a centre pocket at 35-0. Murphy replied with 54 before missing the penultimate red, but he was let off the hook as Robertson potted the red then failed on the blue. This time world number 11 Murphy took the chance to finish the tie.
“I’m delighted,” he added. “It looked like we are going to a decider. The break I made in the last frame, I’m very proud of that to be able to stand up under pressure. It’s up there with my best wins in the last couple of seasons. To beat the defending champion, centre stage, in the first match of the tournament, is very pleasing.
“You have to enjoy the performance element. I love walking out there in front of a live crowd and the fans are unbelievable here. It was a privilege to play for them. The World Championship will always be top dog but this is a very close second.”
Robertson, who beat Barry Hawkins in the final last year, said: “I was proud of myself to get four frames. I made a real push to try to make a 147 at 5-3, that would have been amazing. I was physically absolutely exhausted, destroyed. I was ill over the Christmas and New Year period and haven’t recovered. It’s really disappointing because at the UK Championship I had a really bad cold, so that’s two big events which have been heavily impacted. There’s nothing I can do about it because my daughter brings home viruses from nursery. I was only able to practise for 45 minutes for a couple of days before today.”
It was obvious from the start that Neil Robertson wasn’t well. He wasn’t well during the 2022 UK Championship either. His explanation is that his daughter brings viruses back from the nursery. I have been there, it’s true that kids do bring viruses home but is it explanation enough for him to be affected that badly? I’m not sure. It seems to me that his immune system isn’t responding as strongly as it should. This is one of the adverse effects of unduly long periods of lockdown IMO. Our bodies only build immunity by being exposed to “the enemy”. Lockdowns and masks were needed at the start of the pandemics to “contain” a very dangerous virus until it was better “understood” and treatments and vaccines became available, but not after that stage was reached.
Prince Of Persia Flies At The Palace
Hossein Vafaei’s Cazoo Masters debut turned out to be one of the best nights of his career as he scored two centuries in a tremendous 6-2 victory over Mark Selby.
A week ago, Vafaei was not expecting to play in snooker’s biggest invitation event, but when Zhao Xintong was suspended he was next in line, and got the call up to join the field at Alexandra Palace. The first Iranian to play in the tournament, he grasped the opportunity with a superb performance to comfortably beat one of the all-time greats.
The past year has seen world number 19 Vafaei make giant leaps forward in his career; he won the Shoot Out in January, made his Crucible debut in April and has now won a match in front of nearly 2,000 fans at this famous venue. Next, the 28-year-old will face either John Higgins or Jack Lisowski in the quarter-finals on Thursday evening.
Selby won the English Open before Christmas but this is a blow to his return to form and a result which extends his poor recent record at the Masters – the three-time champion has not reached the semi-finals since 2014. The world number two has lost his last his three meetings against Vafaei, including defeats at the UK Championship in 2021 and 2022.
The opening four frames tonight were shared, Vafaei making the bigger breaks with 52 and 107. In frame five, Vafaei came to a tough table with seven of the 12 reds close to cushions, but fashioned a magnificent 99, one of the best breaks of the season so far.
The sixth came down to the last two reds and Vafaei, leading 58-31, got the better of a tactical exchange and added the points he needed to lead 4-2. Selby looked set to pulled one back until he ran out of position at 48-8 in the seventh, and he then made a safety error which handed Vafaei the chance to make an excellent 65 clearance.
A missed long red from Selby early in frame eight proved his last opportunity as Vafaei closed out the contest with a 104.
“When I got to Alexandra Palace yesterday I was buzzing,” said Vafaei. “I had dreamed about playing here many times. There is so much history behind this event and if you want to be a good player you have to show yourself in front of the London fans. It was amazing, when I play at a venue like this, my best comes out. If you get involved with the fans, they will love you. I was sitting in my chair and people were asking me in between frames to take a picture with me! I got lots of positive energy from them so I had to give something back.
“If I didn’t believe I could win this tournament, I wouldn’t be here. I think I belong here, the way I played and I felt comfortable. I don’t want the tournament to finish in the next round, I want to stay as long as I can.
“I tried my best to make my people proud. This is what I can do for them, I just want to be with my people.”
Selby said: “Up until 2-2 I felt I was the better player. At 3-2 down I missed a red, and after that little things went against me. A couple of times I went into the pack and didn’t land on anything. When Hossein got his chances he took them well.”
This didn’t come as a surprise to me at all. In my preview, I had mentioned that Hossein had beaten Mark the last two times they had played, both times in big events – the 2021 and 2022 UK Championships – and both times in “best of eleven” matches. Make that three now. Hossein is clearly a “big occasion player” and Mark is not back to his best either.
WPBSA Chairman, Jason Ferguson, was interviewed by the ES team, ahead of the event. Of course it was about the “elephant in the room”, the match fixing ongoing investigation. ES shared the interview on their YouTube channel:
Obviously, Jason can’t reveal too much until the inquiry is over. Maybe the most interesting part of this interview is his statement about the “timing”: we should know much more by the end of this month.
Yesterday also saw the conclusion of the sixth and last Q-Tour event of the season. Martin O’Donnell beat Ross Muir in the final yesterday evening, and, as a result, earned the 2 years tour card, starting next season.
O’Donnell Earns Main Tour Return
Martin O’Donnell has defeated Ross Muir 5-1 to win the sixth and final event of the 2022/23 WPBSA Q Tour. The victory means that O’Donnell will finish top of this season’s Q Tour Rankings and will return to the World Snooker Tour from the start of next season.
A professional from 2012-2014 and 2015-2022, O’Donnell has enjoyed an impressive campaign on the WPBSA Q Tour, highlighted by victory at Event 2 in Brighton which helped him to sixth position in the rankings prior to the final event.
In the final he faced Scotland’s Ross Muir – top of the rankings since his victory at the very first event back in September – who was also competing in his second final this term and was looking to regain his professional status for the first time since 2019.
It was O’Donnell who made the perfect start with a total clearance of 142, followed by breaks of 54 and 50 on his way to a 4-0 lead at the mid-session interval. Muir claimed the first upon the resumption of play to keep his hopes alive, but it was ultimately England’s O’Donnell who would claim a tense sixth following a safety battle on the final red to ensure that his absence from the main tour would be limited to only a single season.
“It is really nice,” said O’Donnell shortly after the final. “It has been a lot of hard work since I dropped off the tour and it’s nice that it has paid off so quickly and I have finished at the top of the Q Tour this season.
“The standard [on Q Tour] is really high, that surprised me actually. I dropped off and I came to these and there are a lot of good players. A lot of good players that I hadn’t seen before and it’s hard. With the best of fives, it’s granite on the Saturday and you can lose at any moment, so you can’t get carried away.
“I took a bit of time out after I dropped off and wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. I didn’t want to give up. I ended up changing my cue which has given me a new lease of life and I have also got my head down and tried to think a lot more positively and not really worry about consequences – which I did when I was on tour.
“I got caught up and worried about stuff, but you drop off tour and life goes on. You don’t realise it sometimes when you are on tour, I’ve got two kids, beautiful fiancé, good people around me and they pick you up and reassure you that you can do it. We all believe that I should be playing snooker and luckily now I have got my tour card back and hopefully I can kick on.
“I need to improve myself every day, keep a good routine and keep doing the right things and just enjoy it. When you do all the right things you go to tournaments and you do enjoy it because you know that you are so prepared so it takes away a lot of the anxiety.”
The manner of O’Donnell’s triumph was all the more impressive as the former Shoot Out semi-finalist had previously missed out on competing in the penultimate event of the season due to illness, which saw him lose ground to some of the players around him. He revealed after the final, however, that this gave him added motivation heading into the decisive competition in Leeds this weekend.
“I missed the last one through sickness,” added the 36-year-old. ” It was the first competition that I have ever missed through being sick, but once I got better and then I checked what happened in that event, to be honest I was quite delighted that it was still in my own hands. I knew that if I could meet Ross [Muir] in the final and beat him, that I could still qualify, so I just thought ‘get my head down, come here and give every ball 200%’ and see where it would take me.
“I am super proud with the way that I have dealt with my emotions this week. In the past, missing that last tournament from being in a good position would have affected me. But I used it this time to motivate me and just say ‘it’s in my hands, go there and leave it all on the table and if it doesn’t happen there is still the playoff’ and thankfully it has paid dividends.”
O’Donnell was one of 13 players who came into the final event in contention to claim the automatic tour card, but there were just three remaining on the final day with Billy Castle also still in range of top spot.
The trio each won their quarter-finals to progress to the last four, but it would be Muir who would account for Castle following a dramatic deciding-frame in their semi-final, while O’Donnell edged fellow former professional Steve Hallworth 4-2 to reach the title match.
The highest ranked 16 players who did not qualify, will at least have the consolation of having earned a place at the Q Tour Playoffs later this season, with a chance to earn the second World Snooker Tour card available through the Q Tour. Simon Bedford entered the final day needing to win the tournament to oust 17th placed Peter Devlin, but he too would fall to O’Donnell at the quarter-final stage.
The 2023 WPBSA Q Tour Playoffs will be held from 4-5 March 2023 at the Q House Snooker Academy in Darlington and the draw will be published in due course.
Congratulations Martin O’Donnell
Commiserations to Ross Muir who had been the best over the series.
Meanwhile, the 2023 6-reds World Championship qualifiers are under way and you can follow the scores and results on snooker.org.