The 2022 Masters – Day 2

Day 2 at Ally Pally saw wins for John Higgins and Barry Hawkins. Although I expected this outcome, I felt disappointed at the end of the day. Neither match was close.

Here are the reports by WST:

Afternoon session

Higgins Celebrates Record Appearance

John Higgins marked a record 28th appearance in snooker’s biggest invitation event by beating Zhao Xintong 6-2 in the first round of the Cazoo Masters.

Higgins first took the stage in this prestigious event back in 1995 and has since been ever-present. He was previously tied with Steve Davis and Jimmy White on 27 appearances but now holds that record on his own. At the age of 46 he is ranked sixth in the world and it’s easy to see the all-time legend keeping his place among the top 16 for many years to come and extending that record.

Today he outmaneuvered a player 22 years his junior as he booked a place in the quarter-finals at Alexandra Palace. Zhao was making his debut in the event having leapt into the top 16 by winning the Cazoo UK Championship last month. The Chinese ace showed early promise today with a century in the second frame, but then couldn’t maintain a foothold in the contest as his opponent pulled away.

Higgins is into the quarter-finals of this event for the 15th time and faces an intriguing clash with fellow veteran Mark Williams on Thursday evening. The Scot has been this season’s most consistent player so far, reaching four finals but losing all four, and he will be determined to capture his first silverware of the campaign.

Today’s match opened with fireworks from both players as Higgins made a break of 100 in the opening frame then Zhao responded with a 128, the new front-runner for the £15,000 high break prize. Zhao scored just 22 points in the next three frames as Higgins surged 4-1 ahead with a top run of 104.

Frame six went Zhao’s way but when he missed a risky long red in the seventh, trailing 24-8, he let Higgins in for a run of 30 which proved enough for 5-2. And two critical safety errors from Zhao in the eighth ended his hopes of a fight-back, as Higgins punished him with breaks of 39 and 78 to seal the result.

Wishaw’s Higgins lifted the trophy in 1999 and 2006 and came close to a third title last year but lost the final 10-8 against Yan Bingtao.

Zhao is such a special talent, he makes it look ridiculously easy, the way he strokes the ball in,” said four-time World Champion Higgins. “I was just trying to make it difficult for him. He missed a couple that he usually wouldn’t miss and that gave me confidence, and I played pretty well. The table played well and it’s the best arena that anyone can play in.

All of the top 16 are lucky to be here and anyone else will be desperate to be here next year. It’s neck and neck with the Crucible as an arena. They are different – the Crucible has more history – but this place is special.

It’s a healthy rivalry I have with Mark Williams. Maybe ten or 15 years ago we were both in the top four and we were fighting for the same titles. We have both dropped down now and we can still win events. I look across at him now and think I have shared a snooker table with him for 30 years. It’s admiration on my part when I look at Mark and Ronnie O’Sullivan, that they are still playing to an unbelievable level. To play him in such an iconic arena, I can’t wait for Thursday night.

Ronnie has moved into the stratosphere with Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry in terms of their records and me and Mark are a bit below.

Zhao said: “John played really well. When I made a century in the second frame I thought I could win. But after that he didn’t give me many chances. I felt a bit of pressure, I was trying to focus on every ball, but John played too well. It’s a great venue, I hope I will be back here next year.”

I was hoping for a better performance by Zhao and a closer match. Ally Pally is a fantastic venue but it’s quite unique. The atmosphere in there is electric. The only other venue that compares with it is the Tempodrom in Berlin. It can be overwhelming I suppose, especially when it’s your first time there. John Higgins played extremely well indeed for most of the match, although his level dipped a bit towards the end. It’s a strange thing with John: I understand how fantastically well he plays, I admire his skills and game but  he doesn’t excite me. I won’t go as far as saying that he bores me but… Maybe it’s because he shows very little emotions? I’m not sure why it doesn’t click for me but I know that I’m not the only one.

Evening Session:

Hawk Soars To Beat Murphy

Barry Hawkins preserved his 100 percent record against Shaun Murphy at the Cazoo Masters, scoring a comfortable 6-2 win to reach the quarter-finals.

Hawkins and Murphy have met on three occasions at Alexandra Palace, each time in the opening round. The Hawk was victorious by a 6-1 scoreline in 2017 and also won 6-2 in 2019.

Although Hawkins holds the edge over Murphy at the Masters, he still trails the 2005 World Champion 10-4 in the head-to-head standings.

Londoner Hawkins missed out on the Masters 12 months ago, after dropping out of the world’s top 16. However, an impressive return to form in 2021 saw him reach four ranking event semi-finals, including the Cazoo UK Championship before Christmas, to return to the sport’s top tier.

By contrast Murphy has struggled to find his form this season, despite being World Championship runner-up at the end of the previous campaign. The Magician failed to secure his place in the top 32 of the one-year list before Christmas and as a result missed out on the Cazoo World Grand Prix. He now heads to Berlin later this month for the German Masters.

Hawkins took the opener this evening with a break of 65, before Murphy restored parity with a run of 69 to make it 1-1. Murphy then hit the front by winning the third and Hawkins claimed the fourth to head into the mid-session all-square at 2-2.

When play resumed 2015 Masters winner Murphy looked to be in a strong position to regain the lead. He was 54-4 in front when he missed a pink to the right middle. That cost him dearly, with Hawkins compiling a run of 60 to take the frame on the final pink.

That was the moment the Hawk pounced at the winning line. A further three on the bounce followed, including breaks of 103 and 69, to wrap up the 6-2 victory. He now faces the winner of Mark Selby and Stephen Maguire in the quarter-finals.

“Most of the season I feel like I’ve struggled to find rhythm or flow. I just tried to go out there and play my natural game tonight. I was going for the first shot I saw and upped the tempo. That is what worked in the end and I felt good in myself,” said 42-year-old Hawkins.

“I played well tonight and I’ve played well before here. Maybe it is just the occasion. It is a local tournament and a massive occasion. Sometimes I get up for it more than I do the other events. Shaun is a great player, I can’t see why I do well against him here but his head-to-head is 10-4. I just seem to have it on him here really.

“I think everyone is happy to be out and seeing live sport. There is no better feeling than playing well in front of a packed crowd on a big occasion. Playing behind closed doors was quite demoralising. I should imagine that was the same for every sport. You need the fans in for sport or it doesn’t work.”

Murphy said: “After the interval I thought he played like a possible winner of the tournament. He was very very good and he doesn’t make many mistakes. Losing the fourth and fifth frames took the wind out of my sales and in the end he picked me off.”

Ahead of the match, Shaun Murphy had been speaking with Phil Haigh about the extent of his neck and shoulder injuries and how they are impacting his game and his career. It was there for all to see yesterday that he was in discomfort, and that his stance when low on the shot wasn’t what it should be. Maybe he should play every shot with the rest? Only joking of course but those were actually the only shots where he looked comfortable and he’s excellent with the rest.

That said, Barry was his reliable solid self and always a danger no matter who he plays.

The 2022 Masters – Day 1

Mark Williams and Neil Robertson emerged the winners at the end of the first day at the 2022 Masters.

“Willo” beat the defending Champion, Yan Bingtao by 6-4. It was an excellent, entertaining  match. Both played well. Both got support from the fans. Williams had luck on his side: he benefitted from two massive flukes at key moments.

Here is the report by WST:

Williams Downs Defending Champion Yan

Mark Williams hailed Alexandra Palace as the best arena he has played in, after beating defending Cazoo Masters champion Yan Bingtao 6-4 on day one in North London.

The Welshman is competing at the Masters for the 24th time this week. He famously won the first of his two Masters titles 24 years ago, when he defeated Stephen Hendry 10-9 on a re-spotted black in the decider. Next up this week he faces either John Higgins or Zhao Xintong in the quarter-finals on Thursday evening.

Williams has had an up and down season so far. He started superbly by claiming his 24th career ranking title at the British Open, beating Gary Wilson in the final. Following that win he has suffered difficulties with both gout and Covid-19 and his deepest run saw him reach the last 16 of the Northern Ireland Open. On today’s evidence he looks to be back in top form.

Yan will be disappointed to exit his title defence at the first hurdle. The Chinese 21-year-old was making his Alexandra Palace debut this afternoon. He won the title on his maiden Masters appearance 12 months ago. The event was forced behind closed doors in Milton Keynes, where Yan secured a stunning 10-8 defeat of John Higgins to lift the Paul Hunter Trophy.

When play got underway, Yan showed no signs of early nerves as he fired in breaks of 64 and 71 to move into an early 2-0 advantage. Williams replied with a run of 63 to take the third and had the first opportunity in the fourth. However, he missed a tricky black on 15 and Yan stepped in with a frame winning contribution of 57 to lead 3-1 at the mid-session.

When play resumed Williams reduced his arrears by claiming the fifth in dramatic fashion. With Yan requiring a snooker on the pink, he left Williams in a tricky position behind the black. Williams proceeded to come off the side cushion and hit the pink, fortuitously potting it in a baulk corner to lead 3-2.

The 46-year-old from Cwm then turned the heat up on Yan, with further runs of 62, 67, 64 and 104 to make it four frames on the bounce and lead 5-3.

Yan refused to throw in the towel and kept himself in the tie with a superb break of 122. However, Williams wasn’t to be denied and sealed his 6-4 win after firing in a contribution 85.

“This is such a hard tournament to win, especially when you have John Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Hendry about. It is just nice to be in these venues. The atmosphere was electric. I just have to enjoy it more, because I’m not going to keep coming back here year after year,” said three-time World Champion Williams.

“I didn’t think anything would ever beat the Wembley Conference Centre but I think now I have to admit this is the best venue we’ve ever played in. You have the big lounge at the back of the stands, the sofas at the other end. It is a massive arena and it is hard to generate an atmosphere like that. I don’t think you can.

“I’d like to play John next. We’ve been around forever. He’s getting older, greyer and balder. I’m getting older, greyer and balder. There would be a fantastic crowd and it would just be like the Crucible back in 2018. It would be brilliant.”

Yan said: “We both played very well this afternoon. Mark was great today, he made every long pot and every difficult shot. I lost today but I am happy because I played well. That was the best I’ve played this season.

“I enjoyed it out there. I had a lot of pressure as it was very different to last year having 2,000 people watching the match. This was my first time at Ally Pally. Today I played well and I enjoyed the arena.”

I can’t remember seeing Mark Williams that animated and so moved by the crowd’s support ever before. It clearly still means a lot to him not matter what he sometimes says.

The second match was quite different, or, at least the first half was. I didn’t watch past the MSI because I really didn’t enjoy it, it was a poor match, and it was getting late here with the time difference.  Neil Robertson beat Anthony McGill by 6-3.

Here is the report by WST:

Robertson Battles Past McGill

Neil Robertson put on a battling display to beat Anthony McGill 6-3 and clinch his place in the quarter-finals of the Cazoo Masters at Alexandra Palace.

Victory for Robertson ends a streak of two consecutive opening round Masters defeats, having fallen at the first hurdle in 2020 and 2021. The Australian was victorious nine years ago at Alexandra Palace, when he defeated Shaun Murphy in the 2012 final to secure the only Masters title of his career so far.

Robertson has been in fine form so far this season. He has already picked up silverware at the English Open, where he beat John Higgins 9-8 from 8-6 down in the title match. Robertson also reached the final of the Cazoo World Grand Prix before Christmas, but narrowly lost to Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Next up this week for 2010 World Champion Robertson is a quarter-final clash with either O’Sullivan or Jack Lisowski.

Scotland’s McGill remains without a match win at Alexandra Palace, having lost out to John Higgins in the opening round on his debut in 2018. He will now turn his attentions to a trip to Berlin later this month for the German Masters.

It was McGill who looked the stronger player in the opening exchanges this evening, with Robertson struggling to produce his pre-Christmas form. The Glaswegian moved 2-1 ahead, making breaks of 78 and 115 in the process. However, Robertson managed to restore parity heading into the mid-session, firing in a run of 75 to make it 2-2.

When play resumed it was Robertson who took the lead for the first time, a contribution of 94 edged him 3-2 ahead.

McGill drew level with a break of 75, but it would prove to be his last winning frame of the tie. Robertson blitzed to the line with three frames on the bounce, including runs of 57 and 62.

Robertson said: “Going into the interval I was singing and dancing, because I should have at least been a couple of frames down. Things improved in the next frame or two and from 3-3 to 6-3 I played some pretty good stuff. My long game got a lot better and I fed off the momentum of the crowd, who started getting behind me.

“The only other atmosphere I could compare this to is the one table setup at the Crucible, but even then I don’t think it is like this. This was rowdy and they weren’t afraid to show their displeasure in some of the safety or the frames taking too long. That is a good thing as they want to be entertained. They’ve paid a lot of money to be here and without the fans having the courage to come here with Covid and everything it would be like last year.

“Coming through a match like that, where you don’t play well but produce the goods in the big moments, is a really good sign. I have a few days practice to hone everything and get things where they should be. I had too much time off over Christmas. I spent two weeks in Norway, which was amazing, but I should have made the more selfish decision and come back early. I got away with it a little bit today. Hopefully I can play really well next match.”

I’m not a fan of McGill’s game: he tends to overthink, he’s often too cautious and rather slow. He should have been ahead at the MSI – Neil was all over the place – but wasn’t largely because he refused too many shots. Even Alan McManus said it in the commentary box and that means a lot because, whenever one of his Scottish pals is at the table, Alan tends to lose his “neutrality” in commentary, and “sides” with his fellow countryman. Alan is an excellent commentator, with fantastic insight and knowledge, but that “trait” annoys me, just as Phil Yates annoys me when commentating on one of his favourites (Trump and Hendry in particular).

 

 

Build-up to the 2022 Masters – Change of guard?

The 2022 Masters starts today and here is the last “media” piece I have chosen to share, an article by the always excellent Phil Haigh, reflecting on the recent success of young, non British players and whether the long awaited “change of guard” is finally becoming a reality.

Here is is:

Snooker’s ‘changing of the guard’ will be given an acid test at the Masters

Yan Bingtao and Zhao Xintong
Yan Bingtao and Zhao Xintong will take on legends at Alexandra Palace (Pictures: Getty)

In the coming days we will see arguably the two brightest young talents in snooker take on two of the greatest to ever pick up a cue on one of the sport’s grandest stages. Is there really a changing of the guard on the baize? The Masters will help settle that debate.

Snooker has been edging further and further away from being a young man’s game in recent years, with six of the 16 men heading to the Masters in their forties and eight more having celebrated their 30th birthdays.

The only two of the 16 who might get asked for ID in the pub are defending champion Yan Bingtao, 21, and reigning UK champion Zhao Xintong 24; the young Chinese stars that caused big upsets over the last year to claim two of the sport’s greatest titles.

Thanks to their success, and the recent superb form of 26-year-old Belgian star Luca Brecel, there has been talk that the balance is finally starting to tip back towards the younger generation and away from the veterans that have dominated the upper echelons of the rankings for 25 years.

Two of those men wait for Yan and Zhao at Alexandra Palace, with the Masters champ taking on Mark Williams and the UK king facing John Higgins.

Yan won his Masters title behind closed doors in Milton Keynes last year and will be entering an entirely different atmosphere in front of a full and rowdy Ally Pally on Sunday as defending champion.

Will the Tiger earn his stripes once again by overcoming that pressure against the wiliest of old foxes? Williams will not bat an eyelid at the big stage – hopefully he won’t close them all together again – and having won his 24th ranking title this season he still has the quality to beat anyone at 46 years old.

Four-time world champ Higgins is the same age as the Welshman and has been in even better form, despite not lifting any silverware since the Players Championship in February.

The Wizard of Wishaw has been to four finals already this season, and although he has lost them all, his level of consistency has been remarkable.

Zhao has been anything but consistent in his career so far, with the Cyclone storming to victory at the UK almost completely out of nowhere, competing in and winning the only final he has ever played in.

If he can topple the Wizard at Alexandra Palace then the Cyclone will look a lot more like a lasting disaster for the other top players rather than a brief but destructive gust through York.

The third, and most famous, member of the Class of 92 also faces the challenge of a younger man on his way up in the game rather than down, but one that is more illustrative of the lack of guard changing on the baize in recent years.

Jack Lisowski has the task of downing Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Masters, something that would go down as one of the most significant wins of his career so far, despite that career already lasting over a decade.

Betfred World Snooker Championship - Day Nine
Jack Lisowski is still working to fulfil his immense potential (Picture: Getty Images)

At 30, Jackpot is still seen as one of the exciting young players in the sport yet to claim a ranking title, but with most pundits expecting one or many more to come.

Rarely in sport would someone in their fourth decade be viewed as a youthful hopeful, but such has been the lack of teenage talent in recent years that the likes of Lisowski, Judd Trump and Kyren Wilson have held onto their ‘young player’ tags far longer than they should have.

The emergence of Yan and Zhao should finally remove the label of youth from their elders, but they will have to start beating the seasoned campaigners on a regular basis for a changing of the guard to really take hold.

WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson does not think we are seeing that change just yet, with the veterans still too good and the next big wave of talent not quite ready to take over.

I think we’ve got a while yet,’ Ferguson told Metro.co.uk. ‘I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but it is coming.

I always look back over the years, people saying, “This game’s finished when Alex Higgins finishes” and then Jimmy White came along. Then the same thing about Jimmy stopping but Ronnie O’Sullivan came along.

Ronnie O'Sullivan gettyimages-1313835458
Ronnie O’Sullivan is still going strong at 46, winning the World Grand Prix in December (Picture: Getty Images)

There’ll always be new stars and new talent coming through and it is coming. There are young players coming through but I think the next big wave is a little bit young at the moment.

I think what I see in snooker is how people’s minds mature and become so mentally strong over a long period of time. John Higgins is just incredible, mentally unbelievable. Mark Williams has still got incredible timing, incredible delicate touch, they’re just not showing any age at all.

I think they’ve got a few years yet, these boys, but they aren’t going to be around forever.’

Former world champion Shaun Murphy, who turns 40 this year, is also not sure about any guard changing just yet, and doesn’t think it will come until the fabled trio of O’Sullivan, Higgins and Williams put away their cues for good.

I think that’s something I hear quite a lot when you see newer players coming through,’ Murphy told Metro.co.uk.

Shaun Murphy
Murphy is far from convinced about any guard changing just yet (Picture: Getty Images)

‘”Changing of the guard” has been said for donkey’s years. I’m not sure the guard will fully have changed until the Class of 92 will leave the rest of us alone.

When are they going to retire?’ Murphy laughed. ‘Can we throw a big party for them? I feel like they’ve outstayed their welcome, can we get them a nice carriage clock or something?

I’m not sure the guard will have changed fully until those guys leave. But it’s great for the game when somebody like Luca Brecel starts showing his full potential, obviously Xintong winning the UK is massive for the sport, not just for him, but in terms of growth in other parts of the world.

If we weren’t in a pandemic, I’m sure we’d have seen an explosion of interest again in the Far East. Hopefully that momentum will last when we come out of what has been a terrible two years.

The Magician knows as well as anyone how tricky it is to play the likes of Williams and Higgins on the big stages, but he has seen what Zhao can do, not just at the UK Championship, but this week at the Championship League when he played eight matches and won the lot.

Murphy won the UK himself back in 2008 and knows just how good Zhao will be feeling going into the sternest of tests against Higgins at Ally Pally.

That’s the acid test, two of the best players of all time will put these two lads through their paces and we’ll get to see,’ said Murphy.

If the way Xintong has started this year is anything to go by, in the Championship League, then it looks like there’s more of the same to come.

When you win a big tournament like the UK you feel like you’re walking on water, you can clear up from anywhere, nothing’s beyond your reach. I hope he rides that wave for as long as he possibly can because eventually that momentum will end, so I hope he enjoys it because it’s a very special feeling.

It will be another very special feeling for the hugely talented twenty-somethings if they can oust the legends from the Palace and start to convince a few more people that a change really is coming.

The Masters first round draw and schedule

Sunday 9 January
1pm: Yan Bingtao vs Mark Williams
7pm: Neil Robertson vs Anthony McGill

Monday 10 January
1pm: John Higgins vs Luca Brecel/Zhao Xintong
7pm: Shaun Murphy vs Barry Hawkins

Tuesday 11 January
1pm: Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Jack Lisowski
7pm: Mark Selby vs Stephen Maguire

Wednesday 12 January
1pm: Judd Trump vs Mark Allen
7pm: Kyren Wilson vs Stuart Bingham

Well, I do think that something IS happening here and now. For years there have been talks about brilliant young prospects, nearly all of them British or Irish, but none of them have delivered despite being massively favoured by the UK centric structure of the main tour.  But now we are in a situation where two out of three of the “Majors”, two out of three of the “Triple Crowns” are held by young Chinese players.

The last UK Championship final was competed between two young players: Zhao is 24, Luca is 26. We have to go back to 2011 to have another UK final competed between two under-30 players, and for the first time in the long and prestigious history of the event, none of te finalists was British/Irish. 

We have a similar situation with the Masters. The only ever Masters final competed between two non British/Irish players dates back to 2011, when Ding Junhui beat Marc Fu, and to find a Masters Final competed between two under-30 players we have to go back in time as far as 2012, when Neil Robertson defeated Shaun Murphy.

Early 2011 was also the only time before now when two of the “Triple Crowns” where held by non British/Irish players, with Neil Robertson being the reigning World Champion and Ding being the Masters Champion.

Ding’s successes inspired a new generation of young Chinese players, but his “status” as a national icon in China has also held them back for a long timeI feel but this is changing now.

So, signs are there that it’s “coming” indeed and what happened in York in December is exceptional… for now. Is it an “anomaly”? A “one-off” ? Or is it a sign of things to come? I believe and hope it’s the latter.

Time will tell.

2021/22 Championship League Snooker – Scott Donaldson wins Group 5

The Group 5 final was competed between two players who weren’t meant to be in the event at all. Scott Donaldson beat Jordan Brown by 3-2. Jordan had been the best player throughout the two days.

CLS2021:22Group5Results

Here is the report on WST web site:

Donaldson Wins Group Five

Scott Donaldson won Group Five of the BetVictor Championship League Snooker Invitational by beating Jordan Brown 3-2 in the group final at the Morningside Arena in Leicester.

Scores and Standings

Brown was a late addition to the tournament replacing Mark Selby in Group Five and made the most of it in the group stage, racking up 16 frames to top the group and earn a semi-final meeting with Ali Carter. Donaldson had claimed the group’s high break (132) and did enough to clinch a last four clash with Kyren Wilson.

Brown made breaks of 33 and 38 in the opening frame against Carter, before a run of 80 quickly made it 2-0. The job was done for Brown in the third, with a break of 67, to meet the winner of Wilson and Donaldson in the final.

Donaldson fired in a fine break of 130 in the first frame, but was pegged back in the second by Wilson’s 85. Donaldson moved ahead once again with 75 in the third, before Wilson forced a decider. It was Perth’s Donaldson who showed his steel by conjuring a winning contribution of 77.

When it came to the final, the opening two frames were shared to leave the clash finely poised. A run of 64 saw Brown move 2-1 ahead, before Donaldson claimed the fourth with a break of 60 to ensure a decider. He wrapped it up with a break of 88 that started out with a fluked red.

Donaldson said: “I am enjoying being healthy and being able to enjoy my snooker. My game has been good for a while since October. I am relaxed out there when playing. It was a good result for me. I just want to enjoy playing and winning.”

Wilson, Carter, and Gould will all return in Group 6 alongside Yan Bingtao, Ding Junhui, and Ricky Walden who will join the competition. Gilbert and Lu were both eliminated after taking sixth and seventh spots, respectively.

Scott seems to feel comfortable with this format. He has won this event before: the 2020 Championship League Snooker is his only professional title so far.

Build-up to the 2022 Masters – Neal Foulds views

Eurosport pundit Neal Foulds reflects on Ronnie’s last win and how it might help him to win the 2022 Masters:

Ronnie

Neal Foulds snooker column: Eurosport and ITV pundit on Ronnie O’Sullivan’s Masters bid

By Neal Foulds

Crowds set to return at the Masters

There won’t be many snooker fans who don’t love the Masters, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting back to Alexandra Palace for this special event, one which we welcome back home this year following the staging of the tournament behind closed doors in Milton Keynes 12 months ago.

The Wembley Conference Centre was such an iconic venue with a great atmosphere that it was always going to be hard to replicate that elsewhere, but Ally Pally has managed to make the event its own and in 2020 – the last time we were here before the pandemic – the atmosphere was electric throughout and the venue exceptional, with new additions such as the Century Club adding another dimension for spectators.

I watched a little bit of the darts over Christmas which was staged at the same venue, and while I’m not in any way condoning some of the behaviour from over-enthusiastic fans that met with some stern criticism from some quarters, I would generally be inclined to cut sports fans some slack.

Bad behaviour is bad behaviour, and we don’t want to see it, but we must remember that for many people this week, this will be the first live snooker they’ve seen in two years. The Masters has always been a meeting point for many people in the South and for some, they might be seeing their friends again for the first time in 24 months.

The Masters is always a lively atmosphere and people in London love their snooker. Those people will be desperately excited to have snooker back and sports fans in general have been through a lot through this pandemic, have missed out on a lot, and now must put up with more strict protocols just to see snooker at Ally Pally this week. We thank them for that and I hope everyone has a good time – just don’t be surprised if the roof comes off should Ronnie O’Sullivan find himself in a big match later in the tournament.

Ronnie Masters

I have some great memories of the Masters, from my playing days and afterwards. I think to even play in the Masters, given the draw is made up of the top 16 players in the world, you feel like you’ve achieved something and there is no doubt that even before the snooker begins, this one feels extra special.

Back in my playing days, the event was sponsored by a tobacco company for many years and they looked after us well and made a big fuss of us. It immediately felt different to playing in anything else and add to the mix that the Wembley Conference Centre was such a huge arena with a passionate crowd, you could easily let things get on top of you.

I lived close to the venue in those days and it was only a 15-minute walk from my home. As a local player, I would get lots of support, but that can sometimes work against you and when I made my Masters debut against Dennis Taylor in 1987, I did struggle a little bit. It probably took me a couple of years to really embrace it all – the venue, the atmosphere, the prestige of the tournament – and that can apply to anyone.

It really is your chance to shine or shrink and I think that’s one of the reasons why you don’t get too many shock winners here. It can take some getting used to and this year’s field features 10 previous winners with 20 Masters titles between them – albeit O’Sullivan has won seven of them. Interestingly, despite being defending champion, this will be Yan Bingtao’s first appearance at Ally Pally having won last year when the event was played behind closed doors in Milton Keynes.

Paul Hunter glory days live long in the memory

Away from memories of my playing days, I think the Paul Hunter era, when he won the title three times in four years between 2001 and 2004, is the Masters memory that stands out most for me. He won every one of those finals 10-9, which is quite remarkable in itself, and the match against O’Sullivan in 2004 is particularly memorable given he came back from 7-2 down to win. Nobody beats O’Sullivan from that position, not at Wembley, but Hunter did.

Hunter sadly passed away two years later, and while that final and his run of Masters victories held significance then, if feels even more poignant now when you look back on his achievements and a career, and life, cut short. There are others, of course, O’Sullivan’s final with Steve Davis and the famous streaker incident, John Higgins clearing up in the deciding frame to beat O’Sullivan in 2006, but Paul Hunter’s name will always be synonymous with the Masters.

Paul Hunter Masters

Looking ahead to this year’s renewal, I think the most interesting match of the first round is the one between last year’s runner-up, Higgins, and UK Championship winner Zhao Xintong. Higgins might have won this event twice, but by his incredibly high standards that’s not actually that strong a record, and last year’s run represented his first Masters final since 2006. It is no surprise that came behind closed doors and I’m not sure this event and its partisan crowd is something Higgins has really enjoyed over the years.

I suspect the crowd might side with Xintong who has looked in ominous form in the Championship League in recent days, not putting a foot wrong and making big breaks for fun. This match will be something of a contrast in styles and it will be fascinating to see how Xintong handles himself on his Masters debut, always a big occasion for any player.

That’s an intriguing match, as is the one between Mark Allen and Judd Trump, winners of this tournament in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think Trump has a little bit to prove right now, similarly Allen, and that adds another interesting dimension to a clash between two players who tend to bring the best out in each other.

Despite dominating the sport over the last two years, Trump hasn’t won a Triple Crown event since the 2019 World Championship and, in fact, he’s struggled in a few of them, while he was forced to miss this tournament last year because of a positive Covid-19 test. I’m sure he’ll be keyed up to do well, but the Champion of Champions apart, he hasn’t really fired with the same consistency this term.

As for Allen, he’s a real Jekyll and Hyde performer at the moment, claiming last season’s Champion of Champions title and then barely winning a match thereafter until prevailing at the Northern Ireland Open at the beginning of the current campaign. Once again, he’s done very little since. I know he’s had his issues off the table but, like Trump, he has a few questions to answer this week. As such, I think this is another really interesting tie.

O’Sullivan back in business ahead of Masters bid

The other match that will have punters rubbing their hands together in anticipation is O’Sullivan’s meeting with Jack Lisowski on Tuesday. I do think, given everything he’s achieved this season, that it’s a great shame Scottish Open hero Luca Brecel isn’t in the Masters this year. He deserves to be. But that is no slight on Lisowski who would have been the one to miss out and is a terrific player in his own right, clearly adding something to every tournament he plays.

Nevertheless, I do believe Lisowski is good draw for O’Sullivan who has dominated many of their past matches and clearly enjoys the open, aggressive way Lisowski plays the game. I think O’Sullivan will have the edge again and he’s my fancy to claim what would be his eight Masters crown.

His record here is incredible, with those seven wins coming from 13 finals, and the timing is just perfect on the back of winning the last tournament, the World Grand Prix at the end of December. He’ll have taken so much inspiration from his triumph there, overcoming what appeared to be a struggle for his best form when producing a blistering late burst to beat Neil Robertson.

I’ve had my concerns about O’Sullivan of late. He just didn’t look to be playing as well as he can and the results he was getting, he was having to really work for them. But beating a player of Robertson’s class in that manner, and in a big final, will have done him the power of good.

Furthermore, I wonder if the pressure might just be off him a little bit now. He’d lost in his five previous finals before the World Grand Prix, but nothing beats winning and having proved to himself, and a few others, that he’s still one of the top dogs, he can turn up here with a weight lifted from his shoulders and go out and play in front of a crowd that will always be in his corner.

We know the event suits O’Sullivan well, and I don’t mind his draw at all, while in the bottom half, three-time winner Mark Selby will be hoping for a change of luck having done very little in this event since reaching the final in 2014, and now finds himself presented with a favourable-looking draw.

He’ll need avenge last year’s loss to Stephen Maguire, but the Scot hasn’t enjoyed the best of seasons so far and boasts nothing like the Masters record Selby does. After that for Selby it will be either Shaun Murphy or Barry Hawkins, who have hardly pulled up any trees of late.

Selby’s own form is hard to have full confidence in, but before the current world champion started to dominate in Sheffield, this was the tournament that made his career and I’m sure he’ll be desperate to make use of a good draw and kickstart a campaign that has yet to really take flight.

He could prove a live contender, but back at the Masters and in front of what is sure to be so much passionate and loyal support, I’m leaning towards O’Sullivan who has already given us one of the moments of the season and might just be about to write another chapter in the story of this great, old event.

I have nothing to add except a big “Thank you Neal!” for this excellent piece. In many ways, the Masters has always been my favourite tournament: just 16 top players, just one table and great coverage.  It’s luxury. I know that the future of our sport isn’t built through such event, but, somehow, it carries on the festive mood a bit longer and it’s one to savour.

Build-up to the 2022 Masters – Alan’s Predictions

The build-up to the Masters continues of course, and Alan McManus has delivered his first round preview:

Cazoo Masters – McManus Predictions

Ahead of the Cazoo Masters, which starts on Sunday, Eurosport pundit and 1994 Masters champion Alan McManus looks ahead to the opening round encounters.

Here are Alan’s predictions and thoughts on how the matches could pan out…

Sunday 9th January

1pm – Yan Bingtao vs Mark Williams

Alan’s Prediction – Mark Williams win

“This is a very interesting match. I still don’t know quite where Yan stands at the top level of the game. He is obviously improving in a lot of departments, but I still see this match as one where Mark is a good favourite. Yan will always be sharp, like all of the young players these days he is constantly practising. However, Mark loves this kind of event and will be ready for it. He will thrive in the atmosphere and the environment. The crowd means nothing for him in terms of his performance. There might be a bit of pressure on Yan as defending champion. I’d hazard a guess for Mark being a little bit too strong and his class may well tell in the end.”

7pm – Neil Robertson vs Anthony McGill

Alan’s Prediction – Neil Robertson win

“This is very difficult to predict. Looking at the way both guys play, I actually think this is a really good match for Anthony. I think he enjoys playing these guys. I know he faced John Higgins on his debut in 2018 and put in a really strong performance, before eventually getting beat. I don’t see this being an easy victory for Neil, but he is one of those that enjoys the crowd and the occasion at the Masters. Logic will tell you that you need to pick Neil to come through. However, I see this match being a close one. I rate Anthony very highly and I know Neil does too. This should be a great game.”

Monday 10th January

1pm – John Higgins vs Zhao Xintong

Alan’s Prediction – Zhao Xintong win

“I’ve not seen John over Christmas and New Year. I don’t know how much he has been on the table. I’d imagine he’ll have had a little bit of a break from it, as he has had a pretty strenuous first half of the season. I think this has the potential for a surprise result. Zhao has been playing at the Championship League and he did really well to come through his group. I think he will be very well prepped for it. In many ways this is the match of the round. There are so many questions on both sides of this game. How will the youngster handle the big stage? Will John continue his great form? I cannot wait to find out.”

7pm – Shaun Murphy vs Barry Hawkins

Alan’s Prediction – Shaun Murphy win

“In the modern world most of us have short memories. Despite his form not being the best before Christmas, we must make sure we remember Shaun’s performance in getting to the final at the Crucible last year. He just loves that big stage and always has. Barry just plays the same way all of the time, it is constant high quality snooker. A lot of this is down to Shaun, if he plays near his best game then I think he will be favourite. I don’t think his lack of results this season will last all that long as the simple fact of the matter is that he is that good. Whether it comes next week, I don’t know. I’d just shade Shaun for this.”

Tuesday 11th January

Ronnie O'Sullivan1pm – Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Jack Lisowski

Alan’s Prediction: Ronnie O’Sullivan win

“This will be a cracker. What I want to see in this game is the continuation of Jack’s improvement. I want to see him really compete and push Ronnie around a little bit in certain stages of the match. He is very capable of doing that, but it is very difficult to go against Ronnie at the Masters. Ronnie will have the crowd on his side and the occasion could get to Jack. His development has been so good that I know he can do it. However, I think Ronnie is a warm favourite, partly because of his history in the event having won it seven times and partly because of his form from winning the World Grand Prix before Christmas.”

7pm – Mark Selby vs Stephen Maguire

Alan’s Prediction: Stephen Maguire win

“A little bit like Anthony McGill against Neil Robertson, it feels to me as if Stephen’s game matches up quite well against Mark Selby. I think he fancies the job against him and believes if he plays well then he can dominate the game. Stephen is usually good for a few big performances in a season. With Mark you know that he will make life difficult, be keeping Stephen tight and expecting to get a few freebie chances. I would, on a coin flip, just edge Stephen on this one but he will have to be at the very top of his game to beat Mark.

Wednesday 12th January

1pm – Judd Trump vs Mark Allen

Alan’s Prediction: Judd Trump win

“Judd has the Champion of Champions under his belt this season. It is nice to have a trophy tucked away and Mark has that as well having won his home event at the Northern Ireland Open. It feels like this will be the best standard of the round. I can see five or six centuries. I just have to side with Judd, but Mark could also win the match 6-1 himself. This will be breaks galore and an absolute slug fest. It is a very tough one to call.”

7pm – Kyren Wilson vs Stuart Bingham

Alan’s Prediction: Kyren Wilson win

“Stuart seems to be in good form of late after a good showing at the World Grand Prix. Mentally he will feel he is defending the title after winning at Alexandra Palace in 2020 and last year’s event being behind closed doors. I think it is another tough call. Kyren is so consistent at the moment. He is showing his best snooker in the biggest tournaments now, that is where he sets his stall out and that is where he wants to be performing. Stuart will be very sharp, but I just give Kyren the edge in this one.”

There are some interesting predictions here.

I’m surprised by Alan’s prediction about Zhao to beat Higgins, considering it’s Zhao’s first time at the Masters and at Ally Pally. It’s a very special atmosphere out there, very loud and it can be intimidating. That said, Alan’s wording suggests to me that he isn’t sure that John Higgins will arrive at the event particularly well prepared and the Masters has never been John’s favourite event anyway.

I’m also a bit surprised by his prediction about Maguire beating Selby. Mark Selby has a good record at the Masters, and he has the type of game that is likely to frustrate Stephen Maguire. That said there is nothing in their head-to-head and Stephen did beat Mark at the Masters last year…

Finally, Judd Trump’s Champion of Champions win is a bit of “anomaly” considering his other results in the last eigth months. Also, his “performance” in the CLS this week will not reassure his fans one bit. I definitely favour Allen to win that one.

WST has also published information for the fans who want to attend the event:

Cazoo Masters: Information For Fans

Fans planning a trip to the 2022 Cazoo Masters, please read the information below:

COVID ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

As a condition of entry to Alexandra Palace, all visitors over the age of 18 must be in possession of a valid NHS Covid Pass (or for international visitors an equivalent from their country of origin) and able to show this pass upon entry.

Checks will be taking place and anyone who is not able to show their Covid Pass will be denied entry. Full details of how to obtain a NHS Covid Pass can be found here.

If you are not fully vaccinated, you can still obtain an NHS Covid Pass by recording a negative lateral flow test in the 48 hours before your entry at the event. Lateral Flow Test kits can be collected from most pharmacies or ordered here.

Please ensure that you have fully charged your phone and we recommend saving an offline copy of the NHS COVID Pass to your Apple Wallet or Google Wallet.  If you don’t own a smartphone, you can still obtain an NHS COVID Pass in letter form by calling NHS 119. Please apply for these 7 days prior to the date of your visit. Full details here.

Please also note that it is now a legal requirement for visitors over the age of 11 to wear a face mask when not eating or drinking to help minimise the spread of Covid-19.

For more info read the Alexandra Palace FAQs. If you have any queries, please contact visitor.services@alexandrapalace.com ahead your visit to ensure your smooth entry into the venue

 

 

2021/22 Championship League Snooker – Stuart Bingham wins Group 4

Stuart Bingham emerged the winner of this season “traditional” CLS Group 4.

Here is the report by WST:

Bingham Wins Group Four

Stuart Bingham won Group Four of the 2022 BetVictor Championship League Snooker Invitational by beating Kyren Wilson 3-2 in the stage final at the Morningside Arena in Leicester.

Bingham reached the playoffs by beating Scott Donaldson 3-0 in his final game to set up a semi-final showdown with Mark Selby. A fine display from 2015 Crucible king Bingham saw him edge out current World Champion Selby 3-2, with breaks of 137, 51 and 65.

Defending champion Wilson meanwhile had looked imperious all day long and dispatched of Donaldson 3-0 in good time with breaks of 121 and 75 on the way to setting up a final meeting with Bingham.

When it came to the final, Bingham found himself 2-0 up and one away from the Winners’ Group, but Wilson has proven time and time again that he will never give up. The Warrior battled to take the next two with breaks of 71 and 50 to force a decider. The final frame went in Bingham’s favour and he fired in a clearance of 94 to win it and progress.

Bingham, who is set to face Wilson at the Masters next week, said: “I have played pretty solidly since I have been here over the last four days. I am over the moon. It’s a great start to the year. I made a few nice 100s. It was nice to get one over Kyren ahead of next week. He beat me 3-1 in the group stage. I got lucky to beat him in the end. Next week is a different kettle of fish in front of a packed crowd at Alexandra Palace. I felt like my game has been there and not turned up. It’s nice this week to turn up and make a few 100s. Just to hopefully put me in good stead for the rest of the season.”

CLS2021:22Group4Results

Xiao Guodong didn’t win a match, finished last of the group but hit the 200th century of his career, a 101 in the third frame of his match against Lu Ning.

Judd Trump was ingloriously relegated having won just two matches.

Mark Selby withdrew from the tournament. He probably wants a bit of rest ahead of the Masters.