Defending champion Mark Selby is Richard Mann's headline bet at the English Open as the Home Nations Series gets under way on Monday.
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The new snooker season began in September but it feels like things really step up a gear with the English Open, the first of the Home Nations Series, taking place in Milton Keynes. No prizes for guessing the venue but as Neal Foulds said on Sporting Life this week, these are the times we currently find ourselves in and hopefully World Snooker and the event organisers can do their best to make the tournament feel something like the English Open we remember, and not just a re-run of the recent European Masters.
One player who won’t be fussed about the prospect of turning out in Milton Keynes again is Mark Selby and the former world number one and defending English Open champion is my headline bet, with the 7/1 on offer just too good to ignore.
Regular readers of these pages will know that I was keen to keep Selby at arm's length for much of last season and the three-time world champion would have looked back on a curious campaign with a mixture of pride and frustration.
Selby was certainly glowing with pride when he routed David Gilbert with a quite astonishing display in the final of this event just over 12 months ago and he added the Scottish Open title to his CV a couple of months later.
Last-eight finishes at the Northern Ireland and Welsh Opens either side of that victory in Glasgow illustrate Selby’s improvement when it comes to the shorter-format matches – and his definite warming to the Home Nations Series – but it wasn’t all cocktails under the palm trees with plenty of days to forget as he struggled to consistently recapture his brilliant best that proved so hard to beat only a few years ago.
Still, he finished the season with a semi-final appearances at the Players and Tour Championships before, perhaps unsurprisingly, finding comfort and inspiration at his favourite stomping ground, Sheffield’s World Championship. It was Selby of old: a typically sluggish start, then some heavy scoring, peerless safety play, nerves of steel to edge out Noppon Saengkham in a final-frame decider and an apparently irresistible run to the final – that is until Ronnie O’Sullivan produced a late-show to trump all late-shows, and pierce Selby’s heart in the process.
That setback might have broken lesser men but this is no ordinary sportsman and with the confidence gleaned from producing a more consistent level of play – and the work he has been doing with a new addition to his team, renowned coach Chris Henry – Selby returned with victory in the first ranking tournament of the season, the aforementioned European Masters.
It is worth noting that Selby was fortunate to be afforded a couple of early walkovers there, owing to the Covid-19 scare that dogged the early part of the tournament, but it’s hard to argue with what he produced on the table, a trademark, never-say-die comeback against Stuart Bingham kick-starting his title bid before he held off a resurgent Martin Gould in a high-class final.
On the face of it, Selby appears to be very much back in business and with a recent win under his belt, and the confidence of knowing what he produced in this very competition last year, he looks to have an awful going for him at 7/1.
Elsewhere in the draw, the betting is again dominated by current world number one Judd Trump and the world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.
At the risk of being made to look silly in a week's time, I currently have a few concerns about Trump given he hasn’t been at his best since pre-lockdown when lifting the Gibraltar Open, his record-breaking sixth title win of that campaign.
In hindsight, the lockdown might just have halted his momentum – for all a break was welcomed by many of the players – but Gould comfortably outpointed him in the semi-finals of the European Masters and Trump faces a very tough opening match here against Louis Heathcote.
The latter is a really good young player who will keep improving and if Trump was vulnerable last term, it generally came in the earlier rounds, before the smell of silverware had really kicked in. It could be the same again here and I’m not interested in taking 7/2 about him, nor O’Sullivan.
For O’Sullivan’s part, his early exit at the hands of Aaron Hill in the European Masters owed much to the excellence and bravery of his opponent – and a decisive late run of the balls – and less to O’Sullivan’s attitude which was excellent throughout. He just didn’t play that well and housed in the fourth quarter of the draw that also features the likes of John Higgins and Ryan Day, it’s a no from me.
Instead, I’m going to take a dart on the aforementioned Day who might just be set for a better season than the last one having really struggled for results over the past 12 months. Day is a class act: two ranking titles and five more ranking final appearances tells us that and he won two tournaments as recently as the 2017/2018 season.
I’m not overly concerned that he lost to the excellent Yan Bingtao at the European Masters and a first-round win over Si Jiahui confirmed him to be in decent touch, as did the 147 maximum break he compiled in the Championship League just over a week earlier.
I’m prepared to take a very small stab on him in the outright market at 150/1, and at 25/1 to get through a fourth quarter that is undoubtedly tough, but might just find the likes of O’Sullivan, Higgins and Ding Junhui not as razor sharp as they could be at this stage of the year.
Day is one of the names I put forward when compiling my Five To Follow for the new season and another whom I expect to leave behind a poor last campaign is Barry Hawkins.
Like Day, and probably even more so, Hawkins has been a high-class performer for a number of years now and I’m not sure his quiet spell over the last 12 months is down to anything more than a little bit of burn-out. Hawkins is into his forties now and rarely skips events, meaning opportunities to recharge those batteries are few and far between.
Hawkins actually said as much when performing much better at the World Championship in September, pointing out that lockdown had actually afforded him that chance to refresh and reset. “We’ve played so much over the last few years," he said. I think it was just starting to drain me a little bit. It was nice to put the cue away. I’ve tried to change my lifestyle a little bit, the fitness, healthy body, healthy mind. I’m going to try to keep it going and hopefully I can start producing some of the form I’ve showed before.”
The early signs this term have been encouraging, without screaming from the rooftops, but he knocked in three centuries and a break of 99 in his three matches at the European Masters having scored heavily his season-opening outing at the Championship League.
There’s no getting away from the fact that everywhere you look in the draw, you can sight potential dangers – Hawkins’ quarter includes Neil Robertson, Mark Allen, Bingtao and Gould – but the former world number four can mix it with the very best when firing on all cylinders and I’m hopeful that form might not be too far away.
We might just be a few events too early with him but I’m convinced Hawkins is on his way back and am happy to throw a few quid at the general 40/1 on offer to find out.
Other honourable mentions go to Allen, whose scoring continues to go from strength to strength and makes it even harder to explain why he didn’t claim any silverware last year. His consistency suggests he probably should have and there appear to be very few chinks in his armour.
I’d just like to see him be a little more ruthless while I’ll be watching World Championship runner-up Kyren Wilson with interest. He’s clearly on the upgrade but it’s been a big few months for the Kettering potter and he’ll be desperate to kick on now.
He will surely do so but I’m happy with my three-pronged attack, one which is led by the defending champion.
Posted at 1345 BST on 09/10/20
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