The snooker season continues this week with the Coral Tour Championship taking place in Llandudno - Richard Mann has previewed the action.
Ronnie O’Sullivan won the inaugural Coral Tour Championship in March of last year with a 13-11 defeat of Neil Robertson in a high-quality final that had appeared to set a benchmark for the sport that would prove almost impossible to surpass.
Twelve months on and it’s all change with Judd Trump now firmly established as snooker’s superpower and his victory at the Gibraltar Open on Sunday providing him with a sixth ranking title of the campaign, enough to surpass the previous record set by O’Sullivan, Stephen Hendry, Ding Junhui, and Mark Selby.
Trump’s ascent to the top of the sport over the last year or so has been as well documented as it has been remarkable and for the very first time, some observers are starting to ask whether he might yet finish his career as the best we've ever seen.
A title that had appeared destined to belong to Joe Davis before Steve Davis and then Hendry before O’Sullivan, it would have been unthinkable to think a year ago that anyone would, or indeed could, play the game better than The Rocket himself.
We’re not there yet but victory in Llandudno this week would see him stretch further clear at the top of the world rankings and with O’Sullivan’s failure to qualify meaning he won’t be in Wales to defend his title, Trump will surely fancy his chances of claiming more silverware.
A tournament made up of the top eight performing players of the current season, there is quality and depth throughout the draw and as such, high-quality fare is usually assured with these multi-session matches proving the ideal preparation for next month’s World Championship.
Trump used his pulsating semi-final loss to O’Sullivan in this event last year to tune up for his brilliant victory in Sheffield the following month while Robertson left Wales with the runners-up cheque and the inspiration to head to Beijing and win the China Open only a few weeks later.
The current Coronavirus pandemic means that a return to China is off the table but with hopes remaining that the World Championship will survive the crisis, the Tour Championship takes on even more importance as snooker's elite players look to gain some form and momentum, an advantage over those who haven't made this select field.
For Trump, he has all the momentum he needs and his form is as good as it gets - a less-than-comforting thought for his opening opponent in Wales, John Higgins.
The veteran Scot enjoyed the better of many of his early battles with Trump, so much so that he still holds the superior head-to-head record (22-16), but Trump has won each of the last six meetings between the pair, including in last year’s World Championship final and in the quarter-finals of the Players Championship last month.
In truth, Higgins is in the midst of a consistent campaign that is a fry cry from his struggles last term but he has had his chances against Trump and others this season, not quite being able to find that extra gear needed to beat the very best and claim that 31st ranking title win.
He isn’t a million miles away and with Sheffield now on the horizon, he could well find his best just in time for his bid for a fourth World Championship final in a row.
However - and I say this with a sense of sadness - I must confess to fearing that the 44-year-old is no longer capable of the same standard of play he once was and while his all-round game will still be too good for the vast majority of opponents on tour, he might not have the firepower in his armoury to take down snooker’s biggest guns anymore.
I expect Trump to book his semi-spot on the back of a solid workout against Higgins with Robertson the likely prize in the last four.
I wrote in a recent talking points piece that I had some concerns in regard to how Robertson will finish the season on the back of a heavy workload that saw him reach three finals in as many weeks between January and February, winning two of them.
Since then, he has been whitewashed 5-0 by Kyren Wilson in the last eight of the Welsh Open, confessing afterwards to ‘having nothing left’, before he was beaten by Joe Perry in the first round of the Players Championship.
His decision to skip the recent Gibraltar Open was probably a sensible move and with no China Open to consider this year, the prospect of only two tournaments before he can put his feet up for the summer ought to allow him to stay fresh mentally.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the strain that snooker's very best players are under when competing in major finals on a regular basis and it is worth remembering that following a similarly golden run last year, Robertson ran out of steam by the time the second week in Sheffield rolled around.
I wonder if the warning signs have again started to flash with Robertson and as such, I’m struggling to see Trump not navigating his way to yet another final, where he would of course be a heavy favourite.
Trump would do well to remember the frustration he felt when blowing a big lead in his epic semi-final with O’Sullivan here last year and on what we have seen from him in the subsequent months, it seems fair to assume that he will use it as motivation to right that wrong this week.
While the likes of Robertson and Shaun Murphy have peaked at different times of the season, Trump has prospered much like a champion racehorse who thrives on competition, improving with racing the longer the year goes on.
At 30 years of age, he is clearly at the peak of his powers and appears determined to make it count. It was telling that, unlike some of his contemporaries, Trump choose to make the trip to Gibraltar amid the Coronavirus pandemic to hunt down his record-breaking sixth ranking title of the campaign and there's no reason he can't enhance his new record.
He and Wilson deserve a great deal of credit for the way they handled proceedings there, dealing with the unusual circumstances with class and humility in a manner that snooker should be proud of.
These two fine young men represented the sport wonderfully, producing a brilliant final that deserved to have been played out in front of a packed crowd and not empty seats, but one which provided a great filip to the wider sporting world.
As Metro journalist Nick Metcalfe pointed out afterwards, there appears to have been a thawing of hostilities between the two as rivalry makes way for respect and the sight of Wilson clapping as he walked from his chair to congratulate his opponent at the conclusion of the match was another moment to savour.
Trump’s professionalism and maturity again proved crucial in paving the way for another title victory in Gibraltar and while he retains the relentless drive and hunger that has served him so well all year, I’m loathe to take him on this week in the absence of O’Sullivan and with doubts surrounding Robertson. 15/8 looks fair enough and I’m not about to turn it down.
In the bottom half of the draw, Murphy is the form pick on the back of another excellent season so far that has seen him claim two trophies and reach two more finals.
Murphy produced more excellent stuff when marching to the semi-finals of the recent Players Championship and just as was the case there, I expect him to have too much for close friend Mark Allen, who has really gone off the boil since Christmas.
With Mark Selby or Yan Bingtao awaiting the winner of that match, there will be plenty of punters keen to play Shaun Murphy at 15/2 in the outright market but it is worth remembering that it was Bingtao who beat Murphy in that Players Championship semi-final.
The Chinese star has made rapid strides in the last few months, kicking off the campaign with victory at the Riga Masters before producing a host of other notable performances that culminated in his run to the final of the Players.
He was no match for Trump there but few have been of late and the experience gained in that final ought to do him the world of good going forward.
The fact Bingtao is up to number six in the one-year rankings, despite having only just celebrated his 20th birthday, says everything about this excellent young player and I wouldn’t be at all surprised were he to outshine the likes of Selby and Murphy and give himself another shot at some silverware.
It will certainly be fascinating to see how he performs in the multi-session matches that he will also face in Sheffield next month and in the years to come but while Bingtao is a star of the future, I’m sticking with the here and now and there is no star shining quite as bright as Judd Trump at present.
Fingers crossed that is still the case come Sunday evening.
Posted at 1615 GMT on 16/03/20
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