Judd Trump is the headline act at the rescheduled Coral Tour Championship in Milton Keynes - 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.
Fifteen months on and it’s all change with Judd Trump now firmly established as snooker’s superpower and his latest victory at the Gibraltar Open 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 snooker has 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 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 Milton Keynes this week would see Trump stretch further clear at the top of the world rankings and with O’Sullivan’s failure to qualify for this event meaning he won’t be there to defend his title, he will fancy his chances of claiming more silverware.
A tournament made up of the top eight performing players of the current season - minus Ding who has opted to stay at home amid the Covid-19 pandemic - there is quality and depth throughout the draw and as such, high-quality fare is usually assured with these multi-session matches proving ideal preparation for the forthcoming World Championship.
Trump used his pulsating semi-final loss to O’Sullivan in this event last year to tune up for 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.
Current events ensured a return to China was taken off the table this time around and, as such, one feels that the Coral Tour Championship will take on even greater significance for the eight players on show in Milton Keynes, given that a good run here will give them a perfect tonic before the Crucible as the likes of O'Sullivan and Stuart Bingham are forced to watch on from home.
For Trump, he ought to feel he is in a good place ahead of the delayed final stretch of the campaign and though not quite at his best at the recent Championship League, a run to the second stage of that tournament should have certainly blown away any cobwebs - a less-than-comforting thought for his opening opponent on Sunday, John Higgins, who makes his return.
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.
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 again 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 or Stephen Maguire the prize in the last four.
It wasn't so long ago that I wrote in a 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 being beaten by Joe Perry in the first round of the Players Championship, and then returning from lockdown with an underwhelming showing at the Championship League.
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.
Despite the enforced break the Covid-19 pandemic has afforded players, I still worry that Robertson has done his running for this season and, as I wrote in my match-by-match preview a few days ago, don't be at all surprised if Maguire goes on to cause a minor upset in their tournament opener. Whatever the case, Trump's path to the final looks a good one for all that no game is easy here.
Trump would do well to remember the frustration he felt when blowing a big lead in his epic semi-final with O’Sullivan in this event 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 in the season, Trump has prospered much like a champion racehorse who thrives on competition; improving the longer the year goes on and building an aura that had previously been owned by the likes of O'Sullivan and Hendry.
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 at the beginning of the pandemic to hunt down his record-breaking sixth ranking title of the campaign and then contested the Championship League when there were no ranking points on offer and with his place at next season's lucrative Champions of Champions already assured.
His professionalism and maturity continues to win him admirers that weren't there in the early stages of his career and I liked what I saw in defeat at the Championship League; there was a willingness to scrap despite the rewards being relatively modest for a man who has become accustomed to claiming the very biggest prizes in the sport on a regular basis.
The look of steely determination on his face when pinching a frame back against David Gilbert to keep his faint title hopes alive tells me he remains hungry and driven for more success and as has become the Trump way, the longer he stays in the event the stronger he is likely to become as the winning line draws closer.
In the absence of O’Sullivan and with doubts surrounding Robertson, 7/4 about Trump claiming his seventh ranking title of the season isn't to be sniffed at 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 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 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 12 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 his opponent there but he won't be the first, or last, to find Trump an irresistible force 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: Judd Trump has become snooker's brightest star and is very much the man to beat.
As snooker mourns the passing of one of its favourite sons - the death of Willie Thorne rocking the game at a time when the resumption of sport had promised hope and a return to some form of normality in these darkest of times - all eyes will again be on Milton Keynes.
Here's hoping Trump and co can put on a show for ITV viewers that pays the perfect tribute to the man they called Mr Maximum.
Posted at 1030 GMT on 18/06/20
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