Snooker's big hitters head to China for the valuable Zhiyuan World Open next week - read Richard Mann's in-depth preview here.
The Zhiyuan World Open sets punters a number quandaries when looking at the outright market, most significantly being that many of the top players in the sport have started the new campaign well and have plenty to recommend them now the tour returns to China for its latest instalment.
Despite going a little quiet since, Judd Trump’s victory in the International Championship in late August suggests he won’t the suffer the same curse that has plagued so many previous world champions in struggling to scale the heights reached in Sheffield the following season.
Trump wasn’t at his brilliant best when losing to Lee Walker in the last 32 at the English Open last week but he still made two centuries in that match and his philosophical appraisal of that defeat in his post-match interview told of a more mature Trump, an evolving personality who is now better equipped to roll with the punches that invariably come your way in such a packed snooker calendar.
He is sure to be back in the winners’ enclosure in the coming months and his desire to improve on a modest recent record at the UK Championship leaves the suspicion that he is building towards to York in early December before returning to Northern Ireland and Wembley to defend the two titles he claimed either side of Christmas last year.
With recent Shanghai Masters victor Ronnie O’Sullivan sure to the gunning for an unprecedented eighth UK Championship success, the coming weeks could see both he and Trump take significant steps forward from what we saw in Crawley and perhaps we might even enjoy a taster of a rivalry that swung back and forth last term and still promises to light up this season.
They are due to meet in the final in Yushan and I certainly can’t discount that possibility given O’Sullivan has gone on record in recent weeks to throw his support behind the Chinese events and the considerable prize money they offer.
With a cheque for £150,000 awaiting the winner, this is certainly a tournament worth winning and there is every reason to expect the cream to rise to the top.
Shaun Murphy certainly fits into that category having reached three finals already this term – winning one – and he lost little in defeat when an inspired Tom Ford edged him out at the English Open.
It is a far cry from the desperate time of things Murphy endured last year but he hasn’t drawn well in Yushan with a strong Scottish assault seemingly hell-bent on halting his progress to the latter stages.
First up for Murphy is Alan McManus with former world champions Graeme Dott and John Higgins then due to meet him in the second and third rounds.
It will be tough work for Murphy to get through those early rounds unscathed, Higgins, too, with Mark Selby the likely prize at the quarter-finals stage for whoever navigates a safe passage, and it is no surprise to see Murphy as big as 16/1 for outright glory and Higgins available at 22/1.
Higgins’ impressive record in Asia and the fact he has looked in much better form at this early stage of the season that he did 12 months previously made me think twice about erasing him from any calculations but I want to see more from the veteran before I dig deep into the Christmas kitty to support him.
Come the Welsh Open and the World Championship, I suspect I’ll be singing an entirely different tune but for now, recent English Open hero Selby has much stronger credentials and looks the bet at 8/1.
At the danger of not trying to close the stable door when the horse has bolted, there would have been a sound case to make for Selby winning in Yushan, even before his exploits in Crawley, and therefore, the current odds represent fair value to my eyes.
Selby’s record in Asia is second to none and even during the slump in form he suffered in the last couple of years, China has remained his happy place.
In the 2017/2018 season, Selby’s triumphs at the International Championship and China Open were his only real moments of cheer while last term, the China Championship was his sole victory.
It is no surprise that Selby warmed up for his English Open win with a pair of semi-final finishes in China and returned to those shores, he can be expected to show up very well again, particularly on the back of what we saw from the triple world champion last week.
Selby played well in patches throughout in Crawley but as I alluded to here earlier in the week, the most pleasing aspect of his performance was how he managed to grind out results when he was evidently struggling for his best form.
Dogged determination and an unbreachable safety game were the hallmarks of Selby's victory over Mei Xiwen in the quarter-finals and his 6-5 defeat of Mark Allen the following day, on both occasions pinching frames he had no right to win and overturning big deficits.
Both Xiwen and Allen will be wondering just how they let big leads slip but this was vintage Selby, finding a way to prevail in the most challenging of circumstances, a rare skill that sets the likes of him, O’Sullivan and Higgins apart from the rest and one which had deserted him more recently.
In Crawley, it was Selby of old. Constantly grinding away at his opponents and then pouncing in ruthless fashion when given half the chance.
His 9-1 demolition of David Gilbert’s in Sunday’s final was a brilliant display of brutal snooker. It was the complete package as he mixed relentless break building with rock-solid safety play to do what very few can do to a player of Gilbert’s class.
If he returns to China in the same form, Selby is going to take plenty of stopping and I have no doubts he will back up given he got better and better the deeper he went in Crawley.
If anything, the confidence that long-overdue triumph will have given Selby could help him scale even greater heights and for all the early stages of his draw might not have been as kind as the one Trump has been handed, the fact he double the price means I can cope with it.
Selby's aforementioned defeat of Allen last week came in a gruelling affair that the Northern Irishman dominated for large periods.
With a 5-3 lead and when well-set in frame 10, it should have been Allen who prevailed but Selby’s tenacity won out and I really hope the former's confidence hasn't taken too much of a knock following such a tough beat.
Allen is a wonderful player with a brilliant all-round game and flawless temperament and he is another of snooker’s big hitters who appears to be in really good shape at present.
Were I sure there would be no hangovers from Crawley, I would be adding Allen to my staking plan but such is the nagging doubt in my mind, I’m happy to pin my hopes on Selby maintaining his welcome resurgence, for all there are dangers aplenty.
Posted at 1400 BST on 23/10/19.
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