23.6.13

MAN OF STEEL

Neil Robertson’s eighth world ranking title today may have been his best in terms of the quality of his performance.

From 5-2 down to John Higgins in the Wuxi Classic final, Robertson cued superbly as he won six frames in succession before going on to win 10-7.

The Australian is as tough as they come. Even after losing a tightly contested 16th frame on the pink he didn’t waver, immediately slamming in a long red at the start of the next and maintaining his positive outlook right to the end.

Robertson has always been a better player when attacking. He is a terrific shot-maker who has developed into an all round master.

He is now more than 6,000 points clear at the top of the world rankings in a campaign which has barely got going.

All this for a Wuxi Classic campaign which began in unpromising fashion last month when he arrived for his qualifying match only to find he hadn’t packed his playing gear (this begs the question: what exactly did he pack?)

Thankfully, his A game arrived safely in Wuxi and he romped to the quarter-finals without breaking sweat, won a great match with Cao Yupeng, beat Robert Milkins in the semis and dug deep when he had to after Higgins looked like he might run away with it.

Both Robertson and Higgins were stung by first round exits at the World Championship. Perhaps this is reverse burnout in operation. Players who failed to go deep at the Crucible were fresher for the new campaign and more determined too.

The question now for Robertson is how long he can keep this up. Each of last season’s ranking titles was won by a different player. Can Robertson win two, three, maybe even four?

Time will tell but he certainly goes to his home event, the Australian Goldfields Open, in a fortnight’s time as the man to beat.

HIGGINS TO FACE ROBERTSON AGAIN

As it was in Sofia, so it is in Wuxi. Today’s final pits John Higgins against Neil Robertson.

Higgins hasn’t been pushed hard through the tournament but surely will be by Robertson, who has cued superbly throughout and did so again yesterday during his semi-final defeat of Robert Milkins.

The Australian went through a long spell in which he couldn’t lose a final. Last season for a while he couldn’t win one but did so at the China Open in Beijing and can today win back-to-back Chinese ranking titles.

Robertson needs to remain positive and keep attacking. If he gets drawn into a tactical game then Higgins will be favourite, as he would be against anyone in that sort of match.

It’s not easy for anyone to beat an in form Higgins over 19 frames but Robertson belongs in the small category that can.

A tournament which began with him forgetting to pack his waistcoat and trousers to go to Gloucester could end with an eighth ranking title.

For Higgins, it would mark his best start to a season since 2001/02, when he won the first three titles.

These two are proven winners capable of serving up a classic. Robertson has played the better snooker of the week but it is in the final where it really matters.

Thankfully this one is much longer than the best of seven they played in Bulgaria.

21.6.13

LOOKING FOR ERIC

It’s not uncommon for non-British players to acquire British nicknames when they come to the UK – James Wattana an obvious example.

So it is that Cao Yupeng is known as Eric, following a long line of famous Erics including Blair, Sykes, Cantona and indeed my old friend Eric Whitehead, who was for many years snooker’s leading photographer and whose long career included him hiding from Alex Higgins while rolled up in a carpet and being mistaken for a Russian bridge player by friends of Jeffrey Archer, earning him the nickname ‘Cossack.’

Cao is the last Chinese player left standing in the Wuxi Classic and today makes his debut in a world ranking event quarter-final.

He’ll have his work cut out because Neil Robertson is continuing his fine form and is cutting something of a swathe through the top half of the draw.

But Cao has home support and is capable of producing the goods. He beat Mark Allen at the Crucible in 2012 and John Higgins at the International Championship last season.

The semi-final could be Cao-Milkins, which if you mispronounce the Chinese’s name and are easily pleased is quite amusing for about seven seconds.

Robert Milkins must first beat Anthony Hamilton, who didn’t play his best but still well enough to put away a strangely subdued Mark Williams yesterday.

Hamilton’s best performances have always been when he’s scored heavily, which he can do with considerable panache, but he can also scrap it out with the best of them. The only problem with this game is that it takes away natural fluency. Milkins, though, gets on with it so this could be a free flowing affair.

Joe Perry’s confidence at the moment is such that he will fancy the job against John Higgins, who hasn’t really been pushed yet.

Davy Morris meanwhile has gone from Q School to a world ranking event quarter-final in the space of the month. If this era is about seizing opportunities then Morris is proof of what can be achieved.

His opponent today is Matthew Stevens, who won a match against Peter Lines yesterday which did not exactly get the pulses racing. In fact at times it was dire.

The Welshman, though, is through and that’s all that really matters. The field has thinned out considerably from a starting field of 68. Players will be looking around thinking there aren’t many others there, so they have every chance of pocketing Sunday’s £80,000 top prize.

20.6.13

MORRIS DANCING

Davey Morris grew up at house number 147, an omen for later life.

Ken Doherty told me several years ago that he was a great prospect but last year Morris dropped off the professional circuit and looked as if he had gone the way of many other promising juniors whose potential was never realised.

It would have left Republic of Ireland representation on the main tour resting on just Doherty and Fergal O’Brien, both of whom are past 40.

However, Morris battled back through the Q School last month and today appears in the last 16 of a world ranking event for the first time.

The new flat system has obviously been a help. No more trudging through round after round of qualifying and no guarantee of having to play a top 16 player in the last 32.

But the reprieved man syndrome may also come into play for Morris, just as it did last season for Rod Lawler. The sudden feeling of having it all taken away from you can focus the mind.

Morris today plays Ali Carter, one of only five top 16 players to reach the last 16, although only 11 made the trip to Wuxi in the first place.

The new system has meant new faces have come to the fore. Scott Donaldson is another making a maiden bow in a last 16.

New faces create new stories but interest can also depend on the familiar. As I’ve said before, the test of the new format this season will be whether it adversely affects TV viewing figures and, to a lesser extent, ticket sales.

Ding Junhui is out but he was outplayed by an inspired Joe Perry who proved yesterday what confidence can do. Last week he won the Asian Tour event in Yixing. Yesterday he showed no signs of nervousness or hesitation. It was a terrific performance.

John Higgins beat Neil Robertson in the European Tour final in Bulgaria and these two titans are in opposite halves of the draw again. As we approach the business end of the tournament, experience will be a key factor.

This is why, for all the newer names figuring in the last 16, one of the big hitters must still be fancied to lift the trophy on Sunday.

19.6.13

CHALK THIS WAY

Last weekend, Joe Perry, the guitarist with Aerosmith, was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, in Yixing, snooker’s Joe Perry won the first Asian Tour title of the season, earning himself a £10,000 bonus plus a place in the grand finals next March.

This was his second professional title, having previously won the 2008 Championship League.

Joe was once introduced into an arena by an MC as ‘a steady player’ which I would imagine hardly had him jumping for joy.

Perry is in fact a former world no.12, a ranking event runner-up, a World Championship semi-finalist, twice a UK Championship semi-finalist and runner-up in two PTCs.

He’s beaten just about everyone there is to beat down the years. He’s had his disappointments and he’s had his moments of cheer.

In other words, he’s had a career while many of the players he grew up with have fallen by the wayside.

I’m sure Perry will have seen the success the likes of Mark Davis and Stuart Bingham – players of around his age – have enjoyed lately and thought there’s no reason he can’t have some of that for himself.

Today he plays Ding Junhui in Wuxi City, literally on home turf for the Chinese. To tortuously link back to Aerosmith, he won’t want to miss a thing.

He didn’t miss much against Jamie Cope in the previous round, making five half century breaks to win 5-2.

Against Ding he will have to cope with a partisan crowd but there’s no doubt Perry’s confidence is high right now and were he to win it wouldn’t be a huge upset.

Judd Trump and Mark Allen departed yesterday, Trump to Li Hang, whose haircut provided plenty of comment, containing as it did more colours than the average snooker table.

Mark Williams won a terrific match against Liam Highfield. This was no guts, no glory snooker: both players going for their shots, trying to win rather than trying not to lose, and Highfield provided much evidence of a bright future while Williams was reassuringly solid in all departments.

Williams today faces Jack Lisowski in a fascinating clash of generations: an all time great against a young player whose future looks bright.

18.6.13

HARD LINES?

“Just checked my euro millions numbers...... Looks like I have to make this trip to china today!!! There's always Tuesdays draw I suppose!!!”

So said a mischievous, and exclamation mark happy, Mark Allen before boarding for Wuxi where he is, of course, “bored outta my brains.”

I also checked the Euro Millions numbers and found I hadn’t won and would have to carry on writing this blog, although it probably didn’t help that I hadn’t bought a ticket.

Allen’s just got married so any time away from home right now is difficult but his antipathy towards China shows no immediate sign of abating, despite the two ranking titles he has won there.

And that’s the point. Whatever he thinks of the place it doesn’t seem to affect his performance. In some ways it may even relax him because if he does lose he knows he’s back on the plane home again.

Today he faces Peter Lines, a nice bloke and solid pro from Leeds, in the last 64.

It seems a long time ago now that Peter beat John Higgins in a ranking event in China, primarily because it is. It was 14 years ago in Shanghai.

Since then he’s toiled mainly in the cubicle set up, although he was a UK Championship quarter-finalist a couple of seasons back.

Allen tends to score heavily and, if he does, he’ll surely win. Rustiness, though, is apt to be exploited.

Judd Trump’s preparation for the tournament pre-qualifying was ideal: he went to Vegas with his mates, had a terrific time, came back and made three centuries to win his match in under an hour.

Today he plays Li Hang, a young Chinese player making his second attempt to survive the pro ranks.

Trump doesn’t strike me as a great one for post mortems. When you’re that age you tend to live for the moment. So it’s unlikely he’s thought much about some of his performances last season when he looked like he could become the player to take a stranglehold at the top of the world rankings.

It didn’t quite happen but he is still close to Neil Robertson and Mark Selby in the three-way battle for world no.1.

There was an encouraging win yesterday for Jimmy White, who beat Ricky Walden, the defending champion.

White has struggled to produce much in the way of form on television in recent times so this will be a boost for the enduring crowd favourite.

Lu, some say Lyu, Haotian also advanced. He is only 15 and already the youngest professional ever to win a match by qualifying.

He summed up the change to the system for a player in his position thus: “The new format meant I only had to win one match to qualify, which is extraordinarily good for the new players on tour like me. It’s much easier to get through, because before I would have had to win four matches in a row.”

Hard to argue with that, and good use of the word ‘extraordinarily’ to boot.

One problem with having so many players at the venue, though, is that practice time is severely limited with only two tables afforded for what is, after all, an important part of a tournament for any player.

Indeed, one player emailed me to say: “The practice sheets have been scrapped. It’s now an every man for themselves scenario.”

Finally, a word for WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson, who made a speech at the opening ceremony, an occasion less exciting than it sounds, which was note perfect and even ended with a phrase in Chinese.

He is apparently learning some local lingo in an effort to better communicate with the movers, not forgetting the shakers, in China, which is creditable bearing in mind the usual strategy of Brits in foreign climes is to say something akin to: “Do you speak English, or am I going to have to shout?”

16.6.13

UNDER PRESSURE

Another week in China, another time to ponder Ding Junhui.

Few would argue that Ding is one of snooker’s finest break-builders. He has won six world ranking titles, including two UK Championships, plus the Masters.

To me, he is a top four player but the fact remains he is not in the top four and in China itself he invariably struggles.

The conclusion must be that this is the pressure of expectation. When he won the 2005 China Open the week he turned 18 he was a virtual unknown, suddenly catapulted to fame.

Fans maybe assumed success would come easily to him after that initial win, but success doesn’t come easily to anyone in snooker.

The curious way snooker works saw Ding, who hails from Wuxi, have to qualify in Gloucester. Luckily for the tournament he did, but only just, beating Aditya Mehta 5-4.

It is Ding the game has to thank for the Wuxi Classic. It began as an invitation event, the Jiangsu Classic, played in the place he grew up and he won the first staging.

Now it’s a ranking event, one of five in China. But Ding’s influence seems to have benefited everyone bar the man himself.

It seems odd that the only ranking event he has won on home soil was that 2005 success. It proves that home support can be a curse as well as a plus. Jimmy White may agree with that.

Snooker is perhaps the ultimate individual sport but when Ding plays in China he is playing for a nation, knowing there are many millions willing him to succeed.

I don't think this is the whole story with Ding - he is an inconsistent player in general. But it is a factor and part of the reason is that none of his compatriots have seriously threatened his status as top dog.

There are many other Chinese players – eight others have qualified – but Ding is still very much China’s no.1 and this puts him on a precarious pedestal.

On Monday he plays Jamie Burnett, a former Shanghai Masters runner-up. Ding once thrashed him at the Crucible but on Chinese soil the old uncertainties return.

He would, of course, be a very popular winner of the title. Maybe a run to a trophy in China would banish the pressures he feels when he plays there once and for all.

But it is those pressures, as much as the quality of the opposition, which could once again stand in his way.

15.6.13

UP ALL NIGHT TO GET WUXI

The final stages of the Wuxi Classic features a varied field of 64 players: big names, old stagers, new faces and, for the first time, a woman.

Reanne Evans became the first female player to qualify for a ranking event when she beat Thepchaiya Un Nooh in Gloucester.

Her reward is to play a wildcard, Zhu Yinghui, rather than a much anticipated first round match against Neil Robertson.

Even if she beats Zhu, World Snooker have scheduled her match with Robertson for the one time UK and European viewers won’t be able to watch – 10am in China, so the middle of the night back home, with Eurosport covering the afternoon and evening sessions.

The afternoon match that day on that table is Mark Allen v Peter Lines, which few, perhaps even Allen and Lines, would argue was a bigger deal for the sport, especially given the amount of pre-publicity Evans has got the event, with appearances on television, radio and in newspapers.

For all the warm words the governing body has spoken about promoting women’s snooker, this was a golden chance to gain some actual exposure and they’ve completely blown it.

The wildcard situation is a nonsense as well in this bright, shiny new era of ‘fairness.’

Originally, wildcards were used in China to build local interest and they did do. One of them – Ding Junhui – won the 2005 China Open. With snooker now firmly established in China, the wildcards are being used to give free practice at the top level to Chinese players. This is not what ranking events are for.

There are nine Chinese qualifiers plus Hong Kong’s Marco Fu: more than enough local representation without four more having to be parachuted in.

The big names who failed to qualify were Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy. Ronnie O’Sullivan withdrew from qualifying due to a family bereavement. Stephen Maguire and Mark Davis didn’t enter.

The rest of the top 16 are there, with Ricky Walden defending the title. His first round opponent is Jimmy White, one of snooker’s most iconic names. His old rival Steve Davis is also in the draw and faces Andrew Higginson.

What’s good about this new system is that plenty of players perennially stuck in the qualifying quagmire are now at the venue, experiencing life in the big time, and are guaranteed prize money.

So step forward the likes of Joel Walker, Scott Donaldson, Adam Duffy, Alex Davies, Liam Highfield and the other young prospects making the trip to Wuxi City.

With 64 players, plus the wildcards, there will be a lot of matches to get through, obviously many taking away from the TV screens.

The first prize is now £80,000 - an increase of £5,000 on last season and massively up on what these ranking events far away from British shores used to be worth.

Eurosport are live from 7.30am UK time on Monday.

14.6.13

CAN WILLIAMS GO BACK TO THE FUTURE?

You write off the truly great players at your peril. Old clich├ęs like ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’ may be a tired way of putting it but it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

John Higgins looked like he was entering a steep decline towards the end of last season but has won the first title of this campaign. At 37, Ronnie O’Sullivan is at an age where players have traditionally gone backwards but has in fact won the last two stagings of the World Championship.

And what of the other member of that golden triumvirate who each turned professional in 1992 and each conquered the snooker world?

This is a really important season for Mark Williams. He has been treading water for the last year or so and the question remains whether he can find his stroke again or, to overdo the swimming metaphors, drown while thinking of former glories.

Along with Stephen Hendry, these three (Higgins, O’Sullivan and Williams) have been the best players I’ve seen in the time I’ve been covering snooker since the mid 1990s. They are very different men from distinctly different parts of the UK but have each scaled heights most players can only dream of.

The other day I was leafing through Snooker Scene’s report of the 2002 UK Championship, which Williams won with a 10-9 victory over Ken Doherty.

One of his quotes stood out: “People back home thought I was finished but I’ve shown them that I’m not.”

Hang on, I thought, finished? In 2002? How could anybody have thought this?

But Williams had won only three ranking titles since becoming world champion two and half years earlier. It marked a departure from the remarkable consistency he displayed from finishing runner-up in the Irish Open at the end of 1998 to winning the world title in 2000, in which he seemed to figure in virtually every final.

Leading up to that 2002 UK Championship he had seen Higgins and O’Sullivan win sundry titles. Hendry was still a force and Peter Ebdon had become world champion.

Williams, though, won that UK title and it marked the start of a memorable season in which he captured the big three trophies, remaining to this day only the third player after Hendry and Steve Davis to achieve this. He played quite brilliantly throughout this spell, very much an authentic no.1 in an era jammed with contenders to that crown.

The following season he completed the hitherto unmentioned ‘BBC slam’ by capturing the LG Cup. He arrived for his UK title defence in 2003 having won his first match in a remarkable 48 successive ranking tournaments.

But that great record ended with defeat to Fergal O’Brien and from then on things suddenly got worse for this most laidback of players.

We often hear it said that he dropped as low as 47th in the world rankings. It’s important, though, to point out that this was only provisionally. I covered pretty much every event on site back then and Mark was clearly devoid of confidence.

Some said he wasn’t practising properly, that he was playing too much poker, that he had management troubles. Whatever it was, he wasn’t his old self and this was reflected by his performances on the table.

He picked up the 2006 China Open but was relegated from the top 16 in 2008.

Many saw this as a humiliation but Williams’s character was key to him pulling himself out of the mire with the minimum amount of fuss, drama or complaint. When Ken Doherty was forced back in the qualifiers it felt like a death – of his career – but Williams, a man with no airs and graces, took it on the chin and just got on with it.

He returned to the top 16 after one season and eventually got back to world no.1 after winning the inaugural German Masters in 2011.

This was a triumphant return to the top for a player whose achievements were in danger of being forgotten. At his best, Williams had been one of the few players who could beat Higgins and O’Sullivan at their best. His game had always been based around brilliant single ball potting, forcing openings, but he was also adept at scrapping it out if he had to. He would have made far more centuries had he not taken his foot off the gas when frames were mathematically safe.

He’s always been a fierce competitor. His upbringing is surely one reason for this. I asked him once who he had supported in the 1985 world final. Williams said he hadn’t watched the conclusion of the most famous match in snooker history as he was out supporting his father, a miner, who was on strike during a notorious time in modern British history when the country’s industrial landscape shifted, huge numbers of jobs were lost and entire communities changed forever.

It may have been these experiences which forged in Williams a general distrust of and distaste for authority and a desire not to play the PR game. This was evident in his unwise but in many ways innocent dismissal of the Crucible as a venue last year.

The first time I interviewed him he told me to stay where I was when we'd finished. He downed half a can of Coke and then loudly belched the name Jenny Jones, who at the time was a leading US chatshow host. I've liked him ever since.

That may sound unprofessional or even odd behaviour from a leading sportsman but I'd much rather that than 'I hit the ball well and felt good' or a long litany of tedious complaints. Mark's never pretended to be anything other than what he is: a working class boy made good.

People mock Williams for his tracksuits but, unlike some players, he isn’t interested in portraying an image. He is who he is. Who he is was defined by where he comes from.

He respects the other greats but was never in awe of them. He had just turned 22 when he thrashed Hendry 9-2 in the 1997 British Open final. Asked afterwards how he felt he replied: “I’m gutted. I wanted to beat him 9-1."

His consoling words to Davis after the legend lost his top 16 place were, “don’t worry, Steve, I can get you tickets to the Masters.”

That German victory two years ago came after he narrowly lost the UK Championship final to Higgins, having led 9-5. Williams was 8-5 up to Stuart Bingham in the Australian Open final a few months later but lost 9-8. Then he lost 10-9 from 9-7 up to Mark Selby in the final of the Shanghai Masters.

That defeat, like the one to O’Brien eight years earlier, signalled the start of a rocky spell. The Welsh left-hander lost his head over a refereeing decision and, rarely for a genuinely sporting player, took the defeat badly.

Put simply, Williams has looked his old self all too infrequently in comparison to old foes Higgins and O’Sullivan in revent times.

But they may have done him a favour. I’m sure Mark must look at them and feel that if they can still do the business then so can he.

He started the current season 15th in the world rankings. He has been practising hard for the new season. In a long sporting career, motivation is sometimes difficult to summon up, but the prospect of slipping into oblivion tends to focus the mind.

At his best, Williams has been a bully at the table. He has dominated the very best the game has had to offer and the effortless style he has – which of course has come after much effort – is great to watch.

If he can hit his stride again then he has every chance to land more silverware. I have to disagree here with some other pundits: the standard hasn’t risen appreciably since the early part of the millennium when Williams, Higgins and O’Sullivan were sharing the titles around. If he can produce anything close to that level then he can win any tournament he enters.

The test will come not only in the big events but against the top players, most of whom are now younger than him.

Williams was especially poor in the Masters last season, which was painful to watch for those who have followed him for so long. He also lost in the first round at the Crucible, failing to put young Michael White in his place.

Well, new season, new start and all that. He seems determined to not – to borrow a phrase of his – collapse like a cheap tent.

I’m sure there are people back home who once more think he’s finished. They may have to eat their words again.

12.6.13

SEVEN UP

We are seven!

I’m sure your many cards and presents have been lost in the postal system somewhere.

Back on June 12, 2006 I was a kind of snooker version of TJ Eckleburg, fixing the green baize world in my never-ending gaze.

Now, it’s hard to keep up with half of what’s going on. Tournaments rush by and there’s barely time to consider the various incidents, accidents, hints and allegations before another one begins.

Not that I’m complaining at all. Rather this than the wasteland of ’06.

But what it all means is that there’s probably less need for this blog than at any time in the last seven years. It began as something to do. There weren’t any others and there were long gaps between tournaments. There were long periods with nothing happening.

It was a chance to post observations, bits of news and try and keep interest in snooker going when there were no tournaments to watch, as there weren’t most weeks.

Things have turned around dramatically. The potential I and others always knew snooker had has started to be realised.

Barry Hearn and his team have worked wonders compared to what had gone before, although Hearn just sees it as making straightforward commercial decisions. Just today he announced that the Champion of Champions event will be screened live by ITV4 with £100,000 first prize.

I get the feeling some people, or rather some British people, would rather it was back how is used to be: a small, cosy world of mainly UK events instead of the increasingly global tour it has become.

Well, that’s a one-way ticket to oblivion. As with all things in modern life, the market will decide, and for snooker it’s decided that China is where it’s at in terms of money. Europe certainly has interest but lags behind when it comes to financial clout.

Snooker is by no means dead in the UK but it has certainly seen better days. Nevertheless, ticket sales last season were up and I will find it hard to shake the image of hundreds of hardy souls departing Alexandra Palace at close to one in the morning having stayed riveted to Mark Selby v Graeme Dott in the Masters semi-finals, traipsing home in the snow having stuck it out to the end.

These are true snooker fans: they love the game and its various complexities, its psychological shifts of momentum. And the game continues to fascinate many millions around the world.

At the top level, snooker is two things: a professional sport and television entertainment. There is an inevitable conflict between the two. We could play every tournament best of 19 from the start but TV wouldn’t cover it. Equally, we must be careful not to dumb the game down so much that its professional integrity is compromised.

Hearn is much more of a traditionalist than people give him credit for. Most of his changes have been cosmetic and most of them have been successful.

Aside from pure entertainment events such as the Shootout, the rules of snooker have not been changed. Shot-clocks and other gimmicks have not been introduced into major tournaments. The UK Championship format has been reduced at the behest of the BBC but the World Championship maintains its eccentric but magnificent long form schedule.

There are still clangers dropped, particularly in regards to scheduling of matches, but speaking as a journalist the difference with the governing body now compared to ’06 is that they will at least engage with you if you criticise them rather than trying to put you out of business.

Who knows what we’ll all be doing seven years from now? Will snooker still be a popular sport?

Why shouldn’t it be? The key thing to remember is that it survived all the mismanagement and lost opportunities and is now continuing to renew itself, exploring new markets. Look at the enthusiasm shown by the crowd in Bulgaria just last weekend.

I don’t have a crystal ball, and even if I did it wouldn’t help because crystal balls are nonsense, but snooker seems to be on a firm footing and opportunities for players abound.

Players don’t need to play in it all, viewers don’t have to watch it all and, for that matter, bloggers don’t have to comment on it all.

You don’t have to read all this either but, if you have, then thank you.

10.6.13

GET TO THE FRONT OF THE CUE

John Higgins won the first title of the new season last night, pocketing €25,000 at the European Tour event in Bulgaria for his 4-1 defeat of Neil Robertson.

Higgins played poorly by his high standards at the end of last season but the difference seems to be a new cue.

It was obvious to anyone watching that Higgins has been practising with the new model. He was sharp in all areas of his game.

Throughout his career he has messed around with cues, having alterations made – bits taken off or put on.

You might think a top snooker player could pick up any old piece of wood and play well with it but it doesn’t necessarily work like that because with a cue, particularly a change of cue, comes all manner of psychological issues.

This is why switching cues is a risk. Peter Ebdon did so last season and struggled badly with it before switching back.

Stephen Hendry’s cue was stolen at the 1990 Grand Prix in Reading and he put up a five figure reward for its safe return. He got it back but it was broken beyond repair by airport baggage handlers in 2003 – an ignominious end for one of snooker history’s most famous pieces of equipment – and he was never quite the same again.

Other players will tell you that Hendry’s cue wasn’t much to look at in the first place but that’s not the point: it was his. He used it so much it was like a part of him.

Alain Robidoux found this when his cue was snapped into several pieces by the man who had originally made it. Robidoux had reached the World Championship semi-finals and a career high of ninth in the rankings. He sent the cue off to have slight alterations made to it but the cue-maker took offence at a sponsor’s logo which had been fixed to it and snapped – or rather snapped the cue.

Robidoux did not win a single match the following season. His confidence had been shattered and his career effectively ended.

Shaun Murphy is another player who has changed cues, apparently because his old one – a lovely old cue, by the way – was damaged. Time will tell how he fares with it.

As for the tournament, the sizeable Sofia crowd were rewarded with a high quality line-up on the final day.

The semi-finals saw Higgins beat Ronnie O’Sullivan and Robertson defeat Barry Hawkins.

Once again, the cream rose to the top and the atmosphere was made by the enthusiastic audience, which included many young people.

Next, it’s the first Asian Tour event in Yixing. Let’s hope all the cues make it to China.

6.6.13

SOFIA CALLS

The first televised snooker of the new season takes place in Sofia, Bulgaria over the next three days.

The European Tour is now the name given to the eight PTCs played in Europe and the UK. The first prize for the European events has risen from €10,000 in its first season to €25,000 in the current campaign.

Bulgaria is a part of Europe which has taken to snooker on Eurosport but there is much to be done to pull together an event – and it has been, chiefly by Oleg Velinov, the promoter.

It was a proud moment for him and the Bulgarian snooker community last year when they staged the first professional event held there, won in fine fashion by Judd Trump.

Trump is among the star names heading back to Sofia, alongside the likes of Neil Robertson, Shaun Murphy, John Higgins, Mark Williams and the reigning world champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan, who is apparently to appear on Bulgarian TV’s version of the Letterman show.

Like all the PTCs, this is a gathering of the great, the good and the not very good. But amateurs see it as their big chance to gain experience and some of the locals will make it on to TV.

Step forward Iveilo Pekov, who faces Robertson in the first match tomorrow morning. Logic suggests he is on a one-way ticket to a beatdown but as Robertson forgot to take his dress suit with him to the Wuxi Classic qualifiers you never know.

One TV match pits Barry Hawkins, the Crucible runner-up just a month ago, against 17 year-old Alexander Ursenbacher of Switzerland, who has turned professional after coming through the Q School.

My research on Ursenbacher reveals he once won a tournament called the Sausage Open, but it will surely take a superhuman effort if he is to bring home the bacon in Sofia.

Eurosport’s live coverage starts at 7.30am UK time on Friday morning.

1.6.13

RECORD SHATTERED SLOWLY

A 19 year-old snooker record was broken, albeit slowly, at the Australian Open qualifiers in Gloucester last night.

There are few certainties in life but old sweats of the circuit were adamant that the record for the longest ever best of nine frame match would never be beaten.

It was set at the qualifiers for the 1994 British Open by Ian Williamson and Robby Foldvari, two of the most methodical players ever to wield a cue.

Their match was played on three different tables due to over-running into various other sessions and ended after 434 minutes, 12 seconds, or just over seven hours in old money.

Remarkably, this was surpassed in the early hours of this morning by Simon Bedford and Barry Pinches.

Bedford led 4-0. This in itself took three hours but proved, as Churchill might have put it, not to be the end, or the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning.

Pinches recovered to force a decider, which Bedford eventually won at just gone 3am.

The match lasted seven hours, 29 minutes and 46 seconds. So basically 450 minutes, beating the old record by just under 16 minutes.

The longest frame was 80 minutes in duration. The average frame time was 50 minutes.

Special mention should go to the referee, Greg Coniglio, who, rumour has it, is now receiving counselling.