Why do I do this to myself? Just why? Ok, here we go. UK Championship, the first of the Triple Crown, and a tournament I was planning on attending (thanks a bunch Covid). But this is somewhere to escape the news, so here I will briefly run down the draw and highlight a handful of players. Predictions in bold as usual, section predictions at the end of each.
Ding Junhui vs. Jamie Curtis-Barrett
Ian Burns vs. David Grace
Luca Brecel vs. Lei Peifan
Xiao Guodong vs. Brandon Seargeant
Jack Lisowski vs. Farakh Ajaib
Tian Pengfei vs. Jamie O’Neill
Gary Wilson vs. Oli Lines
Anthony Hamilton vs. Xu Si
So as always, we start with the defending champion, Ding. We were wondering after last year’s triumph if he would kick on. The answer? Not really. He hasn’t been bad, but I sometimes get the feeling that he is lacking any real desire to play. He should easily have too much for Jamie Curtis-Barrett, the Grimsby man an amateur again after failing to make an impact as a professional.
David Grace is (as of writing) in the Last 8 of the Northern Ireland Open (held in the famously Irish town Milton Keynes), and is a former semi-finalist in the UK Champs. While I don’t expect him to do that well again, he’s certainly capable of springing the occassional shock.
Luca Brecel is fighting to regain a place in the Top 32, after a couple of lean years. I think a lot of players tend to forget Luca is still only 25, because he’s been on the tour for so long. On his day Luca can beat anybody, and he’s shown that multiple times. I just think his shot selection is sometimes questionable, and he’s just as liable to go out first round as he is to reach the late stages.
The person I’m taking for Section I though is Jack Lisowski. Lisowski needs a decent result to retain his place in the Top 16 for the Masters, and he’s got time on his side regarding winning a tournament. When he’s firing he is deadly, and his tactical game is leagues better than this time two years ago. He has a potential banana-skin against Tian in Round 2, but I think he’ll be just fine. And if you’re going to cement your place in the Masters, what better way than taking out the defending UK Champion?
Section I Prediction: Ding Junhui 3-6 Jack Lisowski
Alan McManus vs. Jimmy White
Zhou Yuelong vs. Peter Devlin
Sam Craigie vs. Chang Bingyu
Mark Allen vs. Jamie Wilson
Ryan Day vs. Jak Jones
Scott Donaldson vs. Simon Lichtenberg
Daniel Wells vs. Gerard Greene
John Higgins vs. Fergal O’Brien
Considering they’ve both been professionals for more than 30 years, you would expect Eurosport co-pundits Jimmy White and Angles McManus to have faced each other more than 20 times. Not to mention they last faced each other in 2012. I would have backed Jimmy to get through against a fair few people, but that doesn’t include Alan, who will have White tied in knots all match.
Does Mark Allen now have an irrational fear of people called Jamie? We are about to find out (spoiler alert: he isn’t). Allen is not only a champion, he is the Champion of Champions, as well as a former Masters champion. If he can beat 17 year old Jamie Wilson, he has a tough second round match against either the quick-scoring Ryan Day or the scrappy and gutsy Jak Jones.
Jak Jones is someone who really interests me. I’ve not seen nearly enough of him play, but he’s someone who top players seem to have a lot of issues with. His style seems very scrappy, but he’s always got a ton in him. I think he unsettles some people with his somewhat slower play. If he plays well, he’s got a great chance. If he doesn’t, Ryan will run him over.
However, and I apologise for a lack of imagination here, I’m plumping for old reliable – John Higgins. It’s an entire decade now since Higgins won the UK Championship last, however he is playing as well at the moment as he has in at least the past 5 years for me. He has an awkward first match against another old hand in Fearless Fergal, but has an excellent head-to-head against him (9-4), and Higgins is hitting notes right now that I don’t think most other players can reach.
Section II Prediction: Mark Allen 4-6 John Higgins
Mark Selby vs. Michael White
Liam Highfield vs. Jackson Page
Michael Holt vs. Gao Yang
Hossein Vafaei vs. Billy Castle
David Gilbert vs. Fan Zhengyi
Robert Milkins vs. Si Jiahui
Barry Hawkins vs. Riley Parsons
Mark Davis vs. Robbie Williams
I have said it before and I will say it again. Michael White is FAR too good to be an amateur. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a fan. A player of his quality should not be off the tour, and it is testament to his issues over the past couple of years that he is. However, he is playing better now, he seems far more positive, and seems to be significantly healthier as well. He ran to the Last 16 last year, including an all-time classic in the Last 32 against Mark Davis, which if memory serves me correctly (which would be a novelty), was decided on a respotted black in the decider.
If Eurosport are showing Selby vs. White (which they should be!), I will be glued to the television (or player). Mark is a strange case: some days his B game won’t be good enough, others he gets through with his D or E game. He is significantly tougher to take on when he isn’t playing well sometimes, as he will just turtle up and he’s probably the best safety player in the game. Whoever wins this match will be a force.
Oh Michael Holt, what a strange tale we weave. So many times you have threatened to become a major force in the game, but so many times you fall slightly short. You are both brilliant and terrible. How far will the Hitman get? Just roll a dice, and take the roll as your answer. Betting on him? Don’t.
Barry Hawkins is having a resurgence this season (unless you ask Michael White). Another player who’s had very lean form, he’s dropped away from the Top 16 and needs a deep run to appear at the Masters again. Never write him off however. If he gets on a roll, he can very easily steamroll all kinds of opponents. He isn’t flashy, but boy is he effective.
Dave Gilbert is also here, but he doesn’t have the benefit of good form. In fact, his form in the past 12 months has been awful, to the point where it’s over 11 months since he ventured beyond the Last 32 of a tournament. He’s always capable, but he’s in a rut and I don’t see a way out right now. He seems to be regressing as players around him improve.
Would it be harsh to say this pretty much comes down to Selby/White and Hawkins? Yes. Would it be the truth? Possibly, although Holt, Vafaei, and even Gilbert if he shows up in form will have a thing or two to say about that. So don’t rule out seeing some surprises.
SECTION III PREDICTION: Mark Selby 6-4 Barry Hawkins
Lyu Haotian vs. Sohail Vahedi
Anthony McGill vs. Steven Hallworth
Yuan SiJun vs. Chen Zifan
Yan Bingtao vs. Sean Maddocks
Li Hang vs. Fraser Patrick
Zhao Xintong vs. Rory McLeod
Chris Wakelin vs. Louis Heathcote
Neil Robertson vs. Brian Ochoiski
The top half of this section is very open. I would argue that Ant McGill may be the favourite in this section, after his semi-final at Worlds. McGill is one player who is not afraid to grind frames out, something he seems to have gotten from regular foe John Higgins. He doesn’t lack nerve nor belief. He is also in the Race to the Masters, with a good run promising a likely ticket to the Top 16 invitational.
Yan has had a solid season so far, with a deep run in the NI Open (as I write, he trails David Grace 4-2 in the Last 8), and a QF appearance at the European Masters at the start of the season. It is hard to believe Yan is only 20, but I feel he has a way to go before he becomes a top threat for regular ranking titles. He’s just a little weak in terms of shot selection I feel.
Neil Robertson is clearly the favourite for the section, and for good reason. The Aussie is absolutely lethal when he’s got his eye in, and has a final to his name this season already (his 30th ranking final). His first opponent is the highly talented young Frenchman Brian Ochoiski (I sincerely apologise if his name is incorrectly spelt). If Robertson underperforms, then he has half a chance. What better a way to make your name.
Zhao Xintong vs. Rory McLeod is a battle of polar opposites. One is a fast young attacking player who has risen quickly in his short time as a pro, and has wins against some of the biggest names in the game. The other is known as the Dentist for his granite but slightly dull style.
But I always have at least one surprising choice, and this is no exception. There’s a player here who I’m a big fan of. He’s a young up-and-comer in his second season on tour, has had several impressive results, and was last season’s highest ranked tour newcomer (ranked as high as 67 at the start of this season). His name? Louis Heathcote.
Section IV Prediction: Zhao Xintong 5-6 Louis Heathcote
At this point, I’d like to remind you that if you like this, you can follow me on Twitter @M18Snooker, and if you want to know more about my views on the world (lord knows why you’d want to), you can follow me personally @PhiltheRenegade. I regulary talk about such subjects as Snooker (obviously), my Autism, and random UK Children’s Television from the 2000s.
Judd Trump vs. Paul Davison
Luo Honghao vs. Dominic Dale
Liang Wenbo vs. Allan Taylor
Ben Woollaston vs. Andy Hicks
Mark Williams vs. Ben Hancorn
Sunny Akani vs. Kacper Filipiak
Ali Carter vs. Ash Carty
Ricky Walden vs. Rod Lawler
Judd Trump. I literally have nothing to say which hasn’t been said 1000 times already. He’s having a great season, but I don’t think he’s played all that well at times. It feels like he’s on cruise control. But he’s still winning, so I guess it’s worth it. But there is 15 other players here.
Liang Wenbo is… unpredictable. He is such a great player when he wants to be, and he is a former finalist here. However that player rarely turns up. When he’s not firing, he’s cannon fodder. And sometimes, you’ll get different Liangs from match to match.
If there’s one player here who will happily scrap for 11 frames against anyone, it’s Ali Carter. He is a player I feel is significantly underrated, as people tend to overlook his accomplishments in the game and just talk about either his Chron’s disease or the bust-up with Ronnie. What you get instead is a driven and focused player who rarely takes undue risk. He can make big breaks, but is just as capable of grinding you down.
Trump is going well at the moment, but I think he’s starting to get a little too comfortable. The old saying is “Nobody bats 1000”, and that goes for Judd as well. I can see him steaming through the earlier rounds, but he will run into issues sooner or later.
Section V Prediction: Judd Trump 4-6 Ali Carter
Mark King vs. David Lilley
Graeme Dott vs. Zhao Jianbo
Andrew Higginson vs. James Cahill
Stuart Bingham vs. Zak Surety
Martin O’Donnell vs. Jamie Clarke
Kurt Maflin vs. Aaron Hill
Mark Joyce vs. Eden Sharav
Kyren Wilson vs. Ashley Hugill
Bags of experience wherever you look here. Five world finals in this section alone, two former World Champions, four players who have been professional for over 20 years in total, and one of my favourites.
I will address the elephant in the room, yes, I am very vocal about being a fan of king Kurt. Maflin is an excellent player who is just a little bit of tactical nous and consistency away from being a massive force. He isn’t pretty to watch, but he is effective. The frustration comes from the fact that you’re just waiting for him to miss a ball, because he does throw needless errors in. It isn’t a lack of bottle like I am told… just so much…, it’s more just concentration. He tends to take balls for granted a bit.
Graeme Dott is an old hand. Three times a world finalist, he’s actually got a rather poor record in the UK Championship, having never progressed beyond the Semis, and hasn’t gone beyond the Last 16 in six years. However when he’s playing well Dotty is a threat, and he is tenacious.
Jamie Clarke feels like he’s kicking on a bit after his run at the Crucible, and he’s playing well. He’s still young, he’s talented, he has a backbone, and he’s exciting to watch. His run to Sheffield means he now has a couple of years to try and establish himself on tour, and I have little doubt he can do that.
Finally we have one of the quickest rising players in the game in Kyren. He’s a player I’m a fan of, and he has a superb attitude to the game. His path looks reasonably clear to the Last 32, with Hugill and then either journeyman Mark Joyce or the underperforming Eden Sharav, but after that his path gets murky.
Kyren I believe will win a triple crown event soon. I just don’t see it being this one right now. I feel like he’s going to slip up, which will make him even hungrier for the Masters. As for who I think will get through? Either Dott or Maflin. Toss a coin – Heads is Dott, Tails is Maflin.
Section VI Prediction: Graeme Dott 5-6 Kurt Maflin
Shaun Murphy vs. Lee Walker
Elliot Slessor vs. Mitchell Mann
Matthew Selt vs. Amine Amiri
Lu Ning vs. Ken Doherty
Stephen Maguire vs. Iulian Boiko
Stuart Carrington vs. Barry Pinches
Tom Ford vs. Pang Junxu
Noppon Saengkham vs. Peter Lines
Stephen Maguire was runner-up last year after Ding walked all over him at the start of the final. Since then though, he’s actually won a ranking event (for the first time since 2013). Stephen is a cracking player to listen to, as he is so open about how he’s playing. If he’s playing like garbage, he’ll be the one to tell you that. He played tremendously in reaching the final last year though. his comeback against Michael White in particular was another level.
Outside of him we have a smorgasbord of talented players, all of whom can score very heavily. Tom Fordr is a ferocious potter but lacks a little bit of bottle for me. Stuart Carrington is a well adept break builder and was a star at junior level back in the day, but his season has been dreadful thus far.
And we need to address the obsession the draw computer has with pitting Noppon Saengkham against members of the Lines family. After no less than three meetings with Oli this season (winning one), he now faces Oli’s father, and former World Seniors Champion, Peter.
Elliot Slessor is a player who really interests me. His rise over the past few years has been steady but slightly erratic. He’s also been very vocal on social media regarding his frustrations with the game at times. However, young Elliot is a determined player, and I feel he’s grown immensely as a player since becoming a father.
But if you want to talk about potters, you HAVE to talk about Shaun Murphy. When he’s not being insulted by opticians (If you own a Twitter account you know what I’m talking about), he can be such a great player. I have seen tons of matches where Shaun has potted opponents out of the game without them playing a shot wrong really.
The issue with Shaun is he never seems happy with his game. He’s always tinkering with it, and I think he’s just overcomplicating the basics. But when he does have a clear head, he is one hell of a player. This section will just come down to who turns up in form and who cuts out the little mistakes.
Section VII Prediction: Elliot Slessor 2-6 Stephen Maguire
Jimmy Robertson vs. Igor Figueiredo
Joe Perry vs. Alex Borg
Joe O’Connor vs. Duane Jones
Thepchaiya Un-Nooh vs. Lukas Kleckers
Martin Gould vs. Jordan Brown
Matthew Stevens vs. Jamie Jones
Alexander Ursenbacher vs. Nigel Bond
Ronnie O’Sullivan vs. Leo Fernandez
Look, it’s the player who all the commentators won’t shut up about (especially in everyone else’s matches). I will go on record to say that I think Ronnie is a great guy, and his talent as a player is absolutely without doubt. He’s said recently that he feels like he’s getting more susceptible to missing balls as he gets older. I respond by pointing out he’s the World Champion, and suggesting he’s not playing that well is absolute balderdash.
So who can challenge the mighty Ron? Well this section just happens to contain a couple of players who are having a renaissance in their careers – 39 year old Martin Gould, and 43 year old Matthew Stevens. Stevens in particular could face Ronnie in the Last 32 for the THIRD event in a row (barring the Championship League, which started before the EO). They are 1-1, which is a pretty good record against Ronnie to be fair. He might even have beaten him at the NI Open other than the table playing like a Lucky Dip.
Gould will have his hands full in Round 1 though with a very tough nut in Jordan Brown, the Antrim Ferrari having qualified for the Crucible for the first time earlier this year, and then running Mark Selby close. Brown is a steady eddy type player, but he is quite experienced and if playing well, will give anyone a decent match.
Nigel Bond was one of the stories of last year, defeating Judd Trump on his way to the Last 8, only being denied in the Last 8 by Mark Allen in a match which went all the way. 00147 is a player who will catch you out if you underestimate him, even despite turning 55 recently. He will be a stern test for Alex Ursenbacher, who other than the World Qualifiers earlier this year, has a dire record in longer matches.
Gentleman Joe is here, he’s still very much in the race to the masters and will be a stern examination for the unwary. People will ask if this is the time Theppy can finally beat Ronnie (spoiler alert:no). Duane Jones has Mark Williams in his corner, which will be useful if Williams is indeed sober. Ultimately it is Ronnie’s section to throw away. But would you be surprised if he did? Because I wouldn’t.
Section VIII Prediction: Joe Perry 3-6 Ronnie O’Sullivan
OVERALL PREDICTION: STEPHEN MAGUIRE
If you’ve got this far, I just want to thank you for making it to the end. After the tournament I will have a Reflections article looking back at the tournament (may be around Christmas if Masters work does not allow). And if you like it, why not share it so other snooker fans can read it and tell me how I’m totally wrong? Thanks for reading, it means the world to me!