The final BetVictor European Series event is almost here. There has been a mixture of winners this season with Ali Carter being the latest victor in Germany. Now the players take their talents to Wales in hopes to secure last tournament in the Home Nations Series.
There’s little doubt who the King of the (Happy) Valley’s is (it isn’t Tommy Lee Royce!) – it’s the Wizard of Wishaw, John Higgins.
Five times the great Scot has lifted this title in Wales, lastly in 2018 in the country’s capital. It’s rare to say Higgins has a point to prove considering he’s won almost everything in the game, but this season has been nothing short of a disaster for him. On the one-year rankings, he’s down at 61st and hasn’t gone past the last 16 in any of his seven ranking events.
I’ve heard on the grapevine he’s having big troubles with his cue. Higgins changed it at the start of the season after he felt at the end of his World Championship semi-final defeat to Ronnie O’Sullivan it was a bit limitless and lacked cue power. A very odd decision if you ask me as Higgins has never had that component in his arsenal. Perhaps psychologically he thought about all his ranking final losses and felt a change was required. I understand he’s using this same cue here in Llandudno and gets a new one in Thailand when he heads for the 6 Reds World Championship in March.
Even though he looked in decent nick at the Championship league this week, Higgins has to be a player to oppose here and opens with Switzerland’s Alexander Ursenbacher, a player he’s never lost to but is a force in best-of-seven formats.
Last week’s German Masters champion, Ali Carter comes into North Wales with a spring in his step and holds pole position in the BetVictor Series rankings with the bonus of £150,000 lying in wait after this event. Carter lies £9,000 clear of second place Kyren Wilson. Wilson requires at least a quarter-final here where a further ten hold legitimate hopes.
Carter made it ranking title number five in Berlin’s Temprodom Sunday week and now holds the acclaim of ranking wins in three separate decades. Winning back-to-back titles is a tough ask, especially stepping back into the helter-skelter of shorter formats. Carter won his first ranking title in this event back in 2009 and nearly followed up a year later losing in the final to Higgins.
Ding Junhui came very close to winning the German Masters/Welsh Open double in 2014 so it’s possible however the bookies are understandably weary of the captain.
With Joe Perry as defending champion, the mini section of quarter one looks an open one for somebody to grab with both hands .
Ryan Day (British Open champion) and Joe O’Connor (Scottish Open runner-up) look to have claims but I prefer the advances of Thailand’s Noppon Saengkham at 66/1.
Aged just 30, 21st on the one-year list Saengkham is one of many on tour who could break their ranking title duck soon. If this season is anything to go by, he’s a next in-line contender.
He’s made two ranking semi-finals already this season at the British Open in late autumn and recently at the World Grand Prix in Cheltenham. That was the third and fourth time he’s made a ranking semi (first semi came here in 2018) and on all occasions he’s been defeated. Mark Allen did the honour of beating Saengkham in each last four appearance this season, 6-1.
Saengkham has a mix of strong scoring with a wonderful temperament and this season has won 8 from 11 in best-of-seven (72%). Noppon starts off his campaign with Liam Davies, the reigning World Under 21, 18 and 16 champion. Davies has been in Australia for the past two weeks for WSF Junior Championship and World Amateur so expect some jet lag. I think it’s an ideal starter for the Thai and he could replicate his run in this tournament from 2018 where he beat Judd Trump and Kyren Wilson before Barry Hawkins beat him 6-4 in the last four.
Like Higgins, Saengkham has been preparing for this in the Championship league and in one game struck three centuries in a 3-1 win over David Gilbert. That’s the sort of damage he’s capable of and can show it off more in Llandudno.
I could easily have plumped for Carter this week (big ask) or a return to form of Neil Robertson wouldn’t surprise given he’s made all three Home Nations semis so far but I’m giving a Magician a chance of waving his wand in Wales, Shaun Murphy.
Murphy’s last ranking event title came in this three years ago this month where he dominated losing just 14 frames in the whole tournament from seven victories.
The career Triple crown winner told Stephen Hendry on his YouTube channel last month that his game is in good shape currently and believes it will come good very soon providing he doesn’t lose any hope and belief.
Certainly, since having stomach surgery in the summer last year and a return to a happy home life in Dublin has transformed his form – to say he’s knocking on the outright door in recent months is an understatement.
Murphy made the semis at the World Grand Prix losing to Trump and the quarters at the two Triple Crowns: the U.K. Championship and Masters. Unfortunately for him, he ran into a few inspired performances, most notably Stuart Bingham at Ally Pally and Jack Lisowski in York.
Murphy is homed in a tricky quarter including Trump and Robertson but should gain a bit of confidence in his opening two ties with Brazil’s Victor Sarkis and China’s rookie Peng Yisong.
Murphy has a decent record in the Welsh; he made the final in 2006, the year after his World Championship triumph. He’s made at least the quarter-final on six further occasions.
Shaun Murphy 22/1 EW
Murphy has been on my radar for quite a while – some of his performances this season have been sizzling. The customary Murphy strut is back in full flow. It’s not quite Carter material being long overdue a ranking title, but a player of Murphy’s class shouldn’t go three years without a win and he can make up for lost time here.
Noppon Saengkham 66/1 EW
Saengkham will take most satisfaction from the three-match run of wins over all-time greats at the racecourse: Mark Selby, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams. Proving he can dine at the top table in this sport.