The fact that 71-year-old Doug Mountjoy is the current holder of the Champion of Champions crown says everything about the tournament’s previous success but that won’t bother whoever ends up with the £100,000 top prize this week.
The Welsh potter captured the second and last of the ill-fated Matchroom Sport venture back in 1980 and despite Mountjoy’s absence from the line-up there is still a familiar figure in the organisational ranks in the form of the irrepressible Barry Hearn.
His decision to bring back this event, where 16 champions from the calendar year before battle it out for one of the most lucrative prizes of the season, is further evidence of his radical approach to the schedule.
There have been some high-profile players who have openly criticised Hearn’s unapologetic tact with the traditions of the game, but one man who has always been behind the changes and looks set to have a great week at the Ricoh Arena is Neil Robertson.
The 2010 World Champion, 11/2 for glory, is one of the most consistent performers on the circuit and has no problem in attending as many of the smaller events as possible. That commitment to the less valuable events could be rewarded this week with the Australian seemingly gifted a place in the semi-finals.
In a format where four groups of four players compete for one last-four spot by being split into two best-of-seven knockout clashes with the two winners then contesting a best-of-eleven match on the same day to see who reaches the tournament semi-finals, the groupings are crucial and the 31-year-old’s favourable draw looks to have handed him a relatively safe passage past his three opponents.
With no seedlings, the group stage has a lop-sided appearance with Ronnie O’Sullivan and the record breaking Ding Junhui thrown together in Group 1. However, that section looks a breeze compared to neighbouring Group 2 which has conspired to pit world champions John Higgins and Shaun Murphy along with three-time Masters champion Mark Selby and the always dangerous Stephen Maguire. Whoever emerges from that collection unscathed would be obviously feeling good about their chances but they might also be left having used up some of their best performances, a potential problem that the selection is unlikely to encounter.
The Thunder from Down Under faces arguably the weakest player on the tour, Martin Gould who qualified courtesy of his Champions League win, and would then face either two-time World Champion finalist Ali Carter or Northern Irishmen Mark Allen. Navigating through those two matches should be expected of the top-rung Robertson and then it will be about keeping his nerve in the semi-finals where it looks likely he will meet either Ding Junhui or Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Reigning World Champion O’Sullivan needs little introduction but it is Ding who has been dominating the headlines this season with a record-breaking third consecutive ranking title secured at the International Open at the beginning of November– the first man to do so since Stephen Hendry in 1993.
However, the structure in Coventry will demand a different approach from the one Ding has so successfully applied recently and it may pay to look elsewhere – their head-to-head record is perfectly poised at 8-7 in favour of the Chinese player.
Robertson trails O’Sullivan in their personal history 9-5, but he did win their last meeting and there are definite signs that the mercurial Englishman is struggling to get motivated again for the smaller events.
Who he meets in the final and what happens there is difficult to judge at this stage but there is serious each-way value to be had with ½ the odds applying to stakes if he makes the final and just misses out.
As a saver, Premier League champion Stuart Bingham stands-out at 25/1 to survive the weakest group of the event and potentially land a surprise in the semi-finals. The Basildon ball-striker is favourite to beat Ricky Walden and then will have to overcome either an out-of-form Judd Trump of Marco Fu. Both scenarios are quite conceivable and the 37-year-old has now matured into a player who can take advantage of opportunities when they come his way.
The return of the Champion of Champions event is further evidence of the positive effects of Hearn’s revolution and although Mountjoy won’t be there to defend his crown it’s good for the game that he has the opportunity to pass it on. Neil Robertson appears to be a likely and willing recipient.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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