SNOOKER specialist George Weyham (@GWSnookerTips) previews the 2019 Riga Masters, picking out his favourite fancies.
Riga Masters | 26th-28th June 2019 | Eurosport
Home to Europe's biggest food market, oldest zoo and a finest collection of art nouveau buildings, Riga hosts the opening ranking event of the snooker season for the fourth year in succession.
Latvia was the first country among the former Soviet republics to support professional snooker. In 1994, Latvia joined the International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) and 25 years on, ArenaRiga – a venue that primarily hosts ice hockey, basketball and concerts – keeps the Latvian flag flying on the snooker roster.
The world champion, Judd Trump, and the runner-up back in May, John Higgins, are both absent from the tournament. Home interest comes in the form of Latvian amateur Rodion Judin who gets his chance to make the main draw with a pre-qualifier versus Duane Jones. Quick around the table, Judin impressed recently at Q School.
This event is unique as, unlike other ranking tournaments (excluding the Shoot-Out), it only lasts for three days. Someone used to winning this exact format is the defending champion here, world number four Neil Robertson. The ‘Thunder from Down Under’ loves this tournament.
As well as last year's success, Robertson also won here in 2016. In fact, since this event became a ranker three years ago, he’s only lost once in 13 matches.
Robertson is a perennial fast starter to seasons. To take out a horse racing term, the Aussie is ‘best fresh’. Just look at some of his results in the opening tournament of the season over the past six years:
2013 – Wuxi Classic – Winner
2014 – Wuxi Classic – Winner
2016 – Riga Masters – Winner
2018 – Riga Masters – Winner
To add to this, he won the second event of the season in 2010 at the World Open and seven years later at the Hong Kong Masters.
Consistency key for Robertson
Robertson’s consistency in the game is remarkable. The 2007/08 season was the last time he didn’t win a tournament – a quite incredible achievement. Last season he had the best campaign of his career, winning three ranking events, and making three further finals.
The Thunder’s loss to John Higgins in the quarter-final at the Crucible would have hurt as he had been in a menacing mood prior to that, winning eight matches on the spin following a ruthless victory in the China Open. His mental strength is arguably his biggest asset of all. He doesn’t dwell on defeats, he just moves on.
Robertson said recently in an interview that he would rather win more titles than just concentrate on trying to add another world title to his name. He prioritises every event, not just the Triple Crown ones.
In his first match of this season in mid-June, Robertson didn’t muck about in International Championship qualifying, winning 6-0 against Oli Lines, a victory which included three centuries.
Robertson’s draw in Riga is very kind on paper. Arguably his hardest matches en-route to the latter stages come in the first and second round.
Former top-16 player Rob Milkins is first up – he’s beaten Robertson on three occasions (won two of their last three meetings) – twice at the World Championship and once in a best-of-seven in Belfast – and is no easy meat. In the second round it’s Leicester’s Ben Woollaston – he’s beaten Robertson once previously and lost in two deciders, so, again, won’t be overawed.
I believe if the Thunder can beat that pair, he’s a lovely passage to the semi-final. Robertson lost to three Chinese players in best-of-sevens last season and Yan Bingtao and Zhang Anda are marked as dangers by the bookies in his quarter but I would be far from worried about them. Bingtao, especially, isn’t half the player he was in 2017/18.
Robertson, who won an excellent 77% of his best-of-seven matches last season, is a 4/1 (Betway) shot to make it three Riga titles in four years – he was 12/1 this time last year. On the face of it, that 4/1 doesn’t scream great value. However, he’s the rightful favourite and, given his draw, I think he’s a wonderful chance of winning yet another curtain raiser.
Challengers to be aware of
Of the other principles, Mark Selby is second favourite at 6/1 He’s priced about right. After a few poor seasons by his high standards, I want to take a watching brief here. Has he turned a corner? The now former world number one certainly impressed with his scoring in recent qualifying for China. He has a tough assignment second up versus Hossein Vafaei. I’ll pass on the ‘Jester’.
Last year's runner-up Jack Lisowski (14/1) has a good draw to take advantage if Selby slips up. Best-of-sevens can either be beneficial or a hindrance to the Gloucester lad. One of the most talented players on tour, Lisowski should be winning a maiden title of sorts this season and this lesser event should be well within his capabilities.
Talking of talent, Luca Brecel (20/1) is as gifted as they come and performed very well at the recent World Cup for Belgium. His draw is on the tricky side (has Mark Williams, Gary Wilson and Thepchaiya Un-Nooh to name just three in his quarter) so 20/1 isn’t big enough to advise.
Selt can shine in Quarter 2
I’ll keep my only outright selection on Robertson but there’s a couple of fancies I like in the quarters, firstly from a player who won his maiden ranking event last season in India, Matt Selt.
He’s in Quarter 2 containing just the one top-16 player, Kyren Wilson, and one former top-16 man, Ali Carter. The rest in with a squeak here (ranging from 13/2 to 16/1) are much of a muchness for me. Meaning 14/1 (Ladbrokes), on a ranking event winner, is too big. When I look at players who are shorter than Selt in the outrights (wouldn’t put you off at 80/1), it simply doesn’t make sense.
Don’t get me wrong, it took everyone (including me) by surprise when he won at the Indian Open, but he showed real bottle as well as class to win it.
It was a weaker event than normal (many of the top players didn’t enter) but he beat Higgins in the semi-final. Bar a 4-0 win in the second round, he won each match by either two frames or in a decider – no mean feat – showing he's up for a battle.
Selt faces one of the players he beat en-route to India glory first up, Lu Ning – a tough one. Sam Craigie, one of my players to follow this season, opened 16/1 for this quarter, which was on the large side. He’s priced correctly now and is likely to be Selt’s chief threat to make the Last 16. Then he certainly won’t be a 14/1 poke with two matches to go.
You have to respect Selt. He dropped from a career-high 19 in the rankings to 64 in a matter of seasons so made the drastic change of moving 125 miles to Essex (from Nuneaton) so he could be around better players.
Working with one of the best coaches in snooker, Chris Henry, and going the same route as Mark Williams and David Gilbert with SightRight’s Steve Feeney has been a game-changer for the Aston Villa fanatic. They changed something drastically in his technique which helped him under pressure. Safe to say, it certainly worked the oracle at the Indian Open.
Selt, with major self belief, is a dangerous customer and he could make a mockery of that 14/1 to win the quarter, with some luck.
A speculative long shot to cheer on
My last pick, in the same quarter as Selt, is a bit speculative. But at 100/1 to make the semi-finals, I can’t resist a quid or two on Wales’ Jak Jones. The lad from Cwmbran is very underrated in my book.
Jones has an excellent amateur pedigree being a former European amateur and U19 champion. He has won two from two this season in qualifying, by an aggregate of 10-1.
Jones made the Last 16 of two ranking events before and there’s no reason why this big improver can’t make a semi-final berth this season, even here in a winnable looking section. Last season back on tour, he made five Last-32 appearances in ranking events, winning 12 times overall, which is a decent tally.
He’s in for a better season this term. His 100/1 (Bet365) price is probably overexaggerated as he opens up with world number 17 Carter, which undoubtedly will be difficult. Jones could go down like a lead balloon but Carter is susceptible to losing to lower-ranked players. Jones is more than capable of an upset. He beat now world champion Judd Trump in 2018.
He’ll fancy his chances big time against Michael Holt or Alexander Ursenbacher if he defeats Carter. Selt might await in the Last 16, whilst Kyren Wilson is favourite for the quarter. Best-of-sevens can spring plenty of surprises, especially this early in the season.
Jak said this earlier this year: “Winning matches is all you can do to improve your confidence. I’ll start playing my best when I get through the first few rounds of events. I feel like I can beat anyone on my day.”
He saw fellow countryman and friend Duane Jones gatecrash the semi-finals in Germany last year at over 100/1 winning his quarter there, and for me, Jak is better than him. I really admire his never-say-die attitude on the green baize – he’s a real fighter. Winning 69% of deciders last season says it all.
Four wins are required to land some cash and I’ve seen much worse 100/1 shots than Jak Jones.