THE FIRST TELEVISED match of this week’s Paul Hunter Classic will be Stuart Bingham v John Higgins, a meeting of the circuit’s last two ranking event winners.
This is a brutally tough draw for both. The European Tour is seeded based on its own order of merit and, because Higgins was a surprise first round loser in Riga, he has been paired against one of the top 64 seeds, in this case Bingham.
It’s not a match either would have wanted in the opening round but will certainly focus the mind. Sometimes top players early in these tournaments go through the motions, playing without pressure against opponents nowhere near their standard. This match, though, could easily have been the final had the draw panned out differently.
Higgins has enjoyed a resurgence this year, not that he was exactly on the skids but his top 16 place was under threat. He eased the anxiety by winning the Welsh Open last February and was impressive in landing the Australian Goldfields Open title last month. From 4-0 down to Jamie Jones in the semi-finals and all through the high quality final against Martin Gould, Higgins played like the Higgins of old.
He has a 7-2 head-to-head lead over Bingham but this is of course the first time he has played him under the Basildon man’s exalted status as world champion.
Bingham is suddenly a man in demand. Media and personal appearances have eaten into his free time but, typically for this cheerfully happy-go-lucky character he seems to have enjoyed them and taken them in his stride.
Yesterday worldsnooker.com published a video of Bingham being interviewed in his hot-tub by former professional Mark Johnston-Allen. This was not exactly Frost/Nixon but is something to tell the grandkids.
It’s far too early in the season to assess Bingham’s form in the face of new pressures but what is unarguable is that he is under scrutiny like never before. Suddenly, every match he plays is high profile. There’s no hiding place when you’re world champion and in the modern world where everyone is invited not only to have an opinion on everything but to instantly communicate it, the knives are soon out.
Higgins was one first time champion who fared well in the year he defended the title. He won five tournaments and reached the Crucible semis.
His was a different circumstance to Bingham’s, though. Higgins was 23 and still in the infancy of his career, with the confidence of youth and being world champion and world no.1. Everything was in front of him.
Bingham is 39 and has bloomed late in his career. This was a status he seemed unlikely to acquire ten years ago. He will want to win every tournament he enters but even if he never wins another one, he will still have been world champion.
Matches like the one against Higgins on Friday don’t seem that important in the grand scheme of the wider season but may be very significant in terms of kick-starting the campaign after a disappointing World Cup showing with Mark Selby, first round exit in Bendigo and third round loss at the Riga Open.
The TV action on Friday continues with defending champion Mark Allen against Sanderson Lam and then a meeting of two former Paul Hunter Classic winners, Shaun Murphy and Barry Pinches. Eurosport2’s live coverage starts at 8.30am UK time.
Furth is a popular venue for the players due to the enthusiastic support of German spectators, who will be hoping for another exciting few days in what most regard as the stand-out event of the European Tour.
Photographs by Monique Limbos