The first semi-final of the Players Championship will take place on Friday evening when Barry Hawkins meets Ricky Walden inside the Aldersley Arena in Wolverhampton for a place in the final on Sunday.
This is a big match for both men. Not only does it present the chance to get into the final of the second Cazoo Series event of the season but it will allow whoever does come out on top to continue to push to make it into the final leg of the series, with neither currently qualifying for the Tour Championship as it stands.
I guess it sounds obvious when you consider that only the 16 leading money earners in ranking events this season made it to this tournament, but Barry Hawkins goes into this semi-final in excellent form. He made the semi-finals of the UK Championship and although it didn’t count towards qualifying for this event he also reached the final of The Masters and now he is in the last four here, so he is enjoying a rich vein of form over the last couple of months or so.
He has been in decent touch here too having seen off the two leading Chinese players in the game on his way to this semi-final, including coming out in a superb quarter final against Yan Bingtao who threw the kitchen sink at Hawkins only to see it bounce back. Hawkins has scored pretty well this week and even when he was 2-0 down to Bingtao he didn’t panic and worked his way back into the match. He performed at all the pressure moments which serves him well.
This season has seen a real return to form of Ricky Walden. This will be the third semi-final he has played this term having reached this stage of the Northern Ireland Open and the German Masters but he didn’t manage to make the final of either of those. If he can put that right here it will really justify all the work he has done both from a health point of view and a form standpoint, as well as doing wonders for his ranking which is climbing well enough that an automatic spot at the Crucible isn’t beyond him.
He would be guaranteed a place at Sheffield if he wins the title this week so this is a big match for Walden. The rankings will take care of itself though. He will just be eager to get into a major final once again and having come from 5-2 down in the previous round to beat Mark Williams 6-5, having thrashed Mark Allen in the first round, he is certainly playing well enough to do that. If you were being critical he might need to score a little stronger but that might well come naturally.
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Head to head
These two men have met 17 times outside of their Championship League and Shootout battles and it is Hawkins who holds the edge having won 10 times to the seven of Walden. That is reflected in the frame count as well where Hawkins holds an 89-80 lead which suggests that matches he wins are fairly comfortable without being runaway wins. This will be the third time they have met in the semi-final of a tournament. They have each won one of the previous two. Walden has a clear edge in their best of 11 frames matches though having won each of their previous three. Hawkins has won their last three battles though.
The longer this week has gone on we’ve seen more and more tight tussles and I don’t expect this to sway away from that trend. These two men had to come through deciding frames in their quarter finals to make it through to this stage and both players were behind in those games and still held themselves together to make it into this semi-final. That is the first thing that bodes well for a close contest here but it certainly isn’t the only thing.
Both men will know that this is a big match for them in terms of the rankings and the remainder of the season. A spot in the Tour Championship could fall into the hands of the winner and a place at the Crucible would be guaranteed if that person then won the final as well. They have similar game styles too in that they are proficient in the safety department but score when they get the chance so everything about this match screams a close contest to me. I don’t see this being won easier than 6-4 either way and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes to a decider. I like over 9.5 frames here.
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