Sunday 3 December 2023

Noppert, Williams, Muramatsu

Hard to say whether this year's been a good one for Danny, but what I think is definitely fair to say is that he has not pushed on from his UK Open victory in 2022, but he's consolidated pretty well and is in a decent position to make a best run at this event, this being his sixth appearance with him still yet to make the fourth round. Noppert's TV form has been generally OK, but without the real signs that he might repeat what he did in 2022 and claim a second major title. Danny's UK Open defence came to an abrupt end at the last 32 stage, being involved in two high quality affairs with a win over the ever dangerous Jim Williams, but losing out to Willie O'Connor in a final leg. Noppert did take out potential third round opponent Martin Schindler at Blackpool, but would lose in round two to eventual champion Nathan Aspinall, while at the Grand Prix, Noppert was the last player outside the seedings and was hence pretty unfortunate to draw Gerwyn Price in the first round and fall in straight sets. His best run was in Dortmund - making swift work of Andrew Gilding 6-0, then eliminating Rob Cross and avenging that loss to Price to reach another major semi final, but at that stage he would fall to eventual champion Peter Wright. His last TV appearance (after withdrawing from the Players Championship Finals for personal reasons) was in the Grand Slam - winning through the qualifier and then getting a top seeding, Noppert comfortably came through a group involving Gilding, Brendan Dolan and potential first opponent here Muramatsu, but in the knockout stages Noppert would slump to an 85 average as Stephen Bunting came through 10-4. Away from TV, Noppert has been pretty consistent, reaching five European Tour final sessions, albeit only being able to push one of those any further and that was only to a semi final, and he did win a brace of Pro Tour titles, the first in the opening weekend with a final win over Simon Whitlock, the second in September, needing all fifteen legs to finally take down Christian Kist. Noppert's the sort of player that it's rare to see not turn up - he'll usually have a good level of floor game and win a lot of matches just by not giving the opponent chances, but his peak game seems a fair way off the game's elite, the percentage of legs he wins in four and five visits are a bit off where a lot of the top players, and even players quite a bit below him in the rankings, are at - this is reflected in his scoring in 2023 being only in the top 30 of players in this tournament, and his Pro Tour average being around the same rank - the first nine average on that tour is about that same marker as well, so it's hard for him to hit the huge leg when needed. Hopefully for Danny's sake, he doesn't need to that often.

Scott Williams burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion in 2022 despite not holding a tour card - winning the Challenge Tour as well as a Pro Tour title, doing enough to gain a tour card through the Order of Merit without needing the one that he would have obtained from that Challenge Tour win. 2023 however has been a bit of a difficult second year, if you consider 2022 a first which I think it's fair to do. Williams is back through the Pro Tour rankings for a second appearance after last year beating Ryan Joyce but losing to Rob Cross in a game that played closer than the 3-1 scoreline suggested, but he didn't make it easy on himself at all. Scott was one of the last dozen players in the qualification spots after a moderately consistent Pro Tour season, lacking the big runs that we know he is able to do and just making it out of his board twice, but getting through his opening game more often than not, accumulating enough to creep into the Players Championship finals as the number 57 seed, where he would face Ross Smith, a tough ask regardless but he'd have been disappointed with an 82 average in a 6-2 defeat, effectively not laying a glove on the former major champion. That money alone would not have been enough to make the worlds, so he needed some help from the European Tour. That would have seemed unlikely if you'd said at the outset he'd only qualify for two of the events, but the second one in Hungary was effectively the event that got him here, with a semi final run somewhat out of nowhere. Three Dutch opponents would be the path through, beating Veenstra, van Duijvenbode and potential second round opponent Noppert to reach the final session, there he would edge out Mike de Decker to reach the semi, pushing Dave Chisnall close but ultimately coming up a couple of legs short. Still, that eight and a half grand was enough to get him back, and without that (and without worlds money), he might have been questionable to retain a card after 2024, although he'd be safe this time round anyway. The only other TV appearance was obviously the UK Open, but this would again end in disappointment, being seeded into round three but losing out to former Lakeside winner Jelle Klaasen in a deciding leg. The numbers and statistics indicate he's still playing well enough to be considered the top 64 player his ranking suggests he is, but this hasn't been a great year that's seen any real progression, something that will likely need to be done in 2024.

Haruki Muramatsu is making a fifth appearance here, but the first for quite a few years having not appeared since the 2015 edition, and will be looking to make more of an impression than in previous appearances, last time he appeared he lost a short prelim to Boris Koltsov, a step back having won that round on his previous three showing, but he is yet to win a set having drawn tough opponents at the time in Ronnie Baxter, Phil Taylor and Simon Whitlock. Haruki returns having won the Asian Championship, which was a tad surprising given he finished outside the top 10 in the Asian Tour rankings, getting one tour win early in the season against Lourence Ilagan on home soil in Kobe, but not playing anywhere near the full tour and only making it to three further quarter finals. Clearly not enough to make the worlds through that ranking, the Asian Championship would be his backup plan - there, he won through what looked on paper to be a very soft group, then in the knockout stages he had a fine first game against Alex Tagarao averaging into three figures, very one sided games against Raymond Copano and Motumo Sakai, before needing every leg to come through a testing final against Sandro Sosing. Reaching the final was enough to reach Ally Pally, but picking up the title was a huge bonus - not only an $8k increase in prize money, but it also gave him an important return to TV with a spot at the Grand Slam. Placed in a group with Noppert, Brendan Dolan and Andrew Gilding, it was going to be a tough ask to qualify, but he showed some flashes, picking up six legs along the way and never disgracing himself, scoring in the mid 80's in the last two matches, peaking at 90 in the Noppert match where he lost 5-3, which could have been higher or even a win with Muramatsu wiring multiple doubles, fractionally the other way and we could have had an entire different script. Haruki's going to be live, but it's hard to imagine he isn't the underdog here.

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