IRAN’S VAFAEI EARNS CRUCIBLE DEBUT
Hossein Vafaei will become the first player from Iran to compete at the Crucible, thanks to a dramatic 10-9 victory over Lei Peifan in the final qualifying round of the Betfred World Championship.
Vafaei said earlier in the week that he would “fight until my last blood” to make it to the final stages of snooker’s biggest event, and he was forced to battle until the very last ball, after China’s Lei failed to take a gilt-edged opportunity to win the deciding frame.
World number 18 Vafaei won his first ranking title at the Shoot Out in January and the 27-year-old’s breakthrough season continues with his first visit to the Theatre of Dreams. He will be a tough fixture for whichever of the top 16 seeds is pitched against him when the draw is made at 11am on Thursday.
Vafaei led 4-1 in the early stages before Lei, who was also seeking a Crucible debut, recovered to 5-5. There was never more than one frame between them in the closing straight, and in the last frame Lei led 61-0 and needed just two pots for victory when he missed a straight-forward red to a centre pocket. He later missed a tough long pot on the fourth-last red to a baulk corner, letting Vafaei in for a fantastic 54 clearance.
“I’m so happy I have made my people proud,” said Vafaei. “I was so nervous today, all of my body was shaking. I was eating a lot of chocolate to try to calm myself down but it wasn’t working! I forgot how to hold the cue. I promise I will play better than that at the Crucible, I can’t wait to get there. Thank you to everyone who has supported me, I will try my best to be a people’s champion.”
Jackson Page also secured a Crucible debut, having won four qualifying matches, culminating in a 10-6 defeat of David Grace. Welsh 20-year-old Page made top breaks of 104 and 116 in an excellent performance.
“I have always been quite calm, taking everything in my stride, maybe that’s Mark influence,” said Page, who practises with three-time champion Mark Williams. “I won’t be there to make the numbers up, I want to do a bit of damage.”
David Gilbert, who reached the semi-finals in 2019, secured his return with an emphatic 10-3 victory over Anthony Hamilton. A top break of 100 helped Gilbert into the last 32.
“I’m delighted to get through, it’s a great result,” he said. “Anyone who says they want to draw Ronnie or Judd is talking rubbish. I want to avoid Ronnie, Judd, Robertson and Selby! They are the big four and one of them is likely to win it. Not taking anything from any of the other seeds, but I’ll be honest and say it how it is. I feel as if my game is in good shape, at times today I felt as if I couldn’t miss.”
A battle between two players who have both been runner-up at the Crucible twice went the way of Matthew Stevens as he came from 4-0 down to beat Ali Carter 10-8. Welshman Stevens fired breaks of 100, 115 and 139 as he earned his 18th appearance in the televised stages.
“I didn’t have a shot for the first four frames so I showed a lot of character after that. When I came here I had to win a match to stay on the tour, so to get all the way through is a huge bonus,” said Stevens, who lost the final in 2000 and 2005. “It’s fantastic that so many players from Wales have got through.”
Jamie Clarke made it an even better day for Wales as he scored a 10-8 success over 2006 champion Graeme Dott. Clarke was hauled back from 8-4 to 8-8 but then took the 17th frame with a run of 76. The 18th came down to a battle on the final black, and Clarke saw an attempted double to a middle pocket miss its target but then cross the table and drop into the opposite centre.
“Both of us were absolutely gone, I was so lucky to win,” admitted Clarke, who reached the second round on his debut in 2020 before a 13-12 defeat against Anthony McGill. “From 8-4 I knew he was going to come back. I bottled it on the last frame but then got lucky on the black. I’m in absolute shock that I have got through.”
Chris Wakelin recovered a 3-1 deficit to beat Jimmy Robertson 10-7 with a top break of 131. “The pressure here is in the first round to get your ranking points,” said Wakelin. “When I get to Judgement Day I feel it’s a bonus and I don’t feel pressure. My mindset is not to even care whether I win or lose. I just told myself that if I win I’m through to the Crucible, but if I lose – there are a lot worse things going on in the world and I’m privileged to be able to play this game.”
Liam Highfield scored a 10-7 win over Yuan Sijun with a top run of 123, booking his third Crucible appearance. He said: “It will be amazing going to the Crucible with fans again because the last couple of years have been tough for everyone. I can’t wait to see it full again. Having been there a couple of times before, I go there this time with a different mindset, wanting to win matches.”
Noppon Saengkham top scored with 116 and 113 in a 10-8 victory over Gibraltar Open champion Robert Milkins. It’s an exciting time for Saengkham as, back in Thailand, his wife is eight months pregnant with their first child. “We will be having a daughter in mid May. This is a gift for her and a gift for my family and Thai people. I am fighting for all of them,” said Saengkham, one of two Thai players in the draw alongside Thepchaiya Un-Nooh.