|Stuart Bingham celebrates winning the Welsh Open in 2017|
2015 World Champion Stuart Bingham is ready to return to Cardiff and defend the Welsh Open title that he won last year beating Judd Trump 9-8 in the final. The title was his first major title since winning the world title in May 2015, giving it even greater meaning for him.
On the way to glory he opened up with 4-2 victories against one of the home favourites Matthew Stevens as well as Rory McLeod. Following that were whitewash wins over Ian Burns and Robbie Williams, before clinging on to beat Stuart Carrington 5-3 having been 4-0 up.
Arguably, his best performance of the week came at the semi-final stage when he took down Robert Milkins 6-0 with century breaks at the start and end of the contest, and Bingham has fond memories of the entire week.
"I felt like I was playing alright in the early stages of the event. I felt comfortable. It didn't feel like I had a match until the final that I felt like I could lose. I fluked a red early in the semi-final against Milkins and made a ton off it. That really settled me down" Bingham says.
It shows his confidence going into that tournament that he felt like he was not going to lose against any of his lower ranked opponents, but against Trump things were a much different story.
"I remember nicking the first couple of frames against Judd. Then when I got to 4-0 up the pressure changed and switched on to me. In the evening I didn't know where to put the white. I didn't know what to do. He only missed 1 long ball out of 20".
Despite leading 4-0, Trump came back strongly and had things level at 6-6 at the mid-session interval when the tension really went up a gear in the arena, and Bingham would have felt that more than anyone given the balls Trump was knocking in.
"He went 8-7 up and I made a great clearance to make it 8-8. I remember punching the air on the pink before it was in because the black was over the corner. I felt relieved when I went on and won it. It meant so much to get my first title after the worlds and getting the trophy from Ray Reardon".
|Bingham clearing the colours having won the title|
That was not Bingham's first final at the Welsh Open or indeed his first decider in a Welsh Open final, losing out to Stephen Maguire back in 2013 and it all shows that the man nicknamed "Ballrun" has a great record in Wales.
"It might be the Welsh water. I've got lots of good memories of playing in Wales, at the holiday camp in Prestatyn. The Welsh people are so warm and friendly. 2013 was a brilliant final against Maguire. We had a 50+ break in almost every frame. It's a special tournament because it was the first big title for a lot of good players like Paul Hunter and Mark Selby".
Bingham is among some good company as a Welsh Open champion and certainly has a lot of good memories of Wales. However, the 41-year-old will not have too many happy memories of this campaign after being suspended for three months from late October, making his return at the end of January in the China Open qualifiers.
"I owned up and did my time, and now I'm back. I just had some time off away from it all. Whenever I put the snooker on TV the missus said 'no you're not watching that'. I played a couple of pro-am events to keep my arm going but I also had the odd week or two off from playing".
One thing the time did allow the 2011 Australian Open champion to do though was spend some extra time with his family, a part of life players are not always able to enjoy given the time spent on the road.
"You don't get any time with the family on tour being away so much. It was nice taking my boy to football and waking up to next to my wife every day".
When the time did arrive for Bingham's comeback, the pressure had been added to by an announced prize money increase for the China Open, as he now fights for an automatic spot at the Crucible.
"The prize money increase definitely added pressure, though the announcement is great for the tour and the event. (The qualifying match against Jimmy White) was a big big match and I had an even record in matches against Jimmy. As soon as I got there I enjoyed it".
The 6-2 victory against White means Bingham will be heading to Beijing in April, and he impressed in Barnsley making a 50+ break in every frame he won in the match.
"It could have gone 1 of 2 ways and I could have felt the pressure and crumbled. Someone said to me at 2-2 that I should have been 4-0 up but I didn't care. I was just glad to be playing. I felt like I was playing well before my ban and that I had a tournament win in me within the next two months, but that's the way it goes. I said to my manager at 2-2 that I'd win 6-2 or 6-3, I felt that good".
|Bingham ready to enter the arena for last year's final|
Bingham's defence in Cardiff begins with a last 128 tie against China's Chen Zhe on Monday afternoon, someone he knows a fair bit about.
"I practiced with him a couple of times when he used to be at Romford. Maybe he's found it tough to get back on tour in the past. He has a good cue action, goes for his shots and is a dangerous player like all Chinese players are so it will be a tough game. I have never done well as defending champion".
Looking slightly further ahead, Bingham will also be in action in Gibraltar ahead of the Players Championship with his qualification for neither that or the World Championships a certainty.
"My first goal when I came back was to get in the Grand Prix, now my big target is the Players Championships. If not my focus will be on keeping in the top 16 for the worlds. I feel like I can win any tournament I play in".
With that belief on top of the quality he showed in last year's Welsh Open and on the way to the European Masters final before his suspension in October, do not be surprised to see another trophy in the hands of Stuart Bingham before this season is finished.