After another fantastic season of snooker it is finally time for the big one – the Betfred World Championship from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. And never has the tournament been bigger than in 2017 as its iconic venue celebrates its 40th anniversary, with a series of special events to be staged throughout the tournament.
As always, the top 16 players in the world rankings following the recent China Open will be in action against the 16 qualifiers, who all came through three qualifying rounds at Ponds Forge just days ago.
There is little left to be said that has not already been said about this iconic venue. While there is always room for innovation as you will see over the coming days in the media coverage provided by World Snooker, equally important is the tournament’s history, which seeps from every pore of the competition. From walking backstage, to coming down the steps and into the arena illuminated by those famous twinkle lights, there is a familiarity and intimacy that no other venue can boast.
On the eve of the tournament it was confirmed by World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn that the World Championship will remain in Sheffield for at least a further ten years in a landmark deal first announced at the Crucible prior to last year’s final.
Before I turn to the draw, a reminder that the battle for tour survival has now concluded following the qualifiers at Ponds Forge, with none of the players in action at the Crucible able to affect either the two-year ranking list or the one-year list in this respect. For a reminder of how the battle finished up, check out my final blog.
But who will be lifting the famous old trophy in just 17 days time? To the draw for a few clues…
The Top Quarter
Heading the draw of course is defending world champion and world number one Mark Selby, who comes into the tournament full of confidence following his recent victory at the China Open.
Of course victory in Beijing can be seen as a blessing or a curse, given the relatively poor record of winners of that tournament at the Crucible down the years, Selby himself suffering a second round defeat in Sheffield back in 2015 after winning the China Open.
This time around his opponent will be Fergal O’Brien, making his 10th Crucible appearance and first since 2010, following his epic late night victory against David Gilbert on Wednesday night. For Fergal, who has suffered a number of final round qualifying defeats at the competition in recent seasons it will be all the sweeter to be back at the Crucible this time and he will be looking to improve upon his sole quarter-final run back in 2000.
For Selby, the omens would appear to be good as he has won his previous four encounters with O’Brien for the loss of just two frames in total, most recently at the European Masters earlier this season. In fact, O’Brien has not scored a win against the runaway world number one since the 2006 Grand Prix.
And if Selby can come through against the Irishman, perhaps he will note than on his previous two appearances at the Crucible, O’Brien has lost to the eventual champion.
Awaiting the winner will be either sole Welsh representative Ryan Day or one of five Chinese qualifiers Xiao Guodong.
It has been a strong second half to the season by three-time Crucible quarter-finalist Day, who leapt into the top 16 following his run to the final of the World Grand Prix in Preston.
His opponent meanwhile has also enjoyed a much-improved campaign following a torrid 2015/16 which saw him at risk of losing his main tour status if he was to endure a similar run of results this time around. Already he has earned £71,025 this season, compared to just £21,750 by this time last year.
Day’s Crucible pedigree is well established, but it may be forgotten than Xiao has appeared at the Crucible on one previous occasion, losing a high-quality match 10-8 to Ali Carter back in 2014. In terms of head to head history there is little to go on, a sole win for Day back at the German Masters three years ago their only meeting of note.
In the other half of this quarter we find 2010 winner Neil Robertson, who for the first time in several years comes into the event somewhat under the radar following a relatively quiet season to date. Perhaps that could suit the Australian, so often talked up as one of the tournament favourites, without being able to claim that elusive second Crucible crown.
For sure Robertson is too strong a player not to return to winning ways sooner or later, but hoping that his wait will be extended by at least another tournament will be debutant Noppon Saengkham.
The fourth Thai player to play at the Crucible following in the footsteps of James Wattana, Tai Pichit and Dechawat Poomjaeng, Saengkham will be hoping to settle down and show what he can do on the big stage. With his tour place and top 64 status now secure following his qualification, to some extent he has nothing to lose and interestingly did win his previous encounter with Robertson back at last season’s China Open.
Next up for the winner will be either Marco Fu or Luca Brecel, who meet in what on papers looks to be one of the most intriguing matches of the first round.
Coming into the event following arguably his most impressive season as a professional, Fu will be hoping for another strong Crucible run following his semi-final here in Sheffield a year ago. In fact, Fu has reached the semi-finals of the past three triple-crown events now and although not often mentioned as a potential winner of the tournament, has a stronger record than most over the past 12 months.
For his Belgian opponent meanwhile, a long overdue second appearance at the Crucible following his debut back in 2012 as a 17-year-old, when he became the youngest player to compete at the venue. As he noted to the media following his final round victory against Dominic Dale, his other strongest run of the season so far came at the UK Championship in December and so he will be hoping that being on the big stage once again can bring out the best in him.
The pair have never met in a match longer than the best of seven frames, but Fu will take encouragement from the fact that he has won each of their four previous meetings.
The Second Quarter
Moving to the second quarter of the draw and we find 2005 champion Shaun Murphy and 17-year-old Chinese prodigy Yan Bingtao, who interestingly have already met on three occasions at high profile events, with the youngster having had the better of his more illustrious opponent so far.
The Crucible Theatre is of course a different story completely however and a third victory against the fifth seed would be all the more special for the man already set to climb to 56th in the world rankings following the end of his rookie campaign.
For Murphy began relatively slowly, but victory in Gibraltar recently would have raised his spirits and he will be hoping to go one better than his final run in 2015 as like Neil Robertson, he hopes to get his hands upon the trophy for a second time.
Awaiting the winner will be either five-time Crucible king Ronnie O’Sullivan, or another debutant in the form of Gary Wilson, who get underway on the tournament’s opening day.
For O’Sullivan it has largely been a season of so near and yet so far with defeats in three major finals, however he did of course claim a record seventh Masters crown at the Alexadra Palace in January. Most recently he found himself on the wrong end of a second round defeat to Mark Joyce at the China Open in Beijing, but will no doubt have been working hard on the practice table to sharpen up his game in the intervening weeks and remains one of the men to beat this week in Sheffield.
Wilson on the other hand will need to settle quickly in unfamiliar surroundings, but if he can repeat the outstanding form that set him out as one of the strongest performing qualifiers at Ponds Forge last week, could give the Rocket something to think about. With eight century breaks including a second career 147, Wilson has every reason to be confident coming into the Crucible, despite the perhaps daunting task ahead of him.
The pair share one previous meeting, back at this season’s German Masters qualifiers when O’Sullivan ran out a 5-3 winner.
Elsewhere in this section are a further three Chinese players, including English Open winner Liang Wenbo, who will be making his sixth Crucible appearance this week. Perhaps surprisingly, Liang has not won a match at the venue since his memorable run to the quarter-finals on his debut back in 2008, but will be hoping to change that on what will be his first appearance as a seeded player.
Awaiting him will be Grimsby’s Stuart Carrington, who makes his second appearance following his maiden appearance in 2015. Back then he faced Judd Trump and put in a respectable performance claiming sixth frames, but like the aforementioned Gary Wilson was one of the more impressive qualifiers last week and will be hoping that his previous experience of the venue can help him to settle quickly into the match.
Their most recent previous meeting came at the German Masters back in 2015, Liang getting the better of Carrington on that occasion to emerge a 5-3 winner.
The winner will face either Ding Junhui or another debutant Zhou Yuelong, who meet for the second time in two tournaments, Ding having whitewashed his young opponent 5-0 at the China Open earlier this month.
No doubt that Ding heads into the match as favourite, looking to go one better than his run to the final as a qualifier back in 2016. Back among the seeds following a much-improved season, the experience gained by making it to the final can only leave him better equipped to fulfil his potential by winning his first world title over the next few years.
For his 19-year-old opponent, who of course was a part of the China B World Cup winning team together with fellow debutant Yan Bingtao, the usual rules of needing to settle down apply as surely he cannot let his more experienced opponent race into an early lead.
The Third Quarter
Heading up the bottom half of the draw is 2015 Crucible king Stuart Bingham, who will be relieved to no longer playing under the weight of expectation that inevitably rested upon his shoulders last year as defending champion. Having also won his first title since his World Championship at February’s Welsh Open, he very much has both monkeys off his back now as he looks to improve upon last year’s first round exit.
He does however face a severe drop down the rankings this week if he cannot come close to replicating his success of two years ago and his opponent needs little introduction as he faces 2002 world champion Peter Ebdon.
Making his 24th appearance at the Crucible and second in successive years, Ebdon told reporters following qualification that in recent years he has started to feel more like his old self at the table and if he can play to his best then he will provide a stern test for Bingham.
The pair have Crucible history already, Bingham having won 10-8 in 2011, but their overall head to head is very even, Ebdon having won their last meeting at the 2015 UK Championship.
Ebdon will though be looking to banish the memories of his 10-2 thrashing at the hands of Marco Fu a year ago.
Awaiting the winner will be either Kyren Wilson or another debutant, Leeds’ pro David Grace. For Wilson this year represents his third Crucible appearance, but first as a seeded player after he broke into the world’s top 16 following his quarter-final run in Sheffield a year ago.
It has been a mixed season for the former Shanghai Masters champion, one that has seen its dips and early exits, yet nevertheless yielded a ranking event final at the Indian Open, as well as semi-final runs at the Northern Ireland Open and more recently the China Open earlier this month.
Grace meanwhile will make his Crucible bow on his seventh attempt, following victories against Thor Chaun Leong, Mark Joyce and Akani Songsermsawad in qualifying. It has made a big difference for Grace this season being seeded inside the world’s top 64 following his semi-final run at the UK Championship in 2015 and allowed him to better gain momentum in recent tournaments, compared to in previous seasons as he fought for tour survival.
Again, much will depend on how quickly he can adapt to playing in the unique cauldron of the Crucible, but he can take confidence from previous victories against Wilson at European Tour and PTC events.
Sharing the quarter is the man who Wilson defeated last year at the second round stage, Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen. This year the 2009 semi-finalist begins his campaign up against Jimmy Robertson, who has qualified for the event for the third time.
For Allen it will be his 11th appearance and he will be looking to better his recent runs of three successive last 16 runs in Sheffield. It has not been a stellar season for the world number 11 with just one ranking event quarter-final to his name and interestingly he has not competed at a ranking event since the Gibraltar Open in early March, making it difficult to gauge his current form.
Robertson meanwhile will be hoping to improve upon previous defeats to Mark Selby and Marco Fu at the Crucible, with his best result of the season so far a last 16 run at the Riga Masters almost a year ago.
His only previous encounter with Allen ended in a 5-1 defeat at the 2012 World Open, as the Antrim man went on to claim the title.
The winner meanwhile will play either four-time world champion John Higgins or Martin Gould, who meet in one of the most intriguing matches of the first round.
Higgins of course needs little introduction and has enjoyed a lucrative season already with victories at the China Championship and Champion of Champions events before Christmas, as well as the Championship League earlier this year. That said, he has failed to reach the quarter-final stages of a ranking event so far in 2017 and has not been to the one-table stage at the Crucible since he last won it back in 2011.
Gould meanwhile comes into the week as a qualifier rather than as a seed unlike last year, although having drawn Ding Junhui in the first round a year ago it might be fair to say that he did not enjoy the usual benefits of that status a year ago in any case.
For the second year in a row his best result came at the German Masters in Berlin as his title defence ended with a semi-final defeat at the hands of Ali Carter, while he qualified with victories against James Wattana, John Astley and Yu Delu at Ponds Forge.
Both of their previous meetings at full-ranking events came two years ago, with Higgins narrowly edging their Australian Goldfields Open final 9-8, before Gould gained a measure of revenge at the last 16 stage of the Shanghai Masters with a 5-3 win.
The Bottom Quarter
And to the bottom quarter as we find the perennially underrated Barry Hawkins, who will begin his 12th world title tilt against Leicester’s Tom Ford on Wednesday.
With one final, two semi-finals and a quarter-final run to his name at the Crucible over the past four years, perhaps only Mark Selby has a more impressive record than Hawkins, who is up to seventh in the seeding list following his victory at the World Grand Prix in Preston earlier this year.
Many have cited the bottom half of the draw as the place to be with a number of the glamour names over in the top section, but that underestimates players such as Hawkins and Ali Carter (below), who have stronger records than most in Sheffield.
His opponent Ford meanwhile will be making his third appearance at the Crucible and looking to win his first match following previous defeats to Mark Allen and most recently Judd Trump back in 2014. It has been a relatively strong season for Ford, highlights including reaching his first ranking event final at the Paul Hunter Classic back in August and also making a 147 on his way to the quarter-finals of the German Masters. But can he use his previous experience at the Crucible to overcome the rock solid Hawkins and turn around a 2-4 head to head record against the top 16 player, albeit with three of Barry’s victories having come more than a decade ago.
The winner will play either Ali Carter or Graeme Dott, players with five Crucible finals and one title between them in what looks to be a very difficult match to call on paper.
Perhaps strangely under the radar, Carter has been one of the players of the season as borne out by his position of fifth on the one-year ranking list and always comes into the Crucible with a realistic chance of a deep run in the competition given his track record here which has seen him lose two finals to Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Dott meanwhile has had an unremarkable season having failed to make it beyond the last 32 stage of a ranking event, but as he reminded the media following his successful qualification on Wednesday is a man for whom the Crucible and its longer format has always brought out his best snooker. Certainly it would be no surprise to see the Scot roll back the years and embark upon another deep run in Sheffield and there is little to choose between the pair in the head to head stakes, Dott having won their only previous Crucible encounter 13-11 back in 2011.
As we approach the foot of the draw we come across another two Scots in the form of Anthony McGill and Stephen Maguire, who meet at this stage of the World Championship for the second time in three years.
There is however a role reversal this time around as it is McGill who comes into the tournament as the seeded player, having claimed victory at the Shoot Out last month. A double ranking event winner this season having also win the Indian Open last summer, it has been a much-improved 12 months for McGill compared to the previous year and like Kyren Wilson and Liang Wenbo, it will be interesting to see how he handles the expectation of being a seeded player for the first time.
Maguire on the other hand comes into the event looking to improve upon a poor record at the last 32 stage which has seen him lose at the stage during each of the previous four years. He can at least take solace from the fact that on this occasion at least he is already guaranteed to add to his ranking total as one of the 16 qualifiers and noted after his qualification victory against Li Hang that his game should be sharp this year having come through three best of 19 frame qualifiers during the past week.
A semi-finalist at the Shanghai Masters earlier in the season and a two-time Crucible semi-finalist, Maguire remains a player who few would want to face in Sheffield if he can produce his best form on the day.
Finally we arrive at the bottom match in the draw between second seed Judd Trump and world number 54 Rory McLeod.
One of the pre-tournament favourites, Trump has to date enjoyed the most consistent season his career with victories at the European Masters and Players Championship competitions, as well as a further three finals, two semi-finals and two quarter-finals to climb back up the rankings.
Combing the attacking game that he has always had, with a much-improved safety game in recent years, Trump will surely take some stopping this year in Sheffield and will be looking to further improve a strong record which has seen him reach two semi-finals during the past four years, without quite being able to make it to the showpiece match for a second time.
For McLeod his qualification represents a third appearance at the Crucible (2009 & 2011), following a season which has yielded just one last 16 run, albeit at the recent China Open where he notably claimed the scalp of Liang Wenbo before eventually losing out to Hossein Vafaei.
Trump leads their overall head to head record 6-2, including their last three meetings.
The action gets underway at 10:00am today (Saturday) – let us know who you think will win via our social media platforms at the top of the page.