The World Snooker Championships commences this Saturday at the Crucible Theatre, in Sheffield, as the “home of snooker” celebrates forty years at the helm.
Ticket sales have soared once again, but there will also be a massive television audience watching around the world, with no fewer than six players representing China. And with the game booming under the guidance of Barry Hearn, the prospect of a World Champion
from China, could take the game to a stratospheric new level, not just globally, but financially too.
Last year, as a qualifier, Ding Junhui reached the final, before succumbing to world number one,
Mark Selby. In that final, more than forty-five people million tuned in to watch the afternoon
sessions in China, underlining the growth and massive appeal out in the Far East.
This season, though, has been an extremely tough one for the thirty-year-old.
Ding very sadly lost his Mother, following a long battle to cancer. His form, understandably dipped mid-campaign, but he had earlier won the Shanghai Masters, and much more recently hinted at a return to form in both the Players Championship in North Wales and Beijing’s China Open too.
Having drawn fellow countryman, Zhou Yuelong, in the first round in Sheffield, I like his chances of a deep run here. It took the world number four a long time to get settled at the Crucible Theatre, but a run to the final, and two quarter-finals in the last four years, have seen him now embrace the unique atmosphere and set-up.
Defending champion Mark Selby has been in superb form this season. Four ranking titles,
including the much coveted UK Championship, see him as a leading fancy over the next seventeen days. His recent success in the China Open will have to see him overcome a jinx though. No player has ever won that title and gone on to win at the Crucible.
Second seed Judd Trump will have plenty of support too.
The “Ace of the Pack” has been the most consistent player this season. Two titles in five ranking-event finals, plus two semi-finals, have seen the twenty-seven-year old arrive to Sheffield in tip-top form. Trump has been a runner-up here (2011), as well as a two time semi-finalist, and it would come as no surprise if he was to claim his first world title.
However, his odds are short enough for me.
The rocket Ronnie O Sullivan has won this event five times, but it’s been four years since he
claimed his last. It would be dangerous to dismiss him given his undoubted snooker genius, but
despite winning the Masters in January, he has struggled for consistency this campaign. The seventeen day marathon is as much a test for the mercurial O’Sullivan, but if he can keep his mind right, then he is clearly a match for anyone.
There are plenty of other former world champions lurking in the draw.
Sixth seed John Higgins is a four time champion, meanwhile, Stuart Bingham, Neil Robertson,
Shaun Murphy, Peter Ebdon and Graeme Dott have all won it once. Higgins has shown flashes of brilliance this campaign, having won two non-ranking events pre-xmas. Despite prevailing in the Championship League in 2017, has struggled for consistency in recent months, and his last two defeats saw him throw away massive leads.
Bingham, has been very up and down form-wise, whilst Murphy has found some much needed
improvement after his win in Gibraltar. His draw against Yan Bingtao is tough though. Australia’s greatest player Neil Robertson has had a quite a subdued season, but the 2010
champion arrives in Sheffield fresh, and has put the hard graft in on the practice table, but there’s nothing like winning matches, as that is what builds confidence and sharpness.
Barry Hawkins is another player who thrives in Sheffield.
In the last four years, he has reached the final, two semi-finals, and a quarter-final. The Kent potter has had a very productive season and could easily go a long way, having had a few weeks to prepare at home, having missed the China Open. The “Hawk” is not afraid of a big scalp, and could give Judd Trump much to ponder in the fourth and final quarter of the draw.
Two-time finalist Ali Carter is another to look out for, as is rising star Anthony McGill, who faces a stern test against fellow Glaswegian, Stephen Maguire, in the first round.
In total we have five Crucible debutants. Two are from China in nineteen-year-old Zhou Yuelong, and seventeen-year-old Yan Bingtao, one is from Thailand in Noppon Saengkham, as well as home players Gary Wilson from Newcastle, and Yorkshire’s own David Grace. The two teenagers from China are very highly rated, and add even more excitement to a
compelling final thirty-two line-up.
There is comprehensive coverage on various television networks, and it all starts at ten o clock this Saturday morning.