In football, it’s gracing the field of a World Cup stadium. In tennis, it’s donning the all-white colours on the luscious green grass of SW19 at Wimbledon. In golf, as is the case this very weekend, it’s performing inside the beautiful surroundings of Augusta National at the Masters.
In snooker, it’s being able to walk through the hanging curtain and onto the centre stage, under what seems like thousands of star-shining lights, in a cauldron-like atmosphere that electrifies the small but terrifying venue that is the Crucible Theatre.
And here it is then, where the line-up will finally be completed for the 2013 World Championship in Sheffield.
16 hopefuls are about to realise their ambition of reaching the Crucible.
Unfortunately, it will be a case of so near and yet so far for the remaining 16 who will fall one hurdle short either this Saturday or Sunday.
The World qualifiers epitomizes everything that encapsulates pressure in top-level sport.
For decades now we have witnessed exhausted players burning the midnight oil in a desperate attempt to be the first over the winning line.
Already this week we have seen many dramatic conclusions to encounters with Rod Lawler, Sam Baird, Liam Highfield and Alfie Burden – the latter past 12am – completing their penultimate round triumphs with tension filled 10-9 scorelines.
The World Championship itself is rightly on its own pedestal in terms of Broadway storytelling, but this final qualifying round can sometimes match the great matches seen at the latter stages of prestigious ranking events.
Put simply, all the hard graft all season long has come down to this one game, which means absolutely everything to each competitor involved.
Pressure makes diamonds. Let’s take a look at which jewels remain on course for the ultimate crown on offer on May 6th.
Ryan Day vs Ben Woollaston
Ben Woollaston impressed in his 10-3 victory over Thepchaiya Un-Nooh on Wednesday. The Englishman has had a solid season – particularly in the PTC series where he reached the quarter-finals of the Grand Finals – but he failed to qualify for any other full ranking event. Ryan Day has endured a typically inconsistent campaign but may be galvanised with the memory of his run to the quarter-finals last year. This, though, by all accounts is a tight one.
Andrew Higginson vs Michael White
Michael White is one of around a handful of young names bandied around like gold dust. The expectations on him are quite large and people often wonder when his breakthrough will come. A heavy scorer when in form, it can be very difficult to live with any of his onslaughts. Andrew Higginson has had a solid season without being truly inspiring. He has more experience than his opponent and performed well in the PTC events but that is a different kettle of fish to a best of 19.
Ken Doherty vs Matthew Selt
1997 champion Ken Doherty comes into this year’s qualifiers with the comforting knowledge that he has had a relatively good season, improving his position in the world rankings. Matthew Selt is no stranger to holding his own opinion and therefore boasts a lot of self-confidence. However, his attitude and level of consistency leaves a lot to be desired giving Dubliner Doherty the upper hand.
Fergal O’Brien vs Jack Lisowski
Just like Michael White, pundits for a couple of years have been trying to anticipate when Cheltenham’s Jack Lisowski would make his defining move into the big time. A cancer survivor in his teens, everyone already knows that the now 21 year-old has plenty of spirit and heart. With results improving in recent months, he now also has that extra ingredient – confidence. The determined Fergal O’Brien will do everything he can to upset Lisowski’s rhythm but one fears that the Irishman has met this form horse approaching peak condition.
Jamie Cope vs Dechawat Poomjaeng
Dechawat Poomjaeng has been somewhat of a surprise package this week, coming through three rounds so far and totally outplaying Anthony Hamilton yesterday to prevail 10-4. His opponent is Jamie Cope who, like Day, is used as a definition in dictionaries (somewhere) to desribe the word ‘inconsistent’. Which Jamie Cope will turn up? Good Cope, Bad Cope. The latter usually turns up when he competes with players ranked ahead of him but he rarely has problems with those he should beat so…
Michael Holt vs Mark Joyce
Mark Joyce disappointed many followers last night when he ended the superb run of Joe Swail with a 10-7 defeat of the Northern Irishman. Take nothing away from the former Pink Ribbon event champion, though. He did what he had to do. Joyce takes a step up in class for his final game against Michael Holt. The Nottingham native has had a good season, qualifying for nearly all the ranking events, and should have far too much panache for his countryman.
Marco Fu vs David Gilbert
Let’s make something clear. All of these encounters are extremely difficult to predict but some are more so than others. This is one such case. Marco Fu has enjoyed a revival in form this season – placing runner-up in Germany and reaching the semis and quarters of the International Championship and Australian Open respectively. Gilbert, meanwhile, will have memories of his fantastic journey to the last 16 twelve months ago and he scrapped well to see off a rejuvenated Tony Drago on Thursday. This is well and truly a stinker.
Prediction:…. Gilbert….Fu….Okay, Gilbert!!
Tom Ford vs Alan McManus
A two-time Crucible semi-finalist and former Masters champion, Alan McManus has accumulated a lot of experience over the years. That told in both of his qualifying matches so far with hard-fought triumphs over Aditya Mehta and Nigel Bond. What is surprising is that the Scotsman has been scoring quite well, something he has struggled with in recent years. That said, Tom Ford remains the clear favourite for this one.
Martin Gould vs Rod Lawler
Martin Gould has this season added three trophies to his cabinet – UK PTC 2, the Sky Shoot-Out and the Championship League. Rod Lawler, meanwhile, also enjoyed success, and for the first time too, when at the ripe age of 41 he reveled in the joyous grip of silverware for the first time at UK PTC 3. Lawler is a grinder, one of the slowest players on the circuit who has an excellent temperament. But Gould will fancy his chances, particularly if he can establish an early lead.
Mark Davis vs Liang Wenbo
Mark Davis must have done something wrong in a previous life. The Englishman was for years Mr. 17 in the world rankings. Then, when he finally breaks into the elite Top 16 and seems assured of his Crucible place, Ronnie O’Sullivan decides he’s entering – automatically becoming number 1 seed as reigning champion. Sadly for Davis, 17 does not fit into 16 and he’s being forced to qualify. To make matters worse, the UK Championship semi-finalist has the unpredictable Liang Wenbo to overcome. China’s Liang demolished Jimmy Robertson and looks in good nick, which is another slightly ominous sign for Davis.
Mark King vs Yu Delu
Yu Delu compiled three centuries in five frames to take a 4-1 lead over Jamie Burnett yesterday morning and nursed the cushion throughout the day to emerge victorious. In Mark King he comes up against a similar styled player – capable and difficult to beat, but relatively uninspiring. The Englishman does have a vast repertoire of know-how, though, and that could prove the difference between the pair.
Marcus Campbell vs Liam Highfield
It was very surprising to see Liam Highfield come from 8-5 down to oust Welshman Jamie Jones, who reached the last 8 in 2012, 10-9. Highfield is a gifted player but never seemed to have the inner steeliness to reach the higher echelons of the sport. Whatever happens against Scottish seasoned campaigner Campbell, Highfield can be content in the knowledge that he has come through three rounds in the pressure cooker of World Championship qualifying. Furthermore, he may have to be simply content with that.
Joe Perry vs Sam Baird
24 year-old Sam Baird is another who has come through from the first professional round, earning vital victories over Chen Zhe, Peter Lines and Rory McLeod. The latter two were both 10-9 so the Englishman’s adrenaline will either be pumping or he’ll be exhausted. He faces 2008 semi-finalist Joe Perry, who will rightly start as favourite. But I’m not so sure.
Dominic Dale vs Alfie Burden
Former Arsenal apprentice Alfie Burden reached this stage last year only to be whitewashed 10-0 by Peter Ebdon, who had just unexpectedly claimed the China Open. Amazingly, it is 15 years since Burden made his one and only appearance at the Crucible and Welsh ‘Spaceman’ Dominic Dale stands in his way. It’s impossible to know which Dale will turn up in front of the cameras but he is usually reliable enough in the cubicles and this may be one step too far for Burden again.
Peter Ebdon vs Kurt Maflin
Rumour has it that Peter Ebdon has been working hard of late and is, wait for it, “playing well in practice”. If only I had a euro for every time I heard a snooker player say that! There’s no other way to put it, since the Australian Open Ebdon has been diabolical. But, he is a former world and UK champion. Kurt Maflin, on the other hand, wrapped up victory over Steve Davis in the previous round with two centuries in the last three frames and is a known power scorer. The question is, having rarely experienced it before, will he be able to handle this much pressure? Therein somewhere lies the answer to the winner of this clash.
Robert Milkins vs Jimmy White
And so to the big one, the one everyone will be talking about on Sunday. The match everybody will be watching. The encounter that most will, rather unhappily, go through the whirlwind mill of following People’s Champion Jimmy White. Will he do it? Well, enforcing reason into this debate will suggest that he won’t. White has played quite well to win two matches but Robert Milkins has been one of the players of the season from those ranked outside the Top 16. Jimmy created a brace of 3-0 leads against Tian Pengfei and Xiao Guodong and a positive start against Gloucester’s Milkins would not just be nice, but is essential. If it is still close after the first session, and with what will surely be a packed to the rafters Badminton Hall on Sunday evening, who knows what might happen.
Prediction: Head says Milkins. Heart says Jimmy.
Crucible Countdown: 8 Days!
The full draw and results can be viewed by clicking here.