World Championship First Round Preview

The eagerly anticipated 2013 World Championship gets under way tomorrow as 32 of the best players on the planet do battle for the biggest prize of them all.

The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield plays host to the 17-day marathon for a 37th consecutive year with defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan returning to competitive action for only the second time since claiming his fourth title 12 months ago.

The draw was made last Monday and as ever threw up some intriguing ties and battles to look out for.

Overall, though, I think several of the seeded players, or at least the favourites, will secretly be satisfied with who they have been paired with.

Nevertheless, let’s take a look at each individual encounter and try to decipher who will be prolonging their stay in Yorkshire.

Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Marcus Campbell

Everyone involved the sport of snooker, whether it be a player, pundit or fan, was intrigued to learn who reigning king Ronnie O’Sullivan was going to receive as his opening challenge. And, all things considered, I think the ‘Rocket’ will be generally pleased with the outcome. Scot Campbell is hard as nails, a seasoned pro who has grafted on the circuit for around 20 years. But the 40 year-old has rarely troubled the big guns, aside from a rather unusual 9-0 whitewash over countryman Stephen Hendry at the 1998 UK Championship, and, even though Ronnie is coming in rusty, it is hard to back against the four-time world champ. It is essential that Campbell gets off to a good start if he has any great chance of success. For O’Sullivan, it’s a case of just getting through the first hurdle any way he can so that he can build his confidence and move through the gears as the rounds progress.

Prediction: Ronnie O’Sullivan 10-6 Campbell

Ali Carter vs Ben Woollaston

Ali Carter enters this year’s championship as a two-time runner-up and has stiff opposition in the opening round in the form of Ben Woollaston. Woollaston has had a steady if unspectacular campaign but did reach the quarter-finals of the PTC Grand Finals in Galway and is in touching distance of a place inside the world’s Top 32. The Leicester lad has been practicing with world no.1 Mark Selby and should not fear the TV conditions on his Crucible debut. Even so, Carter has had a good season and should be too strong at a venue he competes so well in.

Prediction: Carter 10-7 Woollaston

Stuart Bingham vs Sam Baird

Sam Baird is the second player in the draw who is making his maiden appearance at the Crucible – there are six in total. Baird’s performance must be applauded. The Englishman fell off the Main Tour in 2012 but immediately dusted off the disappointed and returned via Q-School. The 24 year-old didn’t fare much better until last week when he managed to surge through four qualifying rounds, including a brace of deciding frame victories. His opponent is an example of why never to give up. Bingham was a journeyman for many years but is now being considered as a potential dark horse for the World Championship. There’s more pressure than usual on his shoulders but ‘Ballrun’ should be able to get the ball rolling in round one.

Prediction: Bingham 10-6 Baird

John Higgins vs Mark Davis

This is an interesting tie and one which could be very tight indeed. Higgins made a 147 break when the pair last met at a ranking event in the UK Championship last December. That didn’t matter because Davis withstood a Scottish onslaught to prevail in a thriller 6-5. That victory spearheaded Davis’ best professional run to date as he reached the last four in York. Consistent to the core, the 40 year-old will cause Higgins, who has struggled for the most part of late, a lot of problems. But one feels that the four-time champion will bring something close to his A-game for the big test.

Prediction: Higgins 10-7 Davis

Shaun Murphy vs Martin Gould

This is another horrible one to predict. Gould is a player who you think should really be inside the Top 16 in the world but he suffers from a lack of consistency. If his potting boots aren’t on, then he can go on walkabout in games and lose pretty easily. Murphy has been a constant at business ends of tournaments in the last couple of years but can’t seem to get his hands on any silverware. A former world champ, he knows what it takes to go all the way in this slog. Gould is more than capable, but the ‘Magician’ should edge this.

Prediction: Murphy 10-6 Gould

Graeme Dott vs Peter Ebdon

And speaking of slogs…! How long can this match go on for and, more to the point, how long will it go on for? This clash is a repeat of the 2006 World Championship final – a match that was not exactly pleasing on the eye and finished well past midnight. Both players, by all accounts, have endured disappointing campaigns with Ebdon in particular being simply awful for months. But he managed to sneak past Kurt Maflin in the qualifiers and, if he can master Dott, the 2002 winner could suddenly become a dangerous prospect. Whatever your thoughts are on the man, he brings drama of a unique kind to every event he’s involved in.

Prediction: Dott 8-10 Ebdon

Matthew Stevens vs Marco Fu

Another tie that promises to be a tight one. This duo have both been ranking event runners-up since the New Year. Stevens, a semi-finalist last year at the Crucible and a two-time finalist, is arguably the second best player never to have won the World Championship – behind, of course, Jimmy White. Fu is edging closer to returning to the elite Top 16 which could be a motivator. Although, that status will have less meaning next season when the format for tournaments change significantly. Either way, this has 10-9 written all over it.

Prediction: Stevens 10-9 Fu

Judd Trump vs Dominic Dale

So it’s official. Judd Trump and Dominic Dale always meet each other in the first round of ranking events. Always! Okay, maybe not that often but it has been very frequent over the last couple of seasons – four, in fact. And in all but one of them Dale has had reasonable opportunities to emerge victorious only to stumble with the winning line in sight. This occurred last year in Sheffield when at 7-6 up the Welshman’s form simply deteriorated into nothing. Despite Trump’s indifferent run of results, this stat can’t go unnoticed.

Prediction: Trump 10-6 Dale

Neil Robertson vs Robert Milkins

Robert Milkins was perhaps unfairly compared to the man who “killed Bambi” when he prevented Jimmy White returning to the holy grail for the first time in seven years. In truth, the ‘Whirlwind’ didn’t play well and thus didn’t deserve his berth. In further candidness, Milkins didn’t perform to a high standard either. Contrast this with Neil Robertson, the recent China Open champion. Robertson has been superb all season and finally ended a mini drought with his success in Beijing. This one is surely obvious.

Prediction: Robertson 10-4 Milkins

Ricky Walden vs Michael Holt

Michael Holt makes his sixth appearance at the Crucible and he must fancy his chances of making the last 16 for the first time since his debut in 2005. Chester’s Ricky Walden is the Wuxi Classic champion but that was nearly 12 months ago now and his form has been sporadic since. Holt, meanwhile, has qualified for all but one of this season’s ranking events and is up to 25 in the rankings. His confidence will be sky high and if he can control his temperament could be in line to cause a minor upset.

Prediction: Walden 7-10 Holt

Mark Williams vs Michael White

Two-time champion Mark Williams has had a very average campaign by his high standards. In fact, at times the Welshman has been just very poor. Worse yet, Williams has not spoken confidently about his game and openly feels that his best days are probably behind him. That may be so, but have a bit of self-belief that it can all turn around on any given day. His opponent is compatriot Michael White, one of Wales’ next big hopes. Several analysts have predicted White’s emergence into the limelight for a few years now and by qualifying for the Crucible he has finally arrived. With all the pressure on Williams, White could be ready to make even more headlines.

Prediction: Williams 8-10 White

Stephen Maguire vs Dechawat Poomjaeng

It seems very mean to say but it’s the truth. Stephen Maguire must have been rubbing his hands with delight when Dechawat Poomjaeng’s number came out of the hat in Monday’s draw on talkSPORT. The Thai must be lauded for an incredible four matches to get to this stage and it is great that another country from the Far East is being represented. But while the 34 year-old has arguably achieved his ultimate success of realising a dream of gracing the Crucible stage, which is fantastic by the way, Maguire himself will have his sights firmly set on Monday 6th May.

Prediction: Maguire 10-3 Poomjaeng

Mark Allen vs Mark King

The contenders for this year’s championship come thick and fast with Mark Allen another man in the hunt for a first title. The Northern Irishman has produced some excellent snooker this season and has the World Open trophy as justification. But he has been on the wrong side of a few close clashes when he has simply come up against an adversary in immense form. This is likely to happen again in Sheffield and it is up to the 27 year-old to find a way beyond the obstacle. Mark King is a veteran who has been there on countless occasions and will therefore prove to be a decent test. But it’s unlikely to be enough against somebody of the skill of Allen.

Prediction: Allen 10-5 King

Ding Junhui vs Alan McManus

I must say it is great to see Alan McManus back at the Crucible. It might not mean anything to him, but McManus boasts my earlier snooker memory – his 9-8 defeat of Stephen Hendry in the 1994 Masters final. Around that time McManus was a force to be reckoned with and reached two semi-finals in Sheffield. These days, he often struggles to recapture the form of old but impressively triumphed in three matches to return to the biggest test of them all. Unfortunately, the 42 year-old was handed the challenge of China’s Ding Junhui as his reward.

Prediction: Ding 10-5 McManus

Barry Hawkins vs Jack Lisowski

On to one of the most intriguing Last 32 encounters. Barry Hawkins is the Australian Open champion and will rightly start as favourite after establishing himself as a top player once again. But Lisowski’s not just a top player, he’s a potential champion in the making. This year will probably prove too early for that but there have been signs in the last couple of months of his undoubted pedigree with wins over Mark Selby and Judd Trump. There’ll be a lot of buzz around the ‘Dude’ and a subplot will be whether he candle the attention. My gut instinct tells me that he will.

Prediction: Hawkins 9-10 Lisowski

Mark Selby vs Matthew Selt

World no.1 Mark Selby has been handed a tough task with the final debutant Matthew Selt his first round opponent. Selt’s a pretty dangerous player but potentially doesn’t have what it takes to make the next step into the higher echelons of the sport. Quite often, the Englishman has been all talk with very little productivity. This time last year, there were some concerns over Selby’s future in the game when he had to withdraw from the China Open with back and neck injuries. He subsequently lost heavily in the first round in Sheffield. Those memories should consolidate his focus going into the 2013 edition.

Prediction: Selby 10-4 Selt

So there’s my the predictions for the first round. I have only pegged for four of the 16 matches to be won by qualifiers but, as we saw in 2012, anything is likely to happen – and probably will.

As for the overall champion? Well, this year, with the way the draw has panned out being my primary motivation, I’m tipping Judd Trump.

Here we go!

Crucible Countdown: 24 hours!

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