One of the most exciting events in the entire season gets under way tomorrow in Sheffield.
No, the snooker roadshow does not quite stop at the Crucible Theatre yet but first at the Ponds Forge International Sports Centre for the World Championship qualifiers.
While it doesn’t gain as much coverage as the main event itself, or the Masters or UK Championship, these qualifiers are themselves steeped in history and annually provide often unmatched tension and drama.
The reason? Because it is so important for every snooker player to realise their dream of taking centre stage at the Crucible – whether it be Peter Ebdon gunning for his 23rd consecutive appearance or Xiao Guodong bidding for his first.
This year, there are no fewer than 112 players hoping to acquire one of the 16 qualifying spots left available.
The Top 15 in the world, including the likes of Ding Junhui, Neil Robertson and Judd Trump, have all already guaranteed their places while defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan also gains automatic entry.
Each of them has the luxury of a fortnight off to both recharge the batteries and attend to any particular problem that may be present in their game following a long and arduous campaign.
For the rest, there is no such opportunity as we go beyond the time for such atonement.
The players seeded between 65 and 128 have the toughest task if they are to make it all away to snooker’s iconic setting.
This group must triumph in four matches and, while extremely difficult, there are usually one or two who are able to do so each year.
Indeed, there are a few names that immediately stand out as players who could potentially do so on this occasion as well.
Ireland’s David Morris and Gary Wilson of England have arguably had the two best seasons of those competitors way down the rankings.
The duo began the campaign on zero credit but are both within touching distance of finishing it inside the world’s top 64.
On paper, Wilson’s task appears trickier as first he faces countryman James Cahill, but should he win that he could come up against the likes of Tom Ford, Luca Brecel and, ultimately, Matthew Stevens in the final round.
Kilkenny cueist Morris seems to have a slightly easier run-in.
The 25 year-old’s first obstacle is Swiss teenager Alexander Ursenbacher and he would go on to play Thailand’s Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, who himself has had a mixed season.
If Morris reaches the final qualifying round, he would play Michael White, the surprise quarter-finalist last year but unable to reproduce that kind of form since.
Two players who a significant portion of the fans and media will be paying close attention to are legends Steve Davis and Jimmy White.
White won a couple of matches in last week’s China Open to almost assure his place on the Main Tour for another season.
However, the 51 year-old will surely be hoping for one more victory as he remains just a few places inside the top 64.
In fact, White, six-times runner-up but eternal lover of the Crucible, will be desperate to get back to his old stomping ground for the first time since 2006.
The ‘Whirlwind’ will have to win three matches to do so, with his first challenge coming from either Ian Burns or Fraser Patrick – a match White would probably personally expect to win.
Should he reach the final hurdle, old foe Peter Ebdon will be waiting in what would be a mouth-watering prospect.
Similarly, Davis has flirted with the pivotal top 64 mark of players who are automatically invited back onto the tour for next season.
More troubling, though, is that the six-time world champion has actually fallen outside of the grouping in recent weeks.
Davis, also needing three wins to qualify, in fact urgently needs at least one, if not two, victories to even just prolong his glittering career as a professional.
The ‘Nugget’ plays Craig Steadman, who reached the last 16 in Beijing, or Jak Jones in his first encounter before potential clashes with Dechawat Poomjaeng and fellow former world champ Ken Doherty.
Davis has already eluded that he would fight to regain his place should he lose – via Q-School or other routes – but it would be peculiar if it ended up that he was not around week in week out, and some will point to his appearance in the reality TV show “I’m a celebrity…” in December as the primary cause for his demise.
In reality, though, there are umpteen different scenarios and outcomes likely for each player attempting to book a coveted place, each just as important as everyone else’s.
It is for this reason that the World Championship qualifiers pens such gripping story lines as all the competitors, inspired by gritty determination, leave next to nothing left in the tank and almost everything out on the snooker table.
Let the best 16 qualify.