The draw for the first round of the 2014 World Championship was made on Thursday and as ever it threw up some interesting ties.
There is a reason this event is touted as the ‘Marathon of the Mind’. In fact, there are several.
At more than two weeks in length, not only is it the longest snooker tournament on the calendar but it is also one of the longest annual sporting occasions to boot.
In addition, no other competition in the sport comes even close to the elongated, testing format still traditionally utilised at the Worlds.
The shortest match is over the best of 19 frames – which mirrors the longest an encounter has been in any event up until this stage in the season – while the final itself is played over a staggering 35 frames.
In total, a player must win 71 frames if he is to be crowned champion on the May Bank Holiday Monday.
To suggest that stamina is an essential requirement to emerge with the trophy is an understatement, and many have fallen by the wayside in the past through lack of such preparation.
Indeed, it is partly for this reason why two-time defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan has made the decision to play in significantly less events over the last few years as he makes a concerted effort to challenge ‘King’ Stephen Hendry’s record of seven titles.
The ‘Rocket’ is only two short of that as things stand and begins this year’s edition with the favourite’s tag once more.
There are many willing and able challengers, though, as serious arguments could be made for any number of the gifted protagonists that take to the baize over the coming days.
Here, then, is my preview for the upcoming World Championship.
The top seed Ronnie O’Sullivan takes on the bottom seed Robin Hull as the Championship gets under way as normal with the defending champion beginning and finishing his match on the opening Saturday.
It was a remarkable achievement for Finland’s Robin Hull to be one of the four names who battled their way through all four rounds of qualification – with his last victory ending former champion Peter Ebdon’s 22 consecutive years at the Crucible.
It’s taken the 39 year-old a dozen years to get back to Sheffield after making his debut appearance in 2002, and since then he has been regulated from the Main Tour twice, but he has made the most of regaining his place following his triumph in the European Amateur Championship last year.
Realistically, Hull doesn’t stand much of a chance against O’Sullivan but he’ll undoubtedly be over the moon at being rewarded with such a glamour tie.
O’Sullivan, indeed, is the obvious danger man in this quarter of the draw and it will take a big effort from any player, not just Hull, to prevent the 38 year-old from reaching a third final in a row.
Of the three other first round ties, two of them look decidedly tasty.
Peculiarly, Marco Fu and Martin Gould meet in the last 32 for the third time in five years while Shaun Murphy and Jamie Cope offer an interesting all-England clash.
Gould and Fu have had completely contrasting seasons in that, basically, the former’s has been awful while Fu’s has been brilliant.
That said, I fancy Gould to edge that one and not only because he got the better of the Hong Kong cuiest on both their other meetings at the venue.
The Pinner Potter played beautifully for the majority of his three matches in qualifying, concluding it with a morale-boosting 10-7 victory over the dangerous Liang Wenbo, and should be nicely geared up by now.
At any rate, the seeds can’t come out on top in every game.
For Cope, qualification marked a rewarding end to what has been a difficult number of seasons after a mixture of poor form and illness led to a rapid descent down the rankings.
Cope suffers with tremors in his hands, not an attribute a snooker player generally desires, but has been seeing a sports psychiatrist which seems to have paid dividend.
Murphy will probably offer a step too far and the 2005 champion is likely to be O’Sullivan’s biggest threat to a place in the last four but Cope could cause the World Open winner some initial problems.
The final game is the least eye-catching as Scotland’s Jamie Burnett takes on Joe Perry.
You’d have to fancy the ‘Gentleman’ progressing in that one but should he come up against O’Sullivan in the next round his time in the tournament should be short-lived.
Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Robin Hull (Predicted Winner: O’Sullivan)
Joe Perry vs Jamie Burnett (PW: Perry)
Shaun Murphy vs Jamie Cope (PW: Murphy)
Marco Fu vs Martin Gould (PW: Gould)
Predicted Semi-finalist: O’Sullivan
The pressure in this year’s World Championship is all on Ding Junhui.
The fact that his quarter of the draw doesn’t perhaps appear to be that difficult on paper may actually add to that weight on his shoulders as well.
The Chinese superstar has had a superb season in which he has equaled Stephen Hendry’s record of capturing five ranking event titles in a single season.
Should he lift the trophy amid confettied celebrations in just over a fortnight’s time, Ding will have broken that record but more importantly added the only thing missing from his glittering CV – the World Championship.
Almost everyone, rightly so given the form both have displayed over the last twelve months, are predicting a mouth-watering O’Sullivan-Ding last four clash but first the duo have to win three tricky ties.
Ding’s task begins just as O’Sullivan’s does, against a player who made it through all four rounds in qualification.
Michael Wasley emerged from a titanic tussle with fellow Gloucester pro Robert Milkins in the final round on Wednesday by sinking an incredible re-spotted black in the deciding frame.
Whether the 24 year-old has much left to give remains to be seen but, again, he will be ecstatic at the prospect of locking horns with such an esteemed talent in Ding.
On paper, Ding’s primary challenge ought to come in the last eight when he could face Barry Hawkins, the player who beat him 13-7 at that same stage this time last year.
The ‘Hawk’ went on to reach the final in 2013 and could prove to be dangerous again this time around but has been landed with a potential banana skin in the first round in David Gilbert.
The 32 year-old is a frustrating player because, even though he appears to have all the talent in the world, he hasn’t yet been able to fulfil it.
Gilbert, though, does know what it takes to win at the Crucible having reached the last 16 in 2012 and I think he can run Hawkins very close if his confidence is high.
Meanwhile, like Wasley, another young talent in Kyren Wilson will be making his maiden appearance and he faces two-time ranking event champion Ricky Walden.
Jimmy White’s legion of fans will be breathing nervously because a run to the quarter-finals for Wilson, albeit unlikely enough, would be enough to ensure the end of the 51 year-old’s pro career.
That said, while Wilson has done marvelously to get this far, and is definitely one to keep an eye on for the future, one suspects opponent Ricky Walden’s experience should be the deciding factor in this exchange.
Mark Davis and Dominic Dale meet in the other match in this section – a contest that has 10-9 written all over it.
Barry Hawkins vs David Gilbert (Predicted Winner: Gilbert)
Ricky Walden vs Kyren Wilson (PW: Walden)
Mark Davis vs Dominic Dale (PW: Dale)
Ding Junhui vs Michael Wasley (PW: Ding)
Predicted Semi-finalist: Ding
This quarter is an absolute nightmare to predict.
In truth, convincing arguments could be made for at least six of the players here to make the last four and you’d be hard pushed to completely rule out the other two either.
Straight off the bat is perennial runner-up in ranking event finals, Mark Selby.
The ‘Jester from Leicester’ has had a great career so far and has won quite a lot of tournaments but his record at the final hurdle in general is no laughing matter.
For a former world no.1, his stats at the home of snooker dont necessarily make for great reading either, with only one semi-final to his name since his surprise run to the final in 2007.
The fact Selby’s opening encounter is against the talented Welshman Michael White, a shock quarter-finalist himself last year, doesn’t help matters either.
That said, I expect Selby to bounce back from his early defeats in Sheffield the last two years to at least make the quarter-finals this time around.
Many will expect his potential second round challenge to come from another former finalist in Ali Carter but the ‘Captain’ has landed himself with a really dodgy one.
Xiao Guodong has enjoyed a breakthrough season in which he reached the final of the Shanghai Masters and the trendy 25 year-old Chinese, who will be sporting a pair of shiny silver shoes on the Crucible’s carpet, could be in line for further success as he attempts to take advantage of reaching the Worlds for the first time in his career.
Carter’s placement in the opposite side of the draw to O’Sullivan automatically leads one to question whether he will lose in the final to the ‘Rocket’ again but I feel Xiao offers a considerable early stumbling block.
The Chinese contingent have largely fared badly on this stage but Ding’s success this season has been a revelation and, motivated by this, Xiao will prove a tricky obstacle.
The other quarter in this segment boast a collective age of 162, so no shortage of experience there.
Ken Doherty (44) and John Higgins (38) are former champions while Alan McManus (43), a two-time semi-finalist back in the 1990s, returns to the Crucible having knocked out Mark Williams in qualifying.
Stuart Bingham (37) may not have the credentials of the other three but is a player who is enjoying the form of his life in the twilight years of his career and has been as high as world no.5 in recent months.
The battle of Scotland between Higgins and McManus is an intriguing one, and a prospect the latter will enjoy having admitted his desire of facing one of his countrymen prior to the draw.
Both players have been in good form of late too so there’s no reason to suggest that four-time champion Higgins is an overwhelming favourite.
Yet, should he get past his good friend, Higgins could quickly grow in confidence which may prove ominous for the remaining players in the quarter.
Ireland’s Doherty returns to the scene of his most famous triumph back in 1997 after a one-year absence to make his 19th bow in the arena.
The Dubliner will be hoping his old crafty ways can be reignited for one last challenge but, realistically, he hasn’t shown the type of form this season to suggest he could upset Bingham.
As he has done so graciously throughout all his career, though, he represents the tricolour flag proudly and there will be many in Ireland hoping he can relive former glories.
Mark Selby vs Michael White (Predicted Winner: Selby)
Ali Carter vs Xiao Guodong (PW: Xiao)
John Higgins vs Alan McManus (PW: Higgins)
Stuart Bingham vs Ken Doherty (PW: Bingham)
Predicted Semi-Finalist: Higgins
The fourth and final quarter of the draw is packed with copious amounts of talent.
One of the standout matches of the entire round is that of Stephen Maguire and Ryan Day.
Maguire is one of the players who has all the ability in the world to win the big one but appears destined never to do so.
The fact he has never even reached the final, with a brace of semi-finals providing his best runs to date, is a damning statistic.
On his day, Maguire can really live up to his nickname of ‘On Fire’ but on just as many occasions it’s his temper that seems to get inflamed.
The Scot has had a poor 2014 so far and this, coupled with Ryan Day’s rise in form that saw him reach the last four in the German Masters, could lead to a second successive first round exit for Maguire.
The challenges, though, from this side of the draw come from all over the place.
Awaiting the winner of Maguire and Day will probably be Judd Trump, who faces 30 year-old Englishman Tom Ford.
Ford did well in managing to oust twice runner-up Matthew Stevens in the final qualifying round but his record when it gets to the live TV set-up is questionable.
Trump hasn’t had the best season in the world and suffered with extremely poor form early on but in recent months reached the final in Berlin and also walked away with the Championship League title, a hefty money-earner and a useful series of practice sessions with several of the world’s best players.
The Bristol potter will be hoping to regain the form that saw him narrowly miss out on lifting the world trophy in a dramatic run to the 2011 final, where he eventually lost out to John Higgins.
The bottom quarter also features world no.1 Neil Robertson and Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen – a player I think is going to have a good tournament.
Australia’s Robertson, the 2010 champion, has had a superb season in winning two ranking events as well as featuring in the finals of two others but I fear his stamina, that oh so crucial component for any Crucible champion, is all but spent.
His run to the final of the China Open was marred with virus infections and the devastating break building power that has brought him 93 century breaks so far this season deserted him.
I think he’ll have enough to overcome debutant Robbie Williams, who was another player who unbelievably progressed with a re-spotted black deciding frame victory over Fergal O’Brien, but an attacking onslaught from Allen in the second round could prove too much to handle.
Allen has had a mixed season. The 28 year-old won two European Tour titles early on but failed to impress in most of the main ranking events throughout the campaign.
That said, he hasn’t generally played badly and it has often been a question of when rather than if the right results would materialise.
The former World Open champion takes on the ‘Hitman’ Michael Holt in the last 32, a hard match for sure, but one he should manage to make through.
Judd Trump vs Tom Ford (Predicted Winner: Trump)
Stephen Maguire vs Ryan Day (PW: Day)
Mark Allen vs Michael Holt (PW: Allen)
Neil Robertson vs Robbie Williams (PW: Robertson)
Predicted Semi-Finalist: Allen
Predicted 2014 World Champion: Ronnie O’Sullivan