World Championship Contenders?

Last Sunday not only marked the final of the 2015 Masters that saw Shaun Murphy lift the trophy and become the tenth member of the exclusive Triple Crown club.

Selby beat O'Sullivan 18-14 in the final last year - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.
Selby beat O’Sullivan 18-14 in the final last year – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

It also signified the start of the three-month countdown to the season-ending World Championship at the Crucible in Sheffield.

It feels like it was not so long ago that we were witnessing Mark Selby overcome Ronnie O’Sullivan in the 2014 final to be crowned world champion for the first time in his career.

But the reality is that there are now less than 90 days until we sit through the ‘Marathon of the Mind’ once more.

There is plenty of snooker to be played from now until then as the campaign picks up the pace with successive tournaments all over the world.

However, the players are now firmly halfway through the 2014/15 crusade and with that we have been able to garner a sense of how they may fare in the big one.

Let’s take a look at some of the key contenders.

Mark Selby

As is so often the case with first time World Championship winners, Selby has been off the radar in quite a lot of the tournaments so far this season. The ‘Jester’ began the year as world no.1 but has since slipped down to fourth in the standings following early exits in both the lucrative International and UK Championships. Selby did claim the Riga Open title back in the summer but he rarely threatened at the business end of tournaments in the months after and has been additionally distracted, in a good way, by the birth of his first child. The Crucible Curse dictates that no first-time champion in Sheffield has ever returned to defend the trophy the following year. Selby is certainly capable of breaking this hoodoo but, with so many other competitors playing well, he’ll be looking for a boost in confidence between now and April.

World Championship chances: 7/10

Ronnie O’Sullivan

Excluding qualifying round encounters, Ronnie O’Sullivan hadn’t lost a match on home soil since that World Championship defeat to Selby until last Saturday in the semi-finals of the Masters. The ‘Rocket’ won the Champion of Champions in Coventry before bagging his fifth UK crown in York. O’Sullivan went to London looking for a record-equaling sixth Masters title and a record-eclipsing 776th century break. He achieved the latter but his patchy form was finally punished by a dominant display from Neil Robertson. That O’Sullivan was able to coast through many rounds in all three events while not performing at his best is a bit damning on the rest of the circuit, though. That the 39 year-old expresses his intention to play in more tournaments in order to regain his top form is even more ominous. One would suspect it will get harder and harder as time goes on for O’Sullivan to outlast the 17-day slog in Sheffield but, as things stand, he’s still the player most equipped to do so. In the right frame of mind, he’ll take some beating.

World Championship chances: 9/10

Neil Robertson

Robertson was superb in both of his 6-1 drubbings over Ali Carter and Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Masters last week. It was surprising then that he ran on such an empty during his final showdown with Shaun Murphy. Perhaps this highlighted the inconsistency the Australian has been suffering from for much of the season. Robertson began it so well, triumphing in the Wuxi Classic before finishing runner-up at his home competition in Bendigo, but mixed good performances with bad ones as he crashed out early in the next three ranking events. Yet, he is the world no.1, perhaps benefiting from even weaker results from Selby and Ding Junhui. It’s five years since the 32 year-old emerged victorious at the Crucible and Robertson will be desperate to find a peak in form at the right time. Stamina plays a major role over the fortnight so it will be interesting to see how Robertson’s transformation to a vegan diet aids his cause.

World Championship chances: 8/10

Ding Junhui

Ding Junhui had an outstanding last season in which he added five ranking event titles to his tally. However, it all started to go wrong, as it so often does with the Chinese, at last year’s World Championship. Ding entered the tournament as arguably the best player in the world but exited in the first round after a shock 10-9 defeat to Michael Wasley. Since then, the 27 year-old has been missing in action. His best result came in the Shanghai Masters where he reached the semi-finals but, aside from an Asian Tour event victory back in the summer, Ding has barely featured in the middle of tournaments, never mind the end of one. Failure to play in the European Tour series has hindered his match practice opportunities and it is difficult to see where or when an upturn in form occurs. The only eventual positive Ding might take from this is that, if his struggles continue, he’ll enter the Crucible under the radar which may take some of the pressure off his shoulders. Yet, with such a poor record in the tournament – one semi-final and one-quarter-final in eight appearances – it’s difficult to see him becoming the first Asian champion unless he shows some improvement before then.

World Championship chances: 6/10

Shaun Murphy

Murphy hammered Robertson 10-2 on Sunday - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.
Murphy hammered Robertson 10-2 on Sunday – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

Murphy played superbly well all week in his quest for a maiden Masters win. After two battling victories over Selby and Stephen Maguire he thoroughly dismantled the challenges of Mark Allen and Robertson to collect his third major. The 32 year-old has been in excellent nick since this time last year when he actually threatened to quit the game, such was his inability to translate semi-final appearances into tournament triumphs. Three European Tour titles, success in the World Open, a hat-trick of maximum breaks and now victory at the Alexandra Palace have put those demons to rest. Murphy won the World Championship in 2005 and reached the final in 2009, so is experienced in manoeuvring his way through the rounds. Whether he has peaked too soon or not remains a different question. Only two players in the last 25 years have won the Masters and the World Championship in the same year. Can Murphy join another exclusive club?

World Championship chances: 8/10

Judd Trump

Judd Trump has mixed some excellent results with some very poor ones so far this season. The Englishman beat Robertson on his home turf to capture the Australian Open – a first ranking event success in almost two years – before narrowly losing out to O’Sullivan in both the Champion of Champions and UK Championship finals. Yet, he has suffered early defeats in three of the other ranking tournaments and lost in the opening round in London last week. That said, the World Championship is a competition that suits Trump’s charisma. The 25 year-old likes the limelight and tends to improve in a tournament the longer he’s in contention. With a final, semi-final and quarter-final appearance in three out of the last four years in Sheffield, Trump already boasts plenty of experience on the Crucible stage. Failure to win in York last month may actually help him in the long run, as he now still has the pressing burning desire to add to his major tally.

World Championship chances: 8/10

Mark Allen

Mark Allen has been one of the best players this season without actually acquiring the silverware he maybe merits. The ‘Pistol’ won the Paul Hunter Classic but lost in three other finals, including China’s Shanghai Masters and International Championship. When the 28 year-old beat Ronnie O’Sullivan en route to reaching the last four of the Worlds in 2009, it looked as though here was somebody with the pedigree to do well at the Crucible. However, the Northern Irishman has won only one tie in the last three editions of the event. Allen’s inconsistency is his biggest downfall. He is a streaky player who can enjoy long bouts of form before it then suddenly disappears. With this current output, I’m not sure he can sustain a World Championship challenge for 17 days and come out the other side as the champion.

World Championship chances: 6/10

Stephen Maguire

Stephen Maguire is another man who suffers a great deal from inconsistency and, furthermore, his temperament. Yet, the latter is an area that seems to have improved somewhat over the last couple of months with the Lisbon Open triumph and a run to the last four in the UKs testament to his slightly tamer approach. Maguire was also victorious in the 6-Reds World Championship but it’s the traditional 15-red version that he’s most interested in. The Scot once stated his desire to become world champion before the age of 30. Well, he’ll be 34 come opening day Saturday April 18th but time remains on his side. Maguire has lost in the first round twice in the last couple of years so that’s a hurdle he’ll be initially focused on overcoming once again. It really depends on which Maguire turns up. If he’s in the right frame of mind he can still beat anybody, so answers on a postcard really.

World Championship chances: 7/10

The Rest

While the above eight represent the obvious favourites for the 2015 World Championship, a few other players could rightfully express their hope of conquering at The Crucible. John Higgins is a four-time champion who, despite not featuring in the business end of any tournaments, has shown glimpses of a return to some form over the course of the last month or so. If there’s a player who knows how to win it’s Higgins, so he can’t be written off completely. Meanwhile, Stuart Bingham and Ricky Walden are ranking event champions from this campaign and are a match for anyone on their day, although Walden has struggled with a shoulder injury while the former has never gone beyond the last eight in Sheffield. Finally, Ali Carter and Barry Hawkins have both threatened regularly in the last handful of years, with three final appearances between them, but I can’t see either of them contesting the business end on this occasion at it stands. What of a qualifier? In a word, no.

World Championship chances: 3/10

The World Championship takes place at The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield from April 18th to May 4th.

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