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World Championship: Round Two Preview

The conclusion of the first round runs alongside the opening exchanges in the last 16 today.

Robertson is one of six ex-champions still in the draw. There are a further four former runners-up and four semi-finalists - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.
Robertson is one of six ex-champions still in the draw. There are a further four former runners-up and four semi-finalists – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

14 out of the 16 last 32 ties have been decided with Judd Trump and Shaun Murphy looking set to join that group in round two later today.

Coinciding with the end of their respective contests against Stuart Carrington and Robin Hull is the start of the encounter between Mark Selby and Anthony McGill, as well as Ding Junhui’s date with four-time winner John Higgins.

Of course, the format now increases from the best of 19 to the best of 25 frames, which means three sessions of snooker and plenty of time for the swing of favour to ebb one way and then the other.

While a first round performance doesn’t necessarily equate to giving us a much better opinion of a player’s chances than from when before the tournament commenced, it does at least give us a foundation to work on going into the meatier section of the fortnight.

The player who arguably stood out the most was Neil Robertson, the pre-tournament tip for the title shared here last week.

The Australian arrived at the Crucible for the 11th time in his career fresh having lost in the opening round of the China Open at the end of March.

This was the first time in three years that he was able to enter Sheffield without having just contested the final in Beijing, where he won in 2013 and finished runner-up the following season.

Robertson has had a mixed bag of a campaign, starting it well by defending the Wuxi Classic and almost celebrated the turn of 2015 in style before tamely surrendering in the Masters final to Shaun Murphy.

Robertson also reached the final of the Australian Open and won a European Tour event in Poland but other than that his displays have been average by his own very high standards and so would have expected a lot of himself to end the season on a high.

By all accounts, it sounds like he has put in the hard graft in the run up to this championship and appears in the right frame of mind to add to his maiden triumph five years ago.

There’s a long way to go, but he’ll start his next clash with Ali Carter as a strong favourite.

Carter deservedly got a rousing reception from the crowd upon his return to the Crucible for the first time since overcoming his battle with cancer, and performed solidly to oust the tartan-wearing Alan McManus.

The twice runner-up obviously has fond memories of this tournament and has excelled here in the past, but his lack of match sharpness, coupled with the fact that his opponent is a man on a mission, bodes against his chances.

Although a high quality line-up throughout, the most intriguing tie is undoubtedly that of Ding and Higgins.

Higgins won the Welsh Open in February - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.
Higgins won the Welsh Open in February – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

Aside from a mini wobble towards the end of his first session with Robert Milkins, Scotland’s Higgins looked every bit the contender.

The two primary questions surrounding the 39 year-old is whether or not he has the stamina and/or the consistency to maintain a challenge that lasts 17 days, and outlasts everybody else.

In Ding, Higgins faces a player who has struggled to replicate his best form ever since making his debut in the competition in 2007.

For the Chinese 28 year-old, though, after a nightmare 12 months all he had to do was get over the first hurdle and he managed just that despite going 4-0 down early on to Mark Davis.

Ding didn’t play particularly well but he fought gallantly. All he can strive for is to provide himself with enough time and opportunities to try to rediscover his true talent.

The result of the Higgins and Ding affair is really difficult to call, but one suspects that whoever wins it will emerge on the other side with a boost of confidence that will convince either one that they can go all the way.

That said, Judd Trump (barring an unlikely turnaround in his match with Carrington) and Marco Fu go head-to-head simultaneously in what is a desperately brutal quarter of the draw.

Many have Trump’s name already etched into the trophy and it’s easy enough to understand why.

The 25 year-old has had a great season, claiming the Australian Open and World Grand Prix titles along the way.

The 2011 runner-up is scoring heavily but, more importantly, his tactical play has improved drastically; he now possesses the patience required to mix it well with anybody in this department.

Fu escaped a potential banana skin with Jimmy Robertson by winning an important 14th frame to pull two frames clear when the scores looked like they were going to go level.

The Hong Kong competitor is forever dangerous but it’s difficult to see if he has all the necessary components to dismantle Trump’s current challenge.

As for the world champion, Selby faces a McGill who must surely just simply be delighted to have ousted his countryman Stephen Maguire on his debut on the famous stage.

To achieve the feat was striking enough, but to do so with a century in the deciding frame after seeing a three-frame cushion evaporate was truly impressive.

Can Selby break the curse? - photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.
Can Selby break the curse? – photo courtesy of Monique Limbos.

Indeed, Selby survived a similar scare in his match with Maflin all the way back on opening day Saturday but was able to evade the dreaded ‘Curse’ for one more round at least.

Expect the hope of the ‘Jester’ breaking the hoodoo to last for another few days as it’s difficult to see McGill, though blessed with a strong game and wonderful temperament, having enough in what will be his first time playing such a long format on television.

On the opposite side of the draw is the man Selby beat in order to famously capture the trophy in May of 2014 – that is of course Ronnie O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan powered to a 10-3 victory over Craig Steadman but was nowhere near his best and will do well to go as unpunished again in future battles.

The first of which is against Matthew Stevens, who the ‘Rocket’ defeated in the semi-final en route to his fourth world crown in 2012.

It’s no surprise to see Welshman Stevens perform well at the Crucible despite his precarious form of late, as he has always been a man suited to the longer matches.

Two finals, four semi-finals and three last eight appearances in Sheffield pays testament to that.

On his day Stevens has the game that can beat anybody and Ronnie does look vulnerable enough currently, but it’s difficult to see past a success for the UK champion on this occasion with potentially sterner tests to come in the future.

Stevens knocked in an array of big breaks in his crushing defeat of countryman Mark Williams and will need to continue that trend if he is to upset the odds by eliminating the favourite.

Meanwhile, awaiting one of this pair in the quarter-final will be either 2006 champion Graeme Dott or Shanghai Master Stuart Bingham.

In any other tournament throughout the season you’d be inclined to have ‘Bingo’ as the favourite but the fact that it’s the World Championship changes that perspective entirely.

Dott, a three-time finalist overall, likened himself to a Grand National horse after his first round win over Ricky Walden and it’s hard to argue with that analogy as he has certainly proven he can survive the distance.

This encounter has the makings of one that could go all the way to a decider, and another that carries a similar feel to it is the meeting between Mark Allen and Barry Hawkins.

Hawkins has already been taken to a final frame shoot-out this week after scrambling over the winning post 10-9 against Matthew Selt, having at one point led by five frames with six to play.

Allen, on the other hand, was gifted chance after chance in a one-sided duel with Ryan Day, but to his credit scored heavily when at the table on his way to a surprisingly comfortable 10-3 win.

2013 runner-up Hawkins has struggled for most of the season while Allen has failed to impress since his string of finals back in the first half of the campaign, but one feels the latter has more of an attacking threat which will arguably prove to be the ultimate difference.

Finally, to the potential Shaun Murphy and Joe Perry all-English contest.

Robin Hull will be hoping to make a comeback in his bout with the 2005 champion but it is unlikely that the Finn will have enough to reel in a five-frame overnight deficit.

Both Murphy and Perry have shown positive form already in this tournament, with the duo profiting from the obvious benefits of recent success.

Murphy joined the exclusive Triple Crown club by winning at Alexandra Palace while Perry finally collected his maiden ranking event silverware – albeit he bizarrely didn’t actually receive a trophy for his efforts at the time – at the Players Championship in Thailand.

Perry ran O’Sullivan close at this stage last year and will probably do likewise against Murphy but the latter looks supremely confident at the moment and should hold the winning edge.

Whatever happens, it’s a fantastic final 16 that will without doubt provide plenty of further drama to add to what is bubbling up to be an exhilarating 2015 World Championship.

Round Two Draw (Predicted players to win highlighted in red)

Mark Selby vs Anthony McGill

Joe Perry vs Shaun Murphy/Robin Hull

Barry Hawkins vs Mark Allen

Ali Carter vs Neil Robertson

Ding Junhui vs John Higgins

Marco Fu vs Judd Trump/Stuart Carrington

Graeme Dott vs Stuart Bingham

Matthew Stevens vs Ronnie O’Sullivan

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