Are we here already?
A busy season, which began all the way back in May of 2016, has sped along at a ferocious pace and it’s somewhat hard to believe that the World Championship is already coming into view on the horizon.
The 17-day “Marathon of the Mind” doesn’t get under way until the 15th of April but, of course, before that there’s the ever-dramatic world qualifiers at Ponds Forge, just a stone’s throw distance down the road in Sheffield from the Crucible itself.
Sixteen seeds, including a very relieved Ryan Day, are safely assured of their names being placed into the hat for the last 32 draw come Thursday week.
A further 16 qualifiers will join them, all requiring three victories between tomorrow and next Wednesday in order to feature at the sport’s blue riband championship.
In total, 128 competitors descend on Ponds Forge in the hope of gaining one of the elusive tickets to the Crucible.
Many of those boast more of a chance of qualifying than others, but it would be foolish to write off any story line amid the pressure cooker setting which inevitably surfaces at this time of year.
It is now more than ever, bar arguably playing at the Crucible itself, when the tension is at its highest and where even the most bizarre and unlikely results can often occur.
Some critics lament the fact that the World Championship is one of the few tournaments left in the calendar which doesn’t have all the professionals entering at the first hurdle in an open draw.
However, there is a prestige unlike any other attached to this tournament, which this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary of being staged at the Crucible Theatre, and it would be foolish to risk losing the marquee names from the TV stages.
Being in the top 16 brings many rewards, deservedly so considering the players have worked and played hard enough to break into the elite bracket over the course of a two-year spell.
Unless there is a format shortening which nobody in their right mind desires, automatic qualification into the last 32 of the Worlds is a privilege top 16ers ought to be granted.
Other detractors believe that, with regard the qualifiers itself, it’s unfair that the tiered seeded system isn’t still in use, and in particular that players ranked between 17 and 32 should be forced to play fewer encounters to qualify given the fact that many of them have played sufficiently well enough throughout the campaign to closely challenge the higher echelons.
While this argument does have some merits, especially when you consider the case of Mark Williams in 17th place who last Sunday narrowly lost in the final of the China Open to just fall short of an automatic berth, there is still something rather enthralling, if indeed cut-throat, about the current system.
Williams will be hoping to emulate the likes of Ding Junhui and Alan McManus, who twelve months ago emerged from Ponds Forge to reach the final and semi-final respectively.
Before last year’s edition, most people were brandishing it impossible for a player to have the stamina to win the title when adding three ties over the best of 19 frames to the gruelling quest of endurance at the Crucible.
Despite that, China’s Ding fell just four frames short in 2016 of achieving that very feat and it would be foolishly ignorant to put it completely passed one of the qualifiers repeating the trick in this year’s tournament.
Williams, in the form he’s in, stands as good a chance as any to separate himself from the pack and challenge for what would be a third world crown but the 42 year-old has been tasked with a tricky first challenger in the form of Zhao Xintong.
Along with countrymen Yan Bingtao and Zhou Yuelong, Zhao represents one third of a triumvirate of talented young cueists from China who are sure to be challenging for major crowns for many years to come.
Williams would have been hoping for somebody a little easier after the disappointment of his loss to Mark Selby in Beijing but he’s not really the type of character to let that bother him too much, and it’ll stand as a solid test should he advance to the next round.
While Williams is a legend of the game who is making a rise back up the pecking order, fellow stars Jimmy White and Ken Doherty desperately require victories to prolong their illustrious careers as professionals.
The “Whirlwind”, who is actually having a much better season compared to the last term, plays Jack Lisowski knowing that one win may be enough to squeeze into the top eight in the Order of Merit list of top money earners from this campaign who haven’t otherwise broken into the top 64 in the world rankings – where tour safety is assured.
Doherty’s plight is much more severe, with the 1997 world champion having to win all three matches and qualify for the Crucible to have any chance of survival.
The 47 year-old’s first opponent is Jason Weston but, adding to a poor season in general where wins have come at a premium, Doherty has had to also deal with the sad passing of his mother in recent weeks.
Right down through the draw, though, there is story after story surrounding all the contending players, heaped with “what ifs” and “I wonders”.
At this stage anything can happen and with the likes of Williams, Stephen Maguire, Ricky Walden, Joe Perry, Martin Gould, and Michael White in the draw, among many other big names, there’s sure to be a few who will duly miss out.
Even ranking event champions from this campaign in Mark King and Anthony Hamilton, who between them conjured two of the most emotional moments in recent memory in the sport, will have their work cut out for them if they are to make a return to where snooker’s holy grail is annually awarded.
What we do know is that there’ll be entertainment like practically no other week of snooker is able to provide on the calendar.
Winning and losing never meant so much.