We know the 32 names and we know the first round draw – the 2017 Betfred World Snooker Championship is almost ready to commence.
Of course, there has been plenty of drama already in the event as 16 qualifiers emerged from Ponds Forge over the last eight days to book their rightful spot just down the road at the Crucible Theatre.
It’s a very special year to qualify, with it being the 40th anniversary since the championship began being staged at the Crucible.
On Friday, there will be an aptly named green carpet ceremony to celebrate four decades in Sheffield, with all the qualified players and all living world champions expected to be in attendance.
Then, on Saturday the eagerly anticipated main event gets under way with the reigning champion beginning his defence of the title.
There’s much excitement ahead with the 17-day “Marathon of the Mind” sure to conjure up umpteen moments of magic, hope, despair, loss, and victory.
Here is a look at each of the 16 first round encounters and an offering of who might go on to challenge for the blue riband trophy on this occasion.
Click on each match to view their head-to-heads. (CueTracker.net)
Was it already written somewhere above? After Fergal O’Brien came through two epic encounters in qualifying to reach the World Championship for the first time in seven years, he’ll be taking part on the opening day against the defending champion and top seed Mark Selby. O’Brien probably would have been hoping for a bit of rest after his gruelling 10-9 victories over Tian Pengfei and David Gilbert at Ponds Forge. The 45 year-old beat Tian at 2:30am on Tuesday morning before emerging past Gilbert in another deciding frame which lasted more than two hours – a new record for a single frame of snooker. O’Brien has become known on social media as the “Ferginator” and he certainly justified that nickname this week in qualifying. Against Selby, the Irishman comes up against a player who is miles ahead in the world rankings standings and who will be one of the heavy favourites to land another world crown. It’s impossible to ever write off O’Brien, one of the most difficult competitors on the circuit to scrape off the table, but it’s hard to see Selby slipping up on the first day of action.
When: Saturday April 15th – 10am and 7pm
Ryan Day only squeezed into the automatic places after fellow Welshman Mark Williams lost in the final of the China Open earlier in April. It was just reward for the 37 year-old, though, a runner-up himself in a recent ranking event at the World Grand Prix. In form then, Day also possesses a decent degree of pedigree in the World Championship with three previous quarter-final appearances under his belt. Against Xiao, he faces a player returning to the Crucible for the first time since 2014, when he lost in the first round. Day and Xiao have met on only two occasions, and one of those was the single frame Shoot-Out, so there’s not much to go on there. Xiao, one of five Chinese competitors in the top half of the draw, was impressive in his hammering of Michael White in the final hurdle of qualifying and will be a threat if he can carry that form into the arena. Both Day and Xiao are perhaps heralded as underachievers in the game so it’s an intriguing opportunity for each of them to advance and really get immersed in the tournament.
When: Wednesday April 19th – 10am and 7pm
Neil Robertson began the campaign so well, as he often does, by triumphing in the opening ranking event last summer in Riga. Yet, a couple of other semi-finals apart, it’s been a disappointing year for the Australian in general as he has slipped down the rankings to ninth in the world. Robertson craves the big titles and would dearly love to be regarded as a multiple world champion, having previously tasted glory at the Crucible in 2010. The 35 year-old skipped the China Open, presumably in the hope of being mentally and physically ready for the seismic challenge ahead. Noppon Saengkham follows in the footsteps of national hero James Wattana in a player from Thailand qualifying for the final stages of the Worlds. The former world under-21 champion has an inferior head-to-head record against Robertson, but did beat the 12-time ranking event winner at the China Open in their last meeting just over a year ago. One of five debutants in the draw, it’s massively unlikely that he’ll repeat the trick in Sheffield.
When: Wednesday April 19th – 2:30pm, Thursday April 20th – 1pm
An assured Luca Brecel said following his defeat of Dominic Dale on Wednesday that he “expected to win easily.” Confident words from a talented player who has so far failed to deliver on the circuit. One ranking event final aside, Brecel has not lived up to his billing as a potential world champion – yet. One gets the sense that, like with Judd Trump when he initially struggled on the Main Tour, Brecel wants to be the man at the centre of attention, strutting his stuff around the table in front of a wider audience. At a World Championship, that is of course very possible, and the Belgian is back at the Crucible for just the second time. It seems like Brecel has been around forever but he’s amazingly still only 22 and one big performance could spark him into life. Against Marco Fu he faces a player who has been one of the most consistent over the last five or six months. Fu has sped up his play and has reaped the rewards, with several runs deep into big events – including capturing the Scottish Open in December. One suspects this one will be close, though, and perhaps the provider of one of the always inevitable first round shocks.
When: Sunday April 16th – 7pm, Monday April 17th – 7pm
Tie of the round? It’s got to be up there. None of the top 16 seeds would have had much desire in drawing the 17 year-old rising star Yan Bingtao. Shaun Murphy pulled the short straw and the 2005 world champion must have been lamenting his ill fortune. Not only does Yan represent a dangerous teenage rookie, the Chinese player has already the upper hand in prior duels with Murphy. Yan, who will become the second youngest player to compete at the Crucible behind Brecel, beat Murphy in the 2015 Champion of Champions and at the German Masters this season – two big events – so clearly possesses little fear of more illustrious opposition. Murphy was already lumped into a terrible section of the draw with Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ding Junhui, and Liang Wenbo also in this quarter bracket, but the world number five is sure to face a mountainous challenge against the newcomer who is already making waves in the game. Yan is coming to the conclusion of his debut campaign but has already a quarter-final appearance and four further runs to the last 16 of ranking events to his credit. The “Magician” better use every trick under his sleeve.
When: Sunday April 16th – 10am, Monday April 17th – 2:30pm
There’s no doubt about it, this is a wonderful draw for Ronnie O’Sullivan. Out of all the big names or young hot shots he could have been paired with, the “Rocket” will be quietly pleased with the prospect of facing debutant Gary Wilson. The latter was superb in qualifying, compiling a 147 break en route to his victory over Ireland’s Josh Boileau, before an excellent display against Michael White in particular helped him advance to the last 32. But is he equipped to handle the pressure of playing the five-time world champion on the biggest stage of them all? It’s unlikely, and this has the makings of being a nice workout for O’Sullivan with much tougher tests to come in the following rounds. The 41 year-old, in the more difficult half of the draw, will have his work cut out for him if he’s going to be the last man standing for the sixth time, but reaching the second round should be straightforward enough.
When: Saturday April 15th – 2:30pm, Sunday April 16th – 2:30pm
Liang Wenbo was among a group of maiden ranking event winners this season, a feat which helped him rise back into the elite top 16 in the rankings, safeguarding his World Championship berth. The charismatic Chinese cueist memorably reached the last eight on his first outing in Sheffield nine years ago but has fallen at the opening hurdle on the four occasions he’s participated since. This year could be the time for him to improve on that record. Stuart Carrington is a much-improved player to the one who previously qualified in 2015, highlighted by his 10-7 success over two-time world champion Mark Williams on Judgement Day in the qualifiers. A lot will depend on which Liang Wenbo turns up. If his head is in the right place, the 30 year-old should have more than enough to power past this opponent, in which case he’d be guaranteed to played one of his countrymen in the second round.
When: Tuesday April 18th – 10am and 7pm
A compelling all-Chinese clash between the country’s biggest attraction and another who is trying to emulate, and maybe surpass, his hero’s achievements in the game. There’ll be literally millions staying up to watch this match in China. Zhou, one half of the 2015 World Cup winning team with fellow qualifier Yan Bingtao, has enjoyed a steady rise up the ranks since turning professional in 2014 and will likely break into the world’s top 32 by the campaign’s climax. The 19 year-old is expected to feature prominently at the business end of tournaments for years to come, but whether this opportunity will present itself in that fashion remains to be seen. Evidence of the pair’s prior contests does not favour the teenager, with Ding prevailing in their two earlier encounters courtesy of strong 6-1 and 5-0 drubbings. Ding’s run to the final last year all the way from the first qualifying round was one of the most talked about stories in years and, even though he fell just short of lifting a maiden world trophy, he must have gained a huge amount of confidence in his ability to perform in Sheffield. Ding’s main problem is his inconsistency but perhaps the prospect of facing one of the many rising stars from his homeland will be enough to focus the mind and get the former UK and Masters champion off to a winning start.
When: Monday April 17th – 10am, Tuesday April 18th – 2:30pm
Peter Ebdon will make a 24th Crucible appearance after coming through a monumental battle with Michael Holt in the final round of qualifiers. Holt missed a host of chances to kill off the 2002 world champion and was made to pay for it as a steely Ebdon produced one of his trademark gutsy clearances to triumph on the final black in a decider. Overall, Ebdon has a really good World Championship record but he hasn’t tasted victory at the Crucible since 2008 when he last reached the quarter-finals. It’s hard to see him breaking that sequence of six successive first round exits either. Stuart Bingham had the weight of the world on his shoulders twelve months ago when he was making his return as the defending champion. All talk was about the “Curse of the Crucible” and Bingham duly exited at the first stage in a classic opening day affair with Ali Carter. The 2015 champion will be much more relaxed this time and, looking at the draw, will be quietly confident of making another deep run. Winning the Welsh Open, his first title since Sheffield two years ago, will have given him the needed boost ahead of this year’s edition.
When: Sunday April 16th – 2:30pm, Monday April 17th – 10am
David Grace represents another of this year’s debutants and he must be pretty pleased with the draw as he avoids one of the marquee names. Kyren Wilson is regarded by many as a player who will prominently feature higher up the rankings for the next few years but at the moment he still struggles with the consistency necessary to break into those higher echelons. Last year, the Kettering cueist advanced to the quarter-finals at the Crucible and he’ll be looking to draw on that experience this time around. The former Shanghai Masters champion will undoubtedly begin this encounter as the favourite but Grace, from nearby Leeds, will have plenty of support. He’ll also be buoyed by the fact that he came through his three qualifying rounds without too much of a fuss and can draw on the experience of his run to the semi-finals of the 2015 UK Championship in York. This one has the makings of being close and an upset wouldn’t be all that surprising.
When: Saturday April 15th – 2:30pm, Sunday April 16th – 10am
Will the real Mark Allen please stand up? By all accounts it’s been a distinctly average season for the Northern Irishman as he’s failed to reach beyond the quarter-finals of a ranking event all term. In fact, he’s only been in a last eight once, and that was during his home event at the Northern Ireland Open in Belfast last November. Allen’s known for being a streaky player who blows hot and cold but the 31 year-old has been freezing for too long now. When is the frost going to lift? Well, against Jimmy Robertson he faces a player who has never won a match at the Crucible. The Englishman can be an attractive player to watch but whether he has the ability to really contend at an important tournament like this is up for debate. If Allen turns up on current form then Robertson can’t say that he didn’t boast a big opportunity. Something suggests, though, that this might well be the moment that Allen finds his form again and even one victory might prove enough to spark the “Pistol” into gear.
When: Sunday April 16th – 7pm, Monday April 17th – 7pm
Another great first round match-up. John Higgins, three-times a champion on the circuit this season, must be thinking that this could be one of his last chances to seriously contend in Sheffield and maybe grab an additional world title to go along with his other four. However, the Scot faces a really tricky obstacle in Martin Gould, the player he beat in a thrilling decider to win the Australian Open in 2015. With so much else going on, Gould kind of flew in under the radar during qualification. The 2016 German Masters champion had three suitable workouts but enjoyed the luxury of none of his battles going anywhere near the nitty gritty of a potential decider. Gould will always be remembered at the Crucible for his 2010 second round defeat to eventual champion Neil Robertson, when he let slip an 11-5 advantage to bow out 13-12 in a horror loss. The “Pinner Potter” didn’t really do much in between his maiden ranking event glory in Berlin and his defence in February when he reached the last four. But the 35 year-old is dangerous and Higgins could be caught out cold before any potential challenge gathers serious momentum.
When: Monday April 17th – 2:30pm, Tuesday April 18th – 10am
Tom Ford came through a hard-fought duel with Hossein Vafaei Ayouri in Ponds Forge to deny the Iranian a first appearance at the Crucible. For Ford, it’ll only be the third time he’ll experience walking down through the curtain into the main arena under the starry lights of the famous theatre. If there was a player who defined a journeyman, Ford is it. He pops up now and then with big moments, such as reaching the Paul Hunter Classic final last summer or his 147 break at the German Masters, but the 33 year-old has failed to ever really upgrade his ability to any level of consistency. Hawkins was once arguably regarded as a bit of a journeyman too and, in fact, lost on his first five World Championship appearances. How that has changed! In the last four years, Hawkins has gone final-semi-semi-quarters in Sheffield and there’s nothing to suggest that he couldn’t feature in the second week of proceedings again on this occasion. Hawkins would be very disappointed to return to his old habit of losing at the first hurdle.
When: Wednesday April 19th – 7pm, Thursday April 20th – 7pm
Graeme Dott played brilliantly in qualifying this year, especially impressing in coming from behind late on to pip Jamie Jones 10-8 on Judgement Day. The 2006 world champion has been quiet on the Main Tour for a long period but history will remind us never to rule out the tenacious Scot at the Crucible. Indeed, Dott beat his opponent Ali Carter in the 2011 World Championship when he last made a run to the quarter-final stage. Carter has enjoyed a good season, winning the World Open and finishing runner-up at the Tempodrom to see him leap back into the top ten in the world rankings. It’s where he belongs because on his day he is a match for anybody and, like Dott, Carter also has some particularly fond memories in Sheffield. Twice a runner-up, both times missing out to Ronnie O’Sullivan, the “Captain” understands what it takes to go the distance. He could be a dark horse.
When: Tuesday April 18th – 7pm, Wednesday April 19th – 2:30pm
Oh, Stephen Maguire. It just had to be, didn’t it! Another first round meeting with a fellow Scot, his third in three years. Two years ago it was Anthony McGill again as Maguire succumbed to a 10-9 defeat – which was unbelievably his third deciding frame loss in the last 32 in three years. Twelve months ago, the former semi-finalist exited at the first hurdle once more to Alan McManus. This is the first time, though, that Maguire has had to qualify for the Crucible and, who knows, maybe it’s done him a favour? After a disappointing spell which saw him drop well outside the top 16, Maguire showed small signs of a return to form in Beijing earlier this month when he reached the quarter-finals, and he had little to worry about at Ponds Forge as he eased through his trio of encounters. Maguire’s still dangerous, don’t make any mistake about it, but it’s all about his mindset. Can he stay composed? We already know that McGill has the temperament and that might be the defining factor once again in this battle of Glasgow. Yet, surely Maguire’s nightmare run must come to an end eventually…
When: Saturday April 15th – 10am and 7pm
And finally we come to Judd Trump – is he our champion elect? Trump, along with Selby, is the man in form and could it be that we have a first final between the top two seeds since Joe Johnson lost to Steve Davis in the 1986 showdown? Trump has added two ranking titles to his collection this campaign and featured in a further three finals, two semi-finals, and two quarter-finals. The 27 year-old is starting to live up to his billing. With so much expectation and so many pundits picking him for glory this year, can he handle it all? Well, his first round draw has been kind and it should a routine opener for Trump as he takes on Rory McLeod. 46 year-old McLeod has done marvellously well to get to the Crucible for only the third time in his career but couldn’t have asked for a more difficult draw. McLeod, with his laboured style, is a tough competitor to overcome but as long as Trump can stay patient there’s little reason to suggest why this would be anything other than a comprehensive triumph for the world number two. Might it be the stepping stone to greener pastures which lie ahead?
When: Tuesday April 18th – 2:30pm, Wednesday April 19th – 10am
Semi-Final Prediction: Selby to beat Ding. Trump to beat Bingham.
Final Prediction: Trump to beat Selby.
Photos courtesy of Monique Limbos