The World Championship is almost a week old and the first round is coming to its conclusion at the Crucible.
There are still two encounters from the last 32 to be completed on Thursday but the second round also simultaneously gets under way on the sixth day of action in Sheffield.
The tournament appeared to be favouring the seeds with only Stephen Maguire upsetting the higher ranked competitors in the opening few days.
That all dramatically went out the window on Wednesday, however, with three further seeded players sent tumbling – including a monumental shock in pre-tournament favourite Judd Trump’s exit to Rory McLeod.
Let’s see how that has changed the shape of the draw and who may benefit in the long run.
Second Round – Best of 25 frames
(Click on the match for the head-to-head record – external site: CueTracker.net)
It seems a long time ago now but back on opening day Saturday, defending champion Mark Selby coasted to a straightforward 10-2 triumph over Ireland’s Fergal O’Brien. Selby wasn’t at his best but didn’t need to be as an exhausted O’Brien had nothing left to offer after his late-night qualifying exploits at Ponds Forge. It was a nice handy workout for Selby and he’ll have had plenty of rest ahead of his last 16 clash which, going against tradition, oddly doesn’t start until Saturday evening. The 33 year-old would have been buoyed by the exit of Trump in the opposite side of the draw and even his last 16 fixture is potentially easier than what he was expecting. Xiao played well to comfortably oust Ryan Day 10-4 but playing at this stage, with the matches now played over three sessions, will legislate as completely new territory for the former Shanghai Masters runner-up. He is capable of giving Selby a good game but whether he can upset the world number one on current form or not is doubtful.
Neil Robertson and Marco Fu couldn’t have really had any more contrasting initial tests. While the Australian, who interestingly opened up about his gaming addiction this week, powered through the obstacle of debutant Noppon Saengkham comfortably enough, Fu was forced to fight back from 7-1 behind to deny Luca Brecel in the only match this year so far which has gone the distance. Fu was full of emotion after his superb comeback win as he succeeded in not putting a dampener to what has been an excellent second half of the campaign for the Hong Kong cueist. Robertson hasn’t really enjoyed a good time of it of late, but perhaps the staying up until all hours of the morning in front of a screen contributed to his rather rapid descent down the rankings. This pair has a relatively even record against each other with Robertson boasting just one extra victory and it’s likely that this affair will be a close one as well to match those stats. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to choose between them. Fu is the more in form player but Robertson has the greater pedigree to emerge triumphant on the big stage. Toss of a coin!
Undoubtedly the tie of the round, Murphy has added extra spice to this duel with O’Sullivan after chiming in with his uncomplimentary opinions regarding the latter’s fallout with the sport’s authorities. Murphy subsequently claimed in a BBC feature that his days of offering his views on everything are in the past and that he’ll leave his talking to on the table. As one social media user humourously commented, perhaps he meant he literally intends to get up on the table to voice his concerns, as it’s probably the last place where he hasn’t yet burned the ears off anyone who is willing to listen. Please, nobody mention kicks, or this match will never even get started! Murphy already has a poor head-to-head record against the five-time world champion, including two previous defeats in the Worlds over 25 frames, and stoking the fire like he has probably wasn’t the wisest thing he’s ever done. For O’Sullivan, the recent scandal could go one of two ways. Either it becomes a major distraction and he performs badly, or he produces a more focused, driven display in silencing the doubters. Against Murphy especially, it could well be the latter.
Ding just dispatched of one of his countrymen in the first round and he’s tasked with facing another if he has aspirations of reaching the last eight for the third season in a row. It’ll be interesting to learn after this fixture’s conclusion the viewing figures in China for a clash between two of the nation’s biggest stars. Ding, runner-up twelve months ago, will of course begin as the favourite but Liang, in search of a first quarter-final berth since his debut back in 2008, is a different animal this season after joining the exclusive ranking event champions’ club. Indeed Liang, who is just a few months older than his compatriot, has the superior head-to-head record against Ding with a surprising four victories from their six previous ties in all competitions. Ding looked in the zone for most of his victory over Zhou Yuelong, though, as he attempts to go one better than last season and finally land an overdue maiden world crown. It’ll be interesting if Liang can keep it close but if Ding can continue his scoring streak and get ahead early on, it could be one way traffic.
Both of these players came through their initial tests unscathed despite not being anywhere near their best. Neither will care too much about that and each of the pair will think of this tie as a more than decent opportunity to progress further in the event. Bingham and Wilson have met only twice before in ranking events but both of those victories went the latter’s direction – including in the China Open in Beijing just a few weeks ago. Yet, despite reaching the final of the Indian Open as far back as last summer, it’s been less than a positive campaign for Wilson and, by contrast, Bingham has been extremely consistent throughout the term. “Ballrun” will be hoping to rediscover the kind of feeling from two years ago when he unexpectedly emerged from the pack with a wonderful run to lift the trophy aloft. Wilson has a great temperament which will likely stand him in good stead as his career progresses but whether his actual form is at a high enough level to overcome the world number three is questionable. For that reason primarily, it’s got to be Bingham.
Allen and Higgins have had a tendency to play some very entertaining encounters with one another down through the years, so let’s hope we’re in for something similar on this occasion. Of course, the pair met at the semi-final stage at the Crucible all the way back in 2009, which still represents Allen’s only last four appearance to date in Sheffield. The Northern Irishman has endured arguably his worst season as a professional, reaching only one ranking event quarter-final all term. Higgins, on the other, has collected three big trophies, underlining his credentials as still being one of the main targets to overcome in every tournament. All sense points towards a victory for the Scot but one gets the feeling that Allen can’t stay dormant forever. The 31 year-old is typically a streaky player anyway and perhaps this is the moment when he can spark himself back into life again. Working in Allen’s favour is a better head-to-head record versus Higgins, including a deciding frame win at the Masters in January this year.
With the shock demise of Judd Trump, Barry Hawkins has been risen to third in the favourites tag for the World Championship title behind only Mark Selby and Ronnie O’Sullivan. The World Grand Prix champion enjoyed a comfortable first round win over Tom Ford but Dott continued to impress in Sheffield as he followed up his three Ponds Forge qualifying victories with an excellent defeat of seed Ali Carter. Both Hawkins and Dott have great pedigree at the Crucible having featured in multiple finals and semi-finals between them. The Scot, of course, raised the trophy aloft in 2006, a feat which he arguably doesn’t gain enough recognition for. Hawkins, as the higher ranked competitor, will rightly be expected to progress but Dott boasts a superior record from their previous encounters, including their last meeting in Sheffield in the last 32 eight years ago. A lot has changed since then and Hawkins is a much improved player on the circuit having tasted success in ranking events. But Dott should prove a worthy test and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this one go close.
What an opportunity this is for Stephen Maguire. The Scot, who has been notable in his absence from the latter stages of tournaments in recent seasons, would surely have been mentally preparing himself for a battle with Judd Trump. There he would have been the underdog, but now he has quickly become the overwhelming favourite to reach the last eight. Indeed, many onlookers have suddenly begun to consider the five-time ranking event winner as a potential champion. Maguire had to qualify for the first time in more than a decade but, like Ding twelve months ago, it has actually stood him well as he has got some much-needed match practice and victories under his belt. McLeod’s game could frustrate Maguire like it did Trump so it’ll be important for the 36 year-old to keep his emotions in check. Yet, surely this is the moment he has been waiting for and perhaps never truly expected to occur. It’s the chance for him to finally threaten again at the Crucible. Will it bring with it determination or fear? McLeod will be ecstatic to still be involved in the tournament but it’s unlikely he can repeat the same kind of scrappy performance and advance further, so he’ll have to improve tenfold to have a better chance.