The excitement for this year’s World Snooker Championship is building and the general expectation received another jolt of energy on Monday with the announcement of the qualifying stages draw.
A total of 128 players, made up of 113 professionals ranked outside the world’s top 16 and 15 additional wildcard amateurs invited to make up the numbers, will contest the dreaded qualifiers at the English Institute of Sport from Wednesday.
The hopeful competitors will be vying for the 16 extra spots available at the Crucible just down the road from the EIS in Sheffield, with three victories standing in each player’s way of a date performing at snooker’s mecca.
Such is the strength in depth in the sport these days, the first qualifying round has even thrown up some humdinger fixtures that will suitably whet the appetite ahead of Judgment Day next Wednesday – when the fate of the cueists involved in the final round of qualifiers will be determined.
Judgement Day is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic dozen or so hours of snooker on the entire calendar with the contrasting emotions of jubilation, relief, despair, and heartache there for all to see in what is a tense entrée to the main course.
As ever, it will be intriguing to see who can emerge from the three encounters with a berth in the last 32 at the Crucible and there are certain to be many returning soldiers.
Formidable challengers like Ryan Day, Stephen Maguire, and Martin Gould are widely predicted to advance through their early tests to safely book a spot in the first round proper but, of course, it isn’t always that straightforward.
The players ranked from number 17 to 32 have been seeded in the qualifying draw to avoid each other so they are the ones who will be the favourites on paper to progress.
Yet, every year there are shocks and upsets that prove just how much tension these contenders are under and it will be interesting to see who can provide an unexpected run to the Crucible.
Last year, there were five debutants and, in fact, there hasn’t been a single year since the tournament moved to the Crucible in 1977 where there hasn’t been a newbie at the famous venue.
There are several previews doing the rounds and one from well-known blogger and tipster Snookerbacker has four first-timers emerging from the field in 2018.
Ronnie O’Sullivan’s two-time conqueror from this campaign, Elliot Slessor is one he believes could achieve the feat, along with fellow Englishman Sam Craigie.
Craigie’s first tie is against the “Whirlwind” Jimmy White so the 24 year-old will have to anger quite a few fans if he’s to kick start his quest to the Crucible.
Joe Perry, Mark Davis, and Shoot Out champion Michael Georgiou, who has never reached the venue stages too, are also in the same mini bracket as Craigie.
The other pair Snookerbacker has opted for is the Chinese duo of Lyu Haotian and Yu Delu – with the latter somewhat surprisingly having never reached the last 32 before in the World Championship.
While Lyu is in an excellent section that doesn’t boast any giant of the game and an injured Anthony Hamilton, Yu would likely have to get passed countryman Liang Wenbo in the final round if he were to fulfill one of his career ambitions.
There are numerous names down through the draw that could potentially spring a surprise and it’s always going to be difficult to pinpoint exactly where that challenge is going to come from.
Twelve months ago, Switzerland’s Alexander Ursenbacher went all the way to the final qualifying round as an amateur before being denied in the end by Yan Bingtao.
Ursenbacher meets Thepchaiya Un-Nooh at the first hurdle this year, a match that is sure to be of lightning speed throughout, with the struggling Thai also in search of a maiden appearance at the Crucible.
Scanning the draw in detail, it would be easy to make an argument that this could be the year that no player makes his or her debut, although one would still suspect that one or two fortunate players will make the run of their lives in the next eight days.
Who do you think will be a Crucible debutant?