We’ve waited in expectation and the time has finally arrived – the start of the 2018 World Snooker Championship is less than 48 hours away and we now know how the draw is shaped this year at the Crucible Theatre.
There has already been plenty of drama in Sheffield over the last week or so with 16 qualifiers emerging from three gruelling rounds with a deserved spot in the 2018 edition of the sport’s blue riband event.
However, all of that was simply the entree to the main course that will be delivered during the 17-day “Marathon of the Mind”.
Without any further ado, here is a look at each of the first round encounters and an offering as to who might go on to mount a serious challenge for the famous trophy on this occasion.
Click on each match to view their head-to-heads. (CueTracker.net)
Defending champion Mark Selby will kick things off on Saturday morning – a familiar task for the proud Leicester man with this being the third time in four years that he has been in this position. The 34 year-old has been drawn with Joe Perry in the last 32, a tricky tie for sure and a player who, despite being the oldest player in the field at 43, is not to be taken lightly. Perry isn’t quite playing to the same standard as he was a number of years ago but on his day could be a match for the world number one. The “Gentleman” has plenty of World Championship experience having previously gone all the way to the semi-finals but hasn’t been beyond the last 16 since that run in 2008. Selby, on the other hand, has been the dominant force in Sheffield for a number of years and recently bounced back into form after a spell of underachievement with a superb triumph in the lucrative China Open. The pair has one previous meeting across 19 frames, way back in the World Championship qualifiers in 2005, when Selby won 10-2. The “Jester” might not be quite as dominant on this occasion but he will still be expected to advance unscathed.
When: Saturday, April 21st – 10am and 7pm
Masters champion Mark Allen only just about squeezed into the top 16 in the world rankings in time to secure an automatic berth in this year’s edition but has been rewarded with arguably one of the better first round draws. Liam Highfield is a much improved player on the circuit these days and wasn’t awfully troubled in the qualifiers as he emerged with surprising ease, considering this will represent his maiden appearance at the venue stages. After winning three matches in a taxing qualifying tournament, Highfield will certainly be match sharp and, like anybody in the draw, could pose a threat on any given day. However, Allen has to be considered a strong favourite in this and it perhaps stands as a decent warm up to what could be a likely second round clash with Selby to come. Allen has disappointed in Sheffield since a three-year spurt early in his career when he reached a semi-final and two quarter-finals. Could this be the year he turns his fortunes around?
When: Sunday, April 22nd – 10am; Monday, April 23rd – 10am
Matthew Stevens ensured his return to the Crucible for the first time since 2015 with a comfortable 10-2 victory over 1997 world champion Ken Doherty on Judgement Day. His reward is a tie with Kyren Wilson, the player who denied him a World Championship berth in the final qualifying round in 2016. Indeed, Stevens has only played Wilson twice and was defeated on both occasions by the Englishman. These two are very much on the opposite ends of their careers. Stevens, once a regular fixture at the business end of this tournament, has been in decline for a number of years now while Wilson’s stock is continuously on the rise. The 26 year-old hasn’t won any silverware this season but has reached two ranking event finals and was runner-up to Allen in the Masters in January. All recent evidence would suggest a victory for the Kettering cueist but Stevens is a different animal over the longer format and, still just 40, could experience one last hurrah at a venue that has provided him with both joy and despair.
When: Saturday, April 21st – 2:30pm; Sunday, April 22nd – 7pm
It’s quite astounding to think that it has been 13 years since Shaun Murphy burst onto the scene as an audacious qualifier to raise the trophy aloft. What was also astonishing was the manner in which Jamie Jones booked his spot in this year’s World Championship – courtesy of an amazing 10-0 triumph over maximum man Liang Wenbo. Where did that come from? Jones once went on a sterling run at the Crucible himself, back in 2012 when he embarked on a memorable journey to the quarter-finals. At the time, many assumed that a new star was born but it would be fair to say that the Welshman’s career has failed to alight since. Funnily enough, it was Murphy who Jones overcame in the last 32 six years ago with a 10-8 victory over the “Magician” so he won’t hold much fear over the prospect of beating one of the favourites for the title. Still, Murphy’s been playing good stuff all season and, as long as he’s fully recovered from recent injury woes, should have enough in the tank to avoid a repeat exit.
When: Sunday, April 22nd – 2:30pm; Monday, April 23rd – 2:30pm
It’s fair to say that the qualification of Thepchaiya Un-Nooh went down pretty well on social media on Judgement Day. The popular player became the fifth man from Thailand to reach the Crucible after a hard-fought 10-8 victory against Alfie Burden. Un-Nooh, with his free-flowing, attacking, and often frenzied style of play, has attracted many fans in recent years. The 33 year-old is a bit reminiscent of Tony Drago in that, when he’s on fire, he can reel off frame after frame in quick succession and in a thoroughly entertaining fashion. But he’s also liable to an abrupt meltdown, highlighted famously by his pair of misses on the final blacks of 147 attempts in the past. By contrast, Un-Nooh’s esteemed opponent John Higgins is one of the most level-headed and secure competitors of all time. Experience can play a major role in any tournament but even more so in the World Championship, when the attention and the pressure is at its most intense. Higgins is usually a master at dealing with such conditions and, for that reason alone, cannot be overlooked in this tie.
When: Wednesday, April 25th – 10am and 7pm
The 2015 champion Stuart Bingham has been handed with possibly one of the most difficult competitors to come out of the English Institute of Sport and one who could be a dark horse to go on a run in the coming weeks. If you think Un-Nooh is fast, then wait until you see Jack Lisowski. With an average shot time this season of just 16 seconds, Lisowski is an entertaining player to watch and, when it comes together, he too can reel off a flurry of frames. Still only 26, Lisowski went through a number of seasons where he failed to make any headway for breaking into the higher echelons of the sport but he has made considerable progress during this campaign and Bingham could have his hands full. “Ballrun” will have the fond memories of his success three years ago to inspire him and has shown a decent level of form as well since returning from a three-month ban earlier this year. But there are always a few qualifiers who upset the order and this could be one of them.
When: Tuesday, April 24th – 10am and 7pm
Like a few of the first round matches in this draw, this clash doesn’t really have the feel of being a top 16 player versus a qualifier. Ricky Walden may have been required to go through the mill at the qualifying tournament but it wasn’t that long ago that he was a permanent fixture in the elite bracket of the rankings himself and, but for a persistent back injury, he’d probably be still be in that company. The former semi-finalist is bouncing back to form at a decent time, though, and comes up against a young player who has been in desperate shakes of late. Belgium’s Brecel, who memorably threw away a 7-1 lead twelve months ago against Marco Fu in the last 32, has had a dire second half to a season that began so positively with his maiden ranking event triumph in the China Championship. Cue issues have led to confidence woes and, if anything, Walden with his superior experience at this stage ought to be the favourite in this bout.
When: Monday, April 23rd – 7pm; Tuesday, April 24th – 2:30pm
Some would say a perfect draw for Judd Trump. The Englishman, who this time last year cockily suggested that he was the tournament favourite before proceeding to be dumped out in a limp defeat against Rory McLeod, is flying a little bit under the radar on this occasion and is, so far at least, keeping his cards closer to his chest. Trump has done well to avoid any of the bigger names who emerged from the qualifying event, instead being paired with one of the four debutants this year in Chris Wakelin. The latter produced a terrific performance to hammer Tian Pengfei 10-1 in the final preliminary but, with seven losses from seven encounters with the 2011 runner-up, it’s hard to see his run continuing any further this year. If Trump, whose temperament on the big occasion has been suspect over the years, can get off to a solid start then he could warm his way into the running this year. It’s always an “if” where the 28 year-old is concerned.
When: Wednesday, April 25th – 2:30pm; Thursday, April 26th – 7pm
A humdinger of a first round tie pits Chinese pair Ding Junhui and Xiao Guodong together. In a repeat of their 2013 Shanghai Masters final, this contest is sure to generate huge amounts of interest in China and their schedule, with a first session on Monday afternoon followed by a morning session on Tuesday, will provide peak viewing for the audience in Asia. Xiao came through the qualifiers last year and duly upset Ryan Day with a brilliant victory but playing his compatriot represents a different kettle of fish altogether. The 29 year-old has the ability to cause a stir again but a lot will depend on which Ding turns up in Sheffield, his home away from home. This season’s World Open champion has endured a topsy-turvy term, as usual for him really, but can fall back on his sound performances at the Crucible in each of the last two editions, when he was narrowly beaten on both occasions in the final and semi-final by eventual champion Mark Selby. Ding’s displays are either downright rotten or utterly unplayable but predicting which of the two will materialise is nigh-on impossible. On experience alone, Ding should edge it and warm his way into the tournament, where he could grow to be dangerous. But is this the year when he finally fulfills his ambition of becoming China’s first world champion? That, as always, is firmly up for debate.
When: Monday, April 23rd – 2:30pm; Tuesday, April 24th – 10am
The player that they all wanted to avoid, Ryan Day has been landed on the doorstep of Anthony McGill. Day, a three-time tournament champion from this campaign, just missed out on automatic berth primarily due to the fact that both of his ranking event wins came in events with considerably lower purses than most on the calendar. The Welshman is undoubtedly one of the players of the season, though, and it’s hard to say who is the favourite to progress between him and McGill. With three victories apiece, there’s not much separating them in the stats and if any of the first round matches has a 10-9 scoreline written all over it, it’s this one. There’s an argument that the qualifiers, dreaded as they are often referred to because of the nature of having to play three matches to reach the venue stages, could play a part in a potential burnout come the end of the “Marathon of the Mind” but, in the first round at least, it could work as an advantage. Even though this is the last of the matches to get under way, Day will be warmed up and ready to go after useful tests in the preliminaries and that could perhaps be the crucial difference here.
When: Wednesday, April 25th – 7pm; Thursday, April 26th – 1pm
It’s anybody’s guess how the returning Marco Fu will perform this year as he comes back from an eye surgery that has kept him out for most of the second half of this season. By drawing one of the Crucible newbies in Lyu Haotian, Fu has potentially dodged a bullet. But that said, the 20 year-old did oust the Hong Kong cueist in December’s UK Championship and, as the youngest player in the line-up, might not be held back by the fear of failure. Indeed, the pressure could be completely off Lyu having reached this far for the first time and he’ll surely be aware that there’s an opportunity for him to take advantage of his opponent’s rustiness after a few months away from competitive action. The smart pick would remain Fu but this is certainly one of the more difficult looking predictions on paper to make.
When: Saturday, April 21st – 10am; Sunday, April 22nd – 7pm
Barry Hawkins vs Stuart Carrington
How good has Barry Hawkins been in the last few years at the Crucible? Well, let’s see. There’s his appearance in 2013 final, three further semi-finals, and a run to the last eight for good measure. Not too shabby, and the “Hawk” is some people’s dark horse again in 2018 to go the distance. His recent form would suggest that he’s in good shape too with runners-up finishes in both the Welsh and China Opens and, it has to be said, his draw is fairly kind. Stuart Carrington has been an improved player over the last few years but Hawkins will be secretly delighted to have gotten one of the lower ranked contenders and the three-time ranking event winner would be the clear favourite in the second round whoever he met there in addition. Hawkins, who a long time ago lost his first five matches at the Crucible, has become somewhat of a specialist over the longer format and it would be a huge surprise to see him exit at the opening hurdle on this occasion.
When: Monday, April 23rd – 10am and 7pm
He couldn’t, could he? Champion all the way back in 2000 and 2003, Williams makes his return to the Crucible after failing to qualify for last year’s tournament producing his best form in almost a decade. Even he has suggested that he could have a chance, which is incredible considering it was just a couple of short years ago when all you could get out of him was that he was glad to make up the numbers and win a little dosh. With victories in the Northern Ireland Open and the German Masters this season, the Welshman’s confidence is sky high but one of the first major problems in any attempt to make it an unlikely hat-trick of glories in Sheffield is his bracket of the draw. Four world champions including himself, a former runner-up, and an ex-UK champion. Oops. Before all that, Williams must dispatch of Jimmy Robertson, a highly capable and entertaining player on his day but someone who generally crumbles as soon as he’s in front of the TV cameras. To make matters more ominous, Williams has won all of their prior meetings.
When: Tuesday, April 24th – 2:30pm; Wednesday, April 25th – 10am
One of Robert Milkins’ finest career moments came against Neil Robertson five years ago at this very stage of the World Championship, when the “Milkman” delivered a 10-8 victory over the Australian. Back then, though, Milkins was knocking about the top 16 in the world rankings and was generally in much greater form than he has been in recent times. The 42 year-old did well to come through the qualifiers and his experience, with seven other World Championship appearances under his belt, will ensure that he’s unlikely to be overawed by the occasion. However, it’s hard to look past Robertson for this one and, indeed, it will be very interesting to see if the 2010 champion can mount a serious challenge this year. Robertson briefly fell outside the top 16 in the world rankings at the end of last year, which forced him out of the prestigious Masters, but the 36 year-old has bounced back well since then and, of course, immediately landed another ranking title when he emerged victorious at the Scottish Open in December. Robertson has only one semi-final appearance in Sheffield since his Crucible triumph eight years ago and, as already mentioned, his section is brutal, but the former world number one is definitely someone to keep an eye on.
When: Tuesday, April 24th – 7pm; Wednesday, April 25th – 2:30pm
Ali Carter and Graeme Dott clash in the last 32 for the second successive season and twelve months ago it was the “Pocket Dynamo” who prevailed with a 10-7 triumph. In fact, that was the second time that the 2006 world champion got one over on Carter in Sheffield following a second round success back in 2011 and the Scot actually has a superior head-to-head record overall. Indeed, it’d be hard to argue against Dott being the slight favourite for this tie given the duo’s contrasting fortunes in 2018 so far. Carter, twice a runner-up at the Crucible of course, has suffered a string of early exits while Dott, by contrast, has featured in a brace of ranking event finals since February and is on the brink of a possible return to the top 16 in the near future. Dott has never quite received the recognition he has deserved for being a former world champion but his record in this event speaks for itself with two extra final appearances and a run to the quarter-finals to his credit. A dangerous opponent if ever there was one and Carter will have to up his game if he wants to challenge again himself this year.
When: Saturday, April 21st – 7pm; Sunday, April 22nd – 2:30pm
Saving the best until last, it’s a mouthwatering clash between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Maguire – the third time they have faced off at the opening hurdle after meeting in the last 32 in consecutive seasons way back in 2004 and 2005. Back then, O’Sullivan hailed Maguire as a star of the future who was set to dominate the game for a decade. However, it never quite materialised in that fashion and the Scot, who once stated that he’d be disappointed if he didn’t win a World Championship before his 30th birthday, is still chasing the holy grail in Sheffield. Maguire has had some high-profile triumphs against the “Rocket”, including in the UK Championship and the Masters, but the majority of the pair’s encounters have gone the way of the latter. After a remarkable campaign in which O’Sullivan has claimed a record-equalling five ranking event crowns, the world number two is the favourite with many to land a sixth World Championship title in early May. He couldn’t have really been tasked with a more difficult first round challenge but how he fares in that contest will maybe provide us with enough insight to determine whether he’ll have the patience to last the distance this year.
When: Saturday, April 21st – 2:30pm; Sunday, April 22nd – 10am
Semi-Final Prediction: Trump to beat Selby. O’Sullivan to beat Hawkins.
Final Prediction: O’Sullivan to beat Trump.