There’s less than 48 hours to go until the 2019 World Snooker Championship commences at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
The qualifiers wrapped up on Wednesday with 16 hopefuls booking their spots in the main draw alongside the top 16 seeds from the world rankings.
All that was left to complete was the exciting draw, as everyone waited in expectation to witness who got paired with the marquee names.
This 2019 World Snooker Championship boasts seven debutants – the most in two decades – while a record six Chinese competitors will feature in the last 32.
There will be a Cypriot competing at the Crucible for the first time and, perhaps most incredible, there will be an amateur cueist who performed brilliantly in qualifying to make history in the sport.
Without further ado, let’s take a brief look at each of the first round ties.
Click on each match to view their head-to-heads. (CueTracker.net)
As always, there’s great expectation in learning who the defending champion will receive in the first round draw. Mark Williams produced an unbelievable performance twelve months ago to surprise the pack and claim a third world crown, 15 years after his last success. The Welshman has been enjoying a year-long celebration since then and it’s fair to say that his game has suffered a touch as a result. Williams has lost the consistency that was a cornerstone of his game last season. Against Martin Gould, Williams probably could have received an easier opening challenge. A former ranking event winner, Gould has the type of game that can trouble any opponent on his day. Yet, it’s been a miserable time on the circuit for the “Pinner Potter” of late and he has been in danger of dropping outside the world’s top 32. Gould famously led Neil Robertson 11-5 in the second round in 2010, only for the Australian to fight back and proceed to capture his one and only world title. Gould’s performances at the Crucible haven’t been notable since and the experience, not to mention cool head, of Williams should prove to be the vital difference.
When: Saturday, April 20th – 10am and 7pm
It has taken David Gilbert 17 years as a professional to break into the top 16 but he picked a good time of the year to achieve it, guaranteeing an automatic World Championship spot for the first time. The Englishman probably would have been hoping that achievement resulted in an easier opening path but it hasn’t really transpired in that fashion. Joe Perry, with his immense experience, was in many people’s eyes the most difficult qualifier to get. Perry, who beat defending champion Mark Selby in the first round as a qualifier in 2018, is now match sharp and relatively fresh after losing only five frames in the preliminaries at the English Institute of Sport. Gilbert has been the better player overall this season, highlighted by his runs to the finals of both the World Open and German Masters. But Perry is more familiar with the Crucible surroundings and, even as the qualifier, is arguably the marginal favourite for this one. From ten prior encounters with one another, Perry possesses the advantage with six wins to his name.
When: Monday, April 22nd – 7pm; Tuesday, April 23rd – 2:30pm
Some people might be surprised to learn that Li Hang, despite first turning professional in 2008, has never actually played in the World Championship at the Crucible. The 28 year-old is one of six Chinese in the draw, four of whom are set to make their debuts on the famous stage. Li has risen into the top 32 in the world rankings this season and is undoubtedly a dangerous player. But it’s never easy at the Crucible, never mind when it’s a first appearance, and facing someone like Barry Hawkins doesn’t make the task any simpler. The latter, of course, has become somewhat of a master at the longer format and has reached the semi-finals or better in five out of the last six editions. The “Hawk” hasn’t enjoyed an especially good campaign but might fancy his chances in an open looking top quarter of the draw to repeat his now trademark run to the last four.
When: Wednesday, April 24th – 10am and 7pm
Scott Donaldson was the last player to emerge from the 2019 World Snooker Championship qualifiers late on Wednesday night after a dramatic 10-9 victory over Lu Ning. The Scot has gone under the radar a touch but has actually been one of the most improved players on the circuit of late. With two semi-final and a couple of quarter-final appearances in ranking events this season, Donaldson is beginning to become more recognisable at the business end of comps. His debut berth in the World Championship shouldn’t come as any great surprise then, but it’s difficult to envisage him going any further. Kyren Wilson could be a dark horse for this year’s tournament as he’s got all the necessary tools to do well in the 17-day “Marathon of the Mind”. The Paul Hunter Classic and German Masters champion reached the last four twelve months ago and was eventually undone by John Higgins but, like the four-time world champion, Wilson boasts a suitable temperament for the big occasion. With a taste of the single table set-up, the Kettering cueist will be desperate to make a return.
When: Wednesday, April 24th – 2:30pm; Thursday, April 25th – 7pm
Arguably the worst draw that John Higgins could have received on the back of what has been his most miserable season in years. Higgins, with no silverware to his name and a series of disappointing early exits from tournaments to erase from his memory, has been disillusioned with the game since losing his second successive World Championship final last May. The “Wizard of Wishaw” will be hoping that the Crucible Theatre can inspire some of his old magic to return but in the first round of the 2019 World Snooker Championship he’s been paired with an old nemesis at this stage. Six years ago at the same hurdle, Davis knocked Higgins out courtesy of a 10-6 scoreline and in fact boasts a superior head-to-head record against the former world number one. By beating Lyu Haotian in the preliminaries, Davis became the first player to reach the venue stages via the qualifiers ten times. Match sharp and with a laissez-faire attitude at the twilight of his career, the 46 year-old will be a tricky challenge that an out-of-form Higgins might not have any answers for this year.
When: Sunday, April 21st – 10am; Monday, April 22nd – 2:30pm
An intriguing battle between two former world champions, this has the hallmark of a game that could go right down to the wire. Graeme Dott’s record in this event is superb, underlined by the fact that he has featured at the TV stages of the World Championship every year since 2000, bar one. Like all the qualifiers, Dott has useful victories in the qualifiers under his belt and it will be interesting to see whether or not that has any influence on the outcome. Even so, Stuart Bingham would have to be considered as the favourite, especially taking into account his wonderful form this season. One of six players to claim multiple ranking titles this term, Bingham has only lost to Dott three times in 11 meetings and hammered the “Pocket Dynamo” when they last crossed paths in Sheffield four year ago. In 2015, of course, Bingham proceeded to win the championship.
When: Tuesday, April 23rd – 10am and 7pm
Shaun Murphy vs Luo Honghao
What has happened to Shaun Murphy? The “Magician” has lost all of his tricks and has been a constant loser in the early rounds of ranking events this season. Murphy won the Champion of Champions and reached several ranking event finals last season but since relocating to Ireland in the summer his game has been in tatters. Probably the most damning statistic is that, on the one-year rankings list, Murphy squeaks just inside the top 50 at number 48. Luo Honghao, meanwhile, is another one of the Chinese debutants and at 19 is the only teenager in the field. That youthful exuberance could stand the rookie in good stead and Murphy isn’t a stranger to disappointing defeats to young Chinese players, with Yan Bingtao, Zhao Xintong, and Yuan Sijun all notably taking the scalp of the 2005 world champion as inexperienced challengers in the past. Murphy is on a bit of a hiding to nothing in this one and he could find himself in trouble if he can’t stamp his authority on the contest quickly.
When: Sunday, April 21st – 2:30pm; Monday, April 22nd – 10am
Neil Robertson is the man in form after a run of four consecutive ranking event finals culminated in the Australian triumphing in the lucrative China Open at the start of April. Robertson has never really threatened to add to his 2010 Crucible crown but looks to be in the best form of his life heading into this edition. Only Ronnie O’Sullivan has managed to stop the Melbourne man in his tracks of late and, with the pair in opposite sides of the 2019 draw, there could be a mouthwatering rematch of their Players Championship and Tour Championship final showdowns of last month. Michael Georgiou represents Robertson’s initial test, the latter proudly becoming the first Cypriot to ever qualify. The former Snooker Shoot Out champion has done well to reach this stage but one suspects that he’ll find himself out of his depth against Robertson, particularly if the 16-time ranking event winner maintains his current hot streak.
When: Saturday, April 20th – 2:30pm; Sunday, April 21st – 7pm
Which Mark Selby is going to turn up? That’s what a lot of people are wondering as we get set for the 2019 World Snooker Championship. The “Jester” just lost his coveted world number one position for the first time in more than four years and has looked a shadow of the self that captured three world titles in four years between 2014 and 2017. Selby’s displays on home soil have predominantly been dismal, reaching the last four of a UK-based ranking event only twice in two years. Most of his strong showings have come in China and it’s against one of that nation’s highly fancied young stars who he faces first. Zhao Xintong is arguably the most improved player of the season. The 22 year-old must have been a despondent character twelve months ago when he dropped off the Main Tour but immediately bounced back via Q School and in one season is already in the cusp of breaking into the top 64 in the world rankings. Zhao gave Selby a stern check in the semi-finals of the China Championship in September – the only piece of silverware in Selby’s cabinet from a forgettable period. There’s no reason to think that Zhao, a heavy scorer when in full flow, can’t put it up to the Leicesterman again on this occasion. A lot depends on which Selby actually turns up.
When: Monday, April 22nd – 10am and 7pm
In a first round draw that is full of eye-catching ties, this one is possibly not one that especially stands outs. Still, there’s an opportunity for both of these players to reach the second round at the Crucible for the first time in their careers. The last time Gary Wilson qualified he played Ronnie O’Sullivan so he’ll be thankful that he has been granted with a more realistic path into the last 16. Luca Brecel relied heavily on his China Championship victory from last season to remain inside the top 16 and gain one of the crucial automatic berths. The Belgian endured a terrible time after that breakthrough success but this month’s semi-final appearance in the China Open has provided a signal of a return to form. When on his game, Brecel is a dangerous threat to anyone and it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 24. Making his fourth bow at the Crucible, Brecel will be hoping that the obstacle of Wilson can lead to a stepping stone to greater glories in the event.
When: Saturday, April 20th – 10am; Sunday, April 21st – 2: 30pm
Undoubtedly one of the matches of the round, twice former runner-up Ali Carter’s reward for emerging from the qualifiers is a date with fellow Englishman Jack Lisowski. The pair has met only once before, back in 2015 when the “Dude” pipped Carter in a decider at the International Championship and it could very well be that close again here. Along with the experienced Perry and Dott, Carter is probably the player most of the seeds wanted to avoid. Lisowski has come a long way since his 13-1 humiliation at the hands of John Higgins in the second round last year, reaching two ranking event finals and breaking into the elite top 16 for the first time in his career. Still, this affair is practically a flip of a coin. One possible bone of contention is that, while Carter ought to be warmed up nicely following three routine wins in qualifying, the “Captain” didn’t actually play anyone higher in the rankings than Jimmy White at number 78. Whether he’s been suitably tested or not could be an interesting factor.
When: Wednesday, April 24th – 7pm; Thursday, April 25th – 1pm
Mark Allen vs Zhou Yuelong
Another mouthwatering prospect in this bracket of the 2019 World Snooker Championship draw is the match between Mark Allen and Zhou Yuelong. The Northern Irishman has been one of the players of the season, although things have gone a touch quiet since he captured a brace of ranking titles and reached the UK Championship final at the end of the calendar year. Zhou is one of the leading protagonists in the huge pack of young Chinese stars that are emerging. To some critics out there, the Chinese players are often unfairly being labeled as failures and underachievers, which is somewhat hilarious considering the majority of them are either teenagers or in their early twenties. Still, while Zhou should represent a decent workout for Allen, it’s hard to look past the 33 year-old in terms of reaching the last 16 on this occasion. Allen skipped the China Open, an unusual decision that cost him his spot in an easier looking top half of the draw. The 2009 semi-finalist will be hoping that the advantage to all that will be a fresh outlook ahead of the sport’s most vigurous examination.
When: Tuesday, April 23rd – 7pm; Wednesday, April 24th – 2:30pm
As you can see, the bottom section is littered with thrilling looking ties and this one is no different. The first couple of players out of the bag in Thursday morning’s draw were Judd Trump and Thepchaiya Un-Nooh. Two of the most enjoyable players to watch on the entire circuit when in full flow, this could really be a barnstorming battle between a pair of heavy scorers. Un-Nooh gave John Higgins a decent run on his debut in 2018 and Trump can probably expect a similarly tough test next week as the Thai returns for a second crack at the Crucible. Un-Nooh, the quickest player on the tour, is capable of running off frames in quick succession and one suspects that the 34 year-old will need that kind of fire power in order to match Trump. The latter has come a long way, though, since his desperate first round defeat to Rory McLeod in 2017. Trump, now a Masters champion, has matured immensely since then and is rightly considered to be one of the favourites for the title overall. A possible crucial quarter-final with O’Sullivan awaits but first Trump will have to take the necessary precautions to overcome a skillful opponent in Un-Nooh.
When: Tuesday, April 23rd – 2:30pm; Wednesday, April 24th – 10am
A repeat of their second round clash twelve months ago when Ding Junhui thrashed Anthony McGill 13-4, the pair cross paths again in Sheffield. Both Ding and McGill will be looking to lock the memories of this season up and throw away the key, unless they can conjure up something special in the next fortnight or so. It’s been a dire campaign for the duo and they have rarely featured at the business end of events. Ding has long held the weight of a nation on his shoulders but his quest for the ultimate title has so far eluded him and it’s difficult to envisage that changing in 2019. In the Chinese number one’s favour at least is a head-to-head record against McGill that reads four and zero. Few were probably expecting the Scot to advance from the qualifiers but a remarkable turnaround from 7-2 behind against Robert Milkins on Judgement Day proved the doubters wrong. Ding knows all too well how momentum can develop after reaching the final in 2016 on the back of emerging from the preliminary stages. This has the makings of a scrappy contest and it’s hard to see either of them producing the necessary goods this year to challenge the main contenders.
When: Saturday, April 20th – 2:30pm; Sunday, April 21st – 10am
Stephen Maguire vs Tian Pengfei
Other qualifiers gained more headlines but one of the most impressive of the lot was Tian Pengfei. To seal his debut at the Crucible, the 31 year-old overcame Soheil Vahedi before standout successes over world number 17 Ryan Day and two-time former finalist Matthew Stevens. Tian’s next opponent will be Stephen Maguire, who was once thought of as a nailed on world champion. Things haven’t quite worked out that way for the Scot despite once claiming that it would be a failure if he didn’t etch his name on the trophy before the age of 30. Now 38, Maguire often acts like a player who doesn’t really have much belief in his game. That said, the five-time ranking event winner has produced a relatively consistent season and will be hoping to improve on a dismal recent Crucible record that reads six first round defeats in the last eight years.
When: Saturday, April 20th – 7pm; Sunday, April 21st – 7pm
Which brings us to the last match. Ronnie O’Sullivan once again heads into the World Championship as the pre-tournament favourite, as he so often does. An incredible first round draw has paired the “Rocket” with James Cahill, who was the headline story of the qualifiers when he beat Michael Judge to become the first amateur to reach the Crucible in the tournament’s 42-year history. It’s what dreams are made of and aspirations don’t come much loftier than a 2019 World Snooker Championship encounter with O’Sullivan. Cahill, a former professional who will regain his tour card next season, has actually played the five-time world champion three times but unsurprisingly has fallen short on each occasion. It’s not easy to see how he can change that statistic given the new world number one’s pedigree and form. O’Sullivan has been practically unstoppable this season, reaching the title decider in seven out of the ten tournaments he’s participated in, with only Trump managing to evade him in big finals. The Englishman hasn’t challenged at the Crucible since 2014, though, and is often his own worst enemy as he struggles to deal with the inner demons that can affect his game, especially when the format increases over multiple sessions. Cahill, still only 23 and an exciting prospect for the future, will be looking to enjoy his moment against the sport’s biggest star. But greater challengers surely await O’Sullivan in the 2019 World Snooker Championship.