In the latest instalment in our Antepost Angle series, Richard Mann previews the World Snooker Championship, where a former Crucible champion already makes plenty of appeal.
In the 1980’s it was Steve Davis, through the 1990’s it was Stephen Hendry, while from 2000 onwards, Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins proved to be the most successful players when it came to snooker’s blue riband, the World Championship.
Davis won six world titles between 1981 and 1989, Hendry seven from 1990 to 1999. O’Sullivan’s first world title came in 2001 and his sixth last August, while Higgins has been crowned world champion four times and a beaten finalist on four more occasions.
For longevity, it is hard to argue with O’Sullivan and Higgins when talking about the World Championship, or any other event for that matter, but more recently there has been another 'King of the Crucible' to emerge with MARK SELBY claiming title glory three times between 2014 and 2017.
Even last season, when Selby’s inconsistent form had become so frustrating that he called on renowned coach Chris Henry for guidance, the 37-year-old still found enough inspiration in Sheffield to muster a run to the semi-finals before O’Sullivan broke his heart in a final-frame shootout never to be forgotten. Take O’Sullivan out of the equation and Selby would probably be a four-time world champion at the time of writing.
Still, Selby will get the chance to put that right next spring and having made an excellent start to the new campaign, he will surely head back to his favourite stomping ground in Sheffield with plenty going for him.
While Selby has built a quite remarkable record in the Home Nations events, winning the last two renewals of the Scottish Open, and the English Open last term, there is little doubt that the former world number one is much happier in the longer-format matches of the Crucible. Those matches that allow Selby to spin his web over his rivals and then watch them suffocate in his clench as his peerless safety game and innate ability to dominate those scrappier passages of play leave his rivals feeling punch-drunk.
That’s just what happened to Neil Robertson in last season’s quarter-final, the Australian describing Selby's safety play as ‘absolutely fantastic’ after succumbing 13-7, while Selby overturned big deficits with more of the same when beating O’Sullivan and Higgins in the 2014 and 2017 finals respectively.
But for O’Sullivan’s incredible late-show last summer, Selby’s Crucible masterplan worked very well once again and whomever he comes up against, he is always such a tough nut to crack in Sheffield's in multi-session matches.
That makes Selby a big player at the World Championship every year but this time around, regardless of how the next few months play out, he will have a couple of titles at least under his belt having won the European Masters and the aforementioned Scottish Open recently. Throw into the mix three more semi-final finishes, and his form could hardly be any better.
The biggest change in Selby’s game over the last few months has been his renewed confidence. Mentally, Selby was always one of the toughest on the tour, but a downturn in results can affect even the very best and his ability to come out of sticky situations was lost for a while.
Not so anymore, and while Robertson has edged him out in a couple of close encounters this term, that was more down to his excellent play than any fault of Selby’s, while the latter has produced brilliant comebacks against the likes of Kyren Wilson and Stuart Bingham in a couple of other big matches.
I see no reason why Selby won’t get better and better from here on in and by the time Sheffield comes around, he might well be right back to his very best. If in anywhere near the form he produced in this event just a few years ago, he will take some stopping.
As such, with 9/1 currently available, it’s worth getting Selby on-side now with a view to topping up later down the line when the draw has been made.
The obvious fly in the ointment is Judd Trump, the now world number one who has picked up three trophies already this season – the most recent coming at the World Grand Prix – as well as reaching two more finals.
Having won this tournament for the first time in 2019 before failing foul of the Crucible Curse the following year, his claims ought to be absolutely rock-solid come the spring. An incredibly heavy-scorer whose tactical game is now very proficient, there really are no holes in his armoury and he deserves plenty of credit for winning last week so soon after that bruising defeat in the UK Championship final.
Should he line up in Sheffield fit and healthy, he’ll be the man to beat, but there isn’t that much 7/2 left about him and layers can at least cling to the hope he might well have run himself into the ground by April. We’re clutching at straws of course, but he looked a little jaded when Kyren Wilson beat him in Sheffield last season and I can’t imagine he’ll be taking his foot off the gas in the New Year.
Furthermore, Robertson did at least show Trump not to be a winning machine when grinding him down in that gruelling UK Championship final and there are genuine reasons to believe Selby might have the game to do the same, should they meet in a long match sometime in the near future.
A real clash of styles, that would be a match to savour, and one Selby would relish, so I have no interest in running scared of Trump when looking at a tournament some four months away. Furthermore, Selby is almost three times the price Trump is right now, and I can’t have that being the case once attention turns exclusively to the World Championship.
I’ll duck and weave from Trump for now, so too O’Sullivan who proved when winning in August that this man can do just about anything on a snooker table, even more so when he has been written off.
For a few years now, the marathon of the mind that is Sheffield hasn’t been O’Sullivan’s bag. An ‘ordeal’ was what he termed it not so long ago, but playing behind closed doors in the 2020 edition clearly helped lift some of the usual pressures from his shoulders and there is no doubt that sensing his chance for a final Crucible hurrah, O’Sullivan steeled himself for the biggest push of his career.
Whether he can scale that mountain again, with Father Time continuing to pull at his ankles, is the big question and though his results have been consistently solid so far this term, his form hasn’t been good enough to beat Trump and Selby when they have met.
On what we’ve seen in recent weeks, it’s hard to imagine that changing any time soon, but this is Ronnie O’Sullivan were are talking about – the greatest player to ever grace the sport and a genius in every sense. If anyone can do it, with the carrot of equalling Hendry’s record of seven Crucible wins, it’s The Rocket.
He’s not a bet at 4/1, but you just never know, while Robertson is another former champion who undoubtedly has the class to win the biggest prize of them all again and it's these four who continue to dominate the sport, one way or another.
My worry with Robertson is that he can too easily be dragged into a dogfight in these longer matches; Selby did it to him last summer, Higgins the year before, and though he has had Selby’s number this term by playing more aggressive safety shots and looking to attack when at all possible, the Crucible has a funny way of dictating terms and producing those unforgettable, dramatic scraps that we all enjoy so much.
On the subject of scrappers, the 18/1 about last year’s runner-up Kyren Wilson isn’t to be sniffed at following a really encouraging start to this campaign.
Wilson won his first ranking title on home soil when taking the Championship League and was only a tricky blue away from putting himself on the cusp of victory over Trump at the UK Championship. Despite blowing a handy lead against O’Sullivan in the World Grand Prix, Wilson continues on the upgrade and we must not forget how will he played to reach the final of this event in August.
He’s not there yet, but if and when Wilson does claim his maiden Triple Crown win, Sheffield appears the most likely location given that his style of play is so suited to this tournament.
Wilson has already built himself a healthy Crucible record and that should continue to be the case, while Mark Allen is quite the opposite but possesses all the tools to do well here.
A solitary semi-final appearance in 2009 is the best Allen has managed at the World Championship so far, but this is a class act whose recent Champions of Champions success saw him take down the very best in the world.
The issue with Allen is that his best game and worst game are currently poles apart, added to the fact he now trying to get to grips with a new cue. That should work itself out in time and if he can navigate his way into the tournament before producing his best snooker in the second week, there is no reason why the Northern Irishman can’t become world champion one day.
He’s currently a 20/1 chance and is more than capable of going all the way, but neither he nor Wilson boast anything like the Crucible credentials of the aforementioned Selby, and at 10/1, he's the only bet worth striking in this market right now.
Posted at 1700 GMT on 22/12/20
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