The rearranged Betfred World Snooker Championship finally gets underway in Sheffield on Friday - Richard Mann has two selections in his outright preview.
It wasn’t so long ago that I feared I wouldn’t be writing this preview, the World Snooker Championship, like so much else, appearing almost certain to be another victim of the coronavirus pandemic.
However much we love them, our sports can often seem insignificant in the worst of times but their return in recent months – be it racing, football, cricket, or indeed snooker – has lifted spirits, brought back a sense of normality, and it is with great excitement that I am finally able to look ahead to snooker's blue riband event.
Last year, each-way money was reward for sticking to my guns and trusting my instinct as John Higgins belied a moderate season to make his third Crucible final in a row before Judd Trump proved an irresistible force as the tournament ended with fireworks and some of the best snooker we may have ever seen.
Trump has continued in the same vein since, taking the rise to the summit of the world rankings in his stride and becoming the first player in the history of the game to win six ranking titles in a single season.
It has been a remarkable upturn in fortunes for the 30-year-old who had his commitment and nerve questioned midway through the 2018/2019 season but hasn’t looked back since winning the Northern Ireland Open late in 2018.
He again had Ronnie O’Sullivan’s number in Belfast 12 months later and there is now the very real feeling that the baton has been passed from one generation to another.
Considering all that, it is no surprise that Trump is 11/4 favourite to retain his crown in Sheffield but if he is to do so, he must overcome the famous Crucible Curse which refers to the fact that no first-time champion has been able to successfully defend his title since the event moved to Sheffield in 1977.
Another concern for Trump supporters is that he warmed up for his World Championship defence with a modest showing at the Championship League before meeting defeat at the hands of Stephen Maguire at the subsequent Tour Championship.
Maguire was in inspired form all week there but more alarming was Trump’s inability to raise his game when it was needed most, something he has managed to do with impressive regularity for some time now.
For the first time in what seems an age, Trump cut a frustrated figure in his post-match interview in Milton Keynes and he will need to have sharpened up in the interim if he is to become king of the world for a second year running.
Nevertheless, he has overcome disappointment at the UK Championship and The Masters already this term and with O’Sullivan himself struggling for his best in the past 12 months, and Trump having defeated Higgins on numerous occasions of late, he will rightly believe he is the man to beat again.
As for O’Sullivan, he didn’t earn enough ranking points to qualify for the Tour Championship, or the Players Championship before that, but still triumphed at the Shanghai Masters in September and has been involved at the latter stages of enough big tournaments to suggest he is far from a spent force.
In fact, there have been occasions this season where O’Sullivan has looked as good as ever – still an artist in and around the black spot and the very definition of genius – but that brilliance seems to come in shorter bursts nowadays and if a 17-day snooker marathon hasn’t been his thing recently, it is hard to see why this year will be any different.
That’s not to say he can’t win; it would be so very Ronnie O’Sullivan for him to claim his sixth world title just as he is being written off, but on balance, 9/2 isn’t big enough to lure me in.
Despite the excellent campaign he has enjoyed – one that has yielded three more major titles – I can’t back Neil Robertson at the prices either, given I’ve long had reservations about him and the heavy workload he has endured already this term, something that looked to catch up with the Australian last year when he sauntered into the quarter-finals before running out of steam against Higgins.
Like O’Sullivan, Robertson finds himself berthed in the bottom half of the draw where SHAUN MURPHY is lurking and the latter looks too big at 18/1.
World champion back in 2005, Murphy has been a model of consistency so far this term and two major titles and a couple of runner-up finishes will see him return to Sheffield as one of the form horses.
His victory at the Welsh Open saw him beat the likes of Trump and Yan Bingtao before routing Kyren Wilson in a one-sided final where his much-improved safety game worked in unison with his pinpoint long potting and heavy scoring.
The move to Dublin has clearly suited Murphy and while he continues to credit Fergal O’Brien for the giant strides made in his game, there is no doubting that following a dreadful season in 2018/19, a strong start to this one allowed him to regain his confidence and set him up for what has followed.
While another potential Crucible clash with Robertson will be no easy task, especially considering the latter was much too strong when they met here last year, Murphy is a different beast this time around and I’d have no fears about him facing Mark Selby in the second round if getting past Noppon Saengkham first up.
Selby remains tricky to assess given his fantastic Crucible record and the fact he won the English Open and Scottish Open not so long ago, but he still looks short of the player that won the World Championship three times in four years between 2014 and 2017.
As such, I’m happy to pass him over, similarly Ding Junhui, who was brilliant when winning the UK Championship in December but has shown very little since and skipped the Tour Championship to stay in China.
His loss was Maguire’s gain as the Scot finally showcased in vast talents again with a fantastic week which earned him a cheque for £260,000. With only 300 spectators in the Crucible for the next two weeks, Maguire might well prove at home again in such circumstances but he will have his work cut out should he face Wilson in the second round.
Wilson has long looked tailor-made for the Crucible and a run to the semi-finals here in 2018 suggested his turn wasn’t far away. He hasn’t quite gone on to enjoy the sustained success we might have expected since but he has made improvements in his game, particularly with his cue-ball control, and I don’t think he’s far away at all.
One of the things I feel has held Wilson back at times is his desperation to do well. He has made no secret of his ambitions and what he wants to achieve in the sport, and rightly so, but I do wonder if he has put too much pressure on himself in the past instead of just playing the game and letting results look after themselves.
In that respect, I do think we’ve seen a slight change of attitude from him since Christmas and it was lovely to watch him contest the Gibraltar Open final with a smile on his face while producing some top-class snooker.
He would eventually lose that match, to Trump, but both players conducted themselves wonderfully well, only days before the coronavirus pandemic really took hold, representing their sport with class and suggesting their own personal differences might have made way for respect and good grace.
Had Wilson found himself better drawn, and not with the prospect of facing an on-song Maguire in the second round before maybe Trump or Bingtao, he might well have made my staking plan.
Bingtao was another on my shortlist following a breakthrough year which saw him win the Riga Masters as well as enjoy deep runs at a number of other high-profile events.
While his scoring still needs to improve, he has lots of the tools needed to be successful in Sheffield and were it not for a potential round-two meeting with Trump he, too, might have been carrying my money.
As it is, my second selection in a two-pronged attack is MARK ALLEN, a favourite of mine and probably what racing fans would describe as a cliff horse.
Allen has everything need to be a world champion – O’Sullivan said as much at the conclusion of their UK Championship final in 2018 – and despite going through a divorce recently, it is to his great credit that he has once again been a regular at the business end of major tournaments.
In fact, the Northern Irishman has six semi-final finishes to his name so far this season and might well have won the Champion Of Champions had he enjoyed just his fair share of good fortune in a last-four clash with Trump that Allen had taken control of until his opponent enjoyed a huge slice of luck that turned the match on its head.
As was the case last season, Allen hasn’t been quite as good since Christmas but I was really impressed with him when he bounced back to form to reach the final of the Tour Championship.
That was a huge step in the right direction for Allen who looks to be in a good place away from the table and was typically graceful in defeat after that Milton Keynes final.
A new healthy eating regime and volunteering to deliver food to vulnerable people during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic appears to have given him a real boost, and maybe some perspective, too, and I’m confident he will show up well in Sheffield.
A heavy scorer when at his best, and certainly one of the best positional players on the circuit, Allen has the game and stomach to scrap when needed and those are attributes required in order to become world champion, an ambition he has long held.
Already a Triple Crown winner having won The Masters in 2018, Allen certainly ticks plenty of boxes and I’m hopeful the number four seed can work his way into the tournament against Crucible debutant Jamie Clarke in the first round.
Finally, I can’t end without giving a special mention to Higgins, a four-time world champion and runner-up in Sheffield in each of the last three years. A giant of the sport, and one of its greats in every sense, the veteran has enjoyed a solid campaign this time around but I can’t shake the feeling that his chance for a fifth world title might have gone.
He has certainly looked short of the firepower needed to beat the likes of Trump and O’Sullivan this season and while a smaller crowd and less of an atmosphere in the famous Crucible Theatre might help some, it won’t play to the strengths of a man who handles pressure better than most and has made a magnificent career out of preying on the weaknesses of his opponents.
It might be folly to write Higgins off, but all good things must come to an end and it’s Murphy and Allen for me this year; two class acts on and off the table who both look primed for all that Sheffield has to throw at them.
Posted at 1755 BST on 29/07/20
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