The Betfred World Championship gets underway at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield on Saturday and our snooker expert Richard Mann previews the action.
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With the qualifiers now done, the Betfred World Championship will get underway on Saturday morning with the traditional curtain-raiser seeing champion Mark Williams begin his title defence with a tricky opening match against the experienced Martin Gould.
Williams appears to have tailored his season around a repeat bid in Sheffield but victory at the World Open apart, the Welshman has failed to scale the same heights he reached in the 2017/2018 campaign and would appear to have it all to do in order to add to his world titles victories in 2000, 2003 and 2018.
Part of the problem for Williams this year has been his lack of commitment to the practice table - something he freely admits - but he is reported to have knuckled down more recently and although we have't witnessed an immediate upturn in his fortunes, I thought there were enough shoots of promise in his recent Tour Championship quarter-final defeat to Judd Trump to suggest he might not be too far away from his best.
That, in all probability, won't be enough to see him lift the trophy again but he does find himself drawn on the opposite half of the draw to the likes of Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump and we can expect the Welshman to go out on his sword, whatever stage in the tournament that might be.
As ever, it is hard to get too far into a snooker preview without focusing on O'Sullivan and he returns to Sheffield this year as dominant as he has ever been in the sport.
Despite making noises early in the season about his frustration at the packed schedule and the demands snooker chief Barry Hearn has placed on the top players, O'Sullivan has enjoyed a wonderful six months or so that has seen him reclaim the number one ranking spot following victories at the Shanghai Masters, Champion of Champions, UK Championship, Players Championship and Tour Championship.
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World Championship: Draw & tournament bracket
- Mark Williams (1) v Martin Gould
- David Gilbert (16) v Joe Perry
- Barry Hawkins (9) v Li Hang
- Kyren Wilson (8) v Scott Donaldson
- John Higgins (5) v Mark Davis
- Stuart Bingham (12) v Graeme Dott
- Shaun Murphy (13) v Luo Honghao
- Neil Robertson (4) v Michael Georgiou
- Mark Selby (3) v Zhao Xintong
- Luca Brecel (14) v Gary Wilson
- Jack Lisowski (11) v Ali Carter
- Mark Allen (6) v Zhou Yuelong
- Judd Trump (7) v Thepchaiya Un-Nooh
- Ding Junhui (10) v Anthony McGill
- Stephen Maguire (15) v Tian Pengfei
- Ronnie O’Sullivan (2) v James Cahill
That UK Championship success was a record-breaking seventh in the event and also a record 19th Triple Crown victory, while O'Sullivan reached 1000 competitive century breaks when sealing victory in an unforgettable conclusion to the final of the Players Championship in Preston.
A record-breaking season for a record-breaking sportsman might have been even better had Judd Trump not inflicted bruising defeats on O'Sullivan in the final of the Northern Ireland Open and at The Masters but, despite picking and choosing his events, O'Sullivan has remained the dominant figure in the sport and will line up in Sheffield as the clear 2/1 market leader.
Though unable to get further than the quarter-finals stage in any of his last four visits to the Crucible, O'Sullivan appears intent on mounting a bold challenge this year and having attempted to manage his workload further by skipping the recent China Open, he ought to be fresh and raring to go in Sheffield.
In all, O'Sullivan has only entered 10 events this term, compared to the 15 he contested last season, another clear indication of his desire to be at his peak for the World Championship and avoid a repeat of his early exit to Ali Carter 12 months ago.
Should his preparation have the desired effect, there is no doubt O'Sullivan is the man to beat and by some distance, a fact illustrated by him winning five of those 10 events he has entered this season. He's reached two other finals and reclaimed the world number one spot despite competing for ranking points on far fewer occasions than the likes of Mark Selby, Trump and Neil Robertson.
It did look like this season had established a slight chink in The Rocket's armoury with Trump beating and bullying O'Sullivan in a couple of major finals, the left-hander seemingly intimidating his older rival like few in the history of the game have been able to do.
And it appeared as though the trend might continue when a rampant Trump led 6-2 in their Tour Championship semi-final in March, before O'Sullivan staged a remarkable comeback prevail 10-9 in pulsating conclusion to an epic contest, one the winner celebrated by pumping his fist into his chest having sunk the final black in the deciding frame.
With that victory, the ghosts of the Northern Ireland Open and Masters finals had seemingly been put to rest, O'Sullivan proving to Trump and maybe even himself that he is still the king, and it seems plausible that result could have huge World Championship ramifications.
That said, Trump will know he has the game to match and beat O'Sullivan and he will head to the Crucible with his best chance yet of being crowned world champion.
At Sheffield at least, it has been a tough road for Trump since he lost in the 2011 World Championship final to John Higgins and this season started with plenty of questions being asked of his commitment and desire to achieve the things in the game his immense talent suggested he always would.
A laboured start saw Trump come under further scrutiny and he received some strong criticism from some quarters until producing a classy and determined response to win in Northern Ireland, setting the record straight on the table while seemingly keen to make clear just how hard he was working on his game between events.
While probably unfair and unjustified - Trump began this season with a host of major titles to his name before reaching the age of 30 - that criticism might have well have proved the catalyst for Trump to take his snooker to the next level and his subsequent victories at The Masters and World Grand Prix showed us a different side to to him. Always a supreme potter, he's now become a player who can dominate in the safety department, battle when on the back foot, and hold himself together in the pressure cooker.
The World Grand Prix was a tournament where all those qualities were on show; from his battling last 32 victory over Stuart Carrington when a long way below his best, his demolition of Mark Selby, a come-from-behind victory over Barry Hawkins in the semi-finals and then that calm and ruthless defeat of Carter in the final.
This was the very best of Trump, the finished article and one who finally looks to boast the all-round game capable of going all the way in Sheffield.
In truth, Trump might well have gone all the way last year had he not succumbed to a stunning comeback from Higgins in the quarter-finals, losing 13-12 after the Scot has produced near-faultless snooker in the final session, but he faces the prospect of another tough draw one year on.
A potential second-round meeting with 2016 runner-up Ding Junhui will be one Trump will be confident of coming through, especially when considering the poor season the latter has endured, but he will have to get past the dangerous Thepchaiya Un-Nooh first with a potential quarter-final clash against O'Sullivan meaning the path to the latter stages is one fraught with danger.
Thepchaiya demonstrated what he is capable of when winning the Snooker Shoot Out earlier in the year and he came through a tough final qualifying match against Welsh Open semi-finalist Joe O'Connor earlier this week.
He won't be overawed by facing Trump, nor will Ding or O'Sullivan, and it is no surprise to see the reigning Masters champion drift out in the betting to 13/2 at the time of writing.
I remain convinced that Trump's name will be etched on the famous World Championship trophy one day but on the back of a long season and that stinging recent defeat at the hands of O'Sullivan, I have to look elsewhere this year with his tricky draw making the task tougher still.
Having faced Stephen Maguire in the first round here 12 months ago, one would imagine that O'Sullivan will be pleased with his draw this time around, promising amateur James Cahill his first opponent on Monday.
Nevertheless, Cahill has already taken the scalp of Mark Selby this season, and he has pushed O'Sullivan hard in their three previous meetings.
Should, as expected, O'Sullivan pass that opening test, he would potentially need to see off Maguire once again to set up that tantalising clash with Trump and of the two, I do prefer O'Sullivan's path to the quarter-finals over that of his young adversary.
O'Sullivan won't be making my staking plan at an awfully short price but even considering his relatively modest recent Crucible record and the fact a 17-day marathon in Sheffield leaves him at his most vulnerable nowadays, he does remain the man to beat.
With the perils of the bottom of half of the draw so plain to see, Neil Robertson will no doubt be thrilled that his victory at the recent China Open has pushed him further up the world rankings and ensures he lines up in Sheffield as the number four seed and in the top half of the draw.
The 2010 world champion is surely very close to being classed as a modern day great, a former world number one and winner of all three Triple Crown events who is in the midst of a stellar campaign that has already yielded three ranking titles.
Before his victory in China, Robertson had actually made three finals in a row and although losing to O'Sullivan in two of those, the fact he came so close to forcing a deciding frame in the final of the Tour Championship should have given him the belief that he can at least push The Rocket close in the longer matches.
His form has been nothing short outstanding this season, a run of excellent results courtesy of a return to his confident, assured break-building so often triggered by his deadly long potting.
What will be most pleasing for Robertson is the fact his form has taken an even steeper incline since Christmas and although there is always the possibility that a long season and heavy workload will finally take its toll if he goes deep in Sheffield, he is a major contender at a venue he clearly enjoys.
That said, the Australian hasn't been missed by anyone in the market and with 4/1 now visible on many boards, he can't be a bet, especially when you consider that his victory in China came in the absence of O'Sullivan, a foe who has had his number on two notable occasions already this year and who might well be standing in his way in the final again.
At a much bigger price and staying in the relative calm of the top half of the draw, it is John Higgins, world champion in 1998, 2007, 2009 and 2011, who is nominated as the headline bet at 22/1.
Along with those four world titles, Higgins has finished runner-up in Sheffield in each of the last two seasons, losing to Mark Selby in 2017 before Mark Williams prevailed 18-16 in an absorbing final 12 months ago.
If that defeat to Selby hurt, and he has said as much in public, the loss to Williams last year looks to have really taken its toll and this season, a runner-up finish at the China Championship apart, has been a poor one by Higgins' high standards.
Nevertheless, his Crucible record puts him up among the very best of all time and there is little doubt that the longer format of the World Championship suits his game perfectly, one that is built on a rock-solid temperament, heavy scoring and a wonderful tactical brain. When at his best, Higgins is the complete player.
His performance to beat Trump in the quarter-finals here last year remains one of the best I have ever witnessed on a snooker table, coming from 7-3 and 11-9 down to pull off one of the great Crucible comebacks.
Trump did little wrong that night, he just bumped into a master of his craft in full flight and although Higgins has been nowhere close to finding that form since, I think there has been enough promise from the Scot since Christmas to believe he can be a big player over the next two weeks.
While Higgins suffered an early exit at the recent China Open, he only made it to the second round in China last year before arriving in Sheffield fresh and with his game finely tuned from hours on the practice table.
Furthermore, the fact Higgins didn't enjoy a deep run in China was no bad thing given it effectively preserved his place in the top half of the draw for Sheffield. Given the way the cards have fallen it could be that what appeared to be a setback may in fact facilitate his best performance of the season when he needs it most.
Higgins' 6-4 quarter-final defeat to O'Sullivan in the Players Championship only a few weeks earlier was a definite step in the right direction given how well he played that day and how hard he competed with best player in the world.
Rewind a week further and his run to the semi-finals of the Indian Open mighty not be seen as a big achievement in many camps but winning matches again can never be a bad thing following a slump in form and I thought he played well, if not quite at his best, to make the last eight of the Welsh Open in February.
Add to that some positive results in Championship League, including an impressive 3-0 defeat of Trump as recently as last month, and I'm not sure it's all doom and gloom for the veteran who will fear nobody in this arena.
Clearly, it still takes a leap of faith to suggest he can salvage a desperate season by winning the biggest prize of all, but coming to Sheffield a fresh and hungry animal has its advantages, especially when your CV is as glowing as the one Higgins can boast, and I really like his draw.
A first-round clash with with this season's English Open runner-up Mark Davis will be no stroll in the park but neither will it offer any surprises and it is the sort of match Higgins will be able to feel his way into and use his superior all-round game to emerge unscathed.
Stuart Bingham or Graeme Dott would then await in round two but again, I'm much happier to see Higgins take on another experienced head than a fearless and dangerous foe like a Thepchaiya or Zhao Xintong, who might feel they have nothing to lose and quickly put Higgins on the back foot.
For all Bingham has been in excellent form over the last few months, he has only won one match at the Crucible since lifting the title here in 2015 while Dott has really struggled lately and has had to come through qualifying again.
Neither ought to worry Higgins too much and although the road would undoubtedly get tougher from there, he got stronger once easing into the second week in Sheffield last year and the hope is that a couple of wins could have the same effect this time around.
The deeper into the tournament he goes and longer the matches get, the stronger Higgins invariably becomes and he looks worth a play each-way at 22/1 given his draw and the potential negatives about the top three in the market.
It seems strange to write a World Championship preview without focusing too closely on Mark Selby but the 2014, 2016 and 2017 winner makes little appeal on what he has shown in the last 12 months and while Higgins has shown enough promise to warrant a bet at 22/1, Selby is much harder to make a case for at half the price.
Finding himself in the bottom of half of the draw doesn't help - he will likely face O'Sullivan or Trump should he make it as far as the semi-finals - but his overall form is of much greater concern.
Victory at the China Championship at the beginning of the season suggested he was back on track following a first-round exit in Sheffield last year but his results since have been poor and the B-game has seemingly gone missing, seeing him lose a number of close matches he would typically win.
The manner in which he surrendered a huge lead to Robertson at the Tour Championship will have really disappointed him and although there have been times this year when his touch looked to have returned and he has scored heavily, there have many more occasions when he has struggled.
Confidence and consistency have been huge assets for Selby in Sheffield over the years but I'm not sure he has too much of either right now.
If you had asked me at Christmas for my idea of 2019 world champion, Mark Allen would have been very high on the list following a terrific run of form that had seen reach the final of the UK Championship and win the Scottish Open.
Nevertheless, he is a similar price now as he was at the turn of the year and although he has reached the semi-finals of the Players Championship and Tour Championship since, he hasn't quite been able to find the same level of brilliance.
There is the strong possibility that his strong early-season form has just taken the edge off him but I'm loathe to completely rule out the Northern Irishman, given that he looks to be a better player than when making the semi-finals here in 2009 and the last eight 12 months ago.
Another who must be mentioned is last year's beaten semi-finalist Kyren Wilson, whose game is well suited to the demands of the World Championship and who has enjoyed plenty of success so far this term, winning the Paul Hunter Classic and German Masters as well as finishing runner-up in the Champion of Champions.
I'm not sure he's quite there yet, particularly with his cue-ball control, but he clearly enjoys playing at the Crucible and has made no secret of his desire to become world champion one day.
Former runner-up Barry Hawkins is another who tends to come alive at this tournament but, although his draw could have been worse, he has struggled for his best over the last few months and I find it hard to believe he can finally go all the way in Sheffield on the back of such a stuttering campaign.
Higgins, on the other hand, has been there and done it and after two crushing final defeats in the last two years, I'm hoping the Wizard of Wishaw can work his magic and make it third time lucky.
Posted at 1600 BST on 18/04/19