Richard Mann assesses the recent snooker action as he looks for World Championship pointers ahead of next month's Crucible showpiece.
A hectic two weeks of snooker came to an end in Cardiff on Sunday as John Higgins beat Barry Hawkins to claim a record-breaking fifth Welsh Open title.
With the World Championship now less than six weeks away, Richard Mann picks out five key points from the recent action as he looks ahead to Sheffield.
Ronnie O’Sullivan is human after all
The Rocket is 7/2 with Sky Bet to claim a sixth world title in Sheffield and the manner in which he gunned down Ding Junhui in the final of the World Grand Prix was another reminder of why he remains the dominant force in the game. Four ranking titles to his name already this year, he looked set to add to that haul when breezing through the early rounds of the Welsh Open. However, another busy period of snooker appeared to catch up with him as he was defeated by John Higgins in the quarter-finals and at 42 years of the age, one has to wonder whether a 17-day slog in Sheffield truly plays to his strengths nowadays. With cue in hand, he remains the King of the green baize but Cardiff proves that he is beatable and, as was the case last year, he might just run out of steam late in the piece.
Mark Selby needs to find his best, and quickly
While the Crucible marathon might not be what Ronnie O’Sullivan wants now, it brings out the very best in Mark Selby. The Jester from Leicester has won three of the last four renewals of snooker’s blue ribband and loves the longer matches here, grinding down his opposition with his impeccable safety game and finding his best form when the pressure levels are at their greatest. However, the current campaign has been something of a disappointment for Selby, considering his usually high standards. A freak injury to his toe hampered him at the beginning of the season but victory in the International Championship in China, his only title so far this term, is scant reward for a player of his supreme class. A semi-finals run in the World Grand Prix appeared to signal a return to his best form but he crashed out to Liang Wenbo in the last 64 in Cardiff, again highlighting his recent struggles, and he desperately needs to find some consistency in the next few weeks if the 9/2 about him can be taken with confidence.
Ding Junhui might be peaking at the right time
A semi-finalist at the Crucible last season, Ding seems destined to win the big one at some point and has the whole of China willing him on as he bids to do it. Last year’s run appeared to be a turning point for Ding - he beat his idol Ronnie O’Sullivan on the quarter-finals - and only an inspired Mark Selby stopped him from reaching consecutive Crucible finals. Sadly, just has been the case with Selby, his campaign this time around hasn’t gone to plan and he was blown away by O’Sullivan in the final of the World Grand Prix recently. That said, there were plenty of positives to be taken from his form that week with his impressive break building looking in good working order again. There is still more to be done but he might just be peaking at the right time and with slight doubts surrounding Selby and O’Sullivan, Ding might not get a better chance than this year. The 12/1 available with Sky Bet isn’t to be sniffed at.
Stephen Maguire simmering away as a big win beckons
Something of an enigma, Stephen Maguire is one of the most dangerous players on the circuit when on song and was a brilliant winner of the 2004 UK Championship. Twice a Crucible semi-finalist, he has five ranking titles to his name to date and has shown enough this season to suggest there are a few more around the corner. Runner-up at the China Championship this term, he also made the last four back at the UK Championships and then at the World Grand Prix more recently. It was that last performance that suggested he could be ready to strike gold very soon as, despite losing out 6-4 to eventual winner Ronnie O’Sullivan, Maguire dominated the Rocket in the early exchanges of that match. More than matching his opponent in the long potting and scoring department, Maguire again proved that he is more than capable of taking on the very best when in the zone and his performances so far this term, along with his proven Crucible pedigree, would suggests odds of 66/1 might just underestimate him.
Is Trump juddering to a halt?
Judd Trump is one of the finest talents in snooker with a long game and an air of confidence around the table that can put the fear of God into his rivals. A host of big tournament wins have cemented his status as one of the leading lights in the sport and his European Masters victory earlier in the season was the second time he has lifted that trophy in as many years. However, The Masters and the World Championship are titles that still evade him and the feeling remains that his safety game will continue to let him down against the very best. Granted, he has made significant strides in that department but early exits in the World Grand Prix and Welsh Open recently will have done his confidence no good whatsoever and odds of 9/1 for Sheffield make little appeal right now.