Kurt Maflin's love affair with the World Championship continued when he beat Jak Jones and then slammed the in-form Robert Milkins in qualifying.
That booked Maflin's return ticket to the Crucible and last year's surprise quarter-finalist will he hoping for similar inspiration when he returns to Sheffield for a first-round clash with Mark Selby.
The latter needs no introduction having won the World Championship three times between 2014 and 2017. But for Ronnie O'Sullivan's touch of genius last summer, it would probably be four and Selby will be desperate to make amends.
Maflin, an ultra-aggressive operator at the best of times, will fancy his best chance of victory is to attack Selby and ensure the match doesn't turn into the game of chess that suits Selby so well.
Selby, on the other hand, has rarely been a fast starter in Sheffield — instead preferring to warm to his task and build momentum as the tournament progresses — and that could mean we get a well-contested affair from the outset.
Maflin won't take a backwards step, that much is clear, but Selby is a master in these multi-session affairs and he is taken to come through what should be a good tussle.
Prediction: Selby 10-8 Maflin (RM)
Three-time winner Mark Williams has hinted at another resurgence in recent months and will be hopeful he can progress to the second round, courtesy of victory over Sam Craigie.
Williams has appeared to be winding down ever since beating John Higgins in the final of this event in 2018, but having celebrated hard following that most recent Crucible triumph, he has finally resolved to put in the hours on the practice table once more and last-four finishes at the Shoot Out and Welsh Open confirm he remains a force to be reckoned with.
Williams then won the WST Pro Series last month to give himself a big confidence boost and tee him perfectly for a return to Sheffield where, despite a tough draw, he will be confident of giving another good account himself having played well to reach the quarter-finals again last year.
How his first-round opponent, Craigie, fares on his Crucible debut is hard to predict, but he has always had the talent to go far and held himself together really well when beating Zhao Xintong 10-9 in qualifying to seal his place in the main draw.
Despite his inexperience, match odds of 5/2 have taken into account the threat he poses if in the mood, though Williams has seen and conquered it all before and I expect him to use all of his table-craft and experience to navigate his way into the second round.
In fact, don’t be at all surprised if Craigie finds it all too much on his first taste of the Crucible, and up against an opponent of this calibre, and 9/4 (Unibet) for Williams to cover the alternative handicap (-4.5) is tempting.
Prediction: Williams 10-4 Craigie (RM)
Former winner Shaun Murphy has reached the final in Sheffield twice since winning as a qualifier in 2005, but has struggled to match those highs since, not making it past the second round in each of his last five visits to the Crucible.
A run to the semi-finals of the European Masters back in September had offered Murphy genuine hope of resuming winning ways this season, but his performances, and results, have remained frustrating.
He did make it as far as the Welsh Open in February to confirm he remains a threat, but he’s hardly one to put maximum faith in and in veteran Mark Davis, he faces a tough opening match.
Indeed, Davis produced some of his best snooker for quite some time when beating Stuart Carrington and Jamie Clarke in qualifying, eight breaks of 50+ helping him see off the latter 10-8.
Davis seems sure to keep Murphy honest, at the very least, and make this more competitive than the betting suggests. As such, 10/3 about the Sussex veteran is too big to ignore and worth an interest.
Prediction: Murphy 8-10 Davis (RM)
When Mark Joyce beat Ronnie O'Sullivan 5-4 in the 2017 China Open, he described it as 'right up there with my best wins'. After pausing for thought, he put it second to his victory over Judd Trump in the UK Championship, and noted that beating the best players wasn't necessarily his problem: it was that he couldn't replicate these performances away from the TV cameras.
That's one of just three prior meetings with O'Sullivan, who has won the other two, and now Joyce faces the prospect of making his Crucible debut against the defending champion in the feature match of the very first session. Some would say daunting, but Joyce has always been a player of considerable talent, and there's a sense that he feels like this is where he belongs.
Bookmakers give him little chance — at 10/1, only Liam Highfield, against Trump, is a bigger outsider — and he will surely need to score better than he did in two qualifying matches. That's possible, and his form is arguably a little better than it reads: both his recent first-round exits came in deciders, prior to which he won a couple of matches before losing to Mark Selby in the Scottish Open.
All of this is to say that O'Sullivan shouldn't underestimate his opponent, but providing he doesn't go missing for long periods he will surely win with the minimum of fuss for all that I don't expect the fireworks of last summer's opener against Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, a game you sense O'Sullivan particularly relished. That day, he fired in a 101 break to take the opening frame and was 6-0 up in no time at all.
Yes, James Cahill beat him here in 2019, but you have to go all the way back to 2003 for the previous time he was dumped out by a qualifier, and that was no ordinary qualifier as Marco Fu caused an upset. In all, O'Sullivan has lost three times as a seeded player in round one, and this will be his 28th such match. For students of the Crucible curse, none of these defeats came as defending champion.
If there is a weakness right now, it's out of the gates, and therein lies Joyce's chance to at least establish a foothold. The standard of opponent has been higher, but O'Sullivan has won just one of his last eight four-frame mini-sessions at the beginning of matches. Joyce is 15/2 to lead 3-1, as Jordan Brown did, and 50/1 to take the first four. Neither makes enough appeal as there's of course a very realistic prospect that he's blown away by The Rocket.
Prediction: O'Sullivan 10-5 Joyce (Ben Coley)
With 10 World Championship appearances under his belt, Martin Gould was always going to represent one of the trickiest draws, with perhaps only Stuart Bingham and Ali Carter less desirable. The Pinner Potter has never been beyond the second round here, but he's won three matches as a qualifier including against Stephen Maguire last summer.
Soon after that, he also got the better of Yan Bingtao in a final-frame decider at the European Masters, during what was an impressive run to the final. His subsequent form solid, Gould represents a serious threat to the Chinese and it's notable that he's never been rolled over here, at least not in round one. The over/under total frames line is set at 16.5, and going above makes plenty of sense at 5/6.
Yan, one of Richard Mann's outright selections, doesn't have the worst draw in broader terms, with an out-of-sorts Shaun Murphy or Mark Davis potentially next. This will give us a nice indication as to where he is and could be exactly the sort of early test which sets him up for a deep run over the next fortnight.
Certainly the longer format should play to his strengths having been beaten 4-1 by Jamie Clarke in the first round of the Gibraltar Open, and there's a feeling this one could be coming to a conclusion just before the afternoon session begins on Sunday. High frame count means more opportunities for centuries, but that's the one department in which Yan probably has a little improving to do and 9/4 about Gould in a centuries match bet makes some appeal.
That said, Sky Bet make him 9/4 to bag two or more and that's preferable, as it disregards Yan's performance, and it's unlikely one for Gould would win any head-to-head (Yan is 2/7 for one or more). High frame count, relatively low centuries count is the call for what could be a real grind, one we'll take the favourite to win 10-8.
Prediction: Yan 10-8 Gould (BC)
There's potential for fireworks here if both are at it. Stephen Maguire made five centuries en route to the semi-finals of the Welsh Open back in February and while not at his most prolific in general this season, clearly remains capable if the mood takes him. Jamie Jones, meanwhile, has picked up some eye-catching wins having earned back his tour card, and it was here, eight years ago, that he made such a deep impression as a Crucible debutant.
Back then, Jones seemingly had a huge future, having beaten Shaun Murphy and Andrew Higginson before losing a tight quarter-final against Ali Carter, but for which he'd have faced Maguire. In some ways then his career shares something in common with Sunday's opponent, winner of a UK Championship some 16 years ago but yet to reach a Masters or World final despite his abundance of talent.
Maguire's overall record at the Crucible isn't good. He's lost in round one no fewer than nine times, including to Martin Gould last summer when quietly fancied. Crucially, it's been under the gun that he's faltered, losing final-frame deciders in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015, just as he had to Ronnie O'Sullivan in 2005. That's five of his nine early exits which have gone the distance, and Jones is 9/1 to add to that list and win 10-9.
The Welshman certainly looks capable of asking serious questions of his opponent, ones Maguire hasn't always had the answers to, and at 13/8 looks decent value. Better might be the 4/1 that he wins either 10-8 or 10-9.
Prediction: Maguire 8-10 Jones (BC)
A repeat of last year's opening round where Neil Robertson looked under serious threat from Liang Wenbo, before powering away in the final session. Although only briefly behind, Robertson had been pegged back to 5-5 from 4-2 and 5-3, but after a 97 break in frame 11, he barely let his opponent breathe from there until the end of a 10-5 win.
Liang had played well, bagging a century to go with two from Robertson, and this has been something of a theme in their previous encounters, including the 2015 UK Championship final which Robertson won in an identical scoreline. Their last four meetings have produced three or more centuries and the 11/10 that they combine for four or more is interesting enough.
Robertson will likely climb to fourth on the all-time centuries list during this tournament, one in which he's rightly among the favourites despite a fairly uninspiring return at the Crucible since winning the title in 2010. He made 11 in just three matches during that near flawless display to win the Tour Championship, and 5/2 that he manages four on his own here is the sort of bet which many will turn to for an interest.
In fact it gets to the crux of the issue: will Liang keep up his end of the bargain? It has been a quiet campaign for the former English Open winner, which is a worry, but he does have a better record here than you might think. Since reaching the quarter-finals in 2008 he's won just one of seven matches, but every defeat has been competitive — or else had been, until Robertson powered away from him in August.
On balance, something similar is expected. Robertson is short enough in the handicap betting, where he's asked to concede 4.5 frames, but it will be a surprise if he's not a convincing winner.
Prediction: Robertson 10-6 Liang (BC)
This is hardly the headline game of the first round but it's a really interesting one nonetheless, with these two particularly familiar with each other's games and there being more than enough in the form book to suggest an upset could be in the offing.
Gilbert is plainly the more decorated player despite not yet having won a ranking title, but it has been a really poor season. He's yet to reach the last eight of a ranking event outside of the Shoot Out, and while there were good signs in the Masters, remember he faced Joe Perry after Judd Trump was withdrawn following a positive Covid-19 test.
But for that, Gilbert would likely have been sent packing early but instead beat Perry and Kyren Wilson, before giving John Higgins a good game in their semi-final. That and his semi-final run here in 2019, where Higgins broke his heart, reiterates his class. Yet it has seldom been in evidence this season and he's clearly struggled with the grind.
Wakelin has hardly been pulling up trees, but he must've taken great encouragement from last month's Gibraltar Open, in which he beat Nigel Bond, Chang Bingyu, Mark Selby and Jimmy White. Surely, those performances had something to do with his fightback in qualifying, where he overturned a 5-3 deficit to beat Lei Peifan 6-5 and was very good thereafter, defeating Matthew Stevens before scoring heavily to overcome the talented Xiao Guodong, all to preserve his tour status.
Those efforts may have taken their toll, but this is a really good draw for him, and on his sole previous Crucible appearance he took Judd Trump to a deciding frame. Expect a similarly competitive performance against an under-pressure opponent, who is perilously close to falling out of the top 16, with Wakelin considered value at 11/5. The fact he's practiced a lot with Gilbert might help, as it surely did when he beat Selby, and he's capable of another big win.
Prediction: Gilbert 8-10 Wakelin (BC)
At his own level, Anthony McGill has established himself as a bit of a Crucible specialist. That reputation was rubber-stamped when he reached the semi-finals last season, the fact he made it deep into that epic with Kyren Wilson without a century in the tournament speaking to how willing he is to do the hard yards the World Championship demands.
In the end, after a couple of overdue centuries had helped put him on the brink of the final, McGill was beaten in the cruelest fashion. Indeed Wilson was reduced to tears himself, having fluked the match-winning ball after a quite sensational frame which is worth watching again if you've an hour to spare. Come the end of it the two had combined for the most points ever scored in a single World Championship frame (186!) but the only statistic that really mattered went against the Scot.
A quarter-finalist on his debut and with a winning match record, McGill knows all about what's required here but that's also true of Ricky Walden, who blew a healthy lead in the semi-finals here eight years ago. Walden's overall form has plateaued since but there have been signs this year that he's returning to something close to his best, and that's reflected in the betting which finds these two hard to split.
At first glance, I was surprised to see McGill priced up at 10/11 given his Crucible credentials, but caution is probably the way. He hasn't won many big matches this season — Joe Perry and David Gilbert would be the highest-profile players he's beaten outside the Championship League — and Walden, free from the back problems which have plagued his career, will fancy this. I'd still be leaning towards McGill but perhaps last August has left a mark and this is one to sit back and enjoy.
Prediction: McGill 10-8 Walden (BC)
Tian Pengfei was never behind in any of his three qualifiers as he earned a second crack at the Crucible, the first seeing him lose 10-9 to Stephen Maguire two years ago. Granted, Graeme Dott rallied from 8-1 down to make a real game of it but even that could be seen as a positive, the fact Tian regathered himself perhaps serving as an ideal way to prepare for John Higgins.
Whatever the case, the 33-year-old will have his hands full against Higgins, a four-time winner who lost finals in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and returns in better form than he's been for some time. Winning the Players Championship was a big deal for Higgins, who has tweaked his set-up and is reaping the rewards. I quite fancy him to go all the way and see few issues for him here.
Higgins has won all three previous meetings, and while Tian took Ronnie the distance in the Scottish Open, and has beaten the likes of Dominic Dale and Martin Gould this season, all this was achieved in single-session matches. Over two, despite his effort against Maguire, he is up against it and it's worth remembering he was in excellent form prior to that match in 2019.
Despite his heroics in qualifying, on balance he's not been playing as well as was the case then, and Higgins has an excellent record in matches like this one. Look at his first-round defeats at the Crucible and you'll see the names Alan McManus, Mark Davis and Mark Selby, the only three men to have eliminated him at this stage. All had vastly more experience, and class, than Tian.
Higgins hasn't lost more than seven frames in the first round since losing to McManus in 2014. With that in mind, 1/2 on the -2.5 handicap is probably a steal for those that way inclined, and I doubt he'll struggle to cover the 3.5 spread at 4/5.
Prediction: Higgins 10-4 Tian (BC)
Neal Foulds had no qualms in describing the match between Ding Junhui and Stuart Bingham as the tie of the first round and it's hard to disagree.
Bingham was champion here back in 2015 while Ding only found a peak Mark Selby too strong 12 months later, producing a performance that suggested he would soon become one of the superpowers of the game. That hasn't quite happened, but he still boasts an enviable CV which includes three UK Championship titles, the last of which came as recently as December 2019.
That latest victory in York came out of the blue, reminding us all of his rich talent but also leaving us frustrated that he hasn't delivered more consistently. Five quarter-final finishes so far this term tell the tale of a man seemingly never far away, but a level below the elite company in which he clearly belongs.
Despite his own impressive achievements in the game, Bingham might still be underrated by the casual punter and like Ding, he returned from a quiet spell when lifting the Masters trophy aloft in January 2020, beating Ali Carter with a brilliant performance in the final.
As is the case with Ding, he has struggled to use that win as a stepping stone for more sustained success, but he remains a dangerous operator and his impressive beating of Luca Brecel in qualifying suggests he has been working hard to ensure he gives a strong account over the coming days and boosts his chances of returning to Sheffield next year as a seeded player once more.
The betting is struggling to split these two, with Ding slight favourite, but Bingham comfortably leads the head-to-head record (10-5) and enjoyed a good, solid workout against Brecel to get himself razor sharp and find some confidence from playing well again.
He has the potential to be a real danger man in this tournament and looks worth a bet at 11/10 to progress to the second round.
Prediction: Bingham 10-7 Ding (Richard Mann)
Kyren Wilson has built a strong Crucible record in a relatively short space of time: three quarter-finals, one semi-final and one final appearance. Last year's runner-up finish saw him only come up short at the final hurdle, Ronnie O'Sullivan proving an irresistible force in his quest for his sixth world title. Prior to that, Kyren Wilson beat defending champion Judd Trump and then Anthony McGill in one of the most dramatic matches in the history of the championships.
To argue that Kyren Wilson is a world champion in waiting would only serve to repeat what has been said so many times before, but last year demonstrated that the Kettering native has the game to go the distance in Sheffield and the improvements he has made in the scoring department should make him an even greater force going forward.
A couple of Championship League wins this term, along with strong showings at the UK Championship and Players Championship suggest Kyren Wilson should have little to fear from his namesake and first-round opponent, Gary Wilson.
Nevertheless, the latter made it as far as the semi-finals here in 2019 and though he has struggled to scale those heights this season, he played really well to come through qualifying and can draw on his happy Crucible memories when returning to the big stage on Monday.
He'll need to take another step forward now, however, with Kyren Wilson sure to be primed for another title bid, and it's hardly surprising that the number six seed is only evens to cover a stiff alternative handicap line (-3.5). That looks about right for a man who seemingly saves his best for Sheffield and expect him to make smooth progress to the second round.
Prediction: Kyren Wilson 10-6 Gary Wilson (RM)
This tie promises a real contrast of styles: Lisowski's free flowing, almost carefree approach pitted against Carter's blood, sweat and tears that invariably means he won't go down without a fight.
For Carter, he is in the veteran stage of his career now, but this two-time World Championship finalist remains a very capable operator who has been working his way into form over the last few months. Furthermore, Carter can generally be relied upon to put up a good showing at the Crucible, as demonstrated by his defeat of Ronnie O'Sullivan in this event in 2018 before he again made the quarter-finals a year later.
Lisowski doesn't boast anything like as strong a Crucible record, but he is the younger man, apparently approaching the peak of his powers and with a strong season under his belt already. But for bumping heads with Judd Trump, Liswoski might well have converted one of his three ranking finals this term into that maiden title which surely can't be far away.
The obvious assumption here is that Carter will look to turn this into a war, bringing his experience and excellent safety game to the fore and hope to take the match into a style of play unsuited to Lisowski's own strengths, something that happened when the pair met in Sheffield in 2019 and the older man prevailed 10-6.
However, Lisowski is a different animal nowadays and even if Carter is able to operate at the same level — and his run to the Northern Ireland final before Christmas suggests he might — the rankings and this season's form point to the left-hander being a worthy favourite and a spot of value at 5/6 in a place (Paddy Power and Betfair).
In fact, it is only doubts about Lisowski should this turn into a slog that justify him not being a good deal shorter and there is the very real potential that he blows Carter away with the sort of performance he has produced with more regularity of late.
Those wanting to take a chance might fancy having a dart on Lisowski to win big, with the 11/4 on offer at Paddy Power and Betfair for him to cover the handicap (-3.5) making some appeal.
Prediction: Jack Lisowski 10-5 Ali Carter (RM)
Mark Allen was stunned by qualifier Jamie Clarke in the first round of last year's World Championships and 12 months on, could have a fight on his hands to ensure the same doesn't happen again.
Allen really should be competing for titles on a regular basis but since his brilliant Champions Of Champions victory in November, has made very little impact as he has battled to get to grips with a new cue which has left him short of his potent best from distance, though still as deadly when in the balls.
A run the last eight of the Gibraltar Open last month at least hinted at better to come, and he is sure to be bristling with determination in the face of the inevitable backlash following his comments regarding Jimmy White being handed another invitation tour card from World Snooker.
Still, he will need to be on his mettle against a very handy first-round opponent in Lyu Haotian who gave a really good account of himself on his Crucible debut back in 2018, winning his first match before pushing Barry Hawkins close in round two.
Haotian beat promising compatriots Gao Yang and Chang Bingyu to book his Crucible return and he has the tools and form to put it up to Allen. 7/2 for Haotian to pull off the shock will appeal to some, but he's 12/5 (bet365) to cover the alternative handicap (+1.5) and that offers a little extra insurance.
Prediction: Allen 10-9 Haotian (RM)
World number one and tournament favourite, Judd Trump, makes his entrance on Tuesday when he takes on Liam Highfield in a match he is 1/16 to come through.
Trump has spent the most part of the season solidifying his status as the dominant figure in the sport — five ranking wins already attest to that — but he will be slightly aggrieved that a positive Covid-19 test ruled of him of the Masters in January, thus meaning he returns to Sheffield without currently holding any of the three Triple Crown titles.
He will be be determined to put that right, and Liam Highfield will be expected to find his second Crucible appearance as tough as his first — when he was beaten 10-5 by Mark Allen in 2018. He is a better player now, though, with his scoring much improved, and he beat a couple of fine, young talents in Elliot Slessor and Zhou Yuelong in qualifying.
Given Trump isn’t always the fastest starter at the beginning of these big events — he was taken to deciding frame by Thepchaiya Un-Nooh in 2019 before going on to win the tournament and had to battle past Tom Ford 10-8 last year — Highfield will sense an opportunity to at least be competitive.
Expect Trump to navigate his way into the second round, but he might have to work harder than the betting suggests and backing over 15 frames with Sky Bet at 15/8 makes plenty of appeal.
Prediction: Trump 10-7 Highfield (RM)
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