Firstly before I get into this preview a word on the qualifiers which this year provided as much excitement as any full tournament we've seen this season,with a raft of close finishes,including two respotted black ball deciders,Xiao Guodong,Kyren Wilson,Michael Wasley & Robbie Williams all coming through to make the Crucible for the first time and the ending of few era's with former champions Peter Ebdon & Mark Williams both failing to qualify,as well as Steve Davis falling off the main tour.
On to the main event then and what a difference a year makes.On the eve of last years championship the talk was of how would Ronnie O'Sullivan perform after a year out of the game.Well one year on and we now know that only did Ronnie show up in splendid form at The Crucible & claim his fifth World title,but also in his limited outings this season he has appeared in equally good form,claiming the titles at The Champion of Champions,The Masters & the Welsh Open.It is for this reason that he starts this years event as a very short priced favourite,Indeed it could be argued that this preview could end here as it may simply be the case that if he turns up in that sort of form again, there is noone who can stop him. equaling the modern day efforts of Ray Reardon & Steve Davis & sealing a sixth world crown
So what if Ronnie isn't his peak here,who are the other contenders?Well the obvious place to start is with Ding Junhui,who,in Ronnies absence,has dominated the year,finally shaking off his inability to win on home soil and equaling the record held by Stephen Hendry of winning five ranking titles in a season. His record to date in the World Championship has been sketchy in the past,but he did reach a semi final here three years ago and is arguably playing better now than ever.If he and Ronnie both win through their sections,they will meet in the semi final & what a prospect that would be,
The other man who has grabbed the headlines this season has been Neil Robertson as he has smashed the centuries in a season record & still holds an outside chance of making it a century of centuries in the season. For all that though and despite winning the UK Championship,i'm sure he would swap all records for a couple more titles to his name.Also of late he has shown a few signs of burnout from a busy year & although he deserves great credit for his battling efforts to defend his China Open title recently,reaching the final despite suffering from the flu,he may regret that trip now and I just don't see this being his year.
If Robertson has been struggling a little of late,that and more applies to Mark Selby who has had,for the most part,a season to forget.The successes he has had have been more down to his battling qualities than any sort of form and unless this improves drastically it would be a shock if he could grind his way to the title.
Other players of note are 2005 champ Shaun Murphy who has been in fine form of late,but you feel would have to step it up again for a potential QF with Ronnie.John Higgins who of course has been successful over course and distance four times,but of late despite showing some signs of revival has also just started to throw in that odd unexpected miss that seems to curse great players just as their game begins to go into decline.& Judd Trump who comes here completely under the radar after a quite season,but may very well be the player who emerges from the section of the draw including Stephen Maguire, Mark Allen & Robertson.
AS you may have gathered from the above I really can't see past Ronnie O'Sullivan here but anything can happen & I'm sure every player who walks down those famous Crucible steps into the arena will firmly believe they can be the last man standing come May 5th.
John Higgins to win his quarter 7/2
Judd Trump to win his quarter 2/1
Full first round draw
Ronnie O'Sullivan v Robin Hull
Joe Perry v Jamie Burnett
Shaun Murphy v Jamie Cope
Marco Fu v Martin Gould
Barry Hawkins v David Gilbert
Ricky Walden v Kyren Wilson
Mark Davis v Dominic Dale
Ding Junhui v Michael Wasley
Mark Selby v Michael White
Ali Carter v Xiao Guodong
John Higgins v Alan McManus
Stuart Bingham v Ken Doherty
Judd Trump v Tom Ford
Stephen Maguire v Ryan Day
Mark Allen v Michael Holt
Neil Robertson v Robbie Williams