Well after all the weeks of waiting & two weeks of cut throat qualifier action, 32 men head to Sheffield with the dream of holding aloft the famous trophy on May1st.
We reach this point after quite a strange season that has seen some shock results, established stars failing to shine as before, some reclaiming their spots among the elite & unfortunately a fair amount of scandal. All this has had many hailing this as the most open world championship in years, but I just take a different view. I think when it boils down to it, we will once again see the cream rise to the top.
The obvious place to start is with our defending champion Ronnie O'Sullivan. Throughout the whole of the season last year there was just the feeling that Ronnie was building towards a real crack at that record equaling 7th title & so it came to pass as he claimed the title in a bit of a canter. This year couldn't be more of a contrast. Yes he claimed two invitational event early in the campaign ,but his record in ranking events, apart from a handful of performances here and there, has been awful. As a result of this we have hardly seen him in the last couple of months as those whose consistency was rewarded fought out those lucrative end of season events , added to this he has had a niggling elbow injury which has flared up again in recent weeks. For anyone else this lack of form & injury would be enough to rule them out as a contender, but the usual rules don't apply to Ronnie (Could we forget his victory in 2013 after a year off?) & I just have a feeling that the last couple of weeks have seen him warm to the prospect of an 8th title. If he is to do he's going to have to be on his game from the off ,with a potential Rd2 clash with Ding & then a quarter final with Williams on the cards, but I actually think that may help focus him & if he comes here in the same frame of mind he did last year , make no mistake ,he'll take some stopping.
Next up & many peoples fancy for the title again this year is Mark Selby. Has there ever been a player more suited to a format & venue as Selby is the Crucible? Over the long matches time & time again he has shown an ability to take complete control of a match & have it played solely on his terms. After some indifferent form at times this season he has seemed in recent times to be just coming to the boil nicely & he will be coming here quietly confident that he can add a 5th title to his cv. Much like Ronnie last year , in Selby's most recent victory here in 2021, he just seemed destined to win the title from a long way out & looking at the draw here, I just can't see him not at least reaching the semi finals. What happens there will very much depend on what happens in the other quarter of the draw.
In any other tournament looking at the draw you would anticipating a Mark Allen v Nail Robertson Q/F, but such has been these two stars records at The Crucible, you would be hard pressed to think they will both get there. Allen was the revelation in the early season after making some major lifestyle changes over the summer. He joined the very exclusive club to have claimed three ranking titles in the one season, but his results have tapered off a bit recently & you wonder if those early exertions have taken their toll.
Tiredness shouldn't be an excuse for Robertson who, having made the decision to be more selective with his events this season, was left playing catch up for the rest of & never really got there. His awful record here is well touted, but surely that has to change some time & a not unfavorable draw could see him reach the coveted single table set up for the first time since he won the title in 2010. A potential last 4 clash with Selby over three days would be something to savour.
If recent form is any indication of your chances, then Shaun Murphy has to on anyone's list. Two really impressive tournament wins over the last couple of months will see the 2005 champ come here full of confidence. & no player feeds off momentum quite the way Murphy does.
The toughest section of the draw pitches Trump v McGill & Lisowski v Saengkham. One thing for sure here is none of these guys will need reminding where they are. That said I'd still expect Trump to come through here. The 2019 champ has had a poor season by his standards & even his win in The Masters was far from vintage. He did come here last season in similar form & did beat McGill in rd2 on his way to the final. If he gets through this "group of death" he could be rewarded with a Last 8 clash with Murphy.
Others worth a mention are of course former multiple winners John Higgins & Mark Williams , but I think another title is probably beyond them. Likewise Kyren Wilson will be on many peoples shortlist , but I just don't see him figuring in the final count.
So who do I think will win? Well in spite of everything, I just think Ronnie has an 8th title in him. That long awaited documentary may well need a sequel!
Ronnie to win the title 4/1
Neil Robertson 7/1 e/w 1/2 1-2
Round 1 Lucky 15 : David Gilbert 11/10, Hossein Vafaei 6/4, Anthony McGill 21/10, Robert Milkins 8/11