Over the next two days I will be previewing all of the first round matches at the Betfred.com World Championship and giving my score predictions (please feel free to do the same).
It’s an intriguing draw, featuring the top 16 against a fascinating bunch of qualifiers. We have every world champion of the last 20 years. We have three young debutants. We have some familiar faces capable of causing upsets.
Here is what I think of the top half...
JOHN HIGGINS v LIANG WENBO
Higgins has had a poor season by his own high standards. He told me at the launch last week that it was quite a simple equation: he hasn’t practised enough.
Higgins explained that because of the increase in tournaments, when he got home from an event he didn’t the next day want to be going out of the house again to the club when he could spend time with his children. He knows he has to manage his time better and is building a snooker room in his house for next season.
Nobody has defended the world title since Stephen Hendry did so 16 years ago. Higgins described walking down the Crucible steps on the first morning as “the most nerve-wracking feeling in snooker.” As Steve Davis once commented: “the first shock hasn’t happened yet and it could be you.”
But Higgins is also one of the finest ever world champions, with four titles under his belt in a very competitive era. He has gone to Sheffield in the past in good form and lost early.
Liang is a maverick; erratic but capable of brilliance. He withstood a fine comeback from Marcus Campbell in the final qualifying round after his 8-2 lead became 9-9. They were taken off at that point, I’m sure much to Liang’s relief.
He can certainly cause Higgins problems but, the way he plays, leaves plenty of chances and assuming Higgins has put the work in this last fortnight I would expect the Scot to prevail, albeit not by much.
PREDICTION: Higgins to win 10-7
STUART BINGHAM v STEPHEN HENDRY
Bingham famously beat Hendry 10-7 in the first round 12 years ago when Hendry was defending champion. Since then, Hendry has declined as a major force and Bingham has become a top 16 player and tournament winner.
Hendry is currently in China undertaking exhibition engagements for a Chinese sponsor. He apparently gets back late on Thursday and plays on Saturday afternoon.
He was a shareholder in 110sport, which went bust a year ago, and may have felt it impossible to turn down this financially lucrative commitment but it isn’t ideal preparation and it would have been unthinkable he would have gone to China the week before the Crucible in his heyday.
Bingham has not set the world alight since winning the Australian Open last July but has had to adjust to becoming a father for the first time. He will of course be bang up for the World Championship and, having beaten Hendry when the Scot was still a major title contender, shouldn’t fear playing him now he’s been relegated from the top 16.
Hendry is still a very capable player. He invariably starts matches well, then his concentration wanes. Whether he eventually wins or not depends on whether it returns.
PREDICTION: Bingham to win 10-6
STEPHEN MAGUIRE v LUCA BRECEL
One of the most intriguing of all the first rounders as Brecel becomes the youngest player ever to compete at the Crucible.
After a debut season in which he failed to hit the heights, Brecel was superb last week in beating four very experienced players – Ian McCulloch, Barry Pinches, Michael Holt and Mark King – to qualify.
Young Luca is a fascinating character. He seems able to retreat into his own little world, which is ideal for a snooker player.
But Maguire knows how to put the lad in his place. He’s quietly done well since the turn of the year: winning PTC12, semi-finals of the PTC finals plus runners-up spots in the German Masters and China Open.
Maguire’s only really had one good Crucible – five years ago when he reached the semi-finals – but I feel this could be another.
He should have no problem ignoring the hype surrounding his opponent. Maguire is a strong match player and particularly good at closing the shop after going 50-odd points ahead. He is dangerous when his head is right.
I don’t think Brecel will be disgraced. I think he will compete well.
But I also think Maguire will have too much for him.
PREDICTION: Maguire to win 10-6
GRAEME DOTT v JOE PERRY
Dott had a bee in his bonnet at the Crucible in 2006 that predictions were always for his opponent and not him. Well, Dotty, you might want to stop reading now...
The truth is, despite his fine Crucible record (three finals in the last eight years), Dott’s season has not been great and so there is no obvious reason to tip him for a long run this year, aside from his proven quality in the tournament.
He was beaten by Perry at the Crucible four years ago and again in the PTC grand finals last month. Perry, a world semi-finalist in 2008, seems to be playing well again and is one of those players with plenty of experience, capable of making it really tough for anyone.
These two are evenly matched, but Perry shades it for me.
PREDICTION: Perry to win 10-7
SHAUN MURPHY v JAMIE JONES
Jones is playing the best snooker of his career. His 10-2 demolition of Ricky Walden in the final qualifying round was unexpected but well deserved for a player who has worked really hard this last couple of years.
Jones seems to understand what quite a few young players don’t: you haven’t made it just because you’ve turned professional. In fact, this is only the start. The hard work begins once you get on the tour.
John Higgins didn’t play well against him in Galway but I’ve seen many lower ranked players have a chance to beat a top star and twitch up. Jones didn’t do this. He clearly has plenty of self belief.
He’ll need all this and more against Murphy, a player of proven quality who won the title in 2005 and was runner-up in 2009.
Murphy’s season has been consistent if not spectacular. He’s another hard worker, another player who treats the game with the utmost respect.
It’s Jones’s debut and that has to be a factor. The Crucible is like no other venue. He could be forgiven for making a bad start and this is Murphy’s chance to impose himself.
Still, it could be close.
PREDICTION: Murphy to win 10-7
STEPHEN LEE v ANDREW HIGGINSON
Lee is on a dream run of form. Since the turn of the year he’s won a title, been in a final and reached two semi-finals. He’s playing his best snooker since he reached the Crucible semi-finals in 2003.
Some have questioned Lee’s stamina over a much longer tournament but his stamina hasn’t been a problem these last few months. It is not only form which has returned, it is also his belief. He is feeling happy about his game. He’s enjoying it again.
Higginson is more consistent than he’s ever been, a regular qualifier for tournaments. He was a semi-finalist just last month in the PTC finals.
It was Lee who beat him there and Higginson knows he is playing one of the season’s most successful players and will have to be at the very top of his game to threaten an upset.
PREDICTION: Lee to win 10-5
ALI CARTER V MARK DAVIS
Carter’s health has been a major issue this season and this has led to a deterioration in both form and confidence.
He at least won a couple of matches in Beijing last month and has always been determined. I’ve no doubt Ali will fight tooth and nail to try and keep his top 16 place.
Davis is much improved these last couple of years. I think winning the six reds world title in December 2009 was the catalyst for finding some belief in himself after years of what is usually described as ‘journeyman’ status.
He hasn’t quite made that next step up with either a long run in an event or by clinching a top 16 place, although he has been very close.
Close is what this match could be, but Carter is the heavier scorer and this may be the difference.
PREDICTION: Carter to win 10-8
JUDD TRUMP v DOMINIC DALE
Dale could have beaten Trump at the UK Championship and perhaps would have done had Trump, trailing 4-2, not had two vital flukes.
Trump of course grew stronger after coming through the match and won the title. He is favourite in the betting for the World Championship.
I love watching Trump play. His game is based around an audacious potting ability but also some sound tactical stuff when he needs to employ it.
One thing Trump needs to guard against is the expectations of others, and their influences too. This was Jimmy White’s Achilles’ heel more than his ‘bottle’.
World Snooker, and the media who wished to interview him, were not best pleased that Trump failed to attend the draw this week after it was announced he would be there.
It's beneficial to snooker that he appears in photo-shoots and so on but Trump doesn't need to have an image created for him. As Neil Robertson has said, why not just let him be himself? Trying to live up to an image brings only distractions.
This is the danger of fame, even of success, although it's a nice problem to have after a tough apprenticeship in the anonymous qualifiers.
There is no textbook on how to deal with suddenly being flavour of the month. So far Trump has dealt with it well. He seems very laid back about it all.
Trump remains a nice, humble young man, very talented, dedicated and absolutely capable of winning the title. If he did it would be great for snooker, but it isn’t a certainty, as White knows only too well.
PREDICTION: Trump to win 10-6