And so my first round preview concludes with more predictions...
MARK WILLIAMS v LIU CHUANG
I would never claim to have any great insight into the inner workings of a snooker player’s mind but it seems to me that Williams put a great deal into getting back to world no.1 and has now tailed off a bit, perhaps because the only way after accomplishing what was a terrific feat was down.
Since losing the Shanghai Masters final last September, Williams hasn’t looked the same. He’s still dangerous of course but his performances haven’t been as impressive as they were last season.
So perhaps this one could be the big first round shock that nobody can see coming. Well, if it is, I haven’t seen it coming either.
Liu has done really well to qualify. He has that deadpan way about him which makes his emotions hard to read.
But his lack of experience must surely be a factor. He played at the Crucible four years ago but doesn’t have much table time under his belt in the big arenas.
Williams doesn’t seem to rate his own chances of progressing much further but I think he’ll come through this one.
PREDICTION: Williams to win 10-5
RONNIE O’SULLIVAN v PETER EBDON
Make no mistake: this is a rotten draw for O’Sullivan. However, it isn’t a good one for Ebdon either.
Aside from his debut in 1993, when he was just 17, O’Sullivan has only lost twice in the first round and he played great both times: five centuries against David Gray in 2000 and a maximum against Marco Fu in 2003.
All the talk will be about their infamous quarter-final in 2005 in which Ebdon – and let’s be clear about this – employed spoiling tactics, slowing down the pace of play to a crawl.
O’Sullivan was unable to cope with this. You could argue this is part of the test of a snooker player. Others would maintain that a break of 12 in five minutes is simply beyond the pail of what is acceptable. Whichever your view, that match hangs over this one like a raincloud.
However, Ebdon has not beaten O’Sullivan since that night in four meetings and the key difference this time is that O’Sullivan will be mentally prepared for what is going to happen.
He wasn’t seven years ago. He was 8-2 up and coasting. What happened surprised and unnerved him.
This match is not as long and if he can get on top of Ebdon early on then it would be a much tougher ask for Ebdon to come back.
But it’s not just Ebdon’s pace of play that is the issue. The point is, he is playing great stuff right now. He’s back to somewhere near his best and his confidence is high.
This is all on O’Sullivan. Is he playing well enough? Is he mentally prepared? He needs to dig in, will he?
I think he will. We saw at the German Masters what he could do when he really, really tries.
This is the Crucible. There is no reason not to make another supreme effort.
PREDICTION: O’Sullivan to win 10-7
MARTIN GOULD v DAVE GILBERT
Gould played some really good stuff to become a top 16 player for the first time this season. Since then he seems to have, perhaps subconsciously, been looking over his shoulder.
This is something many new top 16 players have struggled to cope with, but he is low on confidence and that is not the state of mind you want heading to the Crucible.
When Gilbert started the qualifiers last week there was talk that, because of a bizarre loophole, he would be better losing his first match as he would then be out of the top 64 and get a two-year tour card through his place among the top eight tour qualifiers from the PTC order of merit.
Well, that may have been true but this is the World Championship and every player is going to give it everything. Gilbert’s Crucible debut in 2007 saw him lead Stephen Hendry 5-1 before losing 10-7.
He has done the hard work already by qualifying and can exploit any nerves from Gould, who is playing at Sheffield for the first time as a seed, not a position he seems to have taken to so far this season.
PREDICTION: Gilbert to win 10-8
NEIL ROBERTSON v KEN DOHERTY
Robertson is my tip for the title this year. He is a player who excels in every area of the game. He’s a great potter, heavy scorer, has an iron safety game, understands tactics and psychology and has a big match temperament.
Robertson’s only real weakness is his preparation. He hasn’t elaborated, but admits to not having given the run-in to his title defence last year the proper respect.
I’ve had the feeling all season that he has been eyeing these 17 days in Sheffield. Of course, all players do but they don’t all have the Australian’s strength of character.
He’s a proven winner at the Crucible and he doesn’t have the baggage this year of trying to defend the crown.
Doherty had his day in the Crucible sun in 1997 and was the star of the 2003 championship, if not the winner.
The genial Irishman is far more inconsistent these days. I think he can certainly cause Robertson problems but over a match of this length I’d expect the form man to come through.
PREDICTION: Robertson to win 10-4
DING JUNHUI v RYAN DAY
Day is always potentially dangerous but has gone backwards since his appearance in the Crucible quarter-finals in 2008 and 2009.
Ding blows hot and cold but was impressive at the Crucible last year where he eventually lost an epic semi-final to Judd Trump.
Ding seems nicely settled now in his private life. He lives in a house in Sheffield with his girlfriend, Apple, and maybe this relaxed home life will help him bear fruit come May 7.
He’s certainly good enough. He’s as good a break builder as there is. But he’s also inconsistent and there’s plenty of time for things to go badly wrong at the World Championship. Sometimes you have to dig in and rely on your B game.
He has to be favourite to come through this, although Day is by no means a pushover.
PREDICTION: Ding to win 10-7
MARK ALLEN v CAO YUPENG
Cao has done really well to qualify and his temperament must be good to win deciders against Dave Harold and Tom Ford but it’s his misfortune to run into a player who has always been high in confidence and who now has the silverware to back it up.
I think Allen will have a really good run here. He seems to relish playing on the biggest stages and has a Crucible semi-final and two quarter-finals under his belt from these last three years.
There’s no reason why, given his experience, confidence and form, he shouldn’t be a justified favourite for this one.
PREDICTION: Allen to win 10-4
MATTHEW STEVENS v MARCO FU
There’s usually a riveting 10-9 in the first round and this could be it.
Stevens was among the four or five leading world title contenders in the first half of the last decade. Like Stephen Lee, he has regained his place in the world’s elite top 16 but, unlike Lee, he has not pushed on since.
Fu always seems to play great or not much good at all. This maddening inconsistency means he is out of the top 16 again even though he belongs in there for many, myself included.
If it goes close I’d fancy Fu. And I think it’ll go close.
PREDICTION: Fu to win 10-9
MARK SELBY v BARRY HAWKINS
A week ago, Selby was unable to play due to the trapped nerve in his neck which saw him withdraw from the China Open.
This is not the ideal preparation for the World Championship and he is still receiving treatment. Even if the physical pain goes away he can be forgiven for having mental doubts.
He also has a very tough first round opponent. Hawkins beat Stephen Maguire in the first round last year and was a frame from beating Mark Allen in the last 16.
Hawkins needs to play well again but the intrigue surrounds Selby. Is he really in a fit state to play?
More to the point, given the build-up, could he last the full 17 days? The omens are not good for him even if he wins this first round encounter.
PREDICTION: Selby to win 10-8