The recent, quite dramatic, changes to the snooker calendar and format were intended and expected to open up the game. To give high-class young players the chance to progress through the rankings quicker than in the past, while making the top-16 players work harder to maintain their position.
The logical conclusion is that we'd see more tournament winners and more outsiders reaching the latter stages, but it has rarely worked that way. Of course there are more winners because there are more events, but few have broken through. A gruelling schedule over the past few weeks, however, seems to have had that effect.
In February the Welsh Open, we saw 250/1 outsider Ben Woollaston lose to 59/1 John Higgins in the final. (Both flagged up by this column, if I may add!) Then in March top prospect Michael White won consecutive events including his first ranking title at the Indian Open. Finally last week, seasoned veteran Joe Perry repeated that achievement in Thailand at the PTC Grand Finals.
The next and final stop before the World Championship is the China Open, which starts tomorrow. Again, conditions are ripe for an upset with Ronnie O'Sullivan withdrawn and few of the big names in their best form. This column only makes the one headline pick per section, but given the odds involved and cheaper layout, I wouldn't deter anyone from backing two in each section this time.
Back Graeme Dott 1u @ 80.079/1
Equally notable during this busy spell has been the revival of Mark Williams. The twice former world champion and new seniors champion has been the most consistent player around, losing finals in Thailand and Poland plus semi-finals in Wales and India. That's a whole lot better than anything his chief rival to reach the quarter-finals and defending champion Ding Junhui has achieved this season.
This section also has the most in-form leading light, Judd Trump, whose World Grand Prix comeback to beat O'Sullivan entitles him to favouritism. However Trump has a terrible habit of throwing in one terrible performance in tournaments to blow his chance, and every match from this draw is a tricky hurdle.
While Williams is a tempting option, he could be forgiven a bad week so instead I'll go for another ex-world champion. Graeme Dott has a decent record in China and bits and pieces of recent form, claiming some good scalps before losing in the quarter-finals of the World Grand Prix and UK Championship, to O'Sullivan and in a decider to Stuart Bingham.
Back Stephen Maguire 2.5u @ 22.021/1
The longer-term formbook points strongly to Neil Robertson and Stephen Maguire in this section, but the former is unbackable at short odds right now. I'm convinced he's holding preparation and therefore his best form for Sheffield.
Maguire is another frustrating character who, like Trump, regularly blows his chance with one bad day. However he's been in decent form all season, including last week, despite failing to complete a comeback from 3-0 down to Michael Holt. Maguire has a good record in this event too, winning in 2008 and finishing runner-up and losing semi-finalist on his last two attempts.
Back Marco Fu 1.5u @ 44.043/1
The third section is pretty weak after Ronnie O'Sullivan's defection, leaving Shaun Murphy as the only elite player. There are tricky hurdles early on for 'The Magician'. though, such as Jamie Cope and Anthony McGill. Moreover, without questioning his commitment, Murphy is another frontline Crucible candidate who has had a very busy schedule.
Marco Fu is at four-times the odds and strong favourite to make the last-16, where he's due to meet Murphy. Recent history suggests he'd have a good chance, having won their last two encounters. Fu looked in fair form when losing a decider to Robertson last week and should never be under-estimated in Asia.
Back Mark Selby 7u @ 7.87/1
Only five players in this bottom section strike me as contenders. Two in-form players at tasty prices, Stuart Bingham and Michael White, are scheduled to meet in the last-32. A third, Robert Milkins, was dire last week. Joe Perry is obviously in-form, but will do very well to go back-to-back in the space of a fortnight, after waiting 20 years for a ranking victory.
Rather than any of those otherwise likeable picks, this bottom section is set up for Selby. If he lost before, worst ways, playing Perry in the last-16, it would be a massive shock.
Selby has been runner-up on two of his last three China Open appearances and would love to add to his recent German Masters title, before bidding to break the 'Crucible Curse' that afflicts defending world champions next month.