The big talking point ahead of this year's World Championship concerns whether the defending champion can pull off a successful comeback having missed the entire season. Some fear Ronnie O'Sullivan will struggle, but others like Paul Krishnamurty disagree and think going in fresh could even improve his chances...
"It may just turn out that an older, wiser O'Sullivan finds this kind of light schedule works, allowing him to stay motivated for the big events."
Throughout his 20 year career, I've rarely backed or argued the case for Ronnie O'Sullivan. That wasn't due to a lack of respect for his ability, rather that his popularity always ensured short-priced favouritism at the false expense of other candidates.
John Higgins, for instance, has won as many world titles and the last two Crucible encounters between them, yet was always the bigger price. Plus of course, he has never been reliable. Taking short odds about a player that could quite possibly lose interest halfway through a match, or even walk off, is never going to be a shrewd betting plan.
This year's Betfair World Championship will therefore be a new experience. For once, I reckon layers have erred too far on the side of caution and the trading value lies in backing the Rocket at 7.26/1 before he hits a ball.
Whether he ultimately wins or not, and there are others with similarly strong claims, these odds could look massive in a week or so.
As the betting illustrates, this is the most wide-open World Championship in living memory. That doesn't, however, mean it will look the same way by the latter stages. Big-names will be eliminated by then and the chances are one or two players will have shone, sparking a betting bandwagon. Every year somebody catches punters' imagination early on. Ronnie has often been that man, including 12 months ago when pre-tournament odds of 10.09/1 had collapsed to heavy odds-on by the semi-finals.
An ideal draw suggests we could see a repeat. First up he faces journeyman Marcus Campbell, against whom Ronnie has won all four previous encounters. Next he'll probably face the man he beat in last year's final, Ali Carter. A difficult match in theory, apart from the fact their head-to-head record reads 14-1 to Ronnie. These are perfect opportunities to impress and build a good trading position ahead of tougher opponents. If he faces Higgins in the quarter-finals, laying back might become an option but there's a decent chance his old rival will be out by then.
Now, it would be wrong to ignore the legitimate doubts over the fact he hasn't played competitively since last summer or that his fragile temperament might crack. The latter point is always a risk when backing Ronnie but regarding the first, I'm really not deterred. A player with Ronnie's extreme talent should be able to find his rhythm quickly and if he's been practising as reported, his game may very well be in cracking shape. There is no good reason to disbelieve Peter Ebdon's glowing report of their recent practice session.
Before overstating the scale of Ronnie's task, let's remember what happened last year. During that season, he'd been out of form, struggling to obtain results in ever more frequent tournaments that he obviously wasn't bothered about. That indifference nearly caught him out under the new rankings system, leaving him on the verge of losing his top-16 place and automatic qualification for the World Championship.
Ronnie needed to progress in the German Masters to save his place, so he stepped up and won it in style, then produced his best ever performance to win a fourth world title. In short, he was bothered about two tournaments all year and won them both.
His snooker at Sheffield was close to perfect. More disciplined, mature and business-like than ever before. It may just turn out that an older, wiser O'Sullivan finds this kind of light schedule works, allowing him to stay motivated for the big events.
From next season, so long as he stays in the top-128, only a minimal advantage will be gained from retaining a higher ranking, meaning he can afford to dodge PTCs and inconvenient overseas trips. This week Ronnie has spoken of his desire to win this tournament in his forties. Given that he's only 37, that doesn't sound like a player who is only half-hearted about this comeback.
Recommended Bet (Back to Lay)
Back Ronnie O'Sullivan 10u @ 7.26/1 to win the Betfair World Championship
Place order to lay 20u @ 3.02/1