Following this afternoon's draw, Paul Krishnamurty provides his preview of Friday's World Championship and quartet of outright selections...
"Few have played better in recent majors than David Gilbert...I fancy another impressive run."
Belatedly, the pinnacle and finale of the snooker season is upon us. With the draw now confirmed, defending champion and world number one Judd Trump will kickstart proceedings in a socially distanced, but not empty, Crucible Theatre on Friday morning against Tom Ford.
Can Trump break the Crucible Curse?
In doing so, Trump is bidding to break an infamous trend, of which we will hear constantly throughout the 17-day marathon. The 'Crucible Curse' states that no first time champion will successfully defend the title and applies to the entire 43-year history of the tournament based in Sheffield.
How much relevance one places in the curse is a matter of taste like any other historical trend. Rationally, the best player should win. Most of these first-time defending champions weren't the best player. Trump most certainly is.
During a sensational 18-month period, there has been much talk about him becoming the greatest of all-time. Ridiculous, for sure, with only one title in the bank, but there will be many more. The Juddernaut has stepped up a gear and left the rest trailing.
Favourite looks over-priced given recent record
Since a magnificent performance to destroy John Higgins in last year's final, he's broken the all-time record of ranking wins in a season. He's won ten times in 27 events since November 2018, (discounting the Championship League).
On that basis, odds of 16/54.2 appear pretty generous. However while Judd has been a great friend to this column, turning around a poor season, I'm reluctantly abandoning him on the biggest stage. Not because of the curse. Rather the draw and the general uncertainty concerning conditions and their effect on players.
Without a crowd and the associated pressure, Maguire showed us what a great player he can be at the Tour Championship, beating Trump along the way. A breakbuilding machine who should have at least reached a world final. He arrives with his best prospects in more than a decade.
Resurgent Maguire could upset Trump again
Perhaps the lack of crowd was pivotal but he was in decent form pre-Covid. He reached the final of the penultimate major, the UK Championship, and was stung by an amazing Trump comeback in the Players Championship semis.
The pair are on course to meet again the quarters, although that prospect is far from certain given the alternatives in a tough section. Tom Ford isn't an easy opener for Trump and Yan Bingtao could be even tougher in the last-32.
Maguire probably faces Kyren Wilson in the last-16. Given that I've been banging on about Kyren's future world champion status for years, it is a wrench to leave him out. However on this season's form, from this draw, he's under-priced at 22/1.
The second quarter is wide-open. Mark Allen is favourite but he's never reached a world final and only one semi, suggesting that shorter formats are preferable. The complete opposite applies to John Higgins, who defied ageing and expectations to reach and lose the last three finals, taking his appearance tally to eight.
Gilbert set for another strong major bid
Despite that, I can't have Higgins. He simply isn't the force of old and, unlike those recent renewals, doesn't arrive with stacks of match practice. I will be backing Matthew Stevens against him in round one and, if a repeat of last year's semi against David Gilbert materialises in the last-16.
The Crucible pressure got to Gilbert in that semi and understandably so. Failure to win a title yet is a big negative but few have played better in recent majors. He was sublime for two rounds at the latest Masters and I fancy another impressive run.
The standout first round match is Ronnie O'Sullivan versus Thepchaiya Un-Nooh. A brutal start for the Rocket, whose pre-Covid season lacked focus after winning his opening event. Next, UK champion Ding Junhui could await.
Ding beat Ronnie in York but he is another whose wellbeing and mindset are under question. While both are obviously capable, neither represents a betting proposition at this stage. I won't be surprised if Un-Nooh or Mark King emerges in the quarters.
Favourable draw for Bingham
In contrast, the other mini-section is weak. Stuart Bingham beat a declining Mark Williams en route to winning the Masters and is confidently fancied to do so again, or any other opponent up to the quarters.
Back Neil Robertson 5u @ 15/28.6
For my money, the market has the wrong second favourite. Yes, Trump has been top man this season but the very best spell of snooker came from his nearest rival in the rankings. A scintillating four-week spell in January and February saw Robertson win 22 matches out of 23, winning two titles and losing another final to Trump.
Robbo is long overdue at the Crucible
I go deep with Robbo at the Crucible, backing him many times from his early appearances and missing out when he won in 2010. He's often seemed to put too much pressure on himself but there's much to like about his mindset in this recent SportingLife interview.
Robbo is certainly overdue a strong Crucible bid but this draw isn't easy. Liang Wenbo is dangerous first up. Barry Hawkins is a majors specialist. Mark Selby or Shaun Murphy likely await in the quarters. Those hurdles, nevertheless, are factored into the price.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty
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