The annual snooker-fest at the Crucible begins on Saturday, with wall-to-wall coverage on BBC for the next 17 days, and live streaming on Betfair Exchange and Sportsbook. Paul Krishnamurty previews and recommends one player from each section of the draw...
"Ronnie O'Sullivan has been a class apart this term and, whilst this isn't an easy draw - Stephen Maguire is arguably the most dangerous qualifier - his path to the final is littered with players he's dominated time and again."
Back Ronnie O'Sullivan @ [3.7]
After a slight delay to this morning's draw, the wait is over and the highlight of the year upon us. To snooker fans, the next 17 days are our Christmas. For the players, it is both a chance to define their career and, with rankings now based on prize money, every match has real short-term significance.
With every match played over at least two sessions and 19 frames - four and 35 in the final - one would logically expect the cream to rise to the top. It was surprising, therefore, to hear Ronnie O'Sullivan expressing a counter-narrative, that the tournament was too long and was not necessarily a guide to revealing the best player. Perhaps he was just dampening expectations of a sixth world crown, because the stats suggest otherwise.
Snooker has become ever more wide-open over the past decade, yet the premier championship has been remarkably predictable by comparison to lesser events. Five of the last six have gone to either Mark Selby or Ronnie O'Sullivan, who once again head the market. Add four-time champ John Higgins to the list and they account for eight of the last ten. In the other years, Neil Robertson was fairly predictable and Stuart Bingham at least a lively outsider.
This year's formbook firmly points towards further dominance from the big-two. Ronnie has enjoyed one of his most productive seasons ever, winning five titles. Runaway world number one Selby struggled for most of it but still won two lucrative titles over longer matches, bouncing back to form with a vengeance last time at the China Open.
World champion in three of the last four years, Selby is bidding to become the first player to win three in a row since Stephen Hendry 22 years ago. That he isn't even challenging O'Sullivan for favouritism is a measure of the latter's credentials, having often produced near unbeatable snooker this season. They're pitched in opposite halves of the draw and are 13-2 to meet in the final.
As usual, Selby will have to work hard from the outset. That probably helps him get in the zone, but Joe Perry was probably on his list of qualifiers to avoid and after that it may well be elite opponents all the way. The other three seeds in this quarter - Murphy, Mark Allen and Kyren Wilson - all have their own legitimate title aspirations.
Whilst Selby obviously commands the ultimate respect, odds of [6.0] make no appeal, especially compared to each-way options offering a substantial return just for reaching the final - before having to worry about O'Sullivan. Is he really six times likelier than Masters champion and probable second round opponent Allen?
With a different draw, Allen may well have got the nod but preference must be for my long-term pick. Champion in 2005 and twice runner-up since, Murphy has been close to his best ever form this term, reaching five finals including three against O'Sullivan. He trails that emerging rivalry 2-1, winning the Champion of Champions but going down in the UK and Players Championships.
That represents a formidable bank of form and the draw is set up for yet another clash with Ronnie in the final. There are threats from the start, for sure. Jamie Jones beat him at the Crucible in 2012. Wilson has been runner-up three times this season, including the Masters.
On any reading of his Crucible record or recent form, Judd Trump is poor value at [8.4]. He's only reached one world final previously, seven years ago, and hasn't reached any final since November. Again, does Trump really have a threefold better chance than Murphy?
John Higgins appeals much more at [13.5] but I think backing outsiders is the way forward in a section that could open up from the start. The qualifiers all arrive in cracking form, primed to upset seeds.
The potentially brilliant, in-form Jack Lisowski is a very tempting option but 2013 semi-finalist Walden edges him out on the basis of an easier first round match. He hit five breaks of 90 plus in his final qualifier and is now up against Luca Brecel, who has lost his way badly after a great start to the season.
This is by far the weakest section, involving no former champions and boasting only two final appearances between them. Interestingly a qualifier, Ryan Day, has enjoyed the best season with three titles. Ding Junhui is the man to beat but he's got a very tough opener against Xiao Guodong, possibly followed by Day.
In contrast the draw has been very kind to Hawkins, who has bounced back from a terrible run, reaching the finals of the Wales and China Opens. Marco Fu is the scheduled last-16 opponent but he's been suffering sight problems and hasn't played since being whitewashed at the Masters. Barry looks poised for a sixth straight Crucible quarter-final at worst.
O'Sullivan's comments about the marathon format do have some validity, in that he's arguably less suited to this than the other two majors. That shouldn't deter a bet. He's been a class apart this term and, whilst this isn't an easy draw - Stephen Maguire is arguably the most dangerous qualifier - his path to the final is littered with players he's dominated time and again.
Maguire usually gives him a match but trails 17-4 over their careers and hasn't beaten him for six years. Against Ali Carter, the head-to-head is 14-0. The aggregate frame-score in his last five matches with Graeme Dott is 23-3. Even Mark Williams trails 30-8 and lost all four of their Crucible encounters. Either the Welshman or Neil Robertson will likely await in the quarters and this could be the key match.
Back Shaun Murphy 2u e/w @ 25/1
Back Ricky Walden 0.5u e/w @ 150/1
Back Barry Hawkins 2u @ [29.0]
Back Ronnie O'Sullivan 10u @ [3.7]