You can follow snooker's premier event live on Betfair throughout for 17 days. Here's Paul Krishnamurty's preview and outright selections...
"Anthony McGill absolutely thrives at the Crucible and will be no pushover."
The draw is out and in less than 48 hours, the first round proper of the World Snooker Championship will be underway. Seventeen days of snooker and betting heaven awaits!
Standard higher than ever this year
All season, I've felt this renewal would be the best ever. As with everything, Covid has affected players very differently. Some top names have openly struggled with the mental pressure, being couped up in Milton Keynes for months on end. Shaun Murphy and David Gilbert, to name but two.
At the game's peak though, the big-guns have thrived, producing snooker of the very highest calibre at some stage or other. Perhaps the best measure of the standard is the fact Ronnie O'Sullivan hasn't won a title since landing his sixth world crown here at the Crucible Theatre last August.
This despite Ronnie entering more events than ever, committing to practice and producing on a consistent basis, reaching no fewer than five finals. That's how hard it is to win nowadays.
Nice draw for record-seeking Ronnie
As defending champion, O'Sullivan is the number one seed and, on paper at least, the draw has been relatively kind as he bids to emulate Stephen Hendry's record of seven world titles. He starts with a debutant in Mark Joyce and will also be heavy odds-on favourite against anyone prior to the semis.
O'Sullivan is by far the likeliest to come through but I'm happy to swerve Ronnie, because the stake is better employed elsewhere in the draw. Nor is an upset out of the question.
Last year's semi-finalist Anthony McGill absolutely thrives at the Crucible and will be no pushover if making the second round. I'd prefer him against the other big names here too in the quarters - Ding Junhui or Stephen Maguire. Both look vulnerable to qualifiers first up - Stuart Bingham and Jamie Jones respectively.
Next an absolutely brutal quarter. Nine world titles between the four seeds and one of the qualifiers, Kurt Maflin, made the quarters last year.
Selby handed a brutal draw
I have liked Mark Selby all season for this, on the basis of his return to elite standard, which started at this venue in last year's quarter-final. However this is a horrible draw against likely opponents who frequently give him a hard time.
Selby trails Mark Allen 7-5, only leads Mark Williams 13-11 and by seven frames, and is tied 123 frames each (while leading 11-8 in matches) to John Higgins, having being whitewashed 6-0 in their recent Players Championship encounter.
Resurgent Higgins gets marginal nod
On his form that week and at the Masters, Higgins is a frontline contender and the one to beat in this half of the draw. Whether that was just a hot streak remains to be seen. He lost his next match, but 10-8 to O'Sullivan was hardly a disgrace.
Higgin's draw is less penal, starting with Tian Pengfei followed probably by Williams. The Welshman could definitely be cause him trouble in what could be a classic last-16 match, but the Wizard of Wishaw has been considerably superior of late.
Also while his Crucible record is a worry, don't rule out Mark Allen. True, he has underachieved, perhaps due to longer matches, but I can't believe a player of his quality will go through a career with only one semi-final appearance. Six months ago he produced one of the performances of the season at the Champion of Champions. Odds of 38.037/1 are tempting.
Robbo arrives in tip-top form
Quarter three is headed by two players whom I've backed in most recent renewals, to no avail. Neil Robertson has badly underachieved at the Crucible - perhaps due to putting too much pressure on himself or not arriving fresh - but arrives off a light schedule, in scintillating form.
Robbo is too good to have only one world title to his name. I expect him to cruise into the quarters and perhaps challenge for tournament favouritism. However he's in the same half of the draw as the favourite, and we can't afford to back both.
Kyren has the game for the Crucible
In any case, Kyren Wilson could present a massive obstacle in the quarter-finals. Apart from a bitterly disappointing performance in last year's final, 'The Warrior' has thrived at the Crucible since arriving as a qualifier.
This season's impressive tally of centuries show Kyren is still improving. Odds of 24.023/1 are generous. Others to consider in this section are the consistent Barry Hawkins who brings similar Crucible pedigree to qualifier Ali Carter. Jack Lisowski is also very much on the up.
Trump is a class apart
Nevertheless, for all the strengths and claims of others, there is no question regarding whom is the best player on the planet. Judd Trump has more than twice the world rankings points, despite relatively underperforming in the majors. In two and half years, he's reached 18 finals and won 15 titles.
Judd's defeat in last year's quarter-final was entirely forgiveable. First, he took a while to return to his pre-lockdown form. Second, Kyren Wilson was a very tough opponent and could be again in the semi. Third, he had the infamous 'Crucible Curse' on his back.
Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry both fell to the curse after their first world titles yet swiftly regained it the following year. Granted, it is tougher nowadays but at times Trump has looked set to dominate in their fashion. For his last title, the Gibraltar Open, his standard was incredible. Mesmerising.
I cannot find a way of getting Trump beaten before the quarter-finals, where at worst Yan Bingtao awaits. The Masters champion is special, but he's still a long way behind Trump in the game, who missed that major due to Covid.
From the semis onwards, it will become harder, as expected. Any of Robertson, Wilson, O'Sullivan, Selby or Higgins could theoretically turn him over. However the most impressive aspect of Trump's rise to dominance is how he's saved his best for the strongest opponents, in the latter stages of the event. Prepare for a masterclass.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty
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