IT'S the time of year now that spring is in the air... No I am not going to carry on with that song - I daren't! Instead I am going to talk about the time when you wedge yourself into an armchair and put all the takeaway food firms on speedial and resolve not to move an inch.
Yes, it is the world snooker championship at the Crucible Theatre where Neil Robertson returns to defend the title that he claimed in the early hours of a Tuesday morning a year ago. The Australian started his season in fine fettle winning the world open in Glasgow but since then has been absent from the winners enclosure. Defeated in the UK Championship by Shaun Murphy and Mark Allen in the Masters halted his charge. He bowed out to in Newport to Graeme Dott as the Scotsman extracted revenge for his Crucible defeat before crashing out in the last 16 of the China Open to Peter Ebdon. The pressure, which seems to be increasing on Neil will only intensify once the curtain swings open on the likeable Robertson at the Crucible and Judd Trump is just the sort of player that he would have liked to avoid in the opening round. Trump is a dangerous opponant and comes into this on the back of victory in the China Open when he beat Mark Selby to win his maiden tour title. Could Trump pull off an upset- well he seems to have found a blend of playing his natural attacking game tinged with a more considered approach in terms of shot selection. Robertson though will not yield lightly and will be looking to avoid the list of returning champions who have crashed out in their first match- and you don't need me to tell you some of the names on that list!
What about Ronnie O'Sullivan. The Rocket has had a disappointing season and has failed to win on the main tour. Ronnie, is surely the most naturally gifted player the game has ever had but has been out of sorts this season. It has of course emerged that the Rocket made a phone call to World Snooker saying he wanted to withdraw from the World Championships - only to change his mind a day later. The season has been something of a write off for Ronnie as he was beaten in the World Open final by Robertson. This was followed by a loss to Stuart Bingham in Telford. He fell to Mark Allen at the Masters and then endured exits at the hands of Ryan Day in Newport and Beijjing. Amid this has come the release from prison of his father Ronnie Snr. The most predictable thing about Ronnie is surely his unpredictability. Which Ronnie will show up for his match against Dominic Dale. Is it going to be the unplayable one or the one that looks distracted? This of course leads me to wonder about his mindset. Dale is not to be underestimated and the laid back Welshman has the game to beat an off form O'Sullivan.
Which would rob us of an encounter with John Higgins, who if Ronnie was to negotiate his first two rounds would probably meet in the quarter finals. Higgins, who returned to the tour this year triumphed at the UK Championship, and the Welsh Open in Newport. Though he lost to Graeme Dott in the Masters and to Murphy in China. Defeat in China is unlikely to worry John too much - as he will come into the tournament fresh. Higgins is probably the best all round match player in the field and will be looking for a fourth world title. The Wishaw man comes into the tournament as the world number one and what a fairytale it would be for John if he was to be seen holding up the famous trophy on the final day of the tournament. Stephen Lee is someone who Higgins will not take lightly despite the fact that the only time John and Stephen faced each other in Sheffield the Scotsman enjoyed a comfortable 13-6 victory. I do therefore expect Higgins to win his first round match. But the part of the draw that Higgins finds himself in is a proverbial minefield.
And one man who is in that section is Shaun Murphy. The Sale based professional has made no secret of his desire to lift the famous trophy again. Murphy won the PTC finals in Dublin months ago and has been a regular name in the latter stages of tournaments this season, with the noteable exception of the Welsh Open, where he lost to Matthew Stevens. Most recently Shaun made the semi finals of the China Open. Murphy who, in 2005 became the second youngest player to win the world title has a first round opponant in the shape of Marcus Campbell. A man who reached the semi finals of the Snooker Shootout in Blackpool, and from the fans aquired himself a new nickname - Chris Moyles to be precise. Can he send Murphy spinning out of the tournament. Sadly from the Scotsman's point of view I find it unlikely. Murphy though would have a tough draw in the latter stages. He could face Ronnie in the second round and if negotiates that - it is likely to be John Higgins in the quarters.
Another eagerly anticipated match is the all Welsh affair in the opening round between Mark Williams and Ryan Day. Williams who was the runner up in Telford to Higgins now looks like the man who won two world titles in 2000 and 2002. Williams is a devastating long potter of the ball and a master breakbuilder, and as history has shown has the game to win in Sheffield. But he faces a dangerous oppoanant in Ryan Day in the first round. Local bragging rights are at stake here, and this could go to a deciding frame. Day's Sheffield record for knocking over the big boys is well documented. Chief among them John Higgins in 2008 when he sent the defending champion home on what is now the dreaded middle Saturday for champions. Ryan has also seen an upturn in his form as he has had regular appearances of the last 16 of tournaments this season. He has game to beat Mark and Williams will be wary of his compatriot. If Williams survives what will be a testing encounter then Jamie Cope may well await in the second round- and that could be a cracker. I wouldn't expect the frames to last too long either!!
What about Stephen Hendry. Stephen's season has been disappointing. Beaten by O'Sullivan in Glasgow led to a defeat at the hands of Williams in Telford. Neil Robertson proved too strong for him at Wembley while defeats by Stephen Maguire in Newport and Ding Junhui in Beijjing means that Stephen faces a fight to hang on to his top 16 place for the new season. His opening match is against Joe Perry. The Cambridge man can cause Hendry a lot of problems at Sheffield. Perry is a strong long potter of the ball and a very effective break builder. Just ask Steve Davis - who will no doubt remember an encounter he had with Joe at the Crucible a few years ago. If Perry was to win then we could maybe be witnessing the end for Stephen Hendry. And even if Stephen survives against Perry he will in all probability run into Mark Selby in the second round. It would of course be a rematch of a second round battle from last season which the Leicester man dominated.
And what of Mark Selby. Well Mark has been fairly consistent this season, reaching at least the quarter finals of all major tour events, with the exception of the World Open. Selby was the beaten finalist in Beijjing and will come into the tournament in a confident frame of mind. His early taster is against debutant Jimmy Robertson. Robertson who has already proven his quality by beating the world champion in Prague this year will now have to face the test of not being affected by the Crucible collywobbles. A debutant can either feel inspired by the challenge that awaits of their first match at the Sheffield venue or be overawed. Selby should progress, but Robertson will no doubt relish the test that awaits him.
Last years's beaten finalist Graeme Dott faces Mark King in his opening match and should he negotiate his way through to the quarter finals could have a re-match against Neil Robertson. Dott who came through the pack last year to reach his third final has had a season which saw him reach the quarter finals of the UK Championship where he lost to Higgins in a deciding frame. With a strong all round game in terms of potting, safety and mental toughness the Larkhall man cannot be discounted for this years championship. Once you have tasted glory at Sheffield, and maintain consistency you are always going to be thought of as more than a contender, because you have proven that you can compete at the highest level and survive the immense pressure that goes with the territory.
Could this be a year of another overseas champion. Well Ding Junhui is probably in the most consistent run of form he has had for some time. The Chinese number one who delighted his fans by capturing the Masters, beating Marco Fu in the final was also a beaten semi finalist at the China Open. My one question mark hangs over his temperament in the world championships. Ding has yet to get past the second round in Sheffield and last year crumpled against Murphy. If you can imagine the pressure any professional feels in Sheffield and then multiply it by ten then you will have an idea of the expectations that Ding is under from the fans who will be urging him on from China.
Sheffield wouldn't be Sheffield without it's shock results and there are handful of matches in the opening round that have the look of an upset about them. Top the list for me is Peter Ebdon v Stuart Bingham. Bingham is well known for upsetting the rock stars of the game at The Crucible - chief among them Stephen Hendry - when he sent the Scotsman packing in the opening round in 2000. Bingham has also been showing some good form this year with a win over O'Sullivan and Fu at Telford and he is a dangerous opponant for Ebdon who looks to be struggling for form. Likewise Marco Fu looks to be vulnerable against Martin Gould. But of course the big question mark is can Gould put last years disastrous final session against Neil Robertson behind him. He led Robertson 11-5 and 12-10 and looked set for a quarter final encounter with Davis only to watch on in horror as Robertson came back and snatched a 13-12 victory.
Also with upset written on it - or should it be typed is Stephen Maguire and Barry Hawkins. Hawkins a man though who has never got past the first round in Sheffield. Yet he made Higgins sweat last year when he led the reigning champion at the interval before bowing out. Hawkins though has the ability and the game to beat Maguire. Likewise too does a resurgent Matthew Stevens who lines up against Mark Allan. Stevens is a former finalist at The Crucible where he has lost on two occasions, firstly to Mark Williams and latterly to Shaun Murphy- and on both occasions he perhaps should have won. Does Stevens have the belief after seeing his ranking slide over the past few years. Well there are signs that his form is returning after his run to the quarter finals in the Welsh Open. But Allan is building a reputation as a man to be feared. A semi finalist at Telford, he caused mayhem at the Masters when he removed O'Sullivan and Robertson before falling to Marco Fu. The Antrim man has already showed a liking for the atmosphere and pressure that go hand in hand at the Crucible after sending home O'Sullivan two years ago when the Chigwell man was the defending champion. A quarter finalist last year before bowing out to Graeme Dott my feeling is that he will get the better of Stevens but it could be very close.
One match that shows an extremity in playing styles is Ali Carter and Dave Harold. Ali, who was a beaten finalist in 2008 has won a lot of fans for his attacking style. A strong long potter and a man who always seems to save his best for the Crucible, where last year he reached the semi finals, subduing Murphy but running out of steam against Robertson Ali cannot be discounted. Dave Harold, whose measured style of play also possesses a good tactical side saw him reach the quarter finals of the World Open before bowing out to Maguire came through qualifying against Gerard Greene.
So I hear you ask, who will be the final four in Sheffield. Asking me is a risky subject - though I haven't been too far off the mark recently. I will go with Ali Carter, to play Mark Selby in one semi final and in the other I will predict Mark Allan and John Higgins, so two Englishman, a Northern Irishman and a Scotsman. The joking however stops there as we gear up for the Sheffield showpiece. To pick a winner is difficult but the final two I think will be Selby v Higgins, a repeat of the 2007 final that Higgins won. Does lightening strike twice at Sheffield. It has been known. And this is why I take Higgins to win a tournament that usually has more twists and turns than the Da Vinci code and more ups and downs for the players than a Blackpool rollercoaster.
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