SHEFFIELD, UK - Saturday morning sees the opening barrage of matches in the -17 day marathon of the mind” as the snooker World Championships gets underway at the famous Crucible Theatre. It is arguably the most open event for years and there are at least ten players who all have genuine claims to add a World title to there already impressive repertoires.
For the first time in memory three players, Ronnie O'Sullivan, the defending champion, Neil Robertson, the 2010 winner and Mark Selby, the current Masters champion, are all tied at the head of the betting and can be backed at 13/2 (bet £2 to make £13 profit) with the likes of 32Red, bet365, Betfred, BetVictor, Marathon, Paddy Power, totesport and Youwin. Stand alone second favourite is Bristol's Judd Trump who is on offer at 7/1 (bet £1 to make £7 profit) with William Hill plus numerous other firms. China's Ding Junhui and four time champion John Higgins are the first two players to hit double figures on the chalk boards and Stan James, Sportingbet, Paddy Power and 32Red all have the pair at 12/1 (bet £1 to make £12 profit). Glasgow's Stephen Maguire, who won the Welsh Open in February, is best industry price of 18/1 (bet £1 to make £18 profit) with Youwin to lift his first Crucible crown, 2005 champion Shaun Murphy is on offer with 32Red at an enticing 19/1 (bet £1 to make £19 profit). Twice finalist and last years runner up Ali Carter is a tempting proposition at 28/1 (bet £1 to make £28 profit) provided by 32Red, Betfred, BetVictor, Comeon, Marathon, Sportingbet, totesport and Youwin whilst, last but by no means least, Basildon's Stuart Bingham can give the prospective investor a very healthy return at 33/1 (bet £1 to make £33) courtesy of Paddy Power.
Three variables have to be taken into account before making an outright selection with such a difficult market, seasonal percentage win rate, tournament successes and potentially the most important factor of all, Crucible record. With the defending champion, O'Sullivan, having only played one match during the entire 2012/2013 campaign he has a 0% win rate, his only outing this snooker year was 4-3 defeat to Bradford's Simon Bedford, in the last 128 of PTC (Players Tour Championship) event three, at the SWSA (South West Snooker Academy) in Gloucester, last September. Will the unforced lay off from competitive play be O'Sullivan's undoing as he will not be match sharp or will the sabbatical have given him time to fully recharge his batteries?
Antrim's Mark Allen, the number seven ceded player, heads this section of the criteria with a 70.3% win ratio; Allen has been triumphant in 52 of the 74 games he has contested in the last 10 months. The Northern Irish cue man is by no means streets ahead of the field, hot on his heels are Selby (cede number 2) and Robertson (cede number 3),
Robertson has won 59 of his 85 matches played (69.4%) and the -Jester from Leicester”, Selby is a shade behind at 69.2%, 63 wins from 91 outings. Scotsman Stephen Maguire has played more matches than any other player this term, 105 in all. This was mainly due to Maguire's fantastic Championship League run which yielded three finals and two semi finals loses in the five group phases he competed. However, despite this Maguire, the number six cede, is fifth on the seasonal win rate with a 66.7% return.
With the exception of O'Sullivan and Murphy, all of the fore mentioned players have won silverware over the duration of the past snooker season. Three of these snooker stars stand out from the rest with their accomplishments over the last year. Australian Robertson and Judd Trump have had more or less identical seasons as they have both won one full ranking event each, Robertson won the recent China Open by beating Selby in the final and Trump was victorious in the 2012 International Championship, in China, by edging past Robertson, 10-8. Both players have also claimed EPTC (European Players Tour Championship) titles. Last October -the thunder from down under” clinched the Gydnia Open, in Poland, by beating Jamie Burnett 4-3 and Trump got his hands on the Bulgarian Open title, one month later, by hammering John Higgins, 4-0, in the final. The similarity continues as the duo have each lost in one full ranking event final, one PTC (Players Tour Championship) event final and an invitation event final. In spite of the impressive track records of the Robertson and Trump neither of them can compare to Mark Selby's feats on the match table. After an uncharacteristic slow start to the season Selby finally stood on the winner's rostrum by seizing the EPTC (European Players Tour Championship) event one, the Paul Hunter Classic, in Furth, Germany, last August. In December he overpowered Shaun Murphy, 10-6, to win the William Hill UK Championship; at the start of 2013 he won the Munich Open and swiftly followed that up by lifting the Masters trophy for the third time by seeing off Neil Robertson, 10-6. Selby has also had to be content with the runners up spot twice this year. He lost to Mark Allen, 4-1, in the final of the Antwerp Open and to Robertson in the China Open just last month.
The Crucible Theatre can do strange things to players, it can inspire them to bring the very best out of their game and it can also make men crumble under its unique pressure. There are six former champions at this year's event with 13 titles between them and another four players who have reached the final on at least one occasion in the past. For longevity records you need look no further than O'Sullivan, Higgins and Williams, between them they have 54 Crucible appearances between them and ten titles. When O'Sullivan walks through the curtain on Saturday morning for the start of his first round match with Marcus Campbell it will be the 21st year in succession he has done so. Four wins in 2001, 2004, 2008 and last year plus a further nine occasions in the quarter finals or better make the -Rocket” to most decorated combatant in the 32 man field this tournament. John Higgins, who like O'Sullivan has four titles to his credit, will be playing in this year's event for the 19th time, since he first lost to Alan McManus on his debut in 1995 the -Wizard of Wishaw” has won 43 matches in the Crucible and reached the quarter finals or further on 11 separate instances. Williams, who has won the event twice, in 2000 and 2003, has won 31 games in his career at Sheffield, but since he last captured the title ten years ago has only progressed further than the quarter finals twice.
With O'Sullivan, Higgins and Williams all in their -late 30's” age wise, as each year passes it will become increasingly harder to win titles; especially with the crop of new, younger players like Selby, Allen, Trump and Robertson on their tails. While they cannot be discounted the sounder money looks to be on the younger brigade, with Selby and Robertson both in great shape it makes them hard to ignore as they are both near the peak of their games and on current form the best two players in the World today.