Snookerbacker

July 29, 2020

World Championship Preview – 45/1 Williams Can Strike Again

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 3:13 pm

He’s back, but so is The Curse

It’s finally here, after months of waiting and wondering if it would ever get off the ground the World Championship from the iconic Crucible Theatre is upon us and we’re even squeezing in a few hundred people to cough and watch it.

It starts on a Friday this season, which I for one prefer. In the future when things are back to something like normal I’d like this to continue as it seems a little dated to traditionally finish on the Monday in May which is only a bank holiday in the UK and means that some of our global audience have to take a day off work or miss some of the final. But that’s an argument for another time, for now let’s just enjoy this and be thankful that we’re getting to see it at all.

Now before moving on, there is something I need to get off my chest, I’m not one to believe that some bloke waved his magic wand and created the Earth and all who dwell upon it several thousand years ago. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that thinks once we pop our clogs we get to sit on a fluffy cloud surrounded by angels. But if you ask me to deny the existence of The Snooker Gods, even an old sceptic like me cannot bring himself to say the words. Yes, ladies, gentlemen and non-binary gender fluids everywhere I am here to say that I believe in The Crucible Curse and this year for the first time since 2016:

The Curse is Back.

Looking back through history we find that first time Crucible champions do not win the title the following year, it’s just a snooker fact. All the greats of the modern game have tried and failed, 19 of them in total, stretching back to John Spencer in 1978 who went down in the Last 16 to Perrie Mans. It wasn’t Spencer’s first world title defence, but it was his first and last win at The Crucible that started this anomaly that has now become etched in snooker folklore.

So when exactly did ‘The Curse’ begin to be discussed? Well, I believe this to have originated in 1982 when the mostly unbeatable Steve Davis was dumped out first round by The Bolton Stud, Tony Knowles. Davis was a cast-iron certainty to lift the title but turned up playing like a man with no eyes. The Snooker Gods had weaved their spell and there was nothing the hapless Nugget could do about it. Five others have failed to get over the first hurdle as defending champion, including Stuart Bingham, the latest recipient of the Snooker Gods torture treatment.

After Stephen Hendry won his first title in 1990, the world was convinced The Wonder Bairn could break the Snooker Gods hold and smash the curse, but Brummie Biker Steve James had other ideas and sent him packing in the Quarter Finals.

Even The Rocket couldn’t defy the Gods, after his first title he tried his best but this time it was Hendry himself, now on the payroll of the Gods who had caused him such misery a decade earlier, who made sure that Ronnie wouldn’t do what he couldn’t in a bad tempered semi-final.

Perhaps surprisingly the two who have come closest to the impossible are Joe Johnson and Ken Doherty who won 14 and 12 frames respectively in the final the year after they lifted the trophy. So it would appear that this is the absolute limit the Gods will stretch to before hitting the brakes. Rumour has it they took more pleasure in these two than any of the others, dangling the curse in front of the champion’s eyes only to snatch it back with a grin.

Judd Trump this year becomes the 20th man to try and defy gravity. It’s been a funny old year and no mistaking, Judd is more mature in years than most of the other first time Crucible winners, but why should we even begin to believe that he can do what 19 others before him couldn’t?

There may be restricted seating this year at The Crucible, but the Snooker Gods don’t need a ticket.

Now let’s take a look at the matches one by one, after a string of surprises in the qualifying and five debutants in the field, are we going to see an unlikely winner this year or will it play out to form now the real big guns are involved?

Click on the match for the head to head statistics, courtesy of Cue Tracker, if there is no link, they are playing each other for the first time.

TOP HALF – TABLE 1

Judd Trump (1) v Tom Ford (Friday 10am & 7pm)

Opening proceedings on Friday morning on Table 1 as is customary, is the defending champion and what a season Judd has had as World Champion and snooker’s number one. Title after title and ton after ton, he needs just two more here to emulate Neil Robertson’s century of centuries in a single season and surely if he were to progress here that will be as good as in the bag. Standing in his way is the experienced Tom Ford, making his fourth Crucible appearance, the previous three all ending at this stage. They actually played each other in this round in 2014 and Judd edged it 10-8 so Ford clearly doesn’t have that big a problem with the venue despite never winning here. But have the Snooker Gods been in touch with him? Will Judd follow the fate of the last first time defender Bingham and lose first round? I’m not too sure he will, he’s won their last three encounters and I think Ford is probably one of the players he’ll feel comfortable going out against.   

Prediction: Judd 10-6.

Yan Bingtao (16) v Elliot Slessor (Sunday 10am, Monday 2.30pm)

Slessor was highly impressive in qualifying and was clearly delighted to be through to The Crucible for the first time, even promising to marry his girlfriend as a result (I assume he asked her first). Traditionally debutants can struggle the first time they come here and the general concensus amongst the seasoned pro’s is that if you are going to hand pick a first opponent you want one who hasn’t been there before. But despite being the seeded player, Yan’s experience of the Crucible only amounts to one match, a tight one against Shaun Murphy which he narrowly lost so I’m sure he’ll be itching to get his first win at the venue too. There is nothing to go on in terms of head to heads and I’m sure the qualifier will have his backers given he’ll be match sharp from this week, but I’m going to side with Yan as I think he might be the cursed fly in the ointment in Round 2 for Judd. 

Prediction: Yan 10-8

Stephen Maguire (9) v Martin Gould (Tuesday 2.30pm, Wednesday 7pm)

Now and again snooker throws up some strange anomalies in the head to head statistics and here we have a case in point. Maguire has never beaten Gould outside of the practice style setting of the Championship League. Five meetings, including one way back in 2003 in the qualifiers for this and Gould has won them all, most recently in this season’s European Masters. Gould has had a dreadful couple of seasons but qualified in style beating Graeme Dott with a bit in hand playing much like his old self. He hinted afterwards that he’d had a few off the table issues and said he’d fallen out with snooker but that the lockdown had helped him refocus, helped by his discovery that you can actually buy spectacles to play snooker in rather than peeping over the top of his little round ones. Despite Mags coming here full of confidence since his big money win in Milton Keynes I think Gould might just pip this one given his momentum coming into it.

Prediction: Gould 10-8

Kyren Wilson (8) v Anthony Hamilton (Friday 2.30pm, Saturday 7pm)

It’s always nice to welcome back a face that’s been missing the top event for too long and that happens here with Hamilton, the man with the undisputed best nickname in the business. The Sheriff of Pottingham has been drawn against some people’s idea of a genuine outside contender for the title in Kyren Wilson. Hamilton I’m sure is one who benefited from the changed format of the qualifiers, he freely admits he finds a series of longer matches a struggle so that’s always a concern for his supporters in this event in particular. That said, he’s qualified relatively stress-free and scored pretty well so I’m sure will give Wilson a decent game. Kyren’s had an average season by his standards but he’s made a couple of finals, had a warm up in Milton Keynes so I think may just have The Sheriff’s measure here. Incidentally, check out that match they played in China in 2016 in the head to heads, 6 successive centuries!    

Prediction: Wilson 10-7

Anthony Hamilton has now withdrawn because of concerns about the safety of the venue and his underlying health condition. Kyren Wilson receives a bye to the second round.  

John Higgins v Matthew Stevens (Saturday 2.30pm, Sunday 2.30pm)

As you’d expect these two have had some right old tussles over the years including three meetings here, with Higgins leading those 2-1. Surprisingly though they haven’t faced each other in a main event for 6 years. Stevens came through the qualifiers despite claiming he only had 9 hours practice in the months of lockdown just before the match and admitted himself he was surprised at just how well he played. He’s honest enough to say that he is coming here with low expectations but that may be the way he motivates himself these days. I’m sure he won’t be phased drawing Higgins as he tends to perform best against the better players and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he sprang a shock here and had a run like he did a few years back to the one table situation (I hope so as I discovered a small each way bet I placed for this on him that I’d forgotten about at 650/1 as well as ones on Hamilton and McManus at the same price). Anyway, I suppose the sensible money will be on the runner-up from the last three years but I think this could be the tie of the first round.   

Prediction: Higgins 10-9

Dave Gilbert (12) v Kurt Maflin (Saturday 10am, Sunday 7pm)

Gilbert was just a few pots and a bad contact away from the final last year in a dramatic final frame decider against Higgins, who he could possibly meet in round 2 again this year. He’s drawn Kurt Maflin who absolutely trounced an out of sorts Matt Selt to qualify after a nervy decider saw him overcome the dangerous Joe O’Connor prior to that. The two have never met over anything more than a best of seven and Gilbert has won all four of their meetings to date. Kurt’s making his second appearance here after taking defending champion Selby to a decider in 2015 in what was a memorable match, can he go one better here? I don’t think so, I think Gilbert will win the tactical battles here and probably that will give him the edge in both sessions.  

Prediction: Gilbert 10-5

Jack Lisowski (13) v Anthony McGill (Monday 10am & 7pm)

Played 18, lost 2 is the impressive frame record to date of Anthony McGill who appeared to back to his best at the qualifiers having ditched the skinhead and beard pirate look and gone back to the much more suitable fresh faced carrot top. He really was impressive this week and we know he loves this venue as he’s proved it in the past and I’m sure he was one of the names high on the list of ones no seed wanted to play first. We’ve not seen a great deal of Jack Lisowski this season but he’s done enough to maintain his top 16 place by virtue of a strong season beforehand, he lost as a seed last year in the first round to Ali Carter and has drawn another strong player here. I think he’ll need to find some of his early season form to stay with the Scot here.    

Prediction: McGill 10-6

Mark Allen (4) v Jamie Clarke (Tuesday 10am & 7pm)

What an achievement for Jamie Clarke making it here, he’s struggled since turning professional but those in the know can see what a talent he has and he finally let that shine through last week to set up a tie with Mark Allen. All I hope is that he really enjoys an experience he has been yearning for since he first picked up a cue. It’s a very tough draw obviously, Allen has been one of the most consistent performers over the last couple of seasons and if he gets an early hold on the match this could be quite a straightforward win for him. My heart, of course says Jamie can do it, but in my head it has to be Allen. Go on Clarkey! 

Prediction: Allen 10-4

BOTTOM HALF – TABLE 2

Mark Williams (3) v Alan McManus (Friday 7pm, Saturday 7pm)

Who says snooker is a young man’s game? This fresh faced pair were first lining up to outdo each other 27 years ago at The Hexagon in Reading and now here they are, Williams still seeded third in the world back at the biggest stage, what an amazing achievement. The roller coaster of Williams career can best be summed up in their last meeting, which was in this tournament but in the qualifying venue in 2014 where Angles won 10-8 against a seemingly finished MJW. Fast forward to four years later and Williams would be World Champion again and who is to say he’s finished with this great title yet? He’s been practising hard for weeks now after briefly flirting with the idea of semi-retirement which is now out of the window as he discovers that without snooker, he gets bored quite easily. I actually think he’s a contender again in this and I think he’ll start with a comfortable win here, I made him my headline pick when he won it last so I’m going for an unlikely double.  

Prediction: Williams 10-5

Stuart Bingham (14) v Ashley Carty (Friday 10am, Saturday 10am)

I’m going to sound a bit like Dennis Taylor here when I claim that I cannot actually recall ever watching Ashley Carty play, he seems to have been just one of those players that somehow has flown under my radar, but wins over Ross Muir, Jimmy Robertson and Rob Milkins clearly show that he is a player with a lot in the tank. He faces Masters champion Bingham who I think will probably be pleased to have drawn someone so inexperienced of this venue. They’ve never played each other so it’s a learning curve for both of them but given Ballrun’s vast experience here, you’d really not expect anything other than a comfortable win for him.  

Prediction: Bingham 10-3 

Ding Junhui (11) v Mark King (Friday 2.30pm, Saturday 2.30pm)

Fans of rhyming match ups will be delighted at this one. Ding finally managed to get to the UK where he had to self-isolate for 2 weeks and has now been back putting in the hours at his new self-named academy in his adopted home of Sheffield. He’s had a very strange season, couldn’t hit a bulls arse with a shovel for 80% of it and then somehow goes and wins the UK Championship. I think he comes into this less fancied than any previous year in the last decade and I think that and the reduced crowd are in his favour. As for Kingy, after a bizarre encounter in the qualifiers with Ian Burns he’ll be delighted to be back here for the first time in seven years, another old face returns. His record against Ding isn’t good and I don’t think there is any reason to suggest he’ll turn that around at all here. 

Prediction: Ding 10-6

Ronnie O’Sullivan (6) v Thepchaiya Un-Nooh (Sunday 2.30pm, Monday 10am)

The stand out match for speed junkies this one between the two fastest cuemen in the world according to the average shot stats. It’s weird really because I don’t ever really think of Ronnie as being purposely fast, he just seems to dance and glide around the table whereas Un-Nooh sometimes looks like he’s running. Anyway, Thepchaiya will relish this in my opinion, arguably he could have changed the course of history last year and beat Judd in the first round and but for one shot he missed to go 8-4 up he may have completed the job. The burning question as ever is which Ronnie will show up? The dedicated version who has been picking off titles for the last few seasons or the sickly, sulky one who lost last year to Cahill. It’s impossible to tell but if he’s not at somewhere near his best here, he may well be sent packing again before he’s even unpacked. Front row spectators beware of flying balls, crash helmets may be required.   

Prediction: Un-Nooh 10-7 *ducks for cover

Mark Selby (7) v Jordan Brown (Monday 7pm, Tuesday 2.30pm)

Another player who hasn’t been himself and comes into this, like Ding, as unfancied to win it as I can remember is Selby. Again however, like Ding, flying under the media radar may help him settle and rediscover the form that he appears to have lost just recently. His biggest assets have always been his tactical play, willingness to scrap and consistency but we’ve only seen flashes of the old Jester for the past year or so, despite him still picking up the odd trophy here and there. Jordan Brown came through three matches in qualifying including an impressive win over Ryan Day, pulling clear when it looked to be going close. He’s someone I know is highly rated by his pal Mark Allen but someone, like Carty, who I have seen little or nothing of on the baize, I think I’ve passed the BBC commentary audition now.    

Prediction: Selby 10-6 

Shaun Murphy (10) v Noppon Saengkham (Monday 2.30pm, Tuesday 10am)

It’s been a sad time for Shaun Murphy over the past few weeks off the baize so it would be understandable if snooker were not his top priority at the moment, but often it can work as a welcome distraction for issues off the table so very much like the wounded animal, Murphy might well channel all his energy into his snooker for a fortnight, stranger things have happened. Noppon comes here for the second time having only taken 4 frames off Neil Robertson on his debut. He coasted to victory over Eden Sharav to get here but I notice in both his wins his scoring wasn’t exactly spectacular and he’ll have to up his game considerably to get anywhere near Murphy here assuming Shaun is up for the fight.     

Prediction: Murphy 10-3

Barry Hawkins (15) v Alexander Ursenbacher (Tuesday 7pm, Wednesday 2.30pm)

I was so impressed last week watching Alex, his manner around the table was so measured and assured and I’m delighted he qualified, he seems like a really nice lad too and speaks perfect English. Here he faces one of the more consistent performers in recent years at The Crucible Hawkins, the bad news is that they’ve played each other twice and Barry has whitewashed Alex on both occasions, the slightly better news is that they were both 7 years ago and Alex is now a very different player than then. By his own high standards Hawkins has had a poor season, losing early in all the big events and that’s why he finds himself clinging on to his top 16 place. If Ursenbacher can keep his cool and stay with Hawkins in the first session I think this might go close, it all depends how the Swiss man takes to the venue, all I can say is that I’m pleased there is at least one member of the Backer family in attendance this year.  

Prediction: Hawkins 10-8

Neil Robertson (2) v Liang Wenbo (Sunday 10am & 7pm)

I’m not going to labour the point but Liang Wenbo, as talented as he is, needs to start playing snooker honestly and owning up to fouls that the referee doesn’t see. He did it again in the decider against Fergal and I for one am sick of it. Right, that’s that dealt with. The last time these two met on the really big stage was when Robbo beat Liang 10-5 to claim the UK title and they have had a few tussles through the years so this is no stroll in the park for Neil. When I chatted with him earlier this week, Robbo gave a hint as to how he was going to approach his first round match and touched on his awareness of his own poor recent record here and why he thinks that is. If his ‘safety first’ approach is what he takes here it’s likely to frustrate his emotional opponent and that could be the key to this match as however good Liang can be, he does make a lot of mistakes, I think Robbo or Murphy will make the one table from this section. 

Prediction: Robertson 10-5

Recommended Bets on the first round: Martin Gould and Anthony McGill double pays over 7/1. Accumulator on all five of the following with +4.5 frames on the handicap – Slessor, Gould, Stevens, Hamilton, Un-Nooh pays over 19/2.

Recommended Outright: Mark Williams each way at 45/1. Mark Allen each way at 16/1. Anthony McGill each way at 125/1.

Previously advised (January): Dave Gilbert at 45/1 now 28/1. Thepchaiya Un-Nooh at 190/1 now 66/1. Stephen Maguire at 100/1 now 25/1. 

I’ll find others over the coming 48 hours and will put any I think may be of interest up on Twitter.

 

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