It’s that time of the year again when snooker takes limelight in the mainstream media for its 17 day blue ribbon event, the World Championship.
The 2017 edition will be celebrating its 40th year anniversary of being staged at the iconic Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Friday night, the day before play begins, the venue will host a special ‘Green Carpet’ exhibition where all living World Champions, and the 32 players in this year’s tournament, will be in attendance.
There is a clear 3-way dance at the top of the odds for this year’s championship with Judd Trump, defending champion Mark Selby and 5 times champion Ronnie O’Sullivan the favourites in the frame to lift the trophy on May Bank Holiday Monday.
Just shading that power struggle is 27-year-old Trump, who has been in hot form throughout much of this season with major ranking wins at the European Masters in October and the lucrative Players Championship in March.
He has also underlined his consistency with Runners-Up finishes at the English Open, Welsh Open and Gibraltar Open; the latter two being within the last two months. In Beijing at the China Open a fortnight ago he made his third career 147 maximum break on route to making the Semi-Finals.
A concern that some punters may have is his fairly poor career return in the sports triple crown majors (World Championship, UK Championship and Masters), with his 2011 UK win still his sole success. Ever since Trump was a junior, he has had the pressure and expectation of becoming the world’s best, although he was briefly World Number 1 in 2012/2013. Despite this, JT seems to have more of the right ingredients this time around than ever before.
Reigning champ Selby has had a stellar 12 months; even by his very high standards. In that space of time he has claimed the three biggest ranking events the sport has to offer in the Worlds, UK and International Championships. The Paul Hunter Classic and the last completed event, the China Open, are also in his trophy cabinet.
Selby has been top of the World Rankings for nearly 800 consecutive days now; he has such an advantage that he is guaranteed to keep that status regardless of the outcome in Sheffield. Absolutely hard as nails, his supreme matchplay and powers of concentration make him such a difficult opponent to overcome in a long format such as this.
— Betfred (@Betfred) April 13, 2017
For the first time since 2013, O’Sullivan is not the pre-tournament favourite; a position that may actually suit him better, with perhaps a point to prove.
It has been an indifferent campaign for ‘The Rocket’, who has featured more this season in competition than he has done for a fair few seasons after some concerns with his spot in the world’s elite top 16. A combination of not entering the first half of events in the 2015/2016 season, and without him currently holding a ranking title, Ronnie is actually seeded number 12.
Final runs this campaign in the European Masters, UK and Champion of Champions were bitter sweet with defeats to Trump, John Higgins and Selby respectively. However, his undisputed highlight was winning a record breaking 7th Masters invitational title at the Alexandra Palace in January.
Ronnie seems to relish and be comfortable in the big events (often with big paydays attached to them!) where all eyes are on him. Maybe worryingly, since that Masters success he has won just 5 of his last 10 matches in all competitions, although he may have timed his perfection and peak here. The thought of levelling with all-time snooker greats Steve Davis and Ray Reardon on 6 World Championships must be a burning motivation.
Elsewhere in the betting, familiar names Ding Junhui (last year’s beaten finalist) and Neil Robertson (2010 champion) come in less fancied than some previous years at around the 12-14/1 mark. Slightly behind is John Higgins (4-time champion), who has picked up a trio of invitational titles this term, although has not been past the Quarter-Finals here since his last win in 2011.
Marco Fu and Barry Hawkins have been two of the standout competitors this year with trophies to boast, and are now in the conversation as genuine threats. Stuart Bingham, the shock winner here only two years ago, and Ali Carter, the 08 and 12 finalist, are also current title holders.
The qualifying event for the 2017 championship took place over the last week at the Ponds Forge International Arena, also in Sheffield. 128 players, all outside the automatically qualified top 16, were whittled down to just 16 over three rounds of matches.
There is a great mixture of youth and experience, homegrown and overseas talent that emerged through.
There will be 5 players making their debuts at the Crucible this time, that includes exciting 2015 World Cup winning Chinese pair of Zhou Yuelong and Yan Bingtao. Both are former World Amateur Champions, Zhou is only 19 years old, whilst Yan has only just turned 17 – making him the second youngest player ever to make the main draw here.
Two of the picks from the First Round draw are Zhou v countryman Ding, and Yan facing 2005 winner Shaun Murphy. The winner of that tie will face Ronnie in the Last 16 if he can get past debutant Gary Wilson, who made a 147 during qualifying.
At the other end of the spectrum, 2002 World Champion Peter Ebdon will chalk up his 24th appearance here – the 46 year old made his Crucible bow in 1992.
45 year old Fergal O’Brien (along with opponent David Gilbert) set a new world record for the longest frame of professional snooker ever on Wednesday night during the deciding frame of their final qualifying round match. It lasted over a staggering and dramatic TWO HOURS! O’Brien’s reward is an opening day clash with Selby. I hope he got some kip.
With essentially a trio of favourites out on their own in the betting, there could be value looking elsewhere, possibly from the third quarter of the draw where neither Trump, Selby or O’Sullivan are.
Personally, I do feel the winner will be out of one of those three, but it is very difficult to distinguish which one.
Trump does has the pressure of fulfilling a ‘destiny’ whilst O’Sullivan could have a very tough roadmap ahead. Selby should make it to the Quarter-Finals without too many problems, and given his record over the last 12 months most events (especially big ones), he would be the one I may currently just side with.
For more detailed, in depth looks at the top 16 players in this championship, please visit my ‘Crucible Chances Series’ here
We also spoke to event sponsors BetFred about the market around and their sports trading manager Paul Dunning.
“There has been a steady interest as always, but turnover will rocket now as we are top price every player in the field from Thursday morning until play commencing on Saturday morning,” Dunning told The GamblingTimes.com.
Dunning admitted that money wise Judd Trump was the most popular player ahead of defending champion Mark Selby.
“I would say Judd Trump was currently the most popular player with the public and following the draw will definitely go off favourite,” he said.
Dunning also says BetFred are happy to oppose the big three Selby, Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan.
“I am more than happy to lay all these players as I think we can get them all beat.”
We also asked him to pick out some others from the market for us to look out for.
“Personally I like the chances of Barry Hawkins from the easier (on paper) bottom half of the draw,” he said.
“At a big price I think Anthony McGill could perform well again as he has done in the last two years at The Crucible.”