It’s that time of year again; the time when spring is in full bloom, the days are getting longer and wearing shorts is not just for posh Chelsea boys. Yes it’s time to head indoors for 17 days (ignore that sunshine – it’ll be back, probably) and watch the world’s best snooker players battle it out for the sport’s most prestigious prize – the World Snooker Championships. Snooker, the ‘sport’ that is perfect for background watching, or insomnia. Stick it on and you’ll be asleep in minutes. But if you’re one of the few (like me) who can fight its soporific effects then here are some of the main contenders for this year’s title.
Mark Selby (England)
World Ranking: 1
The jester from Leicester has been in sparkling form this season and comes into the tournament as the World No. 1. He is a man for the longer-form of the game as proved by his victories in both the Masters and the UK Championship this season. A former finalist back in 2007, Selby has the talent and more importantly the concentration for this format. The World Championships are not only a test of snooker ability but also the mental fortitude of every competitor – and Selby is one of the best at both. The Crucible can quickly become a lonely place if the balls are not running your way and sitting in your chair watching your opponent knock in break after break can be demoralising. The player who can overcome such challenges will not be far off the famous trophy come the 6th of May, and I expect to see Selby in the latter stages of the tournament, if not the winner.
Neil Robertson (Australia)
World Ranking: 2
‘The thunder from down-under’, ‘the blonde bombshell’. I could come up with more nicknames for Neil Robertson but I can’t think of any, so on with the preview. Along with Selby, Robertson has been the form player this season, winning the China Open as well as 3 runner-ups and two other semi-final appearances. A man with ridiculous natural talent, Robertson combines this with a rather stereotypical Aussie grit. He is the best long-ball potter in the game and if he plays to his full potential, he is nigh on untouchable. If he can avoid an early upset, he should meet Selby in a mouth-watering final.
Judd Trump (England)
World Ranking: 3
The poster-boy of snooker, Trump has had a bit of a lean year so far. He won the inaugural International Masters, and reached the final of the Shanghai Masters, but apart from a semi-final appearance at the Welsh Open and a quarter-final at the Masters in December, Trump has been uncharacteristically quiet. The flashy Bristol-born 23 year-old stormed to the final of the World Championships in 2011 where he received a bit of a lesson from John Higgins. For me, Trump needs to start showing a bit more humility – he has yet to achieve a great deal in the game but still comes out with some controversial comments which rile the more established professionals. He carries this petulant streak onto the table which can often get him into trouble when he comes up against a great match-player such as Peter Ebdon or Marco Fu, real competitors who will fight until the last ball is potted. Trump definitely has the talent but he has yet to prove he has the metal aptitude to triumph when it matters. He has a difficult first round in Dominic Dale, and if he can come through that, he can go far this year.
John Higgins (Scotland)
World Ranking: 7
The Wizard of Wishaw has previous in the World Championships. He is a four time winner at the Crucible and always seems to save his best for these two weeks. The 37 year-old won the Shanghai Masters in September but since then he hasn’t been troubling the scorers much. A quarter-final at the Masters in December is his best since then. However Higgins is one of those players who can find form during a tournament. He often starts slowly but when it comes to the big matches he seems to find an extra gear or two. He isn’t the best break-builder, safety-player or long-potter but he is a complete all-rounder with no weakness to his game. He is another who relishes the long-format of the World Championships. If he can avoid a metaphorical banana skin in the opening rounds, he will definitely feature up with the big boys well into the second week (cue early exit in opening round).
Mark Allen (Northern Ireland)
World Ranking: 6
The ‘Pistol’ (beats me) is never afraid of the limelight. He seems to spend more time slagging of World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn and his fellow professionals than actually doing anything of note on the table. That said, rent-a-quote Allen did manage to defend his World Open title this season but apart from a quarter-final appearance at the Masters, the gobby Northern Irishman has done little of note this season. He has a good record at the Crucible (one semi-final and two quarters in six appearances) so you can never rule him out, but Allen is too inconsistent to win in his current form. Whilst he may not represent good value on the table, expect to see some hilarious sound-bites in his press conferences.
Ronnie O’Sullivan (England)
World Ranking: 28
Who knows what to expect from the ‘Rocket’ this year. Widely regarded as ‘the most natural talent the game has ever seen,’ O’Sullivan has returned from a self-imposed exile to defend the title he so spectacularly won last year. The 2012 World Championships was an absolute procession for O’Sullivan. The Englishman seemed so at ease round the table, serenely beating all and sundry to claim his fourth title. This year could be a repeat; the man is so gifted that when he’s on form, no-one can match his level. O’Sullivan is often his own worst enemy away from the table. If an opponent can get into Ronnie’s head, they can often wear down his patience as Peter Ebdon famously did in 2005. However O’Sullivan is in a much better place since those dark days and he has taken up running and worked on a farm since his ‘retirement’ in November. He could go out in the first round, he could go on to win it. We should simply be honoured that he is competing and that we can once more marvel at his awesome skill.
So there you have it. As comprehensive a preview of the 2013 World Championships as you’re ever likely to see. There are a few outsiders who may make it to the latter rounds, like Ding Junhui, the ‘captain’ Ali Carter, Shaun Murphy and Marco Fu, but I stand by my prediction of a Selby v Robertson final. I wouldn’t be too upset if O’Sullivan made it to the final. It would be nice to see John Higgins have a good run and if omens are to be believed, then he is due a victory: he won in ‘07, ’09 and ‘11 and went out in the first round in ’08, ’10 and ’12. I just can’t see it happening though. Nonetheless it should be a riveting(ish) 17 days. To coin MC Rob Walker: “Let’s get the boys on the baize.”