ROBIN HULL, whose professional career appeared to have ended six years ago, will provide the first round opposition for defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round of the Dafabet World Championship on Saturday.

Hull played at the Crucible in 2002 but was shortly afterwards struck down with a virus which left him with no feeling in his right hand side and unable to even walk in a straight line. He was later diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and retired in 2008 after getting stuck in what he has termed “a mental rut.”

So to just be back at the Crucible is a huge achievement. He could not have had a tougher draw but to play O’Sullivan in the World Championship after all he has been through and experience such a huge occasion will feel like a reward for all the years of struggle.

Hull said: “Whoever it is, you want to get your stuff out on the table, so the focus goes on what you’re doing. Fair enough, with Ronnie there’ll be the maximum distraction possible but you still have to play that shot, whoever it is.”

O’Sullivan has been one of three players of the season. The other two, Ding Junhui and Neil Robertson, will each face a young Crucible debutant.

Michael Wasley and Robbie Williams both came through dramatic finishes, each winning their respective matches 10-9 on re-spotted blacks.

Wasley’s reward is a meeting with Ding while Robertson faces Williams. Some players excel on their Crucible debuts but most struggle to come to terms with the unique atmosphere. Both Wasley and Williams will have to settle early to threaten upsets.

The other top four seed, Mark Selby (pictured), could be vulnerable against Michael White, who reached the quarter-finals last year. Selby’s form has been in and out this season, with some flat performances in amongst a couple of major finals.

John Higgins has Alan McManus to thank for helping him improve from a talented junior at 15 to a player equipped with the all round game to challenge in the professional ranks. Indeed, McManus beat Higgins 10-3 on his Crucible debut in 1995. These two Scots face each other on the first round, a match unlikely to be comfortable for either of them.

The only other time Tom Ford qualified for the Crucible he beat Judd Trump 10-3 to do so. The two meet again, a good draw for Trump in that he is up against someone who plays a similar attacking game.

Xiao Guodong, the fourth debutant after Wasley, Williams and Kyren Wilson, is a dangerous player and his match with Ali Carter could be an early classic.

Wilson faces Ricky Walden, a World Championship semi-finalist last season. The man who beat him, Barry Hawkins, meets Dave Gilbert.

Overall it’s an intriguing draw with the possibility for shocks, particularly with the qualifiers coming so close to the main event. Those who have made it through are match-fit and super confident. It can work the other way, though, as the top 16 are nicely rested.

There is nothing in snooker to match the battle for the World Championship, with 17 days of drama, twists, surprises, controversy and eye-catching skill.

The field is set. The last preparations are being made inside the Crucible. 32 players dream of glory, only one will win the £300,000 first prize come May 5.

Much of the focus will, inevitably, be on O’Sullivan but all 32 of these players have a story. Some have already had fine careers, others are just getting started. Some have fought against the odds, they all have their eyes on snooker’s greatest prize.


Photographs by Monique Limbos.