Here’s our preview of day 1 of the Dafabet World Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield…
RONNIE O’SULLIVAN v ROBIN HULL
(Saturday 10am and 7pm)
A year ago, Robin Hull took part in the now axed WPBSA members round of the World Championship, a section of the tournament for players who have retained their membership but are not on the tour. He lost 5-2 to Paul Wykes. 12 months on, he is playing Ronnie O’Sullivan at the Crucible.
This is the match which launches the 2014 Dafabet World Championship and signals a complete turnaround in fortunes for Hull, comfortably Finland’s best ever player.
Ask anyone who was around on the circuit 15 years ago – players, officials, media, spectators – and they will tell you what a good player Hull was. In the 2001/02 season he won 28 matches, culminating in beating Steve Davis to qualify for the Crucible. He lost 10-6 to Graeme Dott but many more appearances looked likely. He joined the top 32 and was on course for the top 16.
Then, he was struck down with the virus which would affect his balance to the extent that he could not walk straight. He withdrew from tournaments while he was treated and tumbled down the rankings. A later diagnosis for an irregular heartbeat eventually led to his retirement.
Last year, he won the European amateur title, which earned him a return to the circuit and he won four matches to return to the Crucible 12 years on, including a 10-8 victory over 2002 world champion Peter Ebdon.
Hull, at 122nd, is the lowest ranked qualifier since 2002, where a young man by the name of Shaun Murphy qualified at 169th in the world. O’Sullivan, obviously, starts as a big favourite as he chases a sixth world title, but the psychology of this year’s championship is different to that of 2013.
Last year, O’Sullivan had the perfect excuse not to do well. He had barely played for a year and any defeat could be put down to rustiness.
This season, he has played really well in the tournaments he’s entered, winning four titles. His mind has been right and he’s been enjoying his snooker.
So well has he played this season that some people say it’s his title to lose. This puts a different pressure on him to last year but O’Sullivan knows how hard it is to triumph at the Crucible and certainly won’t be taking it for granted.
PREDICTION: O’Sullivan 10-4
STUART BINGHAM v KEN DOHERTY
(Saturday 10am and Sunday 10am)
These two met in the first round in 2002, a match notable for Bingham missing the pink on 134 with a £169,000 bonus prize on offer for a maximum break.
Doherty, at 44, is the oldest player in the Crucible field this year. As he’s got older he’s become more inconsistent but he remains a fighter with the table-craft and guile to cause any top player problems. The Irishman has been in three world finals, winning the title in 1997. His performance in the 2003 World Championship, in which he survived a succession of close matches before coming up short against Mark Williams in the final, remains one of the most memorable and impressive from a player who ultimately failed to lift the trophy.
Bingham has blown hot and cold at the Crucible over the years. He enjoyed a sensational debut beating Stephen Hendry 10-7 on the opening day in 2000, then two years ago as a seed lost to Hendry in the first round. Last year, he reached the quarter-finals.
Bingham fully deserves his place in the upper reaches of the rankings. He’s worked hard and earlier this season played some brilliant snooker during the fortnight in which he reached the Champion of Champions final and the semi-finals of the UK Championship. He has to start favourite but Doherty could make things very tough for him.
PREDICTION: Bingham 10-8
SHAUN MURPHY v JAMIE COPE
(Saturday 2.30pm and Sunday 7pm)
Cope has been through the emotional ringer in recent times, tumbling from a world ranking of 14 three years ago to 53rd in the latest list.
This has been one of worst ever declines for a player who looked set to be a regular at the business end of tournaments for many years. Cope developed a condition, believed to be hereditary, which caused him to shake on the shot, even while practising. He has been consulting with a sports psychologist and hopes to have turned a corner after even considering quitting snooker altogether.
Like Robin Hull, then, it is good to see Cope back at the Crucible. The bad news for him is that he is facing a player who has rediscovered his own confidence.
Murphy’s capture of the Gdynia European Tour event led on to him winning the World Open. He has, of course, also won the world title before, as a qualifier in 2005, and finished runner-up in 2009. Last year he lost a 13-12 quarter-final thriller to Judd Trump
Murphy could be the player to stop O’Sullivan winning a sixth world title, with the pair due to meet in the quarter-finals. He doesn’t fear him and his confidence is up, though neither of these facts make playing the Rocket any easier.
But there’s work to be done before he can think about that. Cope may be so happy to be back at the Crucible that he relaxes and unleashes the attacking game which got him up the rankings in the first place. Murphy, therefore, needs to be on his guard but form is in his favour.
PREDICTION: Murphy 10-6
STEPHEN MAGUIRE v RYAN DAY
(Saturday 2.30pm and Sunday 7pm)
Day beat Maguire in the qualifiers for the 2000 British Open when they were each starting out but has not beaten him in anything significant since. Despite this he remains a tough draw for anyone, with three Crucible quarter-final appearances to his name.
Maguire has been suffering from a back complaint, the last thing you want going into the World Championship.
They are in perhaps the toughest quarter of the draw, with Judd Trump, Mark Allen and Neil Robertson all competing for a place in the last eight.
This first round match is a tough one to call, but Day may tip the balance having had a match this week to qualify, whereas Maguire didn’t play in Beijing, didn’t win a frame in Preston and was a first round loser in Haikou, all disappointing setbacks coming after his back injury first came to light at the Welsh Open.
PREDICTION: Day 10-7
ALI CARTER v XIAO GUODONG
(Saturday 7pm and Sunday 2.30pm)
This has the potential to be an early classic with Carter well established at the Crucible, twice reaching the final, and Xiao a very dangerous qualifier.
In form, Carter is an impressive sight, playing a precise, heavy scoring game. He enjoys a battle and has a good Crucible record to call on.
Xiao is currently China’s second best player behind Ding Junhui and seems a sensible, level-headed sort who has heeded the good advice of coach Terry Griffiths, the 1979 world champion.
Xiao is a top 16 player of the near future if he develops some consistency and also cuts out the loose shots and employs a better tactical game. However, what counts ultimately in Carter’s favour is his Crucible experience. This is what he needs to use to his advantage.
PREDICTION: Carter 10-6
Photographs by Monique Limbos.