KURT MAFLIN was the last player to qualify for the Crucible this year and will be among the first in action on Saturday when he faces defending champion Mark Selby in the first round.
Selby beat Maflin 6-3 in their recent China Open semi-final in Beijing. It was a high quality contest in which each player made two centuries. But in Sheffield they will both be under pressure for different reasons.
Even a player as mentally strong as Selby will not be immune to talk of the ‘Crucible Curse’ – that no first time winner has made a successful defence of the Betfred World Championship title. Launching the event brings with it nerves and pressure. As Steve Davis once remarked: “The first shock hasn’t happened yet and it could be you.”
Maflin, though, will be experiencing the unique Crucible atmosphere for the first time. How quickly he settles down could be the key to whether he can spring a first day upset.
The first round draw has thrown up some interesting matches between the top 16 and a very strong set of qualifiers.
Craig Steadman and another debutant, Stuart Carrington, have been handed very difficult draws against Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump respectively.
This year’s final debutant, Anthony McGill, at least knows the game of Stephen Maguire well through practising with him.
Where could the first round upsets come from?
John Higgins won his first four meetings with Robert Milkins but has lost the last four. Matt Selt, who made a great clearance to deny Tom Ford a decider, will be full of confidence against Barry Hawkins, whose season has been largely disappointing.
Neil Robertson will be well aware that Jamie Jones has returned to something of the form which carried him to the World Championship quarter-finals in 2012. Mark Allen has blown hot and cold this season and faces an experienced Crucible performer in Ryan Day.
Mark Williams’s match against fellow Welshman Matthew Stevens is a re-run of their world final from 15 years ago.
Graeme Dott made a good point when he qualified: “When I was in the top 16 I was someone the qualifiers might want to play; now I’ve qualified, the top 16 won’t want to play me.”
Dott, the 2006 champion and twice a runner-up in Sheffield, faces Ricky Walden when their first round match begins on Saturday night.
Shaun Murphy, ten years on from his great Crucible triumph, also has a tough starter against Robin Hull, who has qualified for the second year running.
Joe Perry has also been handed a potential banana skin against Zhang Anda, who has played at the Crucible before and qualified this year ahead of some of the more in form Chinese players.
The bottom line is, in the first round everyone is nervous. There could be some very close matches but O’Sullivan and Trump, who could meet in the semi-finals, have at least avoided players with World Championship pedigree. Defeats for either of them really would register high on the Crucible Richter scale.
Mark Selby v Kurt Maflin
Stephen Maguire v Anthony McGill
Joe Perry v Zhang Anda
Shaun Murphy v Robin Hull
Barry Hawkins v Matt Selt
Mark Allen v Ryan Day
Ali Carter v Alan McManus
Neil Robertson v Jamie Jones
Ding Junhui v Mark Davis
John Higgins v Robert Milkins
Marco Fu v Jimmy Robertson
Judd Trump v Stuart Carrington
Ricky Walden v Graeme Dott
Stuart Bingham v Robbie Williams
Mark Williams v Matthew Stevens
Ronnie O’Sullivan v Craig Steadman
Photographs by Monique Limbos.