SUCH IS SNOOKER’s current strength in depth that it would be no surprise if Mark Selby either lost to Kurt Maflin at the Crucible today or went all the way to becoming the first first-time champion to defend the title.
It’s worth remembering that Selby very nearly lost to Michael White in the opening round last year, scraping through 10-9 in a typically nervy last 32 clash.
First rounds in the Betfred World Championship are stacked with pressure whether you’re the defending champion or not. All the talk and build-up is over: you’re playing now. It’s real. This is your one chance for the year to become world champion.
Of course, Selby’s name is now on the famous roll of honour for all time, a proud achievement in a life which began in humble and at times difficult circumstances. But he’s well aware that he’s the man to be shot at this year as the fabled Crucible Curse attempts to claim another victim.
Except, there is no curse. It’s just an anomaly. The World Championship is hard to win once, never mind twice, never mind two years running.
Even so, the last two first-time winners – Graeme Dott and Neil Robertson – both made opening day exits. The last first time winner to go beyond the quarter-finals was Ronnie O’Sullivan in 2002.
Maflin is a super talent who has settled down into a dangerous player in recent times. He gave Selby a stern test in their China Open semi-final in Beijing recently. It was noticeable how attacking Selby was in this match. They each made two century breaks in a free-flowing contest.
Maflin is making his debut at the Crucible Theatre and he will need to settle early. When Matt Selt took his maiden bow against Selby two years ago he was 5-0 down before he started to feel comfortable. This venue can do that to newcomers.
Selby is the only player to have won two ranking titles this season. Towards the end at the China Open he was cueing superbly and his comeback against Shaun Murphy in the German Masters final was further evidence of his incredible resolve.
This is a quality to be valued at the Crucible, where a player must win 71 frames over 16 sessions over almost three weeks to become world champion.
Some of the most dangerous times are those between sessions rather than actually playing. These are the periods where the doubts can fester, where the mind can lapse into worry.
Ultimately there are two types of snooker player: those who have been world champion and those who have not. Selby belongs in the former camp but a first day exit today would be a sour note in his career. On the flipside, he will create history if he lasts the course again.
Selby emerged victorious from snooker’s game of thrones last year but the 2015 championship presents a fresh set of challenges – and there are many others eyeing his crown.
And so it begins. 17 days to decide who rules snooker’s kingdom. Wherever you're watching, enjoy it.
Photographs by Monique Limbos.