In four days time a rather irritating MC, Rob Walker, will holler ‘let’s get the boys on the baize!’ to signal the beginning of this year’s Betfred World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre, his deafening cry accompanied by a Cheshire cat grin. Sheffield’s Crucible is to snooker what Wembley is to football: a historic venue that has no equal in the game, so we can probably just about forgive Walker’s overexcitement come Saturday.
The main draw was actually held at Wembley this year and has produced some tasty first round ties. Ken Doherty’s return to Sheffield after missing out in 2009 will see the Irishman face the ‘jester from Leicester’ (as Walker will no doubt introduce him) and 7th ranked player in the world, Mark Selby. Two former world champions will also go head to head with 2006 winner Graeme Dott against Peter Ebdon, who won it four years earlier.
With the number one ranked player and reigning champion John Higgins, seven-time winner Stephen Hendry, the enigmatic and ambidextrous Ronnie O’Sullivan, the youthful but immensely talented Ding Junhui and old-timer Steve Davis all in the draw too there should be plenty of drama throughout the 16 day tournament.
Snooker’s changing showpiece
The appeal of snooker’s premier event is rather like the FIFA World Cup, albeit on a far more modest scale. Only the most faithful fans of the sport would have followed Mark Williams’s comeback against Junhui a fortnight ago to land the 2010 China Open, but the BBC coverage at the Crucible is likely to entice casual followers of the game to take an interest too. Sports fans normally indifferent to how many red-black-red-black-red-black combinations can be potted in a sequence often find themselves initially tuning in for the odd frame, only to find come the final they have stayed up past midnight to see the trophy lifted.
Accusations of snooker’s current crop lacking any big personalities compared to players of the past may not be entirely wide of the mark - no one gulps down a beer during frames anymore or wears their glasses upside down - but the glut of ‘characters’ in snooker’s midst have been replaced by even more talent.
Whoever plays on the baize these days (some more Walker-inspired phraseology there), each of the 16 first round matches could well produce a shock due to the standard of the modern day snooker professional. It makes for intriguing viewing and, 25 years on since Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the black in a final which captured the attention of entire the nation, it could well be the year that snooker claws back some of its lost audience. Either way, the two veterans, will play an exhibition frame on April 29 to mark the anniversary.
Davis’s achievement of qualifying for the Championship for the 30th time is a feat worthy of celebrating in itself, although the rewards are significantly higher when compared to his debut in 1979. A £250,000 cheque awaits the winner, with a further £157,000 on offer if a maximum 147 clearance is completed. Last year Stephen Hendry managed a maximum, with a record-breaking 83 centuries made in total throughout the tournament – this underlines the kind of standard now common on the green felt.
What are the odds?
Such devastating scoring amongst the balls will likely determine the winner in 2010, in a game where a single mistake often proves costly. Naming who will deliver though is difficult to say. O’Sullivan is the bookies’ favourite but Higgins, Junhui, Selby, Neil Robertson, Shaun Murphy and Williams are all not far behind. For the only real certainty of the tournament we must return to that unbearable cheerful MC, as the bookies won’t be taking bets on Walker’s opening gambit, that’s for sure.