So this Saturday heralds the return of the snooker world championship. 128 players rolled up last week to the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, all with the same aim of qualifying, having made their preparations (or in the case of Michael Judge, rushing down from Dublin last minute).

Some matches went quickly (4 whitewashes), some slowly (Thanks Peter Lines and Michael Judge for keeping people up till 3). In the end, 16 men (sorry Reanne and Ng Onyee, there’s always next year) survived there rounds, winning 30 frames to make it to hallowed ground: The Crucible Theatre (which is just the other side of the city).

I will be filming my travels and exploits in Sheffield on Saturday, and in another first for me (how long until I run out of firsts?), will be uploading the videos to YouTube.

Anyway, the purpose of this blog entry is to introduce the first round ties, analysing the seeds and the underdogs, and giving my picks for who wins and who will walk away with the trophy. Let’s start with the World Champion and International Playboi, The Welsh Pub Machine, Mark Williams.

Mark Williams (1) vs. Martin Gould

This season has largely felt like the Mark Williams Invitational Pub Crawl. In his defence, he has turned up to more tournaments than I expected and even won one this season. As for the rest of the season, there isn’t much to report in all honesty. But Mark will want to give a good showing, and would like to not go out in the Last 16 this time (like he did the first two times he defended a world title).

His opponent in Martin Gould is rather inconsistent. On his day he is more than good enough to win, and scores very heavily. But too often he looks lackluster, and I have never been enthused by his safety game. Gould put in an excellent performance in the last qualifier though to beat a plucky Daniel Wells though.

Gould, though a great player, doesn’t look like challenging Williams, and I don’t see it being curtains for the champ in Day 1 for the second tournament on a row.
Prediction: Williams, 10-3

David Gilbert (16) vs. Joe Perry

If you had shown this match to any snooker fan 12 months ago, they would have likely thought Perry would be the seed such is his stature in the game. But we’re here with one of the tighter matches (the gap in the rankings is only 2 places).

Such is the season Gilbert is having, having reached two Ranking finals this season, and a further three QFs. “The Angry Farmer” as he is comically known has been one of the stories of the season.

As for Perry, his season has been quieter. However he ran rampant in qualifying, dropping only 5 frames in 3 matches. Make no mistake: when he gets going, Perry can still play with the best of them. There’s also the small matter of him pulverising Selby last season, and holding Mark Allen for two sessions.

This match up could go either way. On balance I’m backing Gent, for the experience. But can easily see it going the other way.
Prediction: Perry, 10-8

Barry Hawkins (9) vs. Li Hang

So, we come to our first of SEVEN debutants (the most this century). The tour’s Chinese contingent tends to fall into two catagories: younger players with much promise, and older players who have underachieved.

Li Hang is one of the latter category. Having first turned pro in 2008, it wasn’t until last season that he really gained traction, reaching his first Quarter (and Semi) final.

Li is a real scrapper, and proving to be very good at it. He’s come off a final qualifying match against Ben Wollaston where his highest break was 53 (he only made one ton in 30 frames won at the EIS), so he will have to score better if he’s going to be a serious challenger. Graft and grit however, get you a long way in such a marathon of a tournament.

That’s really where the good news ends for Li however. If you could choose a seed to face, you likely wouldn’t pick somebody who has reached the Last 8 every year since reaching the final in 2013, including FOUR semi-final defeats, and is arguably THE best scrapper on tour. Such is the task facing Li Hang.

Bazza has not had a good season. The past two years have been curious for him, as he tends to struggle for form through most of the season, do enough to be around the Top 10 in the rankings, and then suddenly be an all-conquering demon at the Crucible.

It has become customary at this time of the year in the Hawkins household to discuss the results of the season with a spare five minutes (that’s all it takes really). But Barry is living proof that nobody talks about how bad your season was if you do well here.

As for the result, it’s difficult to look past Barry here. Li will need to settle quickly, and he’ll need all his fight and grit to get close to Barry, who could run away with it if playing well. If Barry isn’t playing well, it could be very scrappy.
Prediction: Hawkins, 10-5

Kyren Wilson (8) vs. Scott Donaldson

From the match I am probably looking forward to the least to the one I’m looking forward to the most. I could talk for hours about why I love these two.

Kyren has had a really strong season, and comes into this tournament as the truest definition of a dark horse. He’s won the German double of the Paul Hunter Classic (in Furth) and the German Masters (in the atmospheric and beloved Tempodrom (Berlin), as well as the invitational 6-Reds Championship, and a further four Quarter-Finals in Ranking events. If you include non-ranking events, he’s reached the Last 8 (or better) of 10 tournaments, a truly fantastic record, and resides in the World’s top 8. He improves every year at the Crucible, and he’ll be hard to stop this year.

As for Scott, it’s been a breakout season for him as well. Having started the season 58th in the world, Semi-Finals in Furth and recently in the China Open have seen him rise to the brink of the Top 32 (provisionally ranked 34th). And now the man from Perth (Scotland, not Australia) has reached the World Championships for the first time (despite his best efforts to lose against Lu Ning).

If Scott plays at his best, this will be a very good match. But ultimately he’d likely need Kyren to be below par to win. I can see him coming close though, and this could be a name-making performance.
Prediction: Kyren, 10-8

John Higgins (5) vs. Mark Davis

John insists he’s happy with the draw, but there must be a part of him wishing he’d got anybody else. His season has been up and down, with him clearly struggling with motivation at times. But the fact remains that he has been in the past two finals here.

It’s nice to see Mark back at the top table after a few years away, in a season where he finally reached a ranking final, aged 46. A 10-7 victory against the highly-rated Lyu Haotian proved his form and stamped his ticket to this stage.

Now for the reason John might have wished for a different opponent. Mark has a superior head-to-head against Higgins, 10 wins to 7. 6 years ago, a merely 40 year old Davis beat Higgins at this stage. It’s not likely to be the prettiest match in the world (we’ll get to that later), but it is far from a long shot to say that the man his friends call Smiler could pull the same trick again. And maybe this will signal the end of The Wizard as a top threat.
Prediction: Davis, 10-9

Stuart Bingham (12) vs. Graeme Dott

With the amount of great players in the qualifiers, you’re almost bound to get a meeting of former World Champions at this stage. Bingham went all the way in 2015, but has never looked like getting there since. However in a season where he isn’t being touted as a threat despite 7 ranking quarter-finals, maybe he’ll be the surprise package again. If you hadn’t already guessed, “Ball-Run” has done quite well this season.

Graeme Dott is a little bit of a curious case (like Benjamin Button). He is clearly well past his best now, and for the most part has done little in recent seasons, but despite that has only failed to qualify once since the turn of the millennium. His disposal of Kurt Maflin 10-2 in the qualifiers was efficient and expertly handled.

But Bingham is a much different threat to Maflin. And against a top threat, it’s difficult to back Dotty anymore. As for Stuart, if he continues his excellent form of the season, there’s no reason why he can’t go far, and should be far too good here.
Prediction: Bingham, 10-5

Shaun Murphy (13) vs. Luo Honghao

The term “Annus Horribilis” refers to a terrible, no good year. Such a term could describe Shaun’s season, but even that would be putting it mildly. Murphy just never got going this season, and it’s a shame to see such a great player struggling so. Not even a final in the Scottish Open can paper over the cracks.

Shaun’s even lost his crown of the best piano player on tour to Honghao, the winner last year of the first ever WSF Championship (and to date the only one). It’s been a promising start on tour for Honghao, who did excellently early on but has slowed down since. In qualifying he saw off veteran Marco Fu, very impressively.

Honghao has done well since coming on tour and will make lovely music there (just check out his piano playing on youtube!) for years to come, but Shaun’s got a point to prove. And a Smurph with a point to prove can be the most dangerous foe of all.
Prediction: Murphy, 10-6

That’s all for Part 1, Part 2 will have the rest of the draw and my overall pick.

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