Following a three-month delay due to the coronavius pandemic, the action is finally set to get under way.
There’s just over 24 hours until the 2020 World Snooker Championship commences at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.
The prestigious 17-day tournament that was supposed to take place in April and May has been given the green light to instead be played out in this unusual summer slot.
Preliminary stages were completed on Tuesday, with 16 qualifiers emerging from the English Institute of Sport to join the top 16 seeds from the official world rankings list.
There will be five debutants in the field this year, with Switzerland becoming the newest country to have a represented competitor in the field.
Crowds at one-third capacity will be allowed into the Crucible to watch the drama unfold – a decision that has been met with equal disdain as it has applause.
Reports that ticket sales have remained unsold despite being released to the general public would suggest that the majority of people still feel unsafe when the intimate space of the venue is taken into consideration.
Whether or not the snooker authorities have taken a risk too many in terms of getting the sport back to normal remains to be seen.
It is, of course, hoped that the event is completed successfully without any major hitches and a great deal of effort will be made to ensure that is exactly what transpires to happen.
Without further ado, let’s take a brief look at each of the first-round ties for the 2020 World Snooker Championship.
Click on each match to view their head-to-heads. (CueTracker.net)
Judd Trump vs Tom Ford
Everyone was looking forward to seeing who Judd Trump managed to get as he bids to become the first player to break the “Curse of the Crucible” in 2020.
As the fable goes, no first-time champion has ever returned the following year to successfully defend the crown.
If the 2020 World Snooker Championship had taken place in its normal time slot, Trump would have been a heavy favourite to do just that.
But perhaps the snooker gods are conspiring against him, because whether or not he’ll be able to produce the same kind of level that saw him notch up a record six ranking event crowns during the 2019/20 campaign prior to the lockdown is the obvious doubt.
Tom Ford, his opening opponent this year, has a poor record against Trump and probably represents a decent starter for the world number one.
In 2014, when the pair clashed at the same stage at the Crucible, Trump came out on top with a 10-8 victory.
When: Friday, July 31st – 10am and 7pm
Yan Bingtao vs Elliot Slessor
Elliot Slessor bullishly expressed his desire to face Ronnie O’Sullivan, but to do so now they’ll each have to go all the way to the final as they’ve been pitted on opposite sides of the draw.
Slessor, who reached the German Masters quarter-finals earlier this year, is one of five players set to make their debuts in the championship, and the 25 year-old will likely fancy his chances against the 16th seed Yan Bingtao.
Yan may have the greater pedigree having triumphed in a ranking event this season – albeit more than a year ago now – but his challenger has plenty of competitive match practice under his belt.
Considering there has been so little snooker for the game’s stars since March, a lot of the qualifiers may have an advantage in terms of getting off to a better start.
Slessor won three matches to reach this stage and barely built up a sweat, dropping only six frames in total and claiming the last nine frames of his final round success over Martin O’Donnell.
Yan is many people’s dark horse to go far and it could turn out that way, but there are always a few upsets in the last 32.
When: Sunday, August 2nd – 10am; Monday, August 3rd – 2:30pm
Stephen Maguire vs Martin Gould
The immediate thing that has to be noted here is the head-to-head, which reads 5-0 in favour of Martin Gould.
Stephen Maguire may be full of confidence following his Tour Championship glory in June, but that is a quite stunning statistic.
Gould was in danger of being relegated from the Main Tour last week, but three solid victories and he’s up and running again.
A dangerous player who has been desperately out of form for a long time, Gould could pose a serious threat to Maguire’s challenge.
The latter’s record at the Crucible is all over the place, with two semi-final appearances followed by five first-round defeats in the space of six years between 2013 and 2018.
Twelve months ago, Maguire lost to Trump in the last eight and the duo could clash at the same stage on this occasion too.
Getting past Gould is going to be difficult as history has proven, but if the Glaswegian can carry forward his standard from Milton Keynes, and if he can keep his temperament under control, he should finally get one over on the “Pinner Potter”.
When: Tuesday, August 4th – 2:30pm; Wednesday, August 5th – 7pm
Kyren Wilson vs Anthony Hamilton
Update: Anthony Hamilton has withdrawn from the tournament, citing health concerns.
Kyren Wilson receives an automatic bye through to the last 16.
John Higgins vs Matthew Stevens
Four-time champion John Higgins has reached the last three finals, but he suffered defeat on each occasion.
Whether or not he can become just the fourth player in the Crucible era to embark on four successive runs to the title-deciding encounter is doubtful.
Higgins has been written off several times in the past and ultimately proven his naysayers wrong.
But the 45 year-old really is beginning to have the look of a player who is desperately clinging on to the higher echelons of the sport.
His level is simply nowhere near the heights he used to produce, and while Matthew Stevens is hardly a formidable force these days either the Welshman does seem to have an opportunity to cause an upset.
Stevens will have been buoyed by his displays in the preliminaries and, making his 17th appearance at the Crucible, could take advantage of a cold Higgins who has only played one match since February.
When: Saturday, August 1st – 2:30pm; Sunday, August 2nd – 2:30pm
David Gilbert vs Kurt Maflin
Kurt Maflin is unquestionably a bit of a journeyman, but even so it’s somewhat surprising that this will only be his second time competing at the venue stages.
The Norwergian played a memorable match with Mark Selby in 2015 when the latter was the defending champion – narrowly missing out on causing a huge shock when he was denied 10-9 by the Leicester man.
Maflin will probably fancy his chances more against David Gilbert, but the twelfth seed underlined last year his pedigree for the biggest stage.
Gilbert’s semi-final run in 2019 was a terrific story, the drama encapsulated in his nail-biting 17-16 loss to Higgins that was followed by an emotional post-match interview.
There was a feeling as though the opportunity to reach a World Championship final may never come again.
Yet, all things considered, Gilbert is probably in the nicest section of the draw and could potentially build up another memorable run in 2020 again.
When: Saturday, August 1st – 10am; Sunday, August 2nd – 7pm
Jack Lisowski vs Anthony McGill
This is another clash the first round of the 2020 World Snooker Championship that could see the qualifier make the most of his recent action in the preliminary rounds.
Jack Lisowski faces an Anthony McGill who has already triumphed twice in Sheffield in the last week.
That the Scot has only lost two frames will be another cause for concern, with a 6-1 defeat of Jak Jones substantiated by an even more impressive 10-1 victory against Sam Baird.
Losing to one is not something Lisowski wants to think about when it comes to the World Championship, with the “Dude” having suffered a humiliating 13-1 reverse in the second round two years ago.
Lisowski’s talent is so high and so natural that he should be considered a possible threat, but his distinct lack of a B-game means that it’s hard to see him ever going far at the Crucible when just one disastrous session can be so costly.
McGill is a shadow of the player who won a couple of ranking titles and reached the World Championship quarter-finals several seasons ago, but he’ll probably fancy his chances here.
When: Monday, August 3rd – 10am and 7pm
Mark Allen vs Jamie Clarke
Mark Allen will be as determined as ever this year to put right what is a disappointing record at the Crucible.
The Antrim man reached the semi-finals way back in 2009 but has rarely come close to the single table set-up since.
Allen’s consistency this season has been highlighted by his rise into the top four of the world rankings list for the first time in his career.
The former Masters champion hasn’t any silverware to show for his efforts, but perhaps he’s saving the best to last.
The 34 year-old has many years left at the top, but that the coveted world title has never been even within his grasp will likely be of some regret.
There’s time to put that right, and in Jamie Clarke he comes up against another one of this year’s newbies.
Clarke used to be known as a nearly man, throwing away leads and losing in big amateur finals, but he is slowly beginning to show his true potential.
Allen will probably be a step too far on this occasion, but the 25 year-old is a player to watch in the future.
When: Tuesday, August 4th – 10am and 7pm
Mark Williams vs Alan McManus
Moments before the 2020 World Snooker Championship draw, Alan McManus tweeted that he had played eight world champions at the Crucible.
It was clear then that he was going to be paired with another one, and so it indeed transpired as Mark Williams was added to the Scot’s illustrious list.
McManus will make his 21st appearance in the first round, and at 49 years of age will represent the oldest player to feature at this stage since Steve Davis ten years ago.
Williams is no spring chicken himself, and it’s hard to predict what kind of form the three-time champion will bring to the table.
The Welshman doesn’t seem hugely motivated any more, and even though he’s the third seed it’s a somewhat false position that he boasts.
When the 45 year-old’s earnings from his surprise 2018 triumph come off his ranking tally, he’ll be struggling to survive inside the elite top 16.
One would think that Williams will have enough to see off McManus, but this one has the look of a 10-9 about it.
When: Friday, July 31st – 7pm; Saturday, August 1st – 7pm
Stuart Bingham vs Ashley Carty
Stuart Bingham has been drawn with the second lowest ranked player in the 2020 World Snooker Championship.
An emotional Ashley Carty was in double celebratory mode as he not only qualified for the Crucible for the first time, but he also guaranteed his tour survival in the process.
Not many fans other than the diehards will be aware of Carty, whose best prior performance in a ranking event matches this run to the last 32.
A former European Under-21 Championship finalist, the 25 year-old Englishman will be a pretty huge underdog against an opponent of Bingham’s experience.
Lockdown or no lockdown, “Ballrun” will be a massive favourite to emerge from this tie unscathed.
Bingham shocked many by landing the prestigious Masters invitational trophy in January, once again demonstrating that he is a man for the big moments.
The 44 year-old will be looking at his mini bracket and thinking he can at least reach the quarter-finals this year.
When: Friday, July 31st – 10am; Saturday, August 1st – 10am
Ding Junhui vs Mark King
Which Ding Junhui is going to turn up?
That is the key question that every supporter of the Chinese number one will be hoping has a positive answer.
It’s infuriating watching Ding, because his pedigree is well-known but his displays on the baize are patchy and sometimes petulant.
The former world number one somehow conjured up something out of nothing to win the UK Championship before Christmas.
Hopes of a revival in his game were quickly dashed with a flurry of miserable performances before the enforced lockdown.
Ding, like a lot of the non UK-based players, suffered difficulties getting back to his home country during the worst of the pandemic’s travel restrictions.
A significant number of his countrymen opted not to return to England, but Ding’s bid for a maiden world crown was probably the driving force in his decision to make the journey back.
His opponent Mark King enjoys a wealth of experience and will be making his 15th appearance at the Crucible.
Yet, the outcome of this encounter is probably going to hinge on which Ding actually turns up.
When: Friday, July 31st – 2:30pm; Saturday, August 1st – 2:30pm
Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Thepchaiya Un-Nooh
Unequivocally the match of the first round in the 2020 World Snooker Championship draw pits Ronnie O’Sullivan against Thepchaiya Un-Nooh.
A fast, frenetic, and fantastic battle is in store between two of the game’s quickest and most exciting talents.
Thepchaiya Un-Nooh must be wondering what’s up with his luck, because on the three times that he has qualified for the last 32 he has drawn Higgins, Trump, and now O’Sullivan.
On each of the previous two outings in 2018 and 2019, he came mightily close to causing an upset, especially last year when Trump escaped with the narrowest of 10-9 victories.
There’s little reason to suggest that this duel will be anything other than tight as well as the pair’s respective attacking styles will suit the other down to the ground.
O’Sullivan is another who has been critical of the decision to allow fans into the venue, but those who are fortune enough to be in attendance ought to be in for a treat.
A five-time world champion, the “Rocket” hasn’t been beyond the quarter-final stage since squandering a big lead to Mark Selby in the 2014 final.
O’Sullivan has become his own worst enemy in Sheffield, conjuring up distractions that have ultimately proven detrimental to his chances.
Yet, if one player can come out of a lockdown and produce the almighty goods on a whim, it’s O’Sullivan.
When: Sunday, August 2nd – 2:30pm; Monday, August 3rd – 10am
Mark Selby vs Jordan Brown
Mark Selby is in action against the fourth debutant in the 2020 World Snooker Championship line-up, Jodran Brown.
Few would have tipped the Northern Irishman to emerge from the dreaded qualifiers, but Brown impressed with victories against Rory McLeod, Hossein Vafaei, and Ryan Day.
Even with the momentum that he has built up, it’s probably a stretch to think that he’ll outplay Selby in the last 32.
The latter maybe doesn’t offer the kind of formidable and daunting challenge of a few years ago, but Selby will still begin this tie as a heavy favourite to progress.
An English and Scottish Open champion this term, Selby secured success on UK soil for the first time since his 2017 triumph in Sheffield.
The former world number one could launch a serious challenge if he gets off to a good start, which he’s odds on to do following Wednesday’s draw.
When: Monday, August 3rd – 7pm; Tuesday, August 4th – 2:30pm
Shaun Murphy vs Noppon Saengkham
It’s been a difficult time for Shaun Murphy, who this month grieved the death of his friend and former manager, Brandon Parker.
An in-form Murphy would have been regarded as one of the biggest title contenders this year, but it’s hard to imagine how he’ll fare now.
The 37 year-old travelled to Portugal for Parker’s funeral a few days ago and has been in the special World Championship bubble that has been created by the World Snooker Tour in Sheffield upon his return to England.
How all of this will have impacted his preparations remains to be seen, but it can’t have been easy on the 2005 champion.
In such a difficult situation, Murphy’s performance is likely to go one of two ways – either he’s inspired to victory in memory of his friend, or he finds it too hard to compete amid the distractions of the bereavement.
Noppon Saengkham will have to focus on the task at hand and try to block out any external factors that may come into play during this tie.
The Thai is a dangerous prospect, and even though he has lost to Murphy in each of his previous two outings with the “Magician” there could be a chance here to capitalise on an emotional period for the world number ten.
When: Monday, August 3rd – 2:30pm; Tuesday, August 4th – 10am
Barry Hawkins vs Alexander Ursenbacher
Alexander Ursenbacher became the first player from Switzerland to qualify for the World Championship when he dramatically beat Andrew Higginson on a respotted black on Monday at the English Institute of Sport.
The 24 year-old’s reward is a meeting with Barry Hawkins, who holds a 2-0 head-to-head advantage from their previous encounters.
Not only that, but Hawkins has never even lost a frame to Ursenbacher – a statistic that will hopefully change unless only the third ever bagel at the Crucible ends up being recorded.
Hawkins has an incredible record in Sheffield, and his second-round defeat in 2019 was the first time since 2012 that he failed to reach at least the quarter-finals.
That said, the “Hawk” tends to end seasons well and not begin them well, and with this very much having the feel of a one-off event in the middle of nowhere on the calendar, his chances of advancing far do seem to dwindle somewhat.
On the other hand, Ursenbacher has three wins from the last week under his belt, including a standout 6-3 success over Gary Wilson.
One might say the Swiss player is on roll. Sorry.
When: Tuesday, August 4th – 7pm; Wednesday, August 5th – 1pm
Neil Robertson vs Liang Wenbo
While Judd Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan might be the two biggest headline-makers, Neil Robertson is right up there with them in terms of being a genuine favourite for glory in 2020.
It’s remarkable to think that it was ten years ago when the Australian captured his one and so far only world crown.
Liang Wenbo probably represents one of the more difficult opening propositions for Robertson, but the Melbourne man does have fond memories of facing the Chinese cueist.
In 2015, Robertson beat Liang 10-5 to win the UK Championship and enjoys a superior head-to-head record overall from their eight prior clashes.
Liang could cause problems and will be buoyed by the terrific 141 break he compiled in the deciding frame of his 10-9 victory over Fergal O’Brien in qualifying – although questions were raised about his etiquette earlier in the frame when an apparent foul went uncalled.
Even so, Robertson was the best player in the world other than Trump before the lockdown.
A winner of the Champion of Champions and two ranking events this campaign, he’s in the best position for a long time to challenge for the big one.