Friday Top 5: Crucible contenders

Friday Top 5: Crucible contenders

Afternoon all, and happy Friday. My girlfriend and I took an online home vegetable garden course the other day, and my house is now overflowing with soil, pots and a variety of fertilizers and pesticides. Indeed, the laptop on which I write these words is currently perched atop a sack of tomato seeds. The fact that we already have no more space just one week after planting is slightly concerning – plants tend to grow, I hear – but I guess we’ll cross each bridge as it comes.

Today the World Snooker Championship finally gets underway in Sheffield (Yorkshire, not Alabama). Its about three months later than it should have been, but considering the circumstances it’ll just be great to see some action.

Before diving into this week’s Friday Top 5, which will look at the chances of a handful of the tournament’s contenders, I just want to quickly deal with the issues surrounding COVID-19. This morning, the UK government announced that spectators will not be allowed into any sporting event for the time being following a spike in local coronavirus cases. This means that the Crucible Theatre, which had been planning to allow limited occupancy over the coming fortnight, will have its doors firmly shut.

Sadly, this news came a bit too late for world number 48 Anthony Hamilton. The Sheriff of Pottingham, as he is slightly ridiculously known, is asthmatic and so decided not to take his place in the draw for fears of contracting the virus from somebody in the crowd. World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn criticized the decision, arguing that Hamilton should have withdrawn before the qualifying tournament to avoid denying someone else a place in the draw and ensure a full schedule.

I have to say, I’m leaning more towards Hamilton on this one. While its a shame to have a player withdraw on the eve of the tournament, health has to come first. Hamilton is 49 years old and, combined with his health condition, is at significant risk from the virus. In any case, it still feels a bit early to be letting in crowds at sporting events, especially at tight, enclosed venues like the Crucible. The government’s decision this morning clearly reflects this. Its a shame that Hamilton, after doing brilliantly to come through qualifying, felt that it was not safe to compete. But it’s a decision I completely understand.

On Hearn’s point about taking the place of someone else, this situation has highlighted a flaw in snooker’s tournament organization. Why isn’t there a back-up plan to mitigate the risk of someone withdrawing, whatever the reason? In tennis, for example, a handful of players travel to each tournament to fill the place of any injured or absent competitor. Usually, the highest-ranked player who lost in qualifying gains entry into the main draw in these situations. I see no reason why snooker cannot implement the same policy.

Anyway, I don’t want to dwell too much on off-table issues, so lets get into this slightly truncated Top 5. To be clear, these are not necessarily the top five favourites to win the title; rather, these are players who look well-placed to have a good run at the tournament. Off we go:

Shaun Murphy

The Harlow potter comes into the tournament at the end of his best season in years. He won two ranking tournaments at the Welsh Open and the China Championship, while also reaching a further final. The 37 year-old, who won the title in 2005, has not advanced past the second round in Sheffield since 2015, so he is due a strong run. Having crucially rediscovered the free-flowing, heavy-scoring form that makes him so dangerous, the number 10 seed should be a match for anyone. A potential second round match against three-time world champion Mark Selby would be an intriguing prospect.

Neil Robertson

The Thunder from Down Under also arrives at Sheffield in strong form, having claimed two ranking tournament titles this season. At his best, he is one of the most devastating break-builders in the game, reflected in the fact that he has finished in the top 10 every year since 2008 and is the only player in history to compile 100 centuries in a single campaign (103 in 2014). Like Murphy, Robertson has also underachieved at snooker’s marquee event in recent years, reaching just one semifinal since winning the tournament in 2010. Provided is in the right frame of mind, something with which he has openly struggled in the past, he will be tough to beat.

Ronnie O’Sullivan

Ronnie has had a quiet season by his standards, reaching just one ranking tournament final at the Northern Ireland Open. But he continues to show flashes of brilliance, making 40 centuries across the 11 tournaments in which he has competed. And while he has not been in top form, the lockdown might just have helped him to relax by giving him time away from the grind of life on tour. At 44 years-old, its debatable whether the Rocket can continue to produce strong-enough performances over two weeks in Sheffield. But wouldn’t it be great to see snooker’s greatest showman lift the trophy once again?

Stephen Maguire

Maguire is perhaps a dark horse going into this event, having never even made a final at the Crucible in 16 attempts. But the Scot is enjoying a comeback season. After brilliantly reaching the final of the UK Championship in December, he finally broke his seven-year trophy drought by taking home the Tour Championship trophy last month. With that monkey off his back, he is back inside the top 10 and will be quietly confident of his prospects in Sheffield. He starts against unfancied qualifier Martin Gould.

Judd Trump

Last but certainly not least, Trump comes into the tournament as defending champion and the season’s in-form player. Since finally winning his first world title last year, the Bristolian has added a further six titles to his CV this season. In the process, he has racked-up 98 centuries and looks primed to surpass Robertson’s record of 103. Famously no first-time winner has ever successfully defended the trophy at the Crucible, but the 30 year-old world number 1 is as likely as any to buck that trend.

Right, that’s about that for today. I will be taking a break from all the snooker to watch the FA Cup final tomorrow, so prepare yourselves for an either overjoyed or melancholic reflection on Monday. Have a great weekend all!