All roads lead to Sheffield in April, when the city's world famous Crucible Theatre plays host to the thrilling climax of the snooker betting season, where the sport’s biggest stars battle for the right to be named world champion. We are now just five weeks shy of the 2018 World Championship and the object for 128 players is to pick up ranking points between now and April, when the big one gets underway.
The select few will have the perfect chance to do exactly that at next week’s Players’ Championship, which kicks off on Monday March 19. This invitation-only event is open to those who finished in the top 16 of the 2017/18 Order of Merit (not to be confused with the world rankings).
There is no doubting who is number one in the Order of Merit – and in the heart of the fans who will attend the Venue Cymru in Llandudno next week. Ronnie O’Sullivan accrued a total points haul of 535,500. For context, that's some 270,000 more than Mark Williams in 2nd, who himself was just 150,000 clear of Graeme Dott in 17th.
If you needed convincing that the Rocket has dominated the past 12 months on the green baize, there's your proof. O’Sullivan will be a handsome favourite with top snooker bookmakers, not surprising given that his chief rivals are all struggling for form at present and do not seemed poised to dethrone O'Sullivan.
Remarkably, the 42-year-old has never won this tournament. Will that provide any added motivation for a player who tends to be rather coy about his objectives for the rest of his career? Here’s a look at how the Rocket and his biggest rivals are shaping up ahead of the Players’ Championship.
It’s been a phenomenal campaign for O’Sullivan, even by his own lofty standards, having won three big ranking events since October and losing in the final of another. Victory in the English Open and Shanghai Masters set the scene for the Rocket to claim an incredible twentieth major title at the UK Championship in December.
However, disappointment was to follow at the Masters a couple of weeks later, where he was dumped out at the quarter-final stage by the eventual champion Mark Allen. O’Sullivan was back to his best in claiming February’s World Grand Prix. Since then the five-time world champion has enjoyed a good few weeks off.
He will head to Llandudno refreshed and ready to go, which is bad news for everybody else in the field. The slightly longer format in the early rounds will suit the Rocket and a last-16 tie with Graeme Dott won’t exactly be keeping him up at night. He is a more than worthy favourite to win a 5th title of the Wales campaign.
The reigning world champion needs to find his form… and fast. Since winning back-to-back tournaments in China back in October, it has been a barren few months for Selby, who hasn’t looked anywhere near his best in that dismal spell. Indeed, the man known as the ‘Jester from Leicester’ won’t be seeing the funny side of a run which has seen him fail to progress past the 3rd round in 4 of his last 5 ranking events.
Losing when you're playing well is one thing, but losing when you're struggling is a bad habit that is rather tough to break. To make things worse his first round opponent will be Ryan Day, the Welshman who'll be playing in front of his home supporters and who captured the Gibraltar Open title just last week. Day might just be an outside bet with Ladbrokes to dump Selby out of the competition.
Higgins is another member of snooker’s ‘Class of ‘75’, like O’Sullivan and Williams. The veteran Scotsman showed all of his battling qualities when securing the Welsh Open title at the start of March, beating O’Sullivan on his way to a remarkable 30th ranking event triumph.
A myriad of young hopefuls have come and gone since Higgins won his first world championship in 1998, but he has stood the test of time alongside those contemporaries thanks to his fine matchplay game, which remains as good as anybody’s. Otherwise it hasn’t been a vintage campaign by his high standards, but in shorter format events it's wise to side with those with current form on their side.
The man for the big occasion, Shaun Murphy is managing his workload a little differently these days, hence why his appearances on the tour are slightly more limited. But the Magician can still dazzle when the conditions suit, and the fact he has reached three ranking event finals this term – albeit losing them all – is testament to that.
One of the feathers in Murphy’s cap is that he is one of the few players to have beaten Ronnie O’Sullivan in a meaningful match this season, downing the Rocket 10-8 in the final of the Champion of Champions event. It’s a victory that would have meant a lot to Murphy, given that he and O’Sullivan are renowned for their competitive relationship.
The way the draw is set up they could meet again in the final in Llandudno; an intriguing sub-plot to what should be a fantastic tournament. If you're interested in seeing all the odds for this major snooker event, feel free to head over to Betfair and signup for a new account before the action gets started next week.