Thanks to the excellent prosnooker blog which I heartily recommend to all snooker officianados, I have seen within hours of the draw, the 2011 Snooker World Championship First Round fixture list for the competition at the Crucible between April 16th - May 2nd.
What a tournament it is set to be!
Of particular interest to me is the fact that there will be 5 Welsh players in the tournament proper this year. In my near 20 years of watching snooker, I can't remember when Wales last had such a complement in the final 32 in Sheffield - if anyone can tell me it'd be greatly appreciated!
The 5 Welshman represented this year are Mark Williams, Matthew Stevens, Dominic Dale, Ryan Day and Andrew Pagett. At best though, only 4 will get through to the last 16 as Mark Williams has been drawn to play Ryan Day in Round 1.
Mark Williams is on great form this year and is set to become the World Number One at the end of the season for the 3rd time in his career. Having slumped out of the top 16 only a few years ago (falling to No.22 in 2008/09), he's made a remarkable comeback when many others may have just given up. His quest for a 3rd world title (having won previously in 2000 and 2003) will start against a tough opponent in Ryan Day. Ryan has had a poor few years and has slipped back in the world rankings having shown such promise only a few years ago. He has yet to win his first major ranking event, despite having reached 3 ranking finals and reached a career high No.6 in the World Rankings, but the talent is undoubtedly there.
What of Matthew Stevens? Well, like Mark Williams (who he lost to in the only ever all-Welsh world championship final back in 2000) he's had a great season and is set to cement his place back in the top 16. He qualified by potting the final black in the deciding frame against Fergal O'Brien to win a nail-biter, 10-9. For a twice world championship runner-up (2000 and 2005) and 3 times losing semi-finalist (2001, 2002 and 2004) who has fallen on lean times of late, you can see how much the win meant for him as he qualified for the Crucible for the first time in 3 years...
He plays Mark Allen in the first round and it'll be a tough contest. Allen reached the semis in 2009 and the quarter-finals last year. He's an up-and-coming snooker star and will prove a more than competitive opponent for Stevens on his Crucible return.
What of Dominic Dale? Well, Dominic is quite the enigma. He is the only player to have ever won multiple ranking events despite having never broken into the World Rankings top 16. He won the Grand Prix in 1997 and then a whole decade later, won the Shanghai Masters in 2007 (beating compatriot Ryan Day in the final). He's currently ranked at No.45 in the world and has been drawn against Ronnie O'Sullivan in the first round. That's a tall, tall order for Dominic to overcome but it'll be good to see him back at the Crucible and good luck to him on his return.
Finally, a name that was barely known to me - Andrew Pagett. Now Andrew isn't a newbie on the snooker scene. Indeed, he turns 29 in the middle of the tournament next month and has been a professional since 2003. He lost his place on the circuit however in 2009 but re-gained it for this 2010/11 season. He had never in all of this time, qualified for the final stages of a snooker tournament - until last week! His appearance at the Crucible next month will not only be his first there, but will be his first at any final stages in a snooker ranking event! He's currently ranked at No.78 in the world and by my reckoning will be the lowest ranked player in Sheffield next month. He defeated former Crucible finalist Nigel Bond in the earlier qualifying rounds before beating Andrew Higginson 10-6 to seal his place in Sheffield - his joy can be seen here...!
He plays Jamie Cope, another young snooker talent who has already reached 2 ranking finals in his time. He also, under the new rolling ranking system, finally broke into the World's top 16 last October. This will be a fascinating first round encounter.
So I'm looking forward to a Snooker World Championship which will have a greater Welsh flavour to it than I can remember.
Bring it on!
World Snooker Championship First Round Draw (Last 32) in Full
Neil Robertson v Judd Trump
Marco Fu v Martin Gould
Graeme Dott v Mark King
Ali Carter v Dave Harold
Ding Junhui v Jamie Burnett
Peter Ebdon v Stuart Bingham
Stephen Hendry v Joe Perry
Mark Selby v Jimmy Robertson
Mark Williams v Ryan Day
Jamie Cope v Andrew Pagett
Mark Allen v Matthew Stevens
Stephen Maguire v Barry Hawkins
Shaun Murphy v Marcus Campbell
Ronnie O’Sullivan v Dominic Dale
Ricky Walden v Rory McLeod
John Higgins v Stephen Lee