You can easily run out of superlatives when describing the snooker genius that is Ronnie O’Sullivan. Nobody has more competitive century breaks than The Rocket and he’s a five-time world champion – only Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry have had more success on the biggest stage in the modern era.
O’Sullivan landed a fourth Masters title in 2009, and the Rocket has showed no sign of slowing down in subsequent years, though, adding three further triumphs at Alexandra Palace and two more Crucible crowns among 11 major ranking titles since.
That means O’Sullivan has a Triple Crown career total of 18 successes (seven Masters wins and six UK Championships to go with those five World Snooker Championship victories) to date. Nobody comes close to this haul among active baize competitors.
How is The Rocket’s form this season, though? He’s won four ranking titles despite turning 42 in December, including the Shanghai Masters and a sixth UK crown. O’Sullivan took the World Grand Prix with aplomb in February and is ranked number two in the world.
And yet for all that strong form, there is no guarantee the snooker superstar will bid to make it six World Championships. Masters winner Mark Allen expects O’Sullivan to turn in up Sheffield instead of going Down Under to film a TV show.
A cursory glance at The Crucible betting sees The Rocket firmly installed as favourite, but that is so often the case with bookmakers afraid he will turn on the style and blast away from the opposition. It’s been five years since O’Sullivan last won the World Snooker Championship, so he has a drought to end if entering the tournament.
As world number one atop the rankings and winner of three of the last four world titles, reigning champ Mark Selby commands plenty of respect. The Jester from Leicester had a fabulous campaign last season, also landing the International and UK Championships en route to defending his Crucible crown.
Nobody has won three consecutive world titles in snooker since Hendry’s five victories on the spin from 1992 to 1996. Selby’s own recent dominance evokes the success that Scottish master enjoyed on the baize during the 1990s and Davis from the previous generation the decade before.
There are few who will argue against Leicester potter Selby being the most consistent all-round player on the baize among this current crop. Smart safety play and break-building in equal measure has been the key to his career success to date.
As a three-time Masters winner and dual UK champ besides that hat-trick of Crucible crowns, The Jester is no joke with eight Triple Crown titles. He is some way off O’Sullivan, however.
Yet, for all his tough and efficient matchplay snooker, Selby has won just one ranking tournament this season when he defended the International Championship out in China. Early exits from other major events are thus a concern.
Every snooker players goes through dips in form, though, and there is little doubting Selby has certainly saved his best for Sheffield in recent years. He wouldn’t have won the last two world titles and be ranked number one otherwise.
Selby is among the market principals in the betting to make it four victories at The Crucible in five years, and can be backed using Bitcoin when bets are placed using SportsBet. He is certainly capable of emulating illustrious predecessors Hendry and Davis.
Scotland’s chief standard bearer in snooker since Hendry hung up his cue has been four-time World Championship winner John Higgins. The Wizard of Wishaw last tasted Crucible glory back in 2011 and some would say is overdue a major win after nine Triple Crown successes.
As the same age as O’Sullivan, Higgins is definitely in the wily veteran bracket and has proven he can still win ranking titles this season. See successes at the Indian Open and the more prestigious Welsh Open for a record fifth time recently for evidence.
The Wizard was also among the final four at the Masters and his home event, the Scottish Open, either side of Christmas. That is evidence Higgins is hitting form as yet another Crucible campaign draws ever closer.
Like Selby, he knows when to bog opponents down in safety play, but is still capable of producing spectacular pots and big breaks. If he were a horse, punters would probably have Higgins down as a course and distance winner with doubts about his age hanging over him.
However, it’s perfectly possible The Wizard could roll back the years and show that some of the old magic is still there. Higgins demonstrated the ability to knock in-form players off their stride when he knocked O’Sullivan out en route to that Welsh Open success.
The Rocket had yet to lose a frame when clashing with his long-time Scottish rival, but only took one off him in a quarter-final defeat. Other opponents would have simply rolled over in the face of momentum, but not Higgins.
Bookmakers clipped his price in for a fifth World Snooker Championship title as a result, but The Wizard is still available at double figure odds to end years of hurt at The Crucible.
It is high time that Judd Trump delivered on the massive potential he showed when he was younger. Snooker is still relying on the old guard in O’Sullivan, so the young pretender really has to step up and win the world title sooner or later.
The trouble with Trump is he hasn’t reproduced the same brilliant form as when reaching the final at The Crucible in 2011 and just coming up short against Higgins. Perhaps The Juddernaut sneaked under the radar then and, with only six ranking titles since, is no longer a surprise package.
Even if the secret of 'naughty snooker' is out, this has been a reasonable campaign from the Bristol break-builder so far. Trump took the European Masters title and was runner-up in Shanghai as well as a semi-finalist at the Scottish Open and Masters.
In order to answer his critics and live up to the promise of his youth, The Juddernaut must do better on the big stage. Early exits at the last World Snooker Championship tournaments have detractors casting doubt over whether the longer frame formats are Trump’s cup of tea.
The Crucible is a gruelling slog, set over 17 days and it takes mental toughness as well as ability on the baize to win there. Perhaps Trump still has some maturing to do, but he certainly possesses all the attributes to be a world champ.
Putting it all together for that protracted period of time at the longest tournament in the sport is what he needs to do. With better luck and a favourable draw to rebuild Crucible confidence, The Juddernaut has it within him to surge to success and that is why he remains among the market principals in the betting.
Despite its huge popularity in the Far East and China there’s yet to be an oriental winner of the World Snooker Championship, but Ding Junhui has always seemed the man most likely to break that new ground.
The 2016 finalist was also among the last four at The Crucible 12 months ago and there are signs Ding is returning to form. Although his only ranking tournament title this season so far was the World Open, The Chinese Sensation was runner-up at the World Grand Prix.
As with Selby above, Ding has been saving his best form in recent times for the end-of-season World Championship. He also bases himself in Sheffield while in the UK, which may be an asset.
Ding is a dual UK champion and former Masters winner, so chases a victorious Crucible campaign to complete the hallowed Triple Crown of snooker. Two years ago he came into the World Championship without winning a major tournament all season and went all the way to the final where Selby stopped him.
His whole year again appears geared around a tilt at the richest prize on the baize, but can Ding deliver? This is set to be his twelfth appearance at The Crucible and he is certainly reaching the business end of the tournament most consistently.
Now aged 30, the time and his temperament may be right for Enter the Dragon to roar all the way. Ding is another potter to take a prominent place towards the head of the 2018 World Snooker Championship betting.